by Brantley Gasaway
To what extent should the places in which we work--not the institutions, but rather our local communities and their religious landscapes--influence our scholarship and especially teaching of religion in America?
I have pondered this question from the vantage point of my own place: Bucknell University, located in the Susquehanna Valley of central Pennsylvania and about an hour north of our capital, Harrisburg. As I moved here and settled into my job and daily life, I began to think about what it meant to be a teacher and scholar here in this place. In other words, what difference did it make that I was teaching about and studying American religion in the middle of Pennsylvania rather than in North Carolina (during my PhD program) or at Drake University in Iowa (during my first job)? And that's when I began to think about the "plain people."
The rural areas that surround Bucknell contain many communities of Amish, Old Order Mennonite, and other "plain people" who practice
separation from the world, dress plainly, and live simply. It's hard not to think about them when regularly driving past their horses and buggies, visiting our local farmers' market where they have many stands, or shopping at the discount grocery store owned and staffed by Old Order Mennonites. After my first semester here, I determined that I wanted to incorporate plain people into my historical survey course on religion in the United States in a substantive rather than only cursory way. While their presence is not unique to our area, of course, I thought that studying plain people would give my students both insight into the local religious landscape as well as a deeper appreciation of these traditionalist communities so visible in our area.
Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher. The book recounts the story of how the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania (near Lancaster, the heart of Amish country) responded with grace and forgiveness to a schoolhouse shooting in 2006 that left five children dead and five others injured. Beyond simply narrating the heart-wrenching events, the authors analyze how the countercultural "lived religion" of the Amish--that is, the ways in which their particular religious beliefs and rituals shape their everyday lives and experiences--prepared them to respond in this fashion. In the four semesters that I have used this book, it has generated excellent discussions and pushed students to think about "lived religion" in new ways.
In keeping with the theme of using local (or, rather, reasonably close) resources, one semester I invited to my class one of the authors of Amish Grace: Dave Weaver-Zercher, professor of American religious history at Messiah College outside of Harrisburg. Dave did an outstanding job of discussing how he and his co-authors produced the book and answering students' questions. (For a different course on religion and American politics last semester, I was also able to bring to campus our blog's own John Fea, also from Messiah College. John spoke to my class after we read his Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and then gave a well-received public lecture.)
In addition to reading Amish Grace, I would like to figure out ways to have my students interact directly (but respectfully, of course) with local plain people. While this goal may prove too lofty, I am hoping that friendships that my family and I are beginning to build with several Old Order Mennonite families may facilitate its realization. Last fall, our closest Old Order friends invited us to their church, and my daughters and I rode over a half hour each way in their horse and buggy. We sat through a service that consisted of over two hours of preaching and plain singing in Pennsylvania Dutch (their German dialect), and then we returned to our friends' house for lunch and a long afternoon of conversation with seven other Old Order families. While I don't expect to show up again at their church with 35 college students in tow, I am hoping that members of this community will be open to talking to my students.
As of now, my place in central Pennsylvania has not affected my scholarship. I used national publications as my sources for the book I am completing on politically progressive evangelicalism, and my methodology did not involve any ethnographic work. Besides, it's hard to find progressive evangelicals in this overwhelmingly conservative area. But as I develop my future research projects, I do want to consider how my particular interests may intersect with local resources.
We all know that place matters in terms of how our subjects believe and behave religiously. So let me pose these questions to readers: To what extent does place matter to us? How, if at all, has the nature of your own place influenced your teaching and even research on religion in America? In what ways are you taking advantage of the unique religious landscape and resources of your area? I know that in recent posts Seth Dowland and Michael Pasquier have touched upon this subject, and I look forward to hearing from others of you.