Religion and the Marketplace in the United States: Day 1

Today is a day for guest posts. This guest post is from my dear colleague Anthony Santoro, a Post-Doctoral Fellow, Heidelberg University, Germany, and he reports on the Religion and Marketplace conference that they are hosting (follow the conference on Twitter: @Religion_Mktplc). Check out the fantastic line-up of papers! This is a first in series of posts on what happens when you get scholars of American religions together to "talk shop."

“Religion and the Marketplace in the United States: New Perspectives and New Findings,” October 6, 2011

Anthony Santoro

A funny thing always seems to happen with scholars at conferences: they talk shop. Well, of course they do—isn’t that the point of the conference? Sure it is, but that’s not the kind of shoptalk I mean. There are three basic kinds of shoptalk at a conference. The first and most obvious is the business at hand—presenting research findings or new theoretical perspectives and doing the actual work that we’re there to do. The second is the kind that invariably follows about fifteen seconds after an introduction. “Oh, so what are you working on?” It’s always fun to watch these connections build on the spot between two former strangers who discover that they have an interest in the same topic, or undervalued approach to their scholarship and teaching, or any of the hundreds of little things that we click with each other over; it is, of course, even more fun to be a part of one of those connections and have that conversation that degenerates from full (if frequently happily interrupted) sentences down to jargon and insider shorthand.

There is a third kind of shop talk that goes on in this kind of setting, and this third variety was in full force at the first day of the conference on “Religion and the Marketplace in the United States: New Perspectives and New Findings.” The conference is being held at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at Heidelberg University, Germany, through October 8, and we are very excited about our program and the papers and panels that we’ve assembled.

What is this third kind of shoptalk? This third category is what we can call the “unexpected expected.” There’s that question that turns toward language and use, say, or that question that turns to a particularly sticky “how-to” methodological question—and there we all are, trying to find an answer to a question under the heading of “but what do we do?”

Surely, though, these kinds of linguistic and methodological inquiries are part and parcel of what we are at the conference to do in the first place, right? Yes, they are—when they’re conceived of, planned for and brought out into the open ahead of time. These kinds of methodological questions are nothing more than a standard subset of the first category of shoptalk, but this subset by no means accounts for all such questions. Some of them are too inchoate to even be spotted by the presenter—it falls on the audience to spot this variety, either directly or obliquely. The natural question—“but what about…”—will then be either direct or oblique, respectively. This is just the first variety of the “unexpected expected”—expected because we are always looking at these kinds of questions and matters of analysis, interpretation and communication in our own work and that of our peers, but unexpected because if we had all the answers or could anticipate all of the questions and problems, there’d be no more work to do.

Rachel Wheeler’s (IUPUI) paper on “Converting Christianity” and Rachel Cope’s (BYU) paper on Choosing Their Own Faith: Female Conversion in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism” provoked two sensational examples of this kind of methodological probing. In her paper, Wheeler noted that she dislike the word “conversion” because it assumes too much. The term has limited value in many context, she says, because it is too thorough. If it were more limited in scope, it might be more useful, but as it is, “conversion” really means something like a radical change from one thing into something totally new. Has a person who changes faiths—who converts, in the popular parlance—really undergone such a radical, thorough transformation? Are they fully new? Or is the conversion limited to a piece of them?

Obviously, these are rhetorical questions; just obviously, they are much more than that. They may not be answerable, but they all need some kind of answer. Sean McCloud (UNC-Charlotte) took up the issue in the question session, wondering what we as scholars should—or can—do with words like conversion, or tradition. What do they mean? The subtext of this question, which he followed up in the form of another question, was what do we mean when: How do we deal with the dynamism inherent in these kinds of ideas?

Cope’s paper, a fascinating exploration of the autobiography of Lucy Smith, mother of Joseph and Hiram Smith, dealt with issues of gender, voice and agency in American religion as focused through this lens: Smith’s autobiography was for many years understood as a biography of her sons, not as her own story, despite her efforts to use the narrative to tell her story. Lucy Smith, in fact, dictated her autobiography to a female friend of hers—woman to woman—and the two versions that have emerged have borne the influence of the various compilers and editors who may or may not have impacted the final versions. Grant Wacker (Duke Divinity) wanted to know whether Cope could address the problems inherent in archival research, specifically, the marketing of archiving—why certain narratives are sequestered (or worse, lost outright) while others are preserved and made accessible and widely used. There is no satisfactory answer to this question, but it is always worth thinking about. To bring it back to Wheeler’s paper, one of her observations was that prior histories of Native American Christianity focused on how American Indians contested Christianity—but not how they changed it. This seems to me part and parcel of the question about why some sources are privileged and others simply drop away. The upside is that there’s always more work to be done, more sources to examine, more assumptions to contest and reconsider, and more perspectives to develop.

These kinds of questions and cogitations occupied us during the coffee breaks, over dinner, and before and after Brooks Holifield’s outstanding keynote lecture—“Why Do Americans Seem So Religious in Comparison with Western Europeans: Markets or Contingencies?” They spilled over into the other two types of shoptalk, and they’re probably occupying the thoughts of more than one of us this evening. They will surely continue to occupy us, unexpectedly expectedly, as we continue through a remarkable slate of papers over the next two days.