Edward J. Blum
This is part 2 of my post-AHA/ASCH interviews with graduate students who seem to me will be altering how we think about our discipline during the next 10-20 years. The answers come from Sonia Hazard, a PhD student at Duke University, and Brett Grainger, a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Harvard University. Check out his recent article in Church History.
Q: How are US religious historians thinking differently or approaching the craft distinctly today than they may have 10-20 years ago?
Sonia Hazard: American religious historians are beginning to challenge many of the long-regnant conventions of cultural history, and I enthusiastically welcome most of these efforts. For example, I think that the injunction to take our subjects “seriously” as fully conscious and intentional “agents” is slipping a bit. A growing contingent of historians argue that empathy for subjects and attention to their self-understandings, while important, need not require turning a blind eye to the larger structures of power and social disciplines in which subjects are embedded, of which subjects may not have direct knowledge. Scholars like Marie Griffith and Katie Lofton are going beyond taking subjects’ testimonies at face value, to ask: what are the social and material conditions that enabled and facilitated those utterances? I’m particularly interested in what other scholars will make of Lofton’s point that capitalism, in addition to ushering in the so-called free market of religion, also shapes, limits, and generates religious practices in global ways.
I think we’re also seeing the first few cautious steps away from the paradigms of “democratization” and “pluralism.” These have been master tropes in American religious history, almost too big to fail. They are grounded in the quasi-sacred principle of religious choice, that is, the idea that Americans have been free to make religion for themselves, at least since disestablishment. Free choice is a beloved American ideal—and all the more so for American Protestants with an Arminian streak, which perhaps partially explains its hold on the field. But what social disciplines and larger patterns authorize this valorization of choice, among both historical subjects and the historians who study them? In his new book, John Modern argues that the confidence in one’s ability to choose itself derives from larger binding social imaginaries that emerged at a specific historical moment in antebellum America. To believe in the power of one’s own choices already reveals an embeddedness in a larger religious formation, one which the subject did not choose and which remains outside the subject’s self-recognition.
This is to say that I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more studies that ask what patterns seemingly different religious traditions share and what kind of common historical formations they engage in. This may also signal a move away from the kind of intensive specialization that has been the hallmark of American religious history (and cultural history more generally). In addition to studies that focus specifically on Mormonism or Methodism or Moravianism, I think we’ll be reading more books that span the professed pluralism, along the lines of Tracy Fessenden’s work on “nonspecific Protestantism.”
I also welcome recent experiments with the elasticity of “religion” as a category. Historians appear to be no longer limited to self-identified adherents as their objects of study. Religion now appears in some surprising places, from Oprah to secularism to the American obsession with the thin body. I’m excited to see where it turns up next.
Brett Grainger: I'm not sure I have much that is original to add here. What I can say is that I'm struck by the ambition of my colleagues. It seems that after decades lamenting the loss of grand narratives, everyone wants a shot at putting Humpty together again. If that is true, then I suspect one factor—and it's certainly present in my own work—is the dismantling of the secularization narrative. Of course, such dismantling has been in the offing for many years, but I feel as though it's suddenly ever-present. The ground feels clear for something new, even if we aren't yet sure what that might look like. I also think historians of religion are still trying to figure out how to spend the new cultural capital accrued by the discipline since 9/11 among mainstream historians and in the broader culture. Is our work for ourselves, for American history more generally, or for The New York Times? When I was an undergrad in religious studies in Canada in the mid-1990s, no one could understand why I would choose to study religion if I wasn't in a ministerial stream. No one asks me that now.
Q: What is the best piece of mentoring advice you have received thus far?
Brett Grainger: Take your time choosing a project. It will pay off later. You need to find a project that genuinely excites you, that will spark you to get up and write during the dark night of the doctoral student's soul. And you need a topic that will open you up to a variety of opportunities when you're finished, rather than peg you down or push you into a corner. It takes time to find a project that meets all these requirements.
Sonia Hazard: Several mentors over the years encouraged me to read widely and take whatever courses I pleased. As I result I have had a hard time staying in one department for long. While I’m firmly situated in American religious history, I try to remain attentive to conversations in art history, anthropology, and cultural studies, and mindful of the ways in which I can bring American religious history to bear on them. While there are challenges to this interdisciplinary approach, the upside is that I constantly learn new things and I am never bored.
Q: What is your project and how did you come to it?
Sonia Hazard: My dissertation explores the surge in Protestant print culture in antebellum America. It builds on the historiography of this period with a new attention to the “agency” of the ever-changing material technologies—letterpress, boxwood blocks, lithographer’s plates, canal systems, paper pulp, halftone screens, stereographs, and so on—that enabled the mechanical reproduction, distribution, and consumption of texts and images. I hope to show how religious print materials, sensorial engagements with them, and the religious imaginaries they enabled, were not only the results of preexisting religious ideas or intentions. More often they were the adventitious outcomes of the materiality of their mediums. I want to show how technological things were agents in religious history. Materiality mattered.
I came to the topic largely through the example and encouragement of my advisor David Morgan, who is at the forefront of efforts to bring the study of visual and material culture to the field. My approach also stems from the philosophical work of Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, and others, who are sometimes called the “new materialists” or representatives of the “nonhuman turn.” Such theorists argue that material things are not merely pliant, subordinate slaves to human agents. Humans and nonhumans, so-called subjects and objects, are not antagonists or mutually exclusive categories. Rather, they are fundamentally co-constitutive, mingling together in what Deleuzeans call an “assemblage.” In this view, agency belongs not to human subjects alone, but is distributed across the assemblage. These are other trends I eagerly look forward to seeing develop in American religious history: the rise of material culture studies, and more and more adventures in contemporary theory.
Brett Grainger: My project looks at the ways that antebellum evangelicals pursued contact with divine forces in the natural world in ways that stirred delight as well as controversy. Through a number of practices, including some obvious ones (field preaching and camp meetings, outdoor baptism) and some not so obvious (private retreat for the contemplation of nature and alternative healing techniques such as “water cure”) evangelicals chased the promises of “vital piety” through immersion in natural environments animated by vital spiritual presence. I'm arguing that these practices add up to a tradition of evangelical mysticism that has been overlooked in all the attention paid to changes in natural theology, providence, and the contemporary evidentiary pressures from science. For everyday evangelicals, engaging in religious practice in natural spaces opened pathways to personal transformation, including mystical union with Christ. But at the same time, evangelical mysticism awakened deep-seated fears, including the old bugbears of superstition and idolatry. Believers addressed these anxieties in a number of ways. By adapting the ancient doctrine of the spiritual senses, they defended their duty to worship Christ in nature without fear of idolatry. And by embracing a vitalist cosmology, they found a pragmatic middle path between “false” forms of enchantment (pantheism) and disenchantment (deism, materialism). However, many couldn't shake an underlying tension or ambivalence in their relationship to nature. They remained torn between a desire to cleanse the natural landscape of idols and an urge to sanctify spaces marked by the Holy Spirit. This tension persists in part, I argue, because both paths were affirmed in the scriptural record.
I didn't expect to write on this topic, but in hindsight, it feels obvious and inevitable. As an undergrad, I almost decided to study Romantic literature before I discovered religious studies. And the work that probably converted me to American religious history was Perry Miller's "From Edwards to Emerson." But it always bothered me how Miller dismissed revivalism. I love Emerson, but it seemed obvious to me that it wasn't only liberals who were interested in nature in the nineteenth century, or who felt the impact of Romanticism. It also seemed to me that there was a space for scholarship on cultural attitudes to nature that wasn't a prehistory of environmentalism or capitalist exploitation.