Call for Papers: Florida State University Department of Religion Graduate Student Symposium (February 2012)



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Call for Papers:

The Florida State University Department of Religion
11th Annual Graduate Student Symposium

February 17-19, 2012 • Tallahassee, Florida


The Florida State University Department of Religion is pleased to announce its 11th Annual Graduate Student Symposium to be held February 17-19, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Last year’s symposium was a huge success, allowing over forty presenters from over twenty universities and departments as varied as Religion, Geography, Psychology, and Philosophy to share their research, learn from one another, and meet many of their peers and future colleagues.

This year’s symposium will be centered on the theme “Beyond Borders: Constructing, Deconstructing and Transgressing Boundaries.”

Dr. Manuel A. Vásquez, of the University of Florida, will deliver this year’s keynote address. His lecture is tentatively titled “Beyond the Fetishism of Commodities? Hyper-Animism and Materiality in the Present Age.” Also, we are pleased to host Dr. Kathryn Lofton of Yale University as a guest respondent.

Due to our commitment to collaborative scholarship, students from all fields with interdisciplinary interests in the study of religion and at all levels of graduate study are encouraged to submit paper proposals.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Building and Maintaining Identities; Communities, both Local and Global; Scholars Manufacturing Subjects; Strategies of Empowerment and Subjugation; Limits of Embodiment; Political, Ethical and/or Gender Conflicts; Discourses of (In)Justice.

Presentations should be approximately 15 to 20 minutes in length and will receive faculty responses. In addition, every year respondents select the best graduate paper to receive the Leo F. Sandon Award, an endowed award named for the Religion Department's former chair.

Proposals including an abstract of approximately 300 words, a list of key terms, and a one-page CV should be submitted by December 1, 2011 for review. Final papers must be submitted by January 15, 2012. Please send proposals to Michael Graziano at fsureligionsymposium@gmail.com.

Thank you for your interest. We look forward to hearing from you or your students and seeing you at the 2012 Graduate Student Symposium at Florida State University.

Mormonism's Apostle Paul



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John G. Turner

In May 1857, a jilted husband found the man who had taken his wife and children. After tracking him to western Arkansas, he organized a posse to cut off his escape, followed him into a thicket of trees, pulled him from his horse, and stabbed him repeatedly near his heart. Hector McLean left to fetch a gun, returned, and shot Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt in the neck.

Terryl Givens and Matt Grow's new The Apostle Paul of Mormonism tells the often dramatic story of Pratt's tumultuous fifty years. Shortly after deciding to become a Campbellite minister, Pratt encountered the Book of Mormon, read it, and believed. As the title suggests, the authors emphasize Pratt's missionary travels and writings. In the nineteenth century, Mormons leaders often recommended Pratt's 1837 Voice of Warning to inquirers as an introduction to the Mormon faith. As they follow Pratt across the United States and to England and Chile, co-authors Givens and Grow provide an accessible and colorful introduction to the first quarter-century of Mormon history, theology, and missions.


The book has many virtues. For a co-authored book, the narrative is seamless, though one can appreciate Givens's typically lucid exposition of the early evolution of Mormon theology. I am also impressed with their discussion of Parley's experience with plural marriage. Over the past fifteen years of Pratt's life, polygamy brought repeated bouts of estrangement and conflict. For instance, the widowed Pratt's second wife Mary Ann ultimately chose to be sealed by proxy to Joseph Smith for eternity in the Nauvoo Temple. In that same venue, Parley's own brother Orson Pratt accused him of adultery, a charge later repeated by Brigham Young in relation to unauthorized plural marriages. Regularly dispatched by Young on missions, Pratt endured considerable poverty and years of separation from his family.



Those looking for an entry point into Mormon History for themselves or their students should give this volume serious consideration. Pratt stands alongside Joseph Smith as a formative influence on key developments within Mormon theology, and he is at the center of struggles between "Many Mormonisms" (as the authors put it) after Smith's 1844 murder. The authors also took the care (and expense) to obtain a series of very helpful maps to accompany the narrative.


I've long found the furor over Pratt's murder fascinating. His murder sparked a mixture of outrage (mostly in Utah) and justification (in the rest of the country) in 1857. Historians debate its contribution to the ensuing Utah War and the September 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre (compare Ron Walker, et al., Massacre at Mountain Meadows and Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets on those points). Givens and Grow point to the newspaper coverage of Pratt's violent death as a demonstration of "the profound depths to which American opinion of Mormonism had plummeted in the wake of plural marriage and the tumult over governance in Utah." That is no doubt true. Americans would probably have approved of Hector McLean's actions had his victim not been a Mormon apostle, but Parley's religion made his death a national story, and the circumstances of the case gave anti-Mormons considerable fodder.


I hardly think Pratt deserved to be stabbed and shot for his marriage to Eleanor McLean, who saw in Mormonism (among other things) a way to escape from an abusive marriage. But it's not surprising that many Americans concluded that Pratt deserved his bloody fate. "[A] man ought to be ashamed of himself," the Nauvoo Neighbor had quipped in 1843, "to run away with another man's wife, when there are so many maiden ladies with their trunks all packed ready for a start!" Mormon apostle George A. Smith had argued that "mountain common law" gave husbands the moral right to kill men who slept with their wives. The Utah territorial legislature codified such justifiable homicides in 1852 when it provided immunity for husbands to kill "in a sudden heat of passion caused by the attempt of any such offender to commit a rape upon his wife, daughter, sister, mother, or other female relation or dependent ... or when the defilement has actually been committed." In Texas, for instance, a cuckolded husband could kill his wife's "ravisher ... at any time before he has escaped from the presence of his victim." Unlike George A. Smith's comment, neither of those laws suggested that a man could act with McLean's level of premeditation. Across the country, though, juries in a series of high-profile murder cases in the 1850s and 1860s used an "unwritten law" to extend that privilege to include premeditation. [See Hendrik Hartog, "Lawyering, Husbands' Rights, and 'the Unwritten Law' in Nineteenth-Century America," Journal of American History 84 (June 1997): 67-96]. In keeping with such conventions, Americans justified Parley's murder. While he lay dying, Pratt insisted that he hadn't stolen another man's wife. "[T]hey were oppressed," he said, "and I did for them what I would do for the oppressed anywhere." McLean defended his actions with pride and enjoyed his moment of fame. "I look upon it as the best act of my life," he stated. Neither Hector McLean nor Parley Pratt regretted their actions.

Aimee and Apocalypticism; or The 3 Days of the Sutton



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Paul Harvey

Send lawyers, guns, and money,
The s*** has hit the fan
(Warren Zevon)

Warhol had his 15 minutes (leading one wag recently to opine that in the future everyone would be anonymous for 15 minutes), The Condor had three days, but this week our friend and contributor Matt Sutton has had his three days -- with some more to come. Call it the 3 Days of the Sutton.

First there was the New York Times editorial in Monday's paper, which we blogged about here. Then there was the appearance on the Lawrence O'Donnell show (and the usual hate mailers afterward). Then an hour later after the show, as if to personify the point (much more literally than Matt ever meant it), there was a heckler yelling at President Obama about how he was the anti-Christ. Then there was the inevitable commentary about how the heckler was a "plant." Yada yada blah blah.

(Here I digress just for a moment to quote from @MartyVanBuren, some very funny historian tweeting from "The Great White House in the Sky" as President Martin Van Buren: Obama heckled at campaign stop as the 'Antichrist.' Been there. Some folks just don't understand us Masons.)

Then there was Lawrence O'Donnell commenting on the previous evening's segment with Matt, replaying the heckler and Matt's comments and inserting his own measured commentary on the basic point here, which is the way the extreme has become part of the mainstream in political rhetoric (Ponzi schemes and Bachmann's fact-free speculations about vaccinations being some recent cases in point). Then there was Matt's appearance on the Michael Medved show, where he made some points that apparently left the conservative radio host apoplectic. I don't know if there's a link, but here is Matt's summary:

Just did the Medved show . . . I ended up comparing evangelicals to Muslims -- the vast majority are good people:-) He was not pleased.

I'll see if I can find a clip of that to link here.

Then there are the proliferating internet commentaries on the editorial and O'Donnell segment, by which point the subtler points of Matt's analysis have long since been muffled in the media noise.

And this doesn't even get to Matt's other career -- as an advisor for the musical Saving Aimee, premiering soon in Seattle with the hope of getting it to Broadway. Matt recently met with Kathie Lee Gifford, who is involved closely with this production in some way that I can't remember offhand, and maybe one of these days he will blog about that. In the meantime, here is a wonderful segment from Seattle Channel Video recorded in August; the first 10 minutes or so features Matt talking about Sister Aimee's life, the rest features various producers and actors from the musical talking about their roles.

You can also go here for a podcast of an interview with Matt by Ian Masters, where Matt talks about the conspiracy theories floating around the loonier sections of the media about the timing of that heckler (some have accused Matt of paying the heckler -- no way a university professor can afford that! And never mind that the New York Times piece was submitted about a month ago and delayed several times since then).

Finally, you should also check out his piece at the Harvard University Press website, "The Resurrections of Aimee Semple McPherson," which concludes with a comparison of Aimee's failed attempt to star on Broadway in the 1930s, but the hopeful success of the current theatrical revival of her life:

McPherson’s continuous reappearances in pop culture illustrate that the issues raised by her life were not simply about Los Angeles in the 1920s. Rather they illustrate how the mix of religion, sexuality, and mass media that she represented cut to the heart of modern American culture—then and now. In crafting a powerful, culturally engaged, theologically conservative movement in an era saturated with controversy over the roles of women in society and the relationship of fundamentalism to American culture, she garnered a lot of attention.

Although Aimee tried—and failed—to star on Broadway in the 1930s, she may yet get her chance. The new musical, Saving Aimee, will once again revisit her compelling, complicated life. With Aimee as the subject, it is bound to be an excellent show.

On a more serious side, there have been some excellent discussions of Matt's points, which ultimately are about the role of apocalypticism in American political discourse through the 20th century. Sarah Posner discusses Matt's piece together with Michael Kazin's consideration "Whatever Happened to the American Left" in Sunday's Times (short answer: the right has organized, the left has not; Diane Winston challenges that view here).

Aimee and apocalypticism represent different forms of religious theater that ultimately play towards ideas of the resurrection of Christian America. Michele Bachmann has mastered this point, as evidenced in her speech before Liberty University's students, which "found the precise sweet spot where testimony and Christian American exceptionalism mythology intersect" (the link takes you to a C-SPAN video of the talk). Bachmann's campaign is faltering and she'll be out of the picture soon enough, but she's made an impact with this kind of galvanizing rhetoric, bringing certain strands of apocalyptic themes into mainstream discourse through her own form of theatricality. God help us.

P.S. Forgot to mention the most startling thing of all: Sutton's fantasy football team is now 2-1, and he's a threat to make the playoffs. Truly the time of tribulation is upon us.




Including "Religious Others" in the Christian Nation "Debate"



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by Edward J. Blum

Amid the culture wars of the 1990s, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore published a slim volume. It had a provocative title and a silly subtitle: The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness. Thankfully, the subtitle was later changed to A Moral Defense of

the Secular State (although, of course, the “a” before “moral” could cause some confusion). Kramnick and Moore argued that the founders of the United States purposefully created a secular nation and that waves of evangelicals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries added religious appendages to the secular framework. This left many Americans confused, frustrated, and bitter. Thank goodness Kramnick and Moore could show us the right (and by right, I mean left) way. Reviewing the first edition, UNC’s John E. Semonche concluded that The Godless Constitution was “not an unworthy entry into a debate that has never verged on the profound.”

Wow. If that doesn’t make you chuckle, then you haven’t read enough reviews that essentially end, “makes a significant contribution to many significant fields.”

“Profound” is such a tricky word. Semonche certainly wasn’t referring to Madison’s and Jefferson’s discussions of church-state relations – so profoundly analyzed in David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Perhaps Semonche was thinking of Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer, but their acolytes certainly took their works to be profound.

Thanks to John Fea, historians now have a profound tool to use in the debate. I have been teaching Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? in my historiography class, and we’re having a blast. Fea shares at least one commonality with Kramnick and Moore. All write from a shared frustration with the simplistic histories of the nation presented by the religious right. Unlike Kramnick and Moore, however, who wish to defend a secular state, Fea wants to teach about history. He wants students and interested readers to think in terms of change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. And as a teaching device, this book is without doubt profound. There is so much to commend in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, especially Fea’s examination of the history of the idea that the United States was a Christian nation.

When I hold The Godless Constitution and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? side-by-side, I’m left with a few questions. First, where are the women? If “American religious history is women’s history” (or is it women’s history is religious history … I can never remember; thank goodness for google), as Ann Braude so famously put it, how are we still able to write histories like this without women playing prominent roles? Second, do the voices of African Americans or Native Americans or immigrant Americans trouble the discussion? Years ago, I published an essay on African American uses of “Christian nation” rhetoric and others have done similar work, such as Joanna Brooks in American Lazarus or Eddie Glaude in Exodus! Have we abandoned “religious outsiders” in this debate?

Third, and finally, is there any difference in historical and theological opinion among conservative evangelicals and anti-liberal evangelicals? Jason Bivins published an amazing book several years ago on “anti-liberalism” (meaning animosity for the large state and liberal norms, but not necessarily pro-Republican Christians) where he showed how home schoolers and the Berrigan brothers shared a political sensibility of frustration. If we consider the contemporary political terrain as complex and variegated (even among conservatives who are so easily made into caricatures rather than understood on their own terms), then what are the differences of opinion among the anti-liberals and anti-secularists?

My point from these questions would be this: to understand historically the Christian nation debate, we need to expand the parameters of inclusion and more richly think about the political fabric of the nation. Without doing so, we’re left thinking antebellum Whigs dominated American politics (they didn’t!), that Martin Luther King, Jr., was the only one to use Christian nationalism for moral politics (he wasn’t), and that contemporary conservatives are convinced antichrist is among us (many don’t and many think those who do are nuts).

I’m off to the East Coast with a satchel full of new books … so I’ll be back with some reviews from 35,000 feet. You can expect several “unworthy” entries.

Why the AntiChrist Matters in Politics



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by J. Michael Utzinger

Matthew Sutton's reflections on the antichrist and American politics can be found in today's New York Times under the title "Why the Antichrist matters in Politics." There is some great food for thought here including how dispensational premillennialism (Sutton wisely didn't use this term in an op-ed) feeds anti-government sentiment. He also suggests that a power vacuum among politically oriented evangelicals have allowed libertarians and Tea Party activists (like Bachmann, Perry, and Paul) to exploit evangelical energies without the type of religious leadership (previously seen in individuals like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell) who tempered the tendency toward apocalyptic excess. Perhaps a throw-away line, but I appreciated the analogy with Marxism to explain apparent tensions within the evangelical between expectation and action. After all, to those of us who study apocalypticism historically, it is easy to see Marxism as a secularized form of Christian apocalypticism (albeit a this-worldly type). The whole piece can be found here.

Update from Paul: Matt is going appear this evening on MSNBC's "The Last Word" with Lawrence O'Donnell, via satellite. Check your local listings!

Update from Kelly: Here's the clip!

New Issue of the Journal of Southern Religion



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Luke Harlow and I are pleased to announce the new volume of the Journal of Southern Religion:

Our features include:

--An article by Chad Seales (University of Texas-Austin) on baptisteries and modernity.

--A roundtable on class in early twentieth-century southern religion, with contributions and responses from Ken Fones-Wolf (West Virginia University), Richard Callahan, Jr. (University of Missouri-Columbia), Jarod Roll (University of Sussex), Alison Collis Greene (Mississippi State University), and John Hayes (Augusta State University).

--An author's reflection on Evangelizing the South by Monica Najar (Lehigh University).

--A review forum on Daniel Williams's God's Own Party, with reviews by Randall Balmer (Columbia University), Darren Dochuk (Purdue University), J. Russell Hawkins (Indiana Wesleyan University), and Mark Silk (Trinity College), and a response from Daniel Williams (University of West Georgia).

--Twenty-six book reviews on the latest scholarship in the field.

Emily Clark, managing editor, and Art Remillard, book review editor, contributed immensely to helping make this issue happen.

Luke and I would like to invite everyone to consider contributing to the next issue of the JSR. As an online journal, we are in the exciting position to compliment traditional articles and book reviews with innovative content like special topic forums, author reflections, interviews, and audio-visual presentation. Any and all ideas are welcomed.

American History Now, American Religious History Now



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by Carol Faulkner

I first read The New American History (originally published in 1990) in graduate school. Its early 21st century counterpart, American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, is now available from Temple University Press, and perfect for a new generation of graduate students studying for exams. The essays survey the state of the field, emphasizing new historiographic trends across and within chronological periods. In this edition, included among the “Major Themes,” is John T. McGreevy’s essay on “American Religion.”

McGreevy explains the impetus behind this inclusion of American religion with an amazing fact: “more historians now identify themselves as historians of religion than as social historians, cultural historians, or even political historians.” And kudos to our blogmeisters for this site, which, McGreevy observes, “steer[s] the scholarly conversation.” (And, somewhat surprisingly, this may be the only reference to a blog or other internet resource in the entire book).

But McGreevy notes something unusual about American religious history: “The term ‘field’ may be a misnomer. Fields mean coverage, certainly, but at a practical level fields are defined by arguments as much as by the day-to-day trudge of the survey course. And in American religious history courses, and the scholarly literature upon which they rest, arguments are elusive.”

I have been thinking about those lines since I read them. Do others agree? If so, what does this tell us about the study of American religion? Despite its newfound popularity, even centrality, to American history, is it underdeveloped or undertheorized?

McGreevy acknowledges different methodological approaches, dividing those focused on “lived religion” and those attempting to integrate religion into “the main narratives of American history.” But, as McGreevey writes, the “field’s organizing principle is diversity,” the dynamic and vast “marketplace” of religions.

This edition includes a cheering essay for women’s and gender historians. In her article on the field, Rebecca Edwards states that “The real triumph of women’s history, then, can be found elsewhere in this volume: almost every author, whether writing on a specific period or a major themes in American history, incorporates findings in women’s and gender history.” McGreevey’s essay is a good example, mentioning scholarship by Kathleen Cummings, Ann Braude, Catherine Brekus, Victoria Brown, Anthea Butler, Maureen Fitzgerald, Marie Griffith, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Amy Koehlinger.

And, for graduate students searching for a dissertation topic, McGreevy notes that “surprisingly little scholarship has appeared” on “religion and sexuality,” though he praises two studies, Leslie Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception and Cynthia Gorney’s Articles of Faith.

What do you think of McGreevy’s essay on the “field”?

The Synagogue in America



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Paul Harvey

And here's the second of the two promised-posts on topics too much neglected at our blog. This one is a history of synagogues in America, from the Jewish history scholar Marc Lee Raphael. Oh, and by the way, if you want a great short historiographic essay on Judaism in America, covering the basics but also in a few short pages covering more advanced topics and debates in the field of study, check out Alan Levenson's short essay "Judaism in America" shortly to come out in our work The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, which will be out in a few short months. Yes, it's expensive, but your univ. library can purchase it.

And further, while we're at it, I'd love to have Jewish history scholars who would be interested in posting here at the blog. If you feel you have something to contribute in that area, please let us know!

Anyway, without further adieu:

Raphael, Marc Lee. The synagogue in America: a short history. New York University, 2011. 247p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780814775820, $35.00. Reviewed in 2011oct CHOICE.

Raphael (William and Mary) offers an insightful, scholarly, and comprehensive overview of the evolution and changing role of the American synagogue, spanning three centuries and incorporating the denominational movements of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Judaism. The book's historical perspective draws on economic, cultural, political, and sociological methodologies; and on archival records from 125 congregations, including bulletins, newsletters, sermons, unpublished papers, minutes, and more. The author looks at denominational differences across epochs in architecture, forms of worship, rabbinic life, and fund-raising, and at the impact of feminism. Chronologically arranged, the volume addresses a number of subthemes within each broad time period, taking care to acknowledge differences as they evolved among the major branches of Judaism. Raphael also notes recent trends with the shift of Orthodoxy to the right. Among topics addressed is classical Reform Judaism's emphasis on social ethical action over ritual, e.g., marshalling youth to work in soup kitchens for the homeless, care for the elderly, and protest against bigotry and discrimination. The discussion includes, among other topics, 19th-century abolitionist David Einhorn's opposition of slavery, and Reform and Conservative Judaism's involvement with the civil rights movement. Useful for all libraries, including American and Jewish history collections. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers. -- D. B. Levy, Touro College, Lander College for Women

Virtual Orientialism: Asian Religions Without the Asians



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Paul Harvey

A couple of posts coming up here (falling behind already this semester -- the world rushes on, committee meetings must be attended, papers graded, and our poor little blog gets left ignored in the corner) about new books of interest just reviewed in Choice. I've tried to pick out selections here from works which cover subjects that are receive less attention than one would want both here at the blog and in American religious history more generally (our blog contributor Mike Altman is working on Hinduism in America and knows a lot more about this subject generally than any of the rest of us here, so Mike weigh in here with thoughts that you have!).

The first comes from an author familiar to many of you, Jane Iwamura, whose new book about Asian religions and American popular culture is out. Having grown up on Kung Fu and still able to quote lines from it, I certainly am familiar with the topic of "cultural stereotyping by the media" mentioned in the review below. For that and many other reasons, I look forward to picking this work up soon.

Aside from the review, here's a great short piece by Prof. Iwamura drawing on the book. And if you would like a more in-depth scholarly discussion of the book, here is Rudy Busto's discussion of the book, from a panel discussion at McCormick Theological Seminary last year. Finally, I would remind you of the great selection of primary sources on Asian American religions with Asians in Tweed and Prothero's Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History, still an indispensable primary source compilation.

Iwamura, Jane Naomi. Virtual orientalism: Asian religions and American popular culture. Oxford, 2011. 214p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780199738601, $99.00; ISBN9780199738618 pbk, $24.95. Reviewed in 2011oct CHOICE.
Deeply indebted to Edward Said's Orientalism (CH, Apr'79), infused with Jean Baudrillard's conceptions of the hyperreal (Simulacra and Simulation, 1994), and written in the style of Judith Snodgrass's Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West(CH, Jan'04, 41-2767), this volume more fully develops Iwamura's examination of the "Oriental monk" icon and narrative, which first appeared in Religion and Popular Culture in America, edited by Bruce Forbes and Jeffery Mahan (CH, Oct'00, 38-0893). Iwamura undertakes an analysis of photographic and television images appearing in popular media between 1950 and 1975. Through a close reading of representations of three Oriental monks--D. T. Suzuki, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Kwai Chang Caine (Kung Fu)--Iwamura (Univ. of Southern California) variously unpacks Americans' unfolding perceptions of the East, the dynamics of cultural consumption and appropriation, and the systematic processes of cultural stereotyping by the media. Easily accessible, this work will interest students of American popular culture, media studies, and Asian American religiosity. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Academic libraries supporting upper-level undergraduates and above. -- M. A. Toole, High Point University

And for further information, here's a bit about the work from the book's website:

Saffron-robed monks and long-haired gurus have become familiar characters on the American popular culture scene. Jane Iwamura examines the contemporary fascination with Eastern spirituality and provides a cultural history of the representation of Asian religions in American mass media. Encounters with monks, gurus, bhikkhus, sages, sifus, healers, and masters from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions provided initial engagements with Asian spiritual traditions. Virtual Orientalism shows the evolution of these interactions, from direct engagements with specific individuals to mediated relations with a conventionalized icon: the Oriental Monk. Visually and psychically compelling, the Oriental Monk becomes for Americans a ''figure of translation''--a convenient symbol for alternative spiritualities and modes of being. Through the figure of the solitary Monk, who generously and purposefully shares his wisdom with the West, Asian religiosity is made manageable-psychologically, socially, and politically--for popular culture consumption. Iwamura's insightful study shows that though popular engagement with Asian religions in the United States has increased, the fact that much of this has taken virtual form makes stereotypical constructions of "the spiritual East" obdurate and especially difficult to challenge.

Retribution v. Reform in American Justice: Interview with Jennifer Graber at Religion Dispatches



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Paul Harvey

Shortly after the publication of Jennifer Graber's outstanding work The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America (University of North Carolina Press), we blogged about it here, and we've also blogged about Jennifer's outstanding recent article in Church History, drawn from her next project about the meanings of war, violence, and religion in the nineteenth-century Indian wars (if you think The Furnace of Affliction is depressing, try reading the article, where the violence of the 19th-century frontier wars comes out in illuminatingly dark detail). The Historical Society blog also has interviewed Graber, posted here back last March. Here is Randall's introduction to the book and interview, which hits at some of the main themes of interest:

"Americans incarcerate," writes Jennifer Graber in her new engaging book The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). "Though the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population," she writes, "it has almost a quarter of its prisoners." Such facts make the long history of American prisons and their maintenance all the more interesting. Graber, an assistant professor in the department ofreligious studies at the College of Wooster, analyzes the "intersection of Christianity and politics in the American penitentiary system."* Her interesting account also looks at the religious dimensions of discipline and the ideas that undergirded punishment from the 1790s to the 1950s

Religion Dispatches has just posted an interview with Jen about The Furnace of Affliction, which makes for great reading. So read it -- here. Here's a little excerpt, which shows how the work upsets all manner of preconceived notions and doesn't make easy or comfortable reading for anybody:

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

There are a couple issues I had to tackle head-on. Since the 1970s, Americans have witnessed the increasingly retributive spirit of this country’s prisons. It was imperative to show that while there have always been debates about reformation and retribution, the current environment is an historical anomaly.

For people who had any knowledge of prison history, I wanted to deal with some false notions about Quakers and Calvinists. Some scholars have posited accounts of the early prisons in which kind-hearted Quakers were just lovely to prisoners while bloodthirsty Calvinists wanted inmates to suffer deeply for their crimes. This simply is not the case.

Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and other interested religious reformers shared in a fairly unified approach to prisons and prisoners. They wanted reformative prisons. They wanted inmates to be led through a series of experiences that prompted their redemption. They all disavowed torture and abuse. Really, their only disagreements were about corporal punishment, namely whipping. Some Protestant reformers affirmed the limited use of whipping. But even Quakers who disavowed whipping found other ways to enact discipline on the body, such as gagging. . .

Continue reading here.

The Bible Belt Blues



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BY MICHAEL PASQUIER




Hal Crowther—essayist, journalist, southerner—is upset with his co-regionalists. Indeed, he’s been distressed for some time (see his previous books Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South [2005] and Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South [2000]). “Evangelical religion of an extreme stripe—fire and brimstone, biblical inerrancy—thrives in many far corners of the republic,” he writes in a recent edition of the Oxford American, “but the South is its wellspring and its homeland.” He continues, “Feral religion has been the South’s second greatest embarrassment, after race. Unfortunately, they’ve been closely linked.” Terry Jones, the Gainesville preacher who promoted “International Burn a Koran Day,” is just the latest example of southern humiliation that Crowther associates with “[t]he unctuous, nausea-inducing Pat Robertson” and the “Southern fundamentalists [who] have bonded with the Tea party and politicized their pulpits.” Like I said, he’s not happy.

While singing what he calls the “Bible Belt Blues,” Crowther is also searching for “rays of light” that might signal the unbuckling of southern bucklehood. He looks to the Baylor graduate Edwin Gaustad for reassurance that the Virginian Thomas Jefferson had “an undying anxiety of anything that would bring church and state together.” He calls on the UNC biblical scholar Bart Ehrman to explain how “the Bible is a deceptive literary grabbag authored by just about everyone except God.” He wishes that the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s conception “of a God inseparable from Nature, from Creation,” would replace the “hellfire Christianity” of today’s mainstream white South. And he finds in his own universalist/pantheist beliefs a model for southerners to keep their religion to themselves. “The important part of religion,” Crowther concludes, “is what you believe when you’re in your room alone, not what you profess to believe in a crowd of believers.”

After reading Crowther’s essay a few months ago, the cynical-me wanted to tell Crowther, “Good luck with that, Hal. Good luck making southerners into Emersonians, much less Spinozans. Hell, good luck getting folks to read Spinoza.” The political-me wanted to give Crowther a high-five. And the religious studies/historian-me just had to calm down and appreciate some fine writing.

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about religion in the American South, I like to go to the Oxford American (the self-described “Southern Magazine of Good Writing”) for perspectives on southern culture that manage to avoid the sappiness of Southern Living and the scholarliness of the Journal of Southern History. I like to ask myself, as Crowther does in his introduction to Gather at the River, “Why, then, are libraries bursting with dissertations on the metaphysics of Southernness, why are panels convened, sages summoned, centers dedicated to the study of the Tao of Dixie? Why is Southern separateness—among the reflective class no less than the belligerent—an enduring strain of separateness no other American region can approach or comprehend?” It’s an old, some might say tired question, but I love asking it and trying to answer it.

In the next week or so, Luke Harlow and I will be releasing the latest edition of the Journal of Southern Religion. The JSR started in 1998 under the editorship of Rodger Payne, now chair of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Asheville. Its first issue included Ted Ownby’s review of Paul Harvey’s Redeeming the South and a review forum on Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross (with reviews by E. Brooks Holifield and Ann Taves). R. Marie Griffith and Joel Martin commented on the film The Apostle and Sam Hill wrote an article called “Fundamentalism in Recent Southern Culture.” Check it out; it’s kinda fun.

Last year, Luke and I relieved Randall Stephens of his editorial duties. If you know Randall, then you know we’ve got big shoes to fill. We’ll be sure to announce the JSR release on the blog.

Noebel Cause: Summit Ministries Director Retires



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Paul Harvey

Colorado Springs hasn't been in the news quite as much in recent years (Ted Haggard notably excepted) as it was at the height of the culture wars. That may soon change as the Republican primary heats up. In the meantime, though, here's an important organization-in-transition story for you, from a (relatively) little known but quietly powerful local Christian training center that has exerted its influence over a couple of generation of folks now. Mark Barna, our local Colorado Springs Gazette religion reporter, recounts the career of David Noebel of Summit Ministries, who is retiring after close to half a century of leading his group. Originally an offshoot of Billy James Hargis's Christian Crusade, Noebel struck out on his own after sex scandals brought Hargis down -- including a couple who, upon their honeymoon, discovered they had both slept with Hargis out of wedlock. Noebel reportedly pushed out Hargis and took over the Christian Crusade program, folded it into Summit Ministries, and has carried on from there since.

In case you are worried that Noebel will get bored during his retirement, fear not.

Though retiring from Summit, Noebel will continue to lead the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, founded in 1953 in Iowa by Fred Schwarz to track U.S. communism, and currently headquartered in Manitou Springs. Noebel has written for the nonprofit’s newsletter for 45 years.

Noebel is best known now, at least among historians, as the great nonstop fountain of colorful quotes from his books in the 1960s and 1970s, most of which are rants about communism and rock-n-roll -- see, for example, Rhythm, Riots, and Revolution (1966), and Marxist Minstrels (1973). The first simply cannot be beat as an anti-rock screed (if I'm wrong about that, Randall, correct me): Noebel writes:

"THE BEATLES, or THE MINDBENDERS, for example, need only mass hypnotize thousands of American youth, condition their emotions through the beat of the 'music' and then have someone give the word for riot and revolt...If the following scientific program is not exposed, degenerated Americans will indeed raise the Communist flag over their own nation"

Because he's usually quoted in that context, Noebel has tended to be written off as a product of the culture wars of an entirely different era -- one before Christian rock/pop infiltrated the enemy headquarters and established itself on the scene (as David Stowe has documented in No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of Evangelicalism), and before, as Charity Carney just described, saccharine instrumental Muzak versions of Lennon's "Imagine" are piped into Christian chain stores.

But far from being the product of another era, Summit Ministries has remained an active training organization, with tens of thousands of people coming through its programs and filtering its message out to the grassroots. Sarah Posner has described its work in this area in much greater detail here. She writes:

If Noebel seems stuck in time with his fearmongering about a fifth column of “reds” aiming to take over America, his protégés continue to reinterpret his conspiratorial thinking in ways that reverberate throughout the conservative movement—despite the embarrassment over conspiracy theories from some conservative journalists. Noebel himself acknowledged the thread running from his activism to the Tea Party movement. “Most of them are evangelical Christian anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-statist... Michele Bachmann is one of their leaders and she certainly is a fine Christian gal and she’s got her feet in that camp big time.” And, he added, “I would say Ron Paul, for example, Ron Paul is more Christian than anything, to tell the truth.”

Noebel’s influence can be seen in the work of a Summit alumnus who answered the Christian Right call for evangelicals to create their own media and entertainment enterprises to replace secular ones. Noebel makes an appearance in the propaganda film Agenda: Grinding America Down, produced by former Idaho state legislator Curtis Bowers, who recently won the Christian Reconstructionist San Antonio Christian Film Festival. As a youth, Bowers and his family spent summers at Summit, which he described recently as “such a valuable and important thing that was helping turn America back to God and the Bible."


Noebel has been a colorful character for sure, and will remain a surefire source for quotable quotes for historians documenting the cultural conflicts of the 1960s/1970s. But he should remain of interest for his considerable influence on influencing the rhetoric and positioning of a substantial sub-group in contemporary politics. This far predates the Tea Party, and while off or under the radar for a couple of decades, its day is here -- again.

And if nothing else, that's good for business here at RiAH, and it primes the pump for interest in the new book by Randall and the forthcoming masterpiece (American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse, under contract with Harvard U. Press) from Matt.

Back to the Future: Christianity and the American Founding



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I'm looking forward a bit later this semester to using John Fea's Was America Founded as a Christian Nation in my "Theory and Methods of History" class. Aside from the precise subject matter, Fea has much to teach about thinking historically, on any subject. Below is my review of the book published several months ago at Christian Century, which is freely available online so I'll repost here, particularly for those of you who would be interested in using the book next semester or some other time in the future.

Paul Harvey

Was America founded as a Christian nation? No, is John Fea's answer to the question posed in his title. But the answer is yes if we consider how Americans (especially from 1789 to 1865) understood themselves as a Christian nation. And then again, maybe it's just a bad question, Fea concludes, because it arises not from a rich understanding of the past but from present-day polemics. Only when we remove it from that context can we begin to make sense of it.

As chair of the history department at Messiah College, a professing Christian, author of an outstanding book on an 18th-century figure of the "rural Enlightenment" (Philip Vickers Fithian), a frequent public speaker and a tireless blogger at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Fea is rapidly making a name for himself as a public intellectual who brings the virtues of scholarly humility, patience and objectivity to highly controversial questions of religion and the founding era of American history. This book is a model of scholarly restraint, of patiently working one's way through the sources and of historicizing the questions and terms with which one works.

America was not "founded as a Christian nation," Fea suggests, because its founding documents were those of a fledgling nation-state and not intended as religious statements. The Declaration of Independence was a document of foreign policy aimed at persuading other nations of our independence, and the Constitution was a secular document of governance aimed at shoring up a national government that had proven far too weak during the era of the Articles of Confederation.

Moreover, present-day proponents of the Christian nation thesis (notably self-styled scholars such as David Barton and writers such as Peter Marshall, author of The Light and the Glory) depend heavily on documents that are taken out of context. Fea points out that while some founding fathers (such as John Jay) held recognizably evangelical Christian beliefs, most of the major founders held a range of beliefs that positioned them as either lukewarm high-church Christians who mainly talked about Providence or rational theists such as Thomas Jefferson, who actively rejected and even ridiculed central Christian doctrines such as the resurrection of Christ.

Then again, yes, America was founded as a Christian nation, Fea argues. For example, nearly every individual state (but not Virginia) enacted a state constitution that made it "very clear that they were Christian societies, placing Protestant qualifications on office holding and allowing government to tax citizens for the purpose of promoting the Christian religion." Moreover, Ameri­cans of the founding era, even including those far outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, trusted that "religion was necessary in order to sustain an ordered and virtuous republic."

During the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century, when evangelicalism rose to become a dominant form of religious expression, many Americans assumed a Protestant base to American culture. In the words of historian David Sehat, they created an informal but powerful "moral establishment" that in some ways wielded more power than any national legal establishment of religion would have. The religion clauses of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof") ruled out any legal establishment at the national level. But Americans exercised the free-exercise clause freely, inventing a bewildering array of new denominations, missionary societies, publication boards and religions throughout the 19th century, making America a Christian nation in demography if not in law.

Thomas Jefferson had dreamed of a rationalist republic; what he got instead was a Methodist millennium. In many ways, the idea of America as a Christian nation, as put forward by its current proponents, was an invention not of the founding era but of the 19th century. In other words, the phrase Christian nation as used in Fea's title itself has a history, one that underwent significant changes and transformations between the era of Franklin and the era of Falwell.

But most important, Fea suggests, the question "Was America founded as a Christian nation?" is badly posed. The question is ahistorical because it presupposes a stable set of terms (such as nation, founding and Chris­tian) that in fact are historically contingent and must be understood within the context of their own time and place. Fea's most important original intention is to give readers a lesson in historical thinking—a lesson on the strangeness and distantness of the past in relation to our own preconceptions and concerns.

For example, the famous Treaty of Tripoli in 1797 assured the Muslim states of the Barbary Coast that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion"; no religious differences between the United States and Tripoli would come between a necessary and important trade agreement protecting American ships from piracy. The treaty stated a historical truth about the Constitution. Americans, however, viewed the contest between the United States and the Barbary nations as a holy war, avidly read captivity narratives describing Christians being forced to convert to Islam and characterized Muslims as "children of Ishmael" who threatened Christian civilization. In short, in spite of the secularism of the founding documents, many Americans from the Revolution to the Civil War did understand themselves to be citizens of a Christian nation.

Of course, those same Americans disagreed vehemently on what constituted a Christian nation, hence the denominational splits, religious vituperation and the bloody Armageddon of the Civil War. And since then Amer­icans have continued their disagreements.

Fea tells this story with consummate skill and evenhandedness. However, his evenhandedness sometimes seems to suggest points of controversy where there aren't any (not unlike the Obama "birther controversy"). In the present day, even advocates of the "godless Constitution" viewpoint (such as historians Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore) fully understand the deep religious base of American history. They suggest not an exclusion of religion from the public square but simply an avoidance of any special privileges for it. The Christian nationalists, by contrast, have some legitimate points (fully credited by Fea), but they also actively and unapologetically use and distort history in precisely the ways that Fea warns against in his introductory chapter, titled "How to Think His­torically."

The Christian nation debate is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints; it is instead a manufactured controversy akin to the global warming debate. On one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past (including most historians who have written about the founding era). On the other side is a group of ideological cranks who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for how the past is a "foreign country."

Meta #Metta; or, If You Want World Peace, Pay Your Parking Tickets



1 comments
Paul Harvey

It's official: Ron Artest (forward for the Los Angeles Lakers) has changed his name to Metta World Peace. I do not find it quite as clever as the 1970s classic change of Lloyd Free, who proclaimed himself "all-world," to "World B. Free," but it's certainly more effective than Prince changing his name to something that no one could say, and then changing it back.

"Metta is going to be the first name and it means like friendship, love and kindness," Artest told Stephen A. Smith on 710 ESPNLA earlier this month. "World Peace is going to be the last name, so everybody can get ready to buy their World Peace jerseys."

Hidden in this story, however, is a far more important moral, and indeed a lesson for us all:

"Artest's initial request to change his name last month was delayed because of a failure to pay an outstanding parking ticket."

No word yet on whether Matt Sutton was involved in getting that parking situation rectified as quickly as it was.

Live long and prosper, Metta. And let us all remember that lesson about life's priorities. Pay your parking tickets, and then you may exercise your rights of religious freedom. (Might add, it also helps to avoid going into the stands to punch fans of the opposing team; just saying).

An Amish Paradox That Isn't All That Paradoxical



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Art Remillard

It seems that the only time I ever see the Amish here in central Pennsylvania is when I'm running late for an 8:00am class.  It's predictable.  Buzzing along the backroads, fretting the inevitability of time, I round a bend and there plods a horse and buggy.  "Shucks!"  I shout (or, if I'm really late, it's "Drat" and "Fooey").  So I wait impatiently for a straightaway, then zoom along in a triumph of twenty-first century technology.  Oh, if only my better angels would quell my road rage.  Then I might take this opportunity to think about my slow moving neighbors' religious distinctiveness.

From their horses and buggies to their clothes and quilts, the Amish identity is among the most recognizable in America.  But their backward march along technology's trail occasionally detours into the modern world.  Many farmers around here hire Amish men who cannot drive themselves to work or Wal-Mart, but don't hesitate to ask their employers for rides.  It's all part of what Charles E. Hurst and David L. McConnell call the “Amish paradox,” characterized by an ongoing negotiation between avoiding the modern world and working within it. Drawing upon their ethnographic research done in Holmes County, Ohio, the authors reveal the differences and tensions existing among the Amish over the uses of technology.  In some communities, for example, prosperous families might hire drivers.  Elsewhere, vehicle travel is banned except for emergencies.

The authors also address Amish attitudes toward sports, and in particular, softball.  For the unbaptized youth, softball is all the rage, which causes some concern.  "Softball requires a considerable outlay of money and time for equipment and travel," Hurst and McConnell explain, "and it calls for uniforms and even haircuts that do not sit well with church members.  The custom of playing under the lights or even on Sundays also runs against Amish beliefs, and there is the fear that exposure to argumentativeness and showmanship that characterize non-Amish sporting events will undermine the Amish emphasis on cooperation and humility."

Who knew that softball could have such perilous consequences?   Maybe they could try running.  That seems far less complicated, particularly if you have the right clothes...and shoes.  A friend of mine recently ran the “Amish Country Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and forwarded me some pictures.  On this hot and humid day, a crowd of scantily dressed runners mingled with Amish men who wore their standard attire.  That is, except for one participant, who deviated from the footwear norm.  Look closely at this picture and you'll notice on his feet a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. It all makes sense.  As I've said before, these "barefoot" shoes are marketed using Edenic imagery that tells athletes, "You Are the Technology."  In other words, don't believe the shoe companies.  Your feet are the anti-modern solution to fast times and injury prevention.  Maybe we should just call them "Amish shoes"?  After all, this curious image represents a meeting of old and new, where the lines become indistinguishable.  Put another way, as far as shoes are concerned, the march of progress has come full circle, where an unshod Amish man was waiting all along.  I just hope that when he gets back into his buggy, he won't make me late for class.

Adventures in “Christian” Retail: Part II



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by Charity R. Carney

As DEG mentioned in a comment on my last post "Adventures in 'Christian' Retail, Part I," he’s going to be providing some expert commentary as I continue with my installments from my experiences this summer working for a Christian-run retail chain. So look for Darren Grem’s follow-up!

Update: Part III, the finale of Charity's series, is here. Extended responses informed from his own academic work on capitalism and American Christianity, from Darren Grem, are here and here.

Muzak. Bad muzak, but also an excellent indicator of the spiritual/secular influences on (what I’m teasingly calling) “Christian Chain” (CC). One of the things that customers constantly complement store management on is the “acoustic” music that streams incessantly over the speakers in the store. They say that it is soothing and that its Christian message is something that keeps them in the store and also keeps them coming back. It’s a very clever marketing gimmick, ultimately. But there are a few surprises that I encountered when I listened a bit more closely to what consumers were actually ingesting on their visits to CC.

Most obviously, the store pipes in the now-common coinciding traditional hymn and praise music combo that many churches have incorporated into their repertoire. Contemporary praise and worship has become so commonplace that many song melodies are as recognizable as Wesley’s hymns. While “Amazing Grace” is a muzak mainstay, so are songs like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Our God is an Awesome God,” “Father I Adore You,” “Tear Down the Walls.” Hillsong United, Integrity Music, and other major praise and worship companies have obviously cooperated with CC to provide some of their more widely used songs in instrumental versions. They are pumped through a station at some headquarters whereby shoppers and employees at all of CC stores will have a uniform muzakal experience. It’s a strange collective experience, especially as the hours in your 12-16 hour shift wear on and “Above All” is ringing in your ears for the seventeenth time (no bitterness here, no sir--and more on the shifts and work schedules as well as my current dealings with OSHA in the next post).

What strikes me as interesting is that by making the music muzak, instrumental by nature, CC is relying on the customers’ knowledge of Christian music and the familiarity of the melodies to the general public (or at least the public that they are serving). They are also probably avoiding a ton of royalty fees, but Darren will certainly be able to better speak to that issue. But what they also do is reveal the secular nature of CC’s commercialism. In addition to Christian-themed music, the stores also have an odd array of non-Christian songs (in fact, some songs used are by nature not conservative or Christian at all). This fact first struck me as I was stocking merchandise and immediately recognized the butchered version of “Imagine” that suddenly began playing over the loudspeakers. “Imagine”? “Imagine no religion”? When I finished my task and returned to my department I asked another employee about the song--how could this store be playing that song (as happy as I was to hear it and for the respite from “Awesome God”)? I was confronted by a very defensive fellow worker who explained to me that “Imagine” is a Christian song and that John Lennon and the Beatles were all Christians. I tried to throw down some pop culture knowledge but eventually gave up and logged the event as singular. Maybe the higher-ups are under the same impression and honestly believe that “Imagine” is a Christian tune. Whatever. But it did make me listen a little more carefully to the muzak from then on and I discovered that the instrumentals that the customers so loved because of the Christian inspiration they received while shopping (no irony, none at all) did not adhere to any real ideology or logic whatsoever. Rod Stewart, Sting, John Mayer (“Your Body is a Wonderland”), all showed up in their repertoire. The Beatles are a favorite.

My sense is that as long as the tune is registered by the typical consumer’s ear as something that they know, that’s how it made the cut. So praise and worship and traditional hymns are recognizable, just like “Imagine” and “Broken Arrow.” In other words, commerce is king in the CC muzak department.

the cuts, the rents, and the wounds: religion in everyday life



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This post is not entirely normal fare for RiAH, rather it is a collection of my reflections on both a book, Clear Light of Day, that I assign for one of my "global" classes paired with Julie Byrne's recent piece "Saint February" at freq.uenc.ies, which Paul blogged about last week, and a little Johnny Cash to think about what makes us as scholars and people. (Additionally, mea culpa to the Nine Inch Nails fans, I now amended my mistake and have attributed the lyrics to Reznor, though the Cash cover is what interests me.)


Kelly Baker

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar's chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here
--Johnny Cash


What might surprise is that the run-ins pierce and balm in so many ways. The neighborhood does this to some bodies and not others, I guess. But if you have a body that feels like the skin does not hold things in or keep them out, if you are made partly of memories of cuts and sutures, it might do this to you.--Julie Bryne (emphasis mine).

Nights ago in a rush of class preparation, I finished Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day (originally published in 1980, the year I was born) for Hinduism unit of my Gender in Global Religions course. The book is as starkly beautiful as it is wrenching. The prose matches the blunt social realism. Desai writes about adult siblings in Old Delhi both before and after the partition of India into India and Pakistan. Unflinchingly, she details the wounds of childhood that each siblings carry with them, which haunt as well as taunt them as they grow old and gray. The wounds remain, even in the lightness of forgiveness, and Desai creates ambivalent characters who the reader can admire in a moment and despise the next. In her study of family life, Desai communicates the miscommunications, the snubs, the love, and the pain of the ordinary. She documents the ways in which gender, class, and religion mark the siblings differently and set them in opposition.

The headstrong, and sometimes cruel Bimla, sacrifices herself upon the altar of family, even as she dreams of something more than marriage and domesticity. Her dreamer of a brother, Raja, pines to be a hero or a poet as he abandons his family in the pursuit of higher status and position. And the youngest, Tara, imagines that she will be a mother, and a mother she becomes as well as the wife of a civil servant. Yet she is not the ideal, and she wants more for her daughters than traditional domestic roles. The novel springs forward and back to show how the characters were formed by early experiences, some traumatic and others mundane, and Desai conjures the joy as well as the pain and disappointment of family. The yearning of childhood dreams thwarted by realities of adulthood. But, the wounds she catalogs carefully and lovingly. The siblings harm often without intention, and the pain lingers. Tara feels guilt at running away while Bim was attacked by bees, and she imagines it as a prime accounting of her character, her lack of heroism. Tara carries this wound, until finally, her courage rushes forth from her in confession and apology. Bim shakes off the apology and anguish by pointing out that something that so defined Tara did not even exist firmly in her own memory.

In Desai's characterization of Bim, the sense of frustration is palpable. Bim wanted more than nursing her sick family members, and she achieves a career as a teacher. Yet, she remains in the painful home of her youth, haunted by dead parents, a dead aunt, and memories of youth. Even in a world she made bend to her will, her wounds are starkly present for reader's view. Desai writes:
Bim could see as well as by the clear light of day that she felt only love and yearning for them all, and if there were hurts, these gashes and wounds in her side that bled, then it was only because her love was imperfect and did not encompass them thoroughly enough, and because it had flaws and inadequacies and did not extend to all equally....All these would have to be mended, these rents and tears, she would have to mend and make her net whole so that it would suffice her in her passage through the ocean....These were great rents torn in the net that the knife of love had made. Stains of blood that the arrow of love had left. Stains that darkened the light that afternoon. She laid her hands across her eyes again (165-166, emphasis mine).

While reflecting on how to discuss Desai and wounding with my students, a colleague passed along a link to freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, curated by the fabulous Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern. The project seeks to find out what happens when one asks artists, writers, and academics to describe, inscribe, and define spirituality. I like many others have eagerly waited to the launch of this genealogy, and Julie Bryne's "Saint February" is a piece, an invocation really, which should not be missed. Byrne's personal experience of an inexplicable illness, a wound, serves as her place to mediate both her physicality and spirituality. "Saint February" is a spiritual meandering from the neighborhood and personal interaction to a sore throat to Catholicism and the sensory to past trauma to the academy. We wander with Byrne as she evokes the complexity of everyday life, the place of memory, and importantly, the purported place of the scholar. Her wounded body, her throat, is blessed by Saint Blaise alongside medical treatment as an art more than a science. She writes:
So, as you see, were it not for St. Blaise, I would not be here to tell you this story. I would not have returned to my classes that semester, would not be chewing over the meaning of spirituality for an online collection, would not be remembering waiting in lines, would not be walking home from Tony’s in Bed-Stuy with good broth for a sore throat.

The blessing matters, and the existence of blessing complicates Byrne's position as a scholar. She continues:
But wait … this is no way to end the story. Don’t mess with people, people in the guild, my guild, my people. Don’t mess with my head. Leave out suggesting that St. Blaise was actually involved. Leave out hinting that without St. Blaise I would be dead. It was doctors who operated and sewed me whole. If St. Blaise supposedly saved my life, then why didn’t all those blessings years earlier work? If I am having a fit of wanting to thank a saint, I can do it on my own time. Would I say this stuff in the classroom? Do I really believe … ? (Emphasis mine).

Her queries, her positioning, conjures again the difficulty of religious studies, the ephemeral, the ineffable, and the (un)believable. How do we manage the rents, the cuts, and the wounds? How do we explain to our peers and our students not only the embeddness of religion in history and culture but also its deep embeddness in human bodies and lives? We make our bodies, Byrne notes. She alludes to the longer chains of history too. Our bodies bear memories and cuts of a longer history too. We can walk around the religious, but how do particular traditions, rituals, beliefs become parts of these bodies? Do I really believe is complicated by scars and sutures rather than explained away. By including St. Blaise in her invocation, Byrne highlights the complex place of religion in one individual's life and documents strongly that belief is always about bodies. While Bim's love wrenches her both emotionally and physically, Bryne's throat causes the queries of belief. Emotion to body. Body to belief. Belief back to body. Memories remain.

Johnny Cash sings, "I hurt myself today," in a gravelly voice, and his invocation of pain lingers. His video of his cover of "Hurt", penned by Trent Reznor and performed by Nine Inch Nails originally, includes images of a crucified Christ juxtaposed with images of younger Cash, the empty museum dedicated to him, and his aged body. This song places me dramatically in a chain of memory: a young widow, a funeral for her husband in which this song echoed and lingered, an altar call, my grandmother's stacks of haphazard CDs with Cash and Merle Haggard among them, clouds of cigarette smoke, and her t-shirt with Cash on the front. The pain it invokes. My body cannot hear the song without a rush of something ineffable and uncomfortable, a rent to the gut and the mind. A reminiscing I don't want to make. Cash's hurt becomes my own, and I cannot shake it from my skin, my own body. It lingers. It doesn't bounce off.

And yet, I listen, and I think. I ponder how our wanderings, bodily, spiritual, religious, emotional, make us the scholars, the people, who we are. Chains of memory and history bind us clearly; they are inescapable. As scholars of religions, we *walk* around religions that bump and shuffle us all the time. What about those that Julie notes "don't bounce off"? And what would our scholarship look/sound like if we invoke/evoke our positions, our chains, our memories? Would it truly be more art than science? Or would it be more honest and haunting? Would we have to admit Cash's hurt, Bim's tortured love, and Julie's sutures?

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