Monthly Archives: November 2013

Religion at the AAR: The exhibitors’ hall

Baltimore3Another annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is drawing to a close, and as usual it has left me in a state of agitated frustration—which is a more academic way of saying that I’m in an extremely pissy mood.

Back to the academic language: I am frustrated by the disconnect between what religious studies scholars tell students and administrators that the “academic study of religion” consists of and what we actually do when we get together at conferences like this one. Open an introductory textbook to the study of religion, or point your browser to the website of any number of religious studies programs at colleges and universities, and you’ll find ritualized explanations of the difference between “teaching religion” and “teaching about religion”—explanations which are necessary, in the U.S., to satisfy constitutional requirements for the teaching of religious studies at state institutions.

But then show up at the AAR, sit in on a few sessions, go hear this year’s keynote addresses, walk around the exhibitors hall—and you’ll quickly find that the distinction between religion and religious studies is less clear-cut than we claim it is in other contexts.

It could be more clear-cut. We could maintain a high wall of separation between religion and religious studies if we, collectively, as a field, had the will to do so. But we seem not to have that will. And that’s what gets me pissy.

Perhaps on another occasion I’ll allow myself to rant at greater length about how many program units there are in the AAR dedicated to theology—or about the number of AAR attendees who seem not to recognize that their pluralistic or Elidean theologies of religion are theologies. But for now, I’ll confine my ranting to the exhibitors’ hall.

May I propose that a professional association that claims to represent teaching about religion, not the teaching of religion, ought not to open its exhibitors’ hall to the following:

(a) Organizations whose names alone reveal that they are operating from a religious insider’s perspective: Bahai Publications, International Institute of Islamic Thought, International Nimbaraka Society, Liturgical Press, Messianic Jewish Publishers, Shambhala Publications, Soka Gakkai, Swedenborg Foundation Publishers, Wisdom Publications.

(b) Organizations whose slogans advertise that they are promoting religiosity of some kind: “Serving in Faith” (Abingdon Press), “A Vision for World Peace” (BDK Press), “Spiritual Living” (Crossroad), “Gospel-Centered Publishing” (Crossway), “Daylight Come” (Deo Publishing), “Personal Growth” (HarperOne), “Faithful Books” (Kregel).

(c) Any publisher whose display includes Bibles for children. Haggai Books was this year’s most patent offender, but the Common English Bible people were likewise operating under the impression that scholars who teach courses in biblical studies at the college level would be interested in Bibles for kids. Who in the SBL is giving them that impression?

(d) Probably—emphasize probably—any publisher who has to tell me their publishing is academic. Evangelical presses in particular are fond of this device: Baker Academic, IVP Academic, Zondervan Academic. Any year now I expect to find Eerdmans jumping onto that bandwagon.

1382619789017-495339312(e) Any exhibitor who can afford to rent the equivalent of more than two booths, unless they have the words “University Press” in their name. That’s a new rule of thumb I’m toying with, anyway. Look around next year’s exhibitors’ hall; tell me if you think the rule is justified.

But the hands-down winner of this year’s Who the Blazes Let You In? Award is BlueNose Press for their booth promoting Dr. Rocco Leonard Martino’s latest apologetic novel, The Resurrection: A Criminal Investigation of the Mysterious Disappearance of the Body of the Crucified Criminal Jesus of Nazareth. “Would you like us to tell you about our book?” one of the vendors asked as I stared appalled at their display. Absolutely not.

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JFK assassination anniversary: What the…?

So the anniversary of JFK’s assassination has finally passed—I presume it’s passed, anyway. Surely not even the 24-hour cable news networks can milk anything more out of this, can they?

I found this anniversary a puzzling exercise in civil religion. I heard on the radio that the President declared it an “official day of remembrance,” meaning that flags were supposed to be at half mast. Um… why? Of all the tragic events that have happened over the course of American history, why did this one rise to the level of needing to be officially remembered a half century after it happened? What interests are served by the memorializing of this particular tragedy?

Is this a baby boomer thing—people in my parents’ generation reliving their “Where you when you heard…” moments? Will my generation similarly want to commemorate, let’s say, the Challenger disaster a couple decades from now?

Does this anniversary reveal the intensity of charisma that Americans invest into the presidency: is that the reason a presidential assassination rises to the level of requiring a 50-year anniversary commemoration? If that’s the case, though—was Lincoln’s assassination so memorialized? What about Garfield’s? Or McKinley’s?

Is JFK the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan? That is: Did our current Democratic president want the country to commemorate JFK’s assassination in order to ensure a past Democratic president’s high standing in the American pantheon, much as Republicans do when they name things after Reagan?

To what extent was this act of civil religion driven by the news media’s fascination with the JFK assassination—which in turn was driven to a considerable degree, I’ll maintain, by both sensationalism and convenience? The networks had plenty of footage of the tragedy to work with, so it was a broadcast-friendly story; there were conspiracy theories to be discussed, magnifying public interest; and contemporary figures like Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow are still around to try to hit up for interviews. So: Did the JFK assassination become an event that seemed to call for some kind of solemn remembrance because media outlets had decided to give a lot of airtime to it for less solemn reasons?

Is the JFK commemoration part of a larger trend right now toward finding things in American history to commemorate? We just finished commemorating the Gettysburg address. Before that, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Are these commemorations being driven by a kind of cultural malaise—anxiety about how polarized the country is right now, a groping for things that can bring us all together?

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Protestant Foreign Missions and Secularization in Modern America

That’s the title of a three-day event which begins today at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, for which I received a quite elegant promo in the mail a couple weeks ago. Ugh, I wish I could be there. David Hollinger’s giving two lectures: “How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture,” and “Liberalization, Secularization, and the Dynamics of Post-Protestant America.”

I’m sitting here drooling over those titles. Podcast, people! The Danforth Center certainly gives the impression of rolling in money. So let’s see some savvier investment in media outreach here.

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Religion Out Loud

9780814708071_FullToday I’m plugging the work of a colleague: Religion Out Loud, a new book by Isaac Weiner, who was in my doctoral program at UNC Chapel Hill. This book is an outgrowth of his dissertation, which examined a controversy around a mosque in Michigan being allowed by the city to broadcast the call to prayer. For those not in the academic loop: Weiner’s work is part of a recent trend to think theoretically about religion and the senses. Most of that work thus far has paid attention to religion and sight, or religion and visual culture–i.e., the use of imagery in religion. Weiner is interested in sound as a feature of religions. More specifically, he’s interested in sound as a feature of religions that becomes the occasion for interreligious conflict and negotiation.

I hope I’m not embarrassing him by saying this, but I remember talking with Isaac some years back about an early version of his dissertation project, which at that point was going to be a study of legal controversies around religion in the U.S., chosen to represent all five senses. In retrospect that sounds gimmicky–which no doubt has a lot to do with why the project evolved in a more narrowly defined direction–but I thought then, and still think, that such a study would have been an interesting way to help make students more conscious of religion as an embodied reality, not just a question of “what X group believes.” It would make for an interesting class discussion anyway: What does religion, or a given religion, sound like? Smell like? Taste like? What are its textures?

Isaac’s book is potentially useful for multiple classes I teach related to the experience of religious minorities in America, so I’ve ordered away for an exam copy–which I am eagerly awaiting, NYU Press.

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God in America: Of God and Caesar

v07739acrasLast spring, I began posting reviews of the 6-episode Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I realized recently that I never reviewed episode 6, “Of God and Caesar.” So let’s do it:

Summary: Unlike most other episodes, this one doesn’t divide neatly into “acts.” But the general storyline is this: In the wake of the 1960s, conservative evangelicals become politically mobilized: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, George W. Bush. At the same time, though, the religious landscape is becoming more diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Latinos–both Catholic and evangelical. More Americans are religiously unaffiliated or “spiritual, not religious.” A new generation of evangelicals is paying more attention to the environment, AIDS, and poverty. There’s disillusion in the evangelical right–did we sell our souls for political gain? Meanwhile, Democrats are discovering God and reaching out to values voters, which brings us up to Obama.

Over a hopeful soundtrack, the documentary wraps everything up with Stephen Prothero saying that Americans continue to value the notion that they’re a special people with a special connection to God, but what that means and who’s included are still subjects of ongoing debate.

Likes: This episode covers topics that I include in the final, post-1960s, unit of my introductory American religious history survey: Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and the culture wars. Since my life is contemporary with the emergence and development of the religious right, I suspect that I assume students know more about that movement and its history than they do; this episode gives a reasonably nuanced overview. The documentary-makers had plenty of footage to work with, of course, including clips of Francis Schaeffer’s films, which I’ve read about but never seen–that was interesting. Players in the religious right appear as talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ed Dobson, Frank Schaeffer, Richard Cizik.

Dislikes: Apart from a nod to Catholics as the originators of American anti-abortion activism and the final presentation of Obama as reaching out to some nebulous group called “values voters,” religion in politics is portrayed in this episode as basically synonymous with evangelical activism, as represented by Francis Schaeffer, Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition more specifically. Granted that the evangelical right stands at the center of “culture war” conservatism. Nevertheless, I favor in my teaching Robert Wuthnow’s model of a conservative-liberal divide that cuts across the entire religious landscape, resulting in the formation of new interreligious coalitions on both sides of the line–and pressing some religious groups to awkwardly straddle the faultline. Examples: Catholics pursuing a politics based on the “seamless web of life,” which doesn’t transpose well into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used in American politics today; or socially conservative Muslims who agree with conservative evangelicals on many issues but are alienated by “Christian America” rhetoric and evangelical Islamophobia.

Basically, I want students to understand that “conservative-liberal” has become a very important axis for understanding American religion today, but I don’t want them thinking just “evangelical” when they think “conservative,” a tendency that this documentary would reinforce.

In the final moments of the documentary, Prothero says: This moment in American religious life is about pluralism. We’re making the space bigger, extending the sacred canopy over more people. But we don’t have a narrative for this yet. Will we come up with one? What’s the story going to be? To Prothero and the makers of this documentary, I would say: Certainly God in America doesn’t give us that new, pluralistic story; it’s good that you appear to recognize that. May I (bitchily) suggest that part of the reason we don’t have a new narrative yet is that documentaries like this one continue to place Protestants at the center of the story, with other religious groups, when they appear, orbiting around the Protestants? If you want a narrative about religious pluralism in America, then a more radical decentering is needed than anyone involved in this project was evidently willing to hazard or creative enough to imagine.

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What makes a cranberry farm sacred?

g94383dA couple weeks ago, while eating, I was idly reading the back of my Ocean Spray cranberry juice bottle and found myself being introduced to Gary Garretson, fourth-generation cranberry grower from South Carver, MA. There was his photo, standing knee-deep in cranberries. And there was a little testimonial about how his cranberry farm is “sacred” to him. Naturally, the s-word got my attention.

This is the full version of Gary’s testimonial–or the testimonial the copy writer prepared for him, as the case may be–as it appears at the Ocean Spray website.

This farm is sacred to me. Heck, my vines go back to the turn of the century. That’s why I treat them with the utmost respect and care, and work tirelessly to harvest a quality product. Sometimes I’ll go out, lie down next to the vines and listen to them talk–they tell me what they need. I know. Sounds a little out there. But if I don’t work in concert with Mother Nature, I’m not gonna succeed. Luckily, she and I both have very high standards.

I’m intrigued by the underlying notion of sacrality that appears to underlie this statement. What makes this farm sacred–or, alternatively interpreted, what are the signs that the farm is sacred? Let’s make a list:

  • The vines are a century old.
  • He treats them with “utmost” respect and care.
  • He works “tirelessly.”
  • He has “very high standards” for the quality of his produce.
  • He engages in the “out there” practice of listening to the vines talk to him.
  • He works in concert with Mother Nature.

So if we use this advertising copy as a window into 21st-century American conceptions of what is sacred, I would tweak the list above to look like this:

  • Things that are old, in the sense of being understood as a heritage, are sacred.
  • Things that are treated with the “utmost” reverence are sacred.
  • Hard work is sacred.
  • Commitment to producing high-quality products for consumers is sacred.
  • Practices that push the bounds of the rational or conventional may be marked by that fact as sacred.
  • A kind of ecological consciousness is sacred.
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