I want to use my post today to ask an admittedly broad and open question of this blog’s readers and contributors. The journal Religion has posted an intriguing preview of a forthcoming issue on the theme of “urban Christianities.” In the introduction, "Urban Christianities: Place-Making in Late Modernity," James Bielo points to Robert Orsi’s seminal collection on urban religion, Gods of the City, as a jumping-off point for the issue, wherein six authors will consider the theme as presented in a variety of locales ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Lagos, Nigeria. Considering some of the recent posts here that have touched on questions of space, place, and movement - I’m thinking especially of the wonderful posts around Michael Pasquier’s edited collection, Gods of the Mississippi - the issue promises to be of interest to many RiAH readers.
Based on their descriptions, most of the articles appear to deal with more contemporary subjects. There is nothing wrong or even surprising about this, of course, but it did get me wondering about specifically historical studies that deal especially well and creatively with similar themes. A number of the essays in Orsi’s aforementioned collection also considered more recent or contemporary subjects (with several notable exceptions, including Orsi’s own contributions and Diane Winston’s work on the Salvation Army). Over the last several days, I've been chewing on a pretty basic question: which historians, or what texts, have dealt productively with these themes in explicitly historical scholarship? (I should admit that I'm thinking about this with somewhat selfish intent as I am considering how my own research, which deals with matters of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue/collaboration in primarily urban settings, might benefit from more attention to these types of questions.)
A few came to mind with some immediacy. John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries provides one of the most concrete examples of how religious affiliations and impulses mix with geography, space, and a myriad of cultural factors to create effective borders and boundaries. In McGreevy’s example, the lines that demarcated Catholic parishes and neighborhoods merged with ethnic, racial, and cultural interests, a combination that guided American Catholicism’s encounter with questions of race and civil rights throughout the twentieth-century. What I like about Parish Boundaries is its accessibility and narrative, for although questions of space and boundaries are at the heart of the text, these themes are worked right into the telling of the story itself. It makes for a rich and rewarding read that can be approached on many different levels.
Another immediate candidate, one that is distinctly rural rather than urban, is Richard Callahan’s Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields. Callahan’s text examines the role that religion played as a mediator in the lives of twentieth-century Kentucky families, as the region shifted from a subsistence-based economy to a wage-based economy rooted in coal mining. Callahan suggests that the early worldview of Kentuckians was grounded in, among other things, a spiritualized reading of the landscape that informed their understanding of work, farming, family life, and responsibility; as the region experienced radical changes in its economic base, Kentucky’s workers carried their religiously-inspired worldview forward and used their beliefs to adapt to their new circumstances. Callahan uses a lived religion framework to great effect in his work and places Kentucky as a landscape front-and-center. (Is there an absolute connection between “lived religion” and considerations of space/place in effective scholarship?)
A final text that I’ll include here is Wallace Best’s Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952. Among its many accomplishments, Best’s work uses twentieth-century black Chicago and the Great Migration to consider the distinctly urban pulse of modern black religious communities. Chicago’s urban religious landscape is almost its own character here as Best considers its influence on the shape and content of religious practice for both incoming migrants and pre-established churches. As much a cultural and social history as an institutional one, Best provides yet another model for considering questions of place and space, as well as movement and migration, in historical research.
But I’d really like to hear about some of your favorite texts that deal thoughtfully with questions of place, space, and movement, especially in matters of religion, where these questions provide more than a backdrop or geographical setting and become a meaningful part of the research and story itself. Who has worked with such themes especially well? What methodological or theoretical problems arise in attempting to engage these themes in historical terms? If these themes are gaining more attention in current scholarship - which they clearly are - what are some of the risks or difficulties of such research? How have you explored or incorporated these and related questions into your own work?