Religion and Water in America

Michael Pasquier

The Oscars are tonight. Beasts of the Southern Wild—one of the breakthrough films of the year—is up for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Among other things, it’s about the relationship between people, land, and water in an environmentally endangered region of the United States. It’s also about religion. I reviewed Beasts for Religion Dispatches. I also wrote about the predecessor to Beasts—the short film Glory at Sea—on this blog.

I think about religion and water a lot.

I edited the book Gods of the Mississippi with a group of historians as a way to explain how the physical and imagined features of the Mississippi River contributed to the development of religious ideas and communities throughout American history. 

I wrote the essay “The Lost Graves of the Morganza Floodway” with a landscape architect as a way to consider the cultural consequences of engineering the Mississippi River to suit the political, economic, and social demands of a nation intent on controlling nature.

I developed the exhibition “On Land / With Water: A Mobile Museum” with the same landscape architect as a way for residents of coastal Louisiana to educate scientists, engineers, and policymakers on the past, present, and future of sustainable living in an evolving environment. "On Land / With Water" stems from an earlier oral history project on residents of Bayou Lafourche.

And I produced the movie Water Like Stone with a filmmaker as a way for us landlubbers to contemplate the human toll of environmental change in a world defined by its precarious position somewhere between open water and solid ground. USA Today just released an article on the subject of the film.

At first glance, my work is provincial. It concentrates on the Mississippi River delta and the Louisiana coastline, both sub-regions of the United States that usually confound standard generalizations about American history and culture. But things are changing. The climate is changing. And nowhere is that change most imminent than in coastal watersheds along the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes. 52% of Americans live near the coast. More than likely, you are one of those people.

What does this have to do with religion? When the natural and built landscape changes, so too does the religious landscape. When weather disasters occur, so too do religious practitioners react. When water replaces land and homes are lost, people suffer and sometimes die. These transformations are usually slow, almost imperceptible, only to be punctuated by reminders like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Remember the Breezy Point Madonna?

This leaves scholars of American religion in uncharted waters. We’re pretty good at thinking about the past and present, but we’re allergic to thinking about the future. Given the projected increase in flooding and land loss in port cities like Boston and New York, almost all of us will be affected on a personal level by natural and human alterations to coastal environments throughout the 21st century.

And whose scholarship isn’t personal?


rjc said…
I'm with you, Mike! The ocean is the future (and the past) -- for our scholarship and our lives.
rjc said…
Seen this?
rjc said…
Oh, and this (related):
Mike Pasquier said…
I did not know this about DJ Spooky. I'm gonna try to get him down here!
Mike Pasquier said…
I did not know this about DJ Spooky. I'm gonna try to get him down here!

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