AAR Redux (Part 1) from Guest Poster Jeremy Rapport

Today's guest post on the recent AAR meeting in November comes Jeremy Rapport, a visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The College of Wooster. Jeremy's most recent publications are on New and Alternative Religious Movements in America and American Metaphysical Religions, specifically Christian Science and the Unity School of Christianity. Other attendees of AAR are welcome to send me (Kelly) posts detailing the conference too. The more, the merrrier!

“Individuals, Communities, and Religious Authenticity: An AAR Redux”
Jeremy Rapport

For me, as I suspect is the case for many in our guild, one of the most satisfying parts of AAR is the chance to be intellectually promiscuous for a few days. Briskly and purposively walking from panel to panel belies the strolling and staring my mind is doing as I hear new ideas, interpretations, and accounts of the religious life and thought of people from vastly different times and places. This academic flitting and sipping is reinforced for me because as a member of the New Religious Movements steering committee, I attend the diverse panels our group sponsors. New Religious Movements is a sub-discipline that engages ethnographic, historical, and sociological approaches to studying religion as well as examining religious phenomena from across time and cultures. I can satisfy my intellectual curiosity while also fulfilling my committee obligations.

This year in San Francisco, I attended panels on the Japanese new religion Shinnyo-en, the concept of legitimizing new religions, and a panel discussion with Jonestown survivors. A meeting of the seminar on food and eating and the panel on the experimental project Frequencies were on my agenda. I also presided at a panel on religious appropriations of secular culture. All of the meetings were fascinating and engaging, and many of the papers would be of interest to scholars of religion in America. However, as I thought about the experience over Thanksgiving what really struck me was the emphasis on the authority of the individual in many of the papers. Religion may be a community endeavor, but at least as scholars in contemporary America, we seem to be more and more interested in how individuals shape religious groups and in how groups are trying to satisfy individuals.

Saturday morning began with a session co-sponsored by the Japanese Religions Group and the New Religious Movements Group. Shinnyo-en is a Japanese Buddhist movement that uses a form of medium-guided meditation. With several temples outside of Japan, including in Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York state, it is now both an international and American movement. What grabbed my attention here was Victoria Rose Pinto’s paper, “Floating Prayer: Syncretism, Symbolism, and Ritual in the Lantern Floating Ceremony in Hawai’i.” Shinnyo-en introduced this version of an Obon ancestor ceremony to Hawai’i. People write personal messages and decorate floating lanterns to send out to sea as memorials to significant people and events in their lives. Shinnyo-en still sponsors the event, but as Pinto pointed out, the ceremony has grown well beyond the confines of the single Japanese Buddhist movement that introduced it, and it is now one of the most popular public religious rites in the state. Most of the participants have no formal affiliation with Shinnyo-en. Yet the movement, by creating and facilitating a rite that allows individual expressions of faith, feeling, and connection to a larger world, now has an important role in Hawai’ian public religious life.
It is certainly not news that the complex relationship of food and eating with religion is of great interest to scholars. Meeting now for its fourth year, Saturday afternoon’s seminar “Religion, Food, and Eating in North America” has been discussing papers on this wide-ranging topic with goal of producing an edited volume aimed primarily at undergraduates. I contributed a paper to the seminar at the 2010 meeting in Atlanta. Studies of food and religion invite the inspection of the public and the private, the individual and the community. Looking at how a person’s diet helps to structure his or her religious life shows us that the material has never been as far removed from the spiritual as many Protestants wish it were. Moreover, food is perhaps the most accessible of the roads to teaching undergraduates lived religion, thus this is welcome work on many levels, including as a potential teaching resource and as work that systematically examines how food mediates between individuals and communities, creates identities, structures group practices, and reflects religious principles.

For me, the most powerful event of the AAR was the panel discussion featuring Jonestown survivors on Sunday morning. The terrible and tragic events at Jonestown continue to inspire thoughtful and important work on religion, and justly so since the predominant stereotypes about alternative religions today owe a great deal to those 914 deaths in Guyana in 1978. Tropes about the power of brainwashing administered by a diabolical cult leader developed largely in response to the horrific end of the Peoples Temple. Yet the individual human stories are frequently overlooked, so this panel where survivors shared their stories served as a useful addition to thinking about the meaning and significance of the events. Among the many emotionally moving and fascinating stories, I could not help but be struck by how many of the survivors insisted on the idea that reclaiming their humanity and their dignity involved reclaiming their individuality. Many of those present on Sunday morning declared that Jonestown was not made up of homogenous people, that the takeaway message of the tragedy should be that the only true master is within, that Jones had become an impediment to the functioning of the community, and that people should think very carefully about the degree to which they are willing to sacrifice themselves to pursue their principles. I could not help but wonder if part of the process of the survivors reincorporating themselves into American culture involved relearning how to think about the status and authority of the individual.

To be continued.