Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sacred Spaces of Greater Cincinnati

sacred_spaces_logoThis weekend I watched a DVD produced by our local public television station: Sacred Spaces of Greater Cincinnati. It was interesting; gave me a new list of places to go visit when I get a chance. The documentary was, as you might expect, tilted heavily toward 19th-century churches–predominantly Catholic, followed numerically by historic Protestant churches, plus Plum Temple and a couple other Jewish houses of worship. The classic tripartite: Catholic, Protestant, Jew. But modest kudos to the producers for making some more expansive moves:

  • They started by acknowledging the mounds built by Native peoples (cue the flutes; you can’t mention Native Americans in a historical documentary without playing a flute in the background). That segment was over pretty quick, though, apparently because we don’t have any surviving mounds in the Cincinnati area.
  • There was an intriguing look at a Swedenborgian church built around 1860. Cincinnati’s Hindu temple and Islamic center were both featured. And in an unexpected but thoughtful move, the documentary looked briefly, at least, at a couple of megachurches as representative of new trends in sacred space.
  • I understand now why we have so many synagogues turned churches here (something I noted in an earlier post). These are, more specifically, African American churches, whose congregations were displaced by a project of “urban renewal” during the 1950s and 1960s, when the city tore down black neighborhoods to make room for the freeway system. This segment was the documentary’s strongest move toward paying attention to social context and power relations.
  • There was an intriguing segment–too brief, alas!–on the abandonment or destruction of sacred spaces: historic but irretrievable murals destroyed when a 19th-century church was demolished; old churches sitting abandoned; churches repurposed to serve as office space for a non-profit, or as an outlet for American Eagle Outfitters.

It would be an interesting exercise to do a close reading of the flowery prose that opens and ends the documentary, when the narrator articulates the significance of these sacred spaces. These spaces are important for all kinds of reasons, we’re told–i.e., they do all kinds of positive things for individuals, families, and communities. But the things the documentary named were, to my recollection, all “secular” in nature–the kinds of functions that could readily fall within the purview of sociological discourse (e.g., providing a focus for immigrant community life). There was no attempt to describe the meaning of “sacred spaces” in the kinds of terms that religious studies scholars have developed to try to separate religion out from other domains of culture–no talk about spirituality, or people’s conceptions of the divine, ultimate meaning, etc. I intend no judgment in making this observation; I’m simply intrigued by it as a rhetorical move and interested in speculating about the cultural calculus that motivated it.

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Prayer as political pageantry

Screen-Shot-2013-01-12-at-11_57_55-AMA quick unpacking of the political/cultural symbolism of the prayers offered at the second Obama inauguration:

The invocation came from Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers. Symbolic resonances not only with Obama’s landmark status as the country’s first black president, but also with the Martin Luther King holiday. Our friends at Wikipedia tell me she’s the first woman to offer the invocation at an inauguration–I’m not entirely sure if that means she’s the first woman to pray at an inauguration, period. If not, I’m curious to know who preceded her. Reportedly, she’s also the first layperson to pray at an inauguration. Democracy’s a bit slow to infiltrate American civil religion in that regard, it seems.

The benediction was supposed to have been given by Louie Giglio, a southern evangelical; that looks to me like an effort to repeat the bridge-building gesture of having Rick Warren pray at the first inauguration. Like Warren, however, Giglio became a focus of criticism from gay rights advocates; unlike Warren, Giglio withdrew. (How unilateral was that decision, I wonder?)

So the benediction was actually given by Luis Leon, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal in Washington DC., a.k.a. the “Church of the Presidents.” Episcopalian is as close as you get to an established church in this country–but ah!, what a twist, he’s Latino. He threw a line of Spanish into the prayer: the God of American civil religion is officially bilingual. For the first time at an inauguration?


Andrew Cohen and evolutionary enlightenment

I’m teaching a course this semester on religion and science fiction, which I’m using as a lens for helping students recognize various ways that people in modern societies conceive of the relationship between religion and science. As we get started, I’m introducing students to Ian Barbour’s now-classic typology of different ways to conceptualize the science-religion relationship: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. As I write this, I’m in the middle of preparing an in-class exercise where I’ll give students selections from recent American texts representing Barbour’s four categories; students will then categorize the texts.

The Barbour text we’re using to introduce the categories points to Christian examples of integration (natural theology, process theology), but I wanted to give students something that would represent more of a New Age approach–discourse about evolution and spirituality, the interconnectedness of nature, energy flows, etc. As I was poking around online for an example, I found my way to the work of Andrew Z. Cohen, whom I had never heard of but who is apparently big enough that the Huffington Post was willing to give him a platform. As a cultural artifact, his work intrigues me because it is bent toward integrating evolutionary biology with the soteriology shared by Hinduism and Buddhism, i.e., enlightenment/liberation as an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth (moksha). Basically, Cohen argues that science has disproved the notion of cyclical time, although he bows to traditional doctrines of moksha as a kind of culturally appropriate partial grasping of the truth; enlightenment should therefore be reconceived, not as liberation from the world but as participation in the transformation of the world, what Cohen calls Evolutionary Enlightenment. He overtly touts this new approach to enlightenment as superior to the old not only because the new is compatible with modern science but also because the new approach, unlike the old, is not escapist (an appeal which points to the premium placed on activism in American culture).

Andrew Z. Cohen, “The Evolution of Enlightenment” (Huffington Post)

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Katie Lofton on “the black church”

Although it’s four years old, I just this week discovered this Religion Dispatches piece by fellow UNC alum Katie Lofton, while finalizing the syllabus for a course I’m teaching that includes a unit on African American religions. I’m very much in favor of her view.

At some point, we have to give it up. I know it will be hard. I know it will be sad. But sometime soon, hopefully very soon, we have to let go. Maybe a communal scrapbooking will help. Or perhaps someone can commission some sculpture. But no matter what, no matter how hard, we have got to consider the possibility that one of the more precious categories of religious classification is also one of our most pernicious. I speak today of “The Black Church.”

Read the rest.

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Thomas Nast, “Church and State”

Today’s random thought on religion in America is a Thomas Nast cartoon that I use in my intro course on American religious history: “Church and State–No Union Upon Any Terms.” The Library of Congress has wonderful very hi-res scans of the cartoon. I’m using a snippet of the steeple-filled skyline as a cover image for my syllabus this semester.

If we play with the metaphor around which Nast’s cartoon is based: The spirit of Columbia isn’t quite as impartial or consistent as she looks in spurning church-state union. What Nast isn’t showing us is that certain religious groups are already inside the great hall of the state, running the country as they see fit… and worrying about all the newcomer (or not-so-newcomer) minorities outside clamoring to get in. That would have been a more accurate picture for Nast to have painted, say I.