The Study of American Religions: Critical Reflections on a Specialization
What better way to spend a sleepy summer day reading a shot across the bow aimed at one's own ship of scholarship? And from some of the most creative thinkers in said area of scholarship?
I'll not try to continue the lame nautical war metaphor, but instead point you to a new issue of the journal Religion, which has a very extensive forum on "The Study of American Religions: Critical Reflections on a Specialization." Contributors include John Lardas Modern, Kathryn Lofton, Jason Bivins, Finbarr Curtis, Chip Callahan, Tracy Fessenden, and Rosemary Hicks. Yes, a lineup that makes the Miami Heat look like the Charlotte Bobcats.
The link takes you to the complete table of contents; depending on your library's access (or lack thereof), you may or may not be able to get the full text of the articles, but it's well worth the effort. Tracy's article is, I believe, publicly available here.
One starting point/object for target practice for three of the pieces (maybe more, I haven't gone through all yet) is a historiographical piece by Kevin Schultz and myself, "Everywhere and Nowhere: American Religious History and Historiography," published in the 2010 Journal of the American Academy of Religion. That target on which these essays take aim may also be the genre of scholarly study (and deliberate boosterism, for which I do not apologize as it is part of our raison d'etre) encouraged by this blog.
More after the jump.
More after the jump.
As one would hope from such a group of essays, the authors collectively taken on, deconstruct, re-examine, and take apart the assumptions, conscious and unconscious, presiding over a field of study. Or probably better yet as fields: in this case American religious history (ARH) and American religious studies (ARS). K. Lofton dissects what she sees as the necessary dialogue that must go on between ARH and ARS:
Religious history cannot evade the methodological challenges of religious studies precisely because to identify an object as religious is to begin an inquiry into the subject of religion itself. Using the
example of the year 1893, the author seeks to demonstrate how scholars of history might justify their subjects as religious, and how scholars of religion might consider their concept of history
Jason Bivins's abstract expresses it this way:
As the narrative of post-denominational pluralism has become normative, a discursive ambivalence has been produced wherein a liberal, identitarian conception of religion coexists awkwardly with a radical suspicion of the analytical limits of ‘religion’ as an object of study. Identifying the different nodes of this ambivalence, this essay suggests that scholars might move beyond analytical repetition or paralysis by pluralizing method, genre, and style.
John Modern most explicitly takes on the limitations of the normative historiographical approach (as exemplified in our essay) most directly:
This is what I think I felt while reading the good news: a tangible expression of an institutional force that ignores (always on the scientiﬁc basis of empirical rigor and inclusion) a critical conversation about the sheer strangeness of religion and the even stranger endeavor of writing about it.
On the above, if it's any comfort, I've tried to address (to some degree) that very issue in a piece entitled "Transcendental Empiricism and the Transcendental Blues," to appear later this year. It is a response (one of a group of responses, including others by Lofton, Sylvester Johnson, and others) to Manuel Vasquez's work More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, but beyond that a reflection on how my training as a historian (largely in a positivist tradition, with a dollop of critical narrative analysis and a pinch of Foucault thrown in) shaped my studies of religion in America, and some of the ways I've come to grips with the limitations of that approach (even as I would still defend its virtues). Reading over these critiques, I often find myself thinking, "yes, exactly right, yes good point, but after all this critical self-reflection and suspicion of narrative as a mode of
honest communication, would I ever be able to write another sentence, much less book?" But perhaps that's just my imagination, running away with me. And anyway, our book The Color of Christ (by Edward J. Blum and myself) takes a narrative approach and follows change over time in the meanings of the imagery of Jesus, and in doing so I hope (and believe) it uncovers some important truths of American religious history and American religious studies.
Blogs are good things at making a few suggestive remarks and pointing people to good resources, but not so good at responding to these kinds of full-length critiques and analyses (that's why journals and books aren't going anywhere). So I won't try to do that here, but instead just leave you with the links to articles that strike at the heart of the most important disciplinary issues scholars in fields addressing religion face. Yes, it's most especially when the shots are coming across the bow that I love my job. Thanks to the authors above for provocatively challenging some of our assumptions and presumptions. But no thanks to them for the fact that I won't be able to sleep tonight.