|State and Adams Streets, Chicago (1903)|
But how to describe this liminal space?
The prevailing metaphor that has come to describe the site of lived religion is by in large of Robert Orsi's invention. Of the many gifts his now canonical The Madonna 115th Street gave to the field, one of the most enduring has been his characterization of the Italian-American festa to the Madonna of Mt. Carmel as a "theology of the streets." The phrase perfectly encapsulated lived religion's emphasis upon the complexity and sophistication of people's daily religious worlds, combining a term associated with traditional institutions (theology) with a site church historians had rarely taken into consideration (the streets). The festa's theology may not have been found in texts, but the meanings these ritual processions made drew from, and in many instances shaped, the doctrine that emanated from above.
I've been thinking about this phrase "the theology of the streets" a lot of late. It relates directly with my (hopefully) soon-to-be-finished book project on the social history of Protestant fundamentalism in Chicago. The project in many ways took inspiration from Orsi, attempting to connect the often intellectual histories of the first wave of fundamentalism with the everyday religious lives of Protestant laypeople in a city that fostered some of the movement's most important institutions. Where other scholars had written about high theology and denominational conflicts, I wanted to write about local congregations and lay devotions--an evangelical "theology of the streets." But what I've been most struck with in finishing my book is that in many instances "the streets" have been as much an object of theological reflection as its location.
In rapidly developing metropolises like Chicago, public utilities were a primary concern for many city dwellers at the dawn of the twentieth century. Cities were generally filthy, crowded, and unhealthy places to live, making the development of municipal services like paved roads, functioning sewers, trash removal, and especially streetcar service not only exigent, but also lucrative. In Chicago, the city council typically issued exclusive charters to private corporations to provide most of these services either in certain parts of the city or, in the case of streetcars, on specific streets. Perhaps not surprisingly, the process became (and kind of remains) fantastically corrupt in the Windy City. Alderman handed out contracts to shell companies they owned, while even independent contractors quickly determined that the best way to realize a profit from a fixed consumer market was to offer subpar service. As former convict Charles Tyson Yerkes put it after he had bribed his way into founding most of Chicago's "L" system, "The strap-hangers pay the profits."
|West Side residents protest Chicago's streetcar lines in the 1880s.|
Infrastructure is more often the domain of the new history of capitalism than the study of religion. But as a number of recent works discussed on this blog have made clear, the history of capitalism is very much also a history of religion. Given this broader fiscal turn in the study of religion, I'm wondering what new metaphors we'll need for projects who study those who offered up a theology of streets rather than theologizing while upon them. Journalist Nathan Schneider has suggested we think about the study of religion as a kind of commons. But the phrase that keeps circling in my mind is that we're now studying various kinds of "faith in the market." What do others think?