The best part of "Believe' is the 'Lie'

by Kelly Baker

Continuing the conversations that Elesha and Janine started on the biennial conference on Religion and American Culture, here are my reflections on the issue of authenticity, belief, and the place of the scholar in American religions via road tripping and Fall Out Boy, sometimes we get what we pay for:

Are we growing up or just going down?
It's just a matter of time until we're all found out
Take our tears, put them on ice
Cause I swear I'd burn this city down to show you the light--
Fall Out Boy

Perhaps, I need better road trip music, or a better taste in music altogether, but my weekend at the Religion and American Culture biennial conference was defined by my aesthetics and my sensory experiences as much as the conversation and provocation that occurred. To make my way to Indianapolis from Tennessee, I plowed down the interstate surrounded by lovely green, falling rock signs, and the artifacts of Christianity in the South. A billboard proclaiming Harold Camping's May 21st prediction remained as an artifact of the possibility of the Rapture. Crosses reminded drivers to be safe on hazardous roadways as well as worked in giant form to counteract interstate porn shops that pop up all along the South. Other billboards documented Jesus’s stance on abortion, when life begins, and consumerism and commodity writ large.

Before I even started my standard road trip musical rotation, let’s say that I was primed for a conference to discuss the place of religion in American culture and see some of my favorite folks all in the same place. As I still mull over the presentations and conversation, Fall Out Boy became my downfall. My favored band of my grad school days with guy liner, spiky hair, and angst placed to infectious music. (Pete Wentz still makes me want to swoon, only sort of.) This means that my whole conference experience was framed, primed if you will, by songs that I cannot remove from my mental queue. In the song, “Sophomore Slump of Comeback of the Year,” Fall Out Boy vocalist Paul Stump belts out: “The best part of "Believe" is the "Lie"/I hope you sing along and you steal a line/I need to keep you like this in my mind/So give in or just give up…Are we growing up or just going down?” This song echoed in my head from the first session on academic assumptions about the study of religion until the final salvo with the future of American religions. It seemed fitting that I wanted to hum “the best part of ‘Believe’ is the ‘Lie’” as some of the best scholars in our field circled around the questions of our assumptions about religion, religious people, power, consciousness, and narrative because of the continual reflections (hand-wringing?) about the study of religion.

What is at stake in the study of religion-as-belief seemed to be an undercurrent of the proceedings, and how might we breach the difference between the whom and what we study and our positions as scholars. Can we believe/imagine/analyze alongside without the question of authenticity? Robert Orsi, in the first session, argued for approaches that understand how the gods become real and to develop an empiricism that allows for a study of shared religious consciousness. How can we develop a language that encompasses these experiences and make them intelligible to fellow scholars and a larger public?

If the scriptures session showed collective unease, I would note that unease was also apparent earlier in the conference in the questions and discussion that followed the first panel. How do we manage the collective experiences of visions of Joseph Smith, for example? At a pivotal moment in the discussion, Jan Shipps noted that she discussed experience as a “to them,” which Orsi stated might lead to the corollary “because they are crazy.” How do we discuss the real in religion? Why is "they are crazy" such a common refrain when we discuss some types of religious people? How do we manage the lie within believe? How do we research and write religion without reference to our own assumptions about religion?

While Janine noted that some scholars were nervous about staking their personal identity in relationship to their subjects, especially regarding personal religion, I would argue that my experiences vary because no one could possibly fathom that I could believe what my subjects do from Klansmen to Tim LaHaye to folks prepping for the zombie apocalypse. Of course, I couldn’t possibly believe X is the assumption. The unasked question is “could I?” The most important part of Believe is the Lie in this case. Luckily for me, most scholars-in-arms don’t think that I am (actively) furthering the agenda of my subjects. They might scratch their heads and wonder why I am even interested in such religion or by extension such people. Rhy Williams asked, “What about the Nazis?” And as always I find myself wondering, what is at stake in our assumptions about religion? Authenticity? Lie? Helpful? Harmful? Ambivalent? Human? Suprahuman? Supernatural? Natural? What do we bring to our studies? And why are we nervous about this?

In his review of Katie Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon at Immanent Frame, Jason Bivins documents that the book is about Oprah but it also about how we practice religious studies. He writes:

On the one hand, scholars no longer have the comfort of a kind of shallow critique (which Lofton identifies as either reflexive anti-consumerism or blunt constructions of Oprah’s “trap”). Neither, however, can we afford the luxury of scrutinizing these things forever at a distance—always Hegel watching Napoleon’s armies from Jena’s hills. The implications are great here, because of the way the field is haunted by one chief identitarian assumption, rooted equally in the old politics of representation and in methodological caution: authenticity. Lofton is concerned that “in our scholarly ambition to translate our subjects—to, as the phrasing often goes, take our subjects seriously—we have become sycophants to our subjects, reframing every act as an inevitably creative act.” In this she is part of a growing, and welcome tendency in the field.

Are we indeed sycophants to our subjects? Yes. No. Perhaps. Maybe. Is this what becomes of the question of the real? In her Lift High the Cross, Ann Burlein argues masterfully for “seeing with” to construct the religion, no matter how offending, of our subject. Yet the lingering notion from Bivins-via-Lofton is “that no method or tone, however fervently defended, can avoid the fact that we are always, already, from the moment we begin, complicit with our subject.” Perhaps, the unease is about our own complicity. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter. In her comments in the final session, Julie Bryne eloquently noted that no matter how we understand our study, it is ours. She described the “ethnographic uncertainty principle” in which we change what we study inalterably in our study. Our assumptions about religion inform how and what we do. We are complicit, but maybe, we should be less nervous about it. Or in the mortal words of Fall Out Boy: “We're the lifers here till the bitter end/Condemned from the start/Ashamed of the way/The songs and the words
own the beating of our hearts.”


Thank you, Kelly!! This is terrific (of course).
Tom Van Dyke said…
What is at stake in the study of religion-as-belief seemed to be an undercurrent of the proceedings, and how might we breach the difference between the whom and what we study and our positions as scholars. Can we believe/imagine/analyze alongside without the question of authenticity?

As scholars of what, Ms. Baker? Theology or history? Either way, not even the theologian is an authority on reality. He might be wrong---the universe is stupid, the Bible's a thematic collection of folk tales, life's a bitch and then you die.

And as yr commenter Todd [Brenneman?] put it, the historian's concern is "in uses of the Bible or how historical subjects have used the Bible." "Christian thought" is the historian's subject in this context.

I think the historian can and should "imagine" along with subject: simply, with the Abrahamic religions, that God is a reality, not a proposition. Most of American history has taken that as a self-evident truth.

And much of it that God spoke to man---directly, "revelation"---and not mere "divine inspiration." This is a metaphysical Rubicon, as it were.

Personally, I confess to lean toward theism, but do not predicate any argument on whether God exists or not, let alone that the Bible is true, divine writ. The historian writes for theist and nontheist alike; the theologian's influence extends to only those of his own sect. It seems the historian must "imagine" alongside his reader as well---Nietzsche, Camus, and the Pope should all be able to read yr work without wretching.

But you have to at least to be able imagine a life lived as though God is a reality to be a "religious historian." That much, a historian can convey.


Ms. Kelly also raises the interesting point of being "complicit" with one's subject. But to write MacBeth or play Shylock or Iago as thoroughly evil is to miss the point, and is boring besides.

Actor Andy Sirkis:

"There are a million theories to Iago's motivations, but I believed that Iago was once a good soldier, a great man's man to have around, a bit of a laugh, who feels betrayed, gets jealous of his friend, wants to mess it up for him, enjoys causing him pain, makes a choice to channel all his creative energy into the destruction of this human being, and becomes completely addicted to the power he wields over him. I didn't want to play him as initially malevolent. He's not the Devil. He's you or me feeling jealous and not being able to control our feelings."

The actor's and writer's saw: Don't tell us, show us. One insults his audience's intelligence by editorializing.

[As the often-wonderful actor James Woods did in ruining his own "Citizen Cohn." The production was more abominable than the man himself!]

We all have our POV. It'll get through no matter how straight we try to play it, no matter how hostile or sympathetic we are to our subject. But every villain is sympathetic to himself, and for the writer or actor [and the good historian is a combination of both], empathy is a necessary component. It's easy to make a monster out of a man, but making a man of a monster is not complicity, it's a duty, or his audience has learned nothing.

Plus, they'll be bored as hell. Writers and actors alike agree that boring the audience is the ultimate sin. ;-)

[As usual, thx to management for again allowing me to bore those here gathered.]
Kelly J. Baker said…
Actually, Tom, as scholars of religious studies, not the two categories you mention theology or history, as an interdiscplinary field since the conference was bringing together scholars in history, religious studies, sociology, anthropology, political science, literary studies, etc.

How do we understand the study of American religion as a subfield with so many disparate approaches? Yes, we can all be wrong (to which I say are we really we are still participating in that kind of question?)

Your comment makes assumptions about how we all do our work. Fine. But, in religous studies and the study of American religion, that assumption doesn't pan out. Some scholars like Ann Burlein note the danger of imagining with, and the thriving ethnographic studies of American religions trouble how we interact with subjects/consultants/conversants. We never simply imagine with because the imagining is the scholar's creation of a culture, a people, practices, or beliefs. To assume that a religious historian must imagine God certainly falls flat as a Protestantized vision of religion and the work of religious history.

Finally, the question of empathy isn't a simple one either. I agree let's not create monsters or rely on the language of horror to do our ethical work for us, but empathy is not as easy feat when writing the culture of unloved groups. Complicitly takes own new meaning when studying the Klan but I think it should be just as important in the study of those we want to care take as Bivins and Lofton point out. The question of empathy is one I have though long and hard about it, and sometimes it does not slide an easy answer.

(Btw, Ms. Kelly makes me sound like a Sunday school, and I am not. Please feel free to use Kelly.)
Anonymous said…
simply, with the Abrahamic religions, that God is a reality, not a proposition

I would disagree -- it is quite possible to be a Jewish agnostic, for example, even an Orthodox Jewish agnostic for Judaism is a religion predicated far more on practice than belief. There are Muslims who similarly engage in Muslim practice not out of belief.

There are Catholic agnostics who feel comfortable in their communities and like "the pomp and circumstance of high church services" (a direct quote from someone I know).

I would therefore argue that God as a reality is far more prevalent in (some forms of) Christianity than in Abrahamic religions writ large. Even under Durkheimian definitions of religion, belief is not necessarily in God as a reality.
Tom Van Dyke said…
To assume that a religious historian must imagine God certainly falls flat as a Protestantized vision of religion and the work of religious history.

What I meant was to be able to imagine being a person who believes in God, that God is a reality and that entails living a certain way. I could imagine what it's like to be a Muslim, I think, inshallah. Empathy, not sympathy.

For example, the Atlantic article awhile back on "The Gospel According to bin Laden"

was excellent in peeling back the onion of even radical belief.

Thx for the thoughtful reply, Kelly.
jspiers said…
Dr. Baker,

These are, of course, all questions that I struggle with, even the more so since my background is directly connected with those I study - I don't have to imagine, I know!

That being said, I wanted to respond to one bit in your article, regarding the importance of the work scholars - and in this case you specifically - do. To my mind, the work you do is absolutely and beyond question not just necessary, but vitally necessary. When dealing with the religious thought of those who have done or perhaps would do the most damage to the things which society claims to hold dear, and finding that those beliefs are so similar to the religious beliefs that same said society holds dear... well, inquiring minds want to know. And if they don't they should.

Kudos and keep up the good work!
Kelly J. Baker said…
Tom, your reference to the Atlantic article is appreciated, and it is also quite funny to me as the author of a forthcoming book entitled _Gospel According to the Klan_. I wonder where my scholarly agendas lie...

Jeremy, first, I think you get to call me Kelly too at least on the interwebs as the the classroom is a different thing, which I am sure I will strictly enforce :)

Moreover, I think you are absolutely correct that one of the jobs of the scholars of the unloved is showing commonality as well as the unique differences. The exoticization of these movements and people lead to easy caricature while engagement leads to uneasy clarity. This is, of course, part of my larger pitch for religious studies scholars to study people we wouldn't want to have lunch with.

At the RAAC conference, Katie Lofton noted at the last session that perhaps the better question for religious studies folk to struggle with was not what was religion but defining the human and what is consciousness. I wonder how that would reframe some of these questions.

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