Holy Hills, Holy Hegemony, and Holey Reviews

Editor's note: Today's guest post comes from Matt Sutton, author of the outstanding work Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Matt currently teaches at Oakland University in Michigan, but will soon be a professor at Washington State University. Matt takes on a recent review of Aaron Ketchell's Holy Hills of the Ozarks.

Holey Reviews
by Matt Sutton

Jerry Falwell is dead, and James Dobson may be increasingly irrelevant, but the culture wars are still alive and well on the pages of Christianity Today’s Books and Culture. This was evident most recently in Frederica Mathewes-Green’s ridiculous review of Aaron K. Ketchell’s Holy Hills of the Ozarks: Religion and Tourism in Branson, Missouri (Johns Hopkins University Press). She entitles the review “Holy Hegemony.” Although she assumes that we all know that this refers to Ketchell’s book, it is not so clear once the article begins. Who is really practicing hegemony here? The young scholar publishing his first book and trying to begin a career, or a popular writer and veteran of the evangelical lecture circuit who felt it necessary to write a scathing, distorted review of his book, a review that entirely misses the point?

Mathewes-Green begins her article by poking fun at Branson, explaining that by “11:00 pm . . . everyone is snug in bed at the Red Roof Inn or the Best Western.” Once she establishes that she doesn’t take Branson too seriously herself, she opens her tirade against Ketchell. “It's hard for him to see the ways Branson has changed,” she writes, because “he finds Branson baffling to start with. He recognizes it as representing one side of a culture war (the other side, it appears) and focuses on that to the exclusion of anything else.” She then takes shots at him for his acknowledgements (which is always an easy target for those who can’t mount a legitimate challenge at an author’s evidence), and tells us that Ketchell is—wait for it—a Catholic(!), implying that he obviously doesn’t get Protestants. She accuses him of basing his analysis on “sociological texts rather than by talking to Christians directly.” Mathewes-Green totally ignores the fact that the book is chock full of interviews with Branson Christians and tourists. Why let the evidence get in the way of a good skewering? Her biggest problem is that “A good deal of Ketchell's hand-wringing is provoked by culture-war bogeys from thirty years ago. . . All through the book he is caught between, on the one hand, his perception that Christian faith is oppressively forced on Branson visitors, and, on the other hand, the evidence.”

No, it is Mathewes-Green who is ignoring the evidence. Holy Hills is a careful, balanced, and sophisticated analysis of Branson that incorporates the latest religious and culture studies theory. That Mathewes-Green read this book through the lens of the culture wars tells us a whole lot more about her than it does about Ketchell’s brilliant and engaging book. For a different view of Holy Hills, see my review in Christian Century.

Matthew Avery Sutton


Russ R at: March 10, 2008 at 4:53 PM said...

Not having read Ketchell, I am in no place to evaluate Matthewes-Green's criticisms. However, I have read her review, and I don't see how noting Ketchell is a Catholic was intended as a "shot" (especially considering Matthewes-Green is Antiochian Orthodox). Rather, she brings it up to note that irony that a Catholic seems to have so much difficulty in recognizing how something material could also be sacred. She may have misread Ketchell as you have misread her, but if she's right, it's worth nothing.

Anonymous at: March 10, 2008 at 9:52 PM said...

Why is that worth noting, exactly?

Edward J Blum at: March 11, 2008 at 11:00 AM said...

I'm fascinated by so many reviewers mentioning the contents of acknowledgments. Where were these folks for decades when male professors would thank their wives for 'typing' their manuscripts, but never for anything else (such as using their ideas or insights)? Reviews are short enough as it is, and books usually have enough interesting ideas to interact with - I'm all for leaving acknowledgments alone.

Elmer Scheid at: March 11, 2008 at 11:18 AM said...

Thank goodness Matthew Sutton (whose book on Aimee Semple McPherson is amazing) set the record straight. My university hosted Aaron Ketchell for a presentation on religion at the Branson-area Silver Dollar City theme park. In an unorthodox move, I asked Peter Herschend, cofounder of the theme park, to serve as a respondent. Unlike Matthewes-Green, he was gracious and had no problem with Ketchell's argument. If you want to read about it, see the article from our campus paper. Here in the "Queen City of the Ozarks," 140 plus people attended Aaron Ketchell's talk and were very pleased with the way he depicted our area.

Here is the link: http://www.the-standard.org/home/index.cfm?event=displayArticlePrinterFriendly&uStory_id=f796ba2a-a0b7-4298-9806-f93f8b1e45a0

Russ R at: March 11, 2008 at 10:42 PM said...

For anonymous, who seems to be a frequent commenter: It's worth noting because M-G quotes a paragraph from Ketchell that indicates his Catholicism (specially the material religion of Catholicism) played a role in shaping his interest and understanding of Branson. If an author raises it, that makes it relevant to a reviewer. Now I have to go get the book and place it in my stack (right under John Fea's, which is right under Matthew Sutton's).

Matt Sutton at: March 12, 2008 at 8:22 AM said...

Russ S.--

Either Ketchell recognizes that something material can also be sacred, or he doesn't (and the book demonstrates that he very much does). That he is Catholic has nothing to do with it--a good review should be about his analysis, not his personal faith commitment. For M-G to raise the issue of his personal faith strikes me as over the line--especially when it is his Catholicism that is raised in a scathing review in an evangelical magazine.

AKetchell at: March 12, 2008 at 1:02 PM said...

I'm not sure if it's unorthodox for an author to comment on a blog about his book, but something needs a bit of clarification. I mention that I was raised Catholic (which I was) and that this provided my first exposure to popular expressions of religion. This was within a larger section about how childhood influenced my choice of the Ozarks as a subject and the ways I grew interested in investigating Protestant mergers of faith and material culture. I haven't practiced Catholicism for 20 years and don't feel as if the religion of my youth substantially influenced the scholarship of my adulthood. Just thought I'd clarify for those who have commented. Maybe I should have said more on this topic, but it was a book about Branson and not my parochial school upbringing. Thanks to all those who have offered thoughts.

Edward J Blum at: March 13, 2008 at 9:07 AM said...

Thanks for chiming in Professor Ketchell; if there is no other place to clear up some points, then surely this blog serves that purpose. As fascinating as your parochial education was (and is, I'm sure, in your memory) I could see why you wouldn't belabor the point.

Anonymous at: March 17, 2008 at 9:08 PM said...

"Her biggest problem is that 'A good deal of Ketchell's hand-wringing is provoked by culture-war bogeys from thirty years ago. . .'"

No, reading the review it seems very clear that "her biggest problem" is Ketchell's writing, which she finds unclear and sloppy. Most of the review is focused on this.

Edward J Blum at: March 18, 2008 at 3:14 PM said...

I should have posted here as anonymous :)

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