One Dangerous Thought Experiment and Two New Marginalia Interviews

Art Remillard

My "Religion and Sports" course is partially a platform for introducing students to some basic theories of religion. Most students in the course are not majors, so names like Durkheim, Eliade, and Geertz are unfamiliar to them. Additionally, they often enter my class with settled ideas about what religion is--and is not. My challenge, then, is to unsettle these assumptions, to reorient how they think and talk about religion. This begins on the first day, with a thought experiment that involves a "Terrible Towel."

The myth of origin for this unique piece of fabric starts in 1975, when a Pittsburgh football broadcaster urged Steelers fans to bring a yellow towel to a playoff game. The Steelers won that game and went on to win the Super Bowl, all the while surrounded by swirling yellow towels. The Terrible Towel has since become an iconic image at Steelers games and beyond. As the Steelers' website boasts, "When babies are born, they are wrapped in the Terrible Towel in the hospital. Couples have waved Terrible Towels at their wedding."

Indeed, the Terrible Towel has a cherished place in the hearts of Steelers fans. And many of my students here in central Pennsylvania count themselves as proud members of "Steelers Nation." So on that first day, when I hold a Terrible Towel in my hand, I ask: "What if I was at a Steelers bar, and I threw this towel on the ground and began stomping and spitting on it?" My students assure me that I would be taking my life into my own hands. They say this somewhat lightheartedly, but not really. They know just how seriously fans take the Terrible Towel.

Through this thought experiment, I open a door to begin talking about how an ordinary object can assume extraordinary meaning through the collective force of a passionately devoted community. The towel is not just a towel. It is an object that matters. And when we talk about religion, we need to be attentive to the relationships that humans form with objects. That is, after all, what Brent Plate says in his innovative new book, A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bring the Spiritual to Its SensesYou can get a sense of the book from my interview with him, as well as from Timothy Beal's review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I plan to add this book to my "Religion and Sports" syllabus, with an assignment asking students to identify a sixth object--a Terrible Towel, perhaps.

Shifting gears (try not to get whiplash), give a listen to my interview with Felipe Hinojosa about his superb new book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture. Arlene Sánchez-Walsh previously alerted RiAH readers to this one, and I will fully agree with her that Felipe is a "historian you should know." For starters, he made me think differently about Mennonites, a group that I generally associate with nonresistance, peace, and a lack of political engagement. But as he shows, when Latinos entered the Mennonite fold in the mid-twentieth century, this population forced the broader membership to deal with questions of race, gender, and labor reform.

Also, Felipe skillfully connects his account of Latino Mennonites to the story of evangelicals in this era, intending to contribute to what Peter Heltzel calls "a new genealogy of evangelicalism." So there are no shortage of reasons to read this book.

We have some good shows ahead for the summer, including interviews with George Marsden and Elizabeth Johnson. So stay tuned!