My First but Hopefully Not My Last RAAC Conference

Emily Suzanne Clark

Shortly before the 2011 biennial Conference on Religion in American Culture hosted by the IUPUI, I read the published proceedings from the 2009 conference. I then wished Indiana was closer to Florida and waited for the 2011 conference proceedings to be posted. This year, a small contingent of #religinoles made the drive from Tallahassee to Indianapolis for the 2013 conference. It was a fantastic weekend full of good conversations. The in-the-round setup and small attendance gives the conference an intimate feel – almost like a conference panel meets a graduate seminar table. And, just as in 2011, I can’t wait for the proceeding to be published in order to go back and think more on weekend’s topics. Conference wrap-ups have been popular on the blog lately, so I’ll try to keep my reflections short and focused on a couple ideas.

One question that has simmered in my brain since Manuel Vasquez’s More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion is how to discuss the interplay between materiality and culture. This came up a couple of times during the weekend. Kicking off the Space and Place panel, John Corrigan suggested that our work needs to negotiate the material, the metaphysical, and the cultural when it comes to discussing space and religion. Particularly since the ethnographic turn, there have been many good monographs that explore the creation of sacred space through ritual practice. However, theorizing on how to answer Corrigan’s call for taking account of cultural, metaphysical, and material space largely remains undone. The panel and audience had some difficulty on providing a definition for sacred space. Ed Linenthal cited David Chidester’s definition of sacred space as that which can become defiled space. Tracy Leavelle referred to the “pull of place” found in Native American religions. I thought of Linenthal and Chidester’s identification of sacred space as contested space in American Sacred Space. I hope the discussion and interest in space were signs that future projects will continue to theorize sacred space. The work of William Cronon (Changes in the Land) and Chip Callahan (Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Mines) both point to how the materiality of space can provide scholars of American religion with another source of evidence for our work. Space, in part, shapes religion, but materialism alone cannot explain religion. In both cases, religion is contingent upon the local context, but the material reality of physical space framing the religious lives of their subjects also matters.

Materiality came into the conversation again the following day during the panel on the Bible in American Life. Sylvester Johnson’s comments highlighted how the text is never just the text. The form, function, and dispersion of a Gideon Bible are quite different from a Scofield Reference Bible. Additionally, since the Bible was/is often seen as an authoritative text (though the how/why/for who question is complicated), Johnson reminded us how scripture was often tied to regime. Johnson focused his remarks on scripturalization, the process of how texts become scripture, and then how those scriptures are used (the latter often depending on the beliefs and practices with which one approaches the scripture). Scripturalization is never a neutral practice and has often been violent. Johnson also encouraged more work on other American scriptures, such as Mary Baker Eddy’s Health and Science with Key to the Scriptures and the Book of Mormon. This also brought to my mind Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories, how communities remember and record their own history and practice, and how the act of writing one’s “sacred” history is often a religious and political act. Johnson gave a shout-out to Vincent Wimbush’s recent book, White Men’s Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery. And like Corrigan’s call for bringing together the material, the metaphysical, and the cultural in our work, the Bible in American Life panel sharpened my attention to how certain texts and scriptures sit at the same theoretical intersection of culture, material, and metaphysical.

The final panel on the future of American religion was a fantastic yet sobering look at the future of religion in America and the study of it. When the proceedings are published, the comments of Katie Lofton, Nancy Ammerman, John McGreevy, and David Yoo will be read and reread by many. I know I will.

 For another conference wrap-up see my fellow religinole Charlie McCrary’s post on the Junto blog. Also, check out the conference tweets (#raac2013) storified by fellow bloggers and tweeters Cara Burnidge and Chris Cantwell.


Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks for sharing some of your reflections on the conference, Emily! I am also looking forward to the proceedings being published; comments and conversation during each panel moved so quickly that I know my notes only captured a fraction of it all. Definitely a lot to chew on!

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