I passed my prelims. Thanks for reading! This blog will undergo some retooling in the coming weeks and months as I start my dissertation.
Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1966).
“Savage mind” does not refer to “primitive” mind or the mind of “savages.” Instead, it describes the mind itself in its “savage” or natural state of classifying, distinguishing, ordering the world. Binary oppositions form the basis of its systems of classification. “The savage mind totalizes” (245), it “builds mental structures which facilitate an understanding of the world in as much as they resemble it” (263).
Culture consists of symbolic systems. Levi-Strauss treats culture like Saussure’s linguistics treats language: culture possesses deep structures behind surface phenomena. Discrete elements/units can be combined, recombined, and re-ordered in many different ways—but they are always ordered, and always ordered according to consistent patterns, and those patterns ultimately rest on binary oppositions—general/particular, up/down, God/human, etc.
Magic and science: “Magical thinking is not to be regarded as a beginning, a rudiment, a sketch, a part of a whole which has not yet materialized. It forms a well-articulated system, and is in this respect independent of that other system which constitutes science, except for the purely formal analogy which brings them together and makes the former a sort of metaphorical expression of the latter. It is therefore better, instead of contrasting magic and science, to compare them as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge… Both science and magic however require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied” (13).
Bricolage, Bricoleur – “[The Bricoleur's] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions” (17). The figure of the bricoleur describes the activity of the savage mind–it stands in contrast to the engineer, which describes the scientific mind (theorizing, generating new methods and tools, etc. “The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of maneuver” (19). Mytheme – fundamental unit of myth. Can be deployed in many different contexts/structures (like a morpheme or phoneme).
History and anthropology shouldn’t be antagonistic. This will only happen if we stop privileging history. We ought to recognize history as “a method with no distinct object corresponding to it” (262). No such thing as human nature. No given facts. History, a highly selective enterprise, orders the past. There is no “history” per se, only “history-for” someone, some culture.
… “The characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness; its object is to grasp the world as both a synchronic and a diachronic totality and the knowledge which it draws therefrom is like that afforded of a room by mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect each other (as well as objects in the intervening space) although without being strictly parallel” (263).
Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Idea of Historicizing Europe,” “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History,” and “Reason and the Critique of Historicism” from Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000).
Consider it a sign of the times that a historian of American Christianity is reading Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty notes the abiding asymmetry in the practices of academic history: renowned historians of Europe (or America… in fact, especially America) can work in near-total ignorance of non-Western histories, but non-Western historians cannot return the gesture “without taking the risk of appearing ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘outdated’” (28). This is especially the case in places where local histories might include ancestors, spirits, or magical beings; European “secular” history becomes the gold standard of true history. Academic “history” seems always to find a way of becoming the history of Europe—or, at least, of “the West.” The project of “provincializing Europe” aims to expose the processes by which this asymmetry survives, reminding Euro-America that its history isn’t the only history that matters, revealing how this vision of “history” props up the colonialist project of “political modernity.” He writes, “provincializing Europe [is] a question of how we create conjoined and disjunctive genealogies for European categories of political modernity as we contemplate the necessarily fragmentary histories of human belonging that never constitute a one or a whole” (255). In short, Chakrabarty endeavors to show both the “inadequacy” and “indispensability” of social scientific thinking (6). Marx and Heidegger represent two competing poles of this thinking that he tries to bring into balance: on the one hand, we ought to acknowledge that certain universal/analytical categories (e.g. capitalism) help us confront social injustices—Marx. On the other hand, the hermeneutic tradition encourages sympathetic, personally engaged approaches to thought—Heidegger.
Chakrabarty’s beef doesn’t concern history per se, if by history we mean thinking about the past in the present. “Historicism,” however, withers under his intense scrutiny. By “historicism,” Chakrabarty describes a way of thinking that “tells us that in order to understand the nature of anything in this world we must see it as an historically developing entity, that is, first, as an individual and unique whole… and, second, as something that develops over time” (23). Historicism wants to objectify what it studies, finding a single, unified past in each of the archive’s relics, relics over which the subject has sovereignty. This discourages the scholar from acknowledging her or his position of engagement with the past in the present: the subject of political modernity wants to make an object of history so as to become free from history. But the present, Chakrabarty argues, entwines with the past, is “irreducibly not-one” (249). The scientist carries a lucky rabbit’s foot. He coins the phrase “timeknot” to describe “the plurality that inheres in the ‘now,’ the lack of totality, the constant fragmentariness, that constitutes one’s present” (243).
Antonio Gramsci, Section III.1 from The Prison Notebooks, “The Study of Philosophy.”
Everyone is a philosopher. By this Gramsci does not mean that everyone has the social role of the professional philosopher, but rather that philosophy happens in the practices of everyday social life like language, folklore, and “common sense.” Philosophy cannot be the preserve of a few experts, but must be a concrete, collective activity. The professional philosopher must always remain engaged with people’s “common sense” convictions—building on them, critiquing them, and working with them to spark a socialist revolution from the bottom up. This does not mean capitulating to common sense when it is wrong, but it means that philosophy’s criticism needs to remain embedded in concrete social relations and everyday life.
Common sense: generally accepted ideas. Good sense: “a conception of the world with an ethic that conforms to its structure” (660).
Philosophy must be politically engaged: “Since all action is political,” he writes, “can one not say that the real philosophy of each man is contained in its entirety in his political action?” (631-632).
Religion is more than just the opiate. For Gramsci, religion offers a prime example of how ideas can embed themselves in practical action and create a socialist common sense that spans between professionals (clergy/philosophers) and non-professionals (laity/the masses): “religion has been and continues to be a ‘necessity,’ a necessary form taken by the will of the popular masses and a specific way of rationalizing the world and real life, which provided the general framework for real practical activity” (647). According to Gramsci, religion offers stability and community to “the masses.” Marxism needs to become a little more like religion, providing a way of thinking about real life and offering a framework for practical action. He defines religion as “a conception of the world which has become a norm of life” (657-658). Marxism, a conception of the world, needs to become more like religion.
There is no such thing as human nature. Gramsci describes the human as an “ensemble of social relations” (680).
Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (2008)
Grant Wacker insists that students in his seminars learn to distinguish between what is important and what is merely interesting. Religion of Fear makes important contributions to the study of evangelicalism. At the intersection of conservative politics, evangelicalism, and American popular culture, a “religion of fear” has developed. Emerging after the 1960s, this religio-political impulse used the medium of popular culture to scare the Hell out of people—literally. The religion of fear offered readers and audiences an “interpretive template that posits demonological causes for political decline… [one that situates] readers in a historical framework and [defines] for audiences a coherent, unchanging place therein” (9). Part of Bivins’s project consists of documenting the rhetorical and affective strategies of anti-rock preaching, Hell Houses, Jack Chick’s cartoons, and the Left Behind novels. The creators of these works, he argues, act as savvy “technicians of identity,” engaging fear and horror in specific ways to create a politically charged range of acceptable religious identities (16).
Despite its claims to fixity and stability in a declining culture, Bivins declares that the religion of fear is actually animated by two instabilities: 1) the erotics of fear and 2) the demonology within. The “erotics of fear” describes the fact that fear’s discourse, though strongly condemnatory toward American culture, nonetheless displays deep fascination with what is forbidden. Evangelical teenagers compete heartily for the right to play the sexually active, unmarried couple in a Hell House play. Jack Chick’s most interesting drawings show sinners writhing in pain for their wrongdoing. The final book of the Left Behind series contains about a hundred pages of Jesus unleashing blood-drenched wrath on God’s enemies. In the religion of fear, forbidden evil goes on display. The “demonology within” describes the basic irony of using popular culture to condemn popular culture. The pure Christian self is constituted by its Others. You define yourself as a Christian teenager by not listening to Slayer—but this means that you know what Slayer is, that the demons behind the Slayer lyrics might grab hold of you at any moment.
But it’s Bivins’s approach to his subject that makes the most important contributions to the field. Far too few books explore the felt-life of evangelicalism. Emotion takes center stage in this book about political religion—“fear” isn’t some clever heuristic for explaining evangelical theology or its “relation” to governmental politics, it’s a feeling that certain religio-political popular culture artifacts engage and frequently try to produce in viewers, readers, and listeners. Bivins offers new ways of thinking about conservative evangelicalism: rather than an agglomeration of cleanly theological or political “movements,” conservative evangelicalism emerges from this text as a messy mélange of discursive strategies, techniques of identity, body practices, products of entertainment. And Bivins doesn’t shy away from criticizing this religion of fear when he thinks it warrants it. If scholars of religion abandon all claims to normativity and all forms of social critique in the name of taking our subjects “seriously,” we play the conservatives’ game: Bivins doesn’t want to play that game, and argues that scholars should counter fear with “sober political vision” instead of reactionary disavowal or willful indifference (228). Fear thrives when democratic culture atrophies. The point is not for scholars to proceed recklessly against our subjects, but rather to suggest that we scholar-citizens have a responsibility to remain politically engaged. That responsibility doesn’t disappear when we put on the mantel of scholarship. Bivins models his vision of social critique by engaging fear’s political vision seriously and carefully: “fear’s political vision should be contested in the name of politics itself, with the goal of a reaffirmation of a democratic process allowing for the pursuit of reasonable compromises of principled differences” (235).
Diana Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, (1998 ed.)
Eck’s essay examines the practices of “holy seeing” among Hindus in India and America. Darshan simply means seeing, but it holds much richer valences. According to Eck, seeing the divine image with one’s own eyes—and in turn being seen by the divine image—constitutes “the central act of Hindu worship” for laypeople (3). In the visual image, the deity “gives” darshan and the people “take” darshan. Seeing acts as a kind of touch between the human and the divine—the worshipper reaches out with the eyes and the eyes of the deity reach back (9). But the act of holy seeing involves more than just the eyes. Worshippers engage the divine image with their whole bodies: touching it with the hands, hearing mantras near it, eating consecrated food in its presence, and smelling oil lamp offerings. Presence proves a key concept for this work—and connects it to the broader study of visuality in religions. Eck argues that, at bottom, darshan works because “God is present in the image, whether for a moment, a week, or forever. People come to see because there is something very powerful there to see” (51).
Though its argument now feels somewhat dated (it was originally published in 1981), darshan still provides a great text on visuality in religion. I think it would work especially well in a gateway course: it expands students’ understanding of what vision and images can be/do, but it does so without the heavy theory of more recent works. It’s also short and very readable. Eck’s account of the Sri Lakshmi temple in Ashland, MA “eye-opening ceremony” (in the afterword) and her brief discussion of mass-produced images (43-44) provide especially healthy food for discussion. In the former, elaborate rituals help to tame the awesome power that emits from the image when the deity becomes present and opens its eyes. Shown first to a cow, then a group of young girls, then others, worshippers must all look at the deity in a mirror before turning to the image itself. The section on mass-produced images deals with a completely different set of issues: cheap, readily available images of temple images that occupy people’s home shrines. These, writes Eck, allow worshippers to “have darshan not only of the image, but, of the picture of the image as well!” (44). In other words, divine presence remains even in reproductions of the divine image. Take that, Walter Benjamin?
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge, 1966)
Douglas’s classic anthropological study offers an extended meditation on the concepts of dirt and contagion. As a structuralist, Douglas insists that social categories pervade all levels of experience—from the arrangement of homes to understandings of the body. Lest society descend into chaos, these categories require constant policing and maintenance. Ambiguous and anomalous things must be incorporated into some category or another—or banished from society altogether. Certain things must remain taboo or off-limits to define and solidify the boundaries of a community. Pollution spreads without intent or moral wrongdoing: mere contact with the forbidden is enough, since the real issue is transgression of the social order. Unlike earlier anthropologists, Douglas insists that all societies remain similarly vigilant against disorder. This applies not just to the “primitive” societies imagined by earlier anthropologists, but modern Euro-American societies as well. For Douglas, symbolic actions of taming disorder—rituals of purification, strategies for managing danger—provide a strong base for the comparative study of religion, since they reveal the deep structures of societies. She rejects Tylor’s definition of religion, “belief in spiritual beings,” demanding instead that scholars of religion compare “peoples’ views about man’s destiny and place in the universe” (35). Rejecting hard-and-fast distinctions between the sacred and the secular, Douglas studies the social construction of religion via bodily practice, symbolic action, and ritual. In short, she uses cultural analysis as a way of approaching how religions work, rather than identifying religion as any particular thing in the world.
Douglas’s chapter “Secular Defilement” could prove very useful in a religion 101 class—particularly if the class dealt with a topic like zombies, vampires, ghosts, spirituality, etc. In this chapter, Douglas examines our own society’s notions of dirt and cleanliness. While we like to believe that we clean for medically sound reasons, Douglas shows that this simply isn’t true. Everyone in our society stores their kitchen cleaning supplies in the same place: under the sink. If you met someone who kept the Mr. Clean next to the mugs, you would probably run away scared. But why? It’s dirty. The clean bottle of cleaning fluid and the clean mugs together become dirty. For Douglas, the explanation for such behavior reveals the systems of classification operative in our society: “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (44). Later, she explains that “dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained,” it is “matter out of place” (50). In other words, “dirtiness” applies to things that just don’t fit into our cultural system’s normal categories.
But there’s the rub—for Douglas, everything has to fit into the system somehow, even if only as “dirt.” This makes her book a good conversation partner for later works on materiality. In particular, I think it would make an interesting intro to Todd Ochoa’s Society of the Dead, where the question is precisely how thinking matter, especially unbounded matter, can upset our usual categories of analysis. “Dirt” may just have a mind of its own. It may not want to remain the castoff of a neat cultural system. It likes to mess us up.
Review by A.T.
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days (1995).
Suddenly, without explanation, people disappear en masse. Cars crash into medians, driverless. Passengers vanish from airplanes midflight. Piles of clothes suddenly replace loved ones. All the world’s children, gone. A woman in labor finds her belly suddenly deflated; she delivers only a placenta (46). Welcome to the world of Left Behind. Boasting a company of characters named like the cast list of a 1970s porno—Buck Williams, Chloe Steele, Bruce Barnes, and Dirk Burton among others—Left Behind narrates a spy-thriller version of old-fashioned dispensational end times theology. The book operates on two levels. On the one hand, it’s an entertainment novel. Pure airport fare. A band of stock characters needs to solve a mystery, but forces ranging from the paranormal to the United Nations frustrate and complicate their efforts. In the end, the conspiracy goes much bigger than they thought, one problem (why did everyone disappear?) finds resolution but reveals bigger problems to follow (the antichrist is rising, but who?).
On the other hand, Left Behind is a thoroughly, unabashedly, Christian book for a conservative Christian audience. It puts a creative spin on the old dispensationalist practice of reading current events for signs of the times. Left Behind imagines a not-too-distant future that looks and feels suspiciously like the present (c. 1995): one character (Buck) finds that “the connection to his ramp on the information superhighway was busy” (32). Another character, searching for an explanation for his wife and son’s disappearance, pops in a DVD made by his wife’s pastor—the DVD player having first appeared in, that’s right, 1995 (202). So the book’s setting is the future, but it might as well be tomorrow. This gives practically unlimited creative license when the authors to get down to the dispensationalist business. This book does not read signs of the times as dispensationalists traditionally do, but rather conjures the times. Working backwards, it drapes the prophetic future onto the form of the present rather than looking at the present for signs of the prophetic future.
Amy DeRogatis, “‘Born Again is a Sexual Term’: Demons, STDs, and God’s Healing Sperm,” JAAR 77.2 (June 2009): 275-302.
DeRogatis’s essay offers some of the most stimulating work on evangelicalism I’ve read in ages. The essay examines one text: Holy Sex: God’s Purpose and Plan for Our Sexuality, a sex manual slash guidebook for “deliverance” ministries. Departing with earlier evangelical sex manuals (which explained how married couples could pleasure each other), the creators of this book claim that human sexuality serves as ground zero for spiritual warfare. During immoral sexual acts, bodily fluids like blood and semen can transmit literal demons from one “infected” human body to another. Once in, they inhabit a person’s genes and can pass to her/his progeny. The demons also adhere to sexually charged objects, particularly pornography—touching these objects opens your body to the demons. Sores, warts, and other bodily marks reveal their presence. The only cure comes by repentance and conversion, accepting the Holy Spirit as God’s holy sperm: “The Holy Spirit is sexualized and masculinized to impregnate the believer who is in turn feminized. The salvific male seminal fluid acts to form a prophylactic shield by creating a state of holy pregnancy” (292). In Holy Sex, “born again” is a sexual term—once pregnant with God’s Holy Spirit (spread through the Word), the demons flee a person’s body. In short, DeRogatis traces two major themes in evangelicalism via Holy Sex: 1) the role of the sexual body in mediating evangelical spiritual warfare and 2) the adoption of scientific discourse by spiritual warfare literature.
The latter relates nicely to other conservative evangelical science issues, particularly creationism. In both instances, the use of scientific discourse argues for the place of an evangelical position in mainstream public policymaking. Holy Sex presents itself as a public health document, cutting edge material on disease transmission and safer sexual practices. Though they’d almost certainly regard Holy Sex as heretical, creationists adopt similar strategies to present their case as one relevant to mainstream educators and scientists. Both suggest that modern science confirms what’s in the Bible: one with regard to disease and genetics, the other with regard to astronomy, human origins–and usually genetics too (Tower of Babel). The more advanced the science (genetics, particle physics–not just “biology” or “physics”), the better.
Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard, 2009).
Wal-Mart Moms forged today’s America. It seems a cheap compliment to call a book smart and well-written, but this one sets a new bar for each adjective. First, the smart argument. Moreton tells a new story about the rise of conservatism after World War II. Instead of towing the party lines of economic, political, and religious history, Moreton demonstrates that neo-evangelicalism, free enterprise, and political conservatism mingled promiscuously. And they met each other in Wal-Mart. By wedding value with family values, Wal-Mart turned consumerism into a Christian duty. A responsible Christian mom became a Wal-Mart mom. By modeling the service industry on a patriarchal Christian family, Wal-Mart managed to bring the evangelical wives of Sun Belt yeomen through the doors as employees and customers; they also made it culturally acceptable for old-fashioned Sun Belt men to work in the service industry. This family business headquartered in the Ozarks helped shift the nation’s economic and political might from the unionized industrial northeast/Midwest to the freewheeling Sun Belt—and the nation shifted, so Wal-Mart’s fortunes lifted. They ran the best mom and pop store in small towns across the country, then became global missionaries of down home capitalism. In Moreton’s telling, the story of Wal-Mart’s rise does not represent manifest destiny or commonsense logic: “[Christian free enterprise] was an unstable compound, the product in part of impressive agglomerations of power and money. But it was also the progeny of pragmatic responses to real needs, of idealistic hope in redemption, and of the elevation of service from its devalued position in the broader culture” (269-270).
Second, the sizzling writing. Moreton’s prose cooks. Practically every paragraph includes an apt metaphor, a clever turn of phrase, a spicy verb, or some kind of witty wordplay. Here is an arbitrary example: “Like postwar evangelicalism, the country music industry, or the Republican Party’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ the [Sun Belt] region’s service sector spun traditional straw into radical new gold” (50). This sentence sits mid-paragraph. Mid. Paragraph. This is how Moreton’s book works so well: she shows how ingredients as diverse as country music and Richard Nixon stewed together in the world of Wal-Mart. There’s no monocause or grand narrative here, but only ad hoc, unstable mixtures of cultural ingredients held together by superb writing. Form supports content.
Review by A.T.
James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, (1890)
Frazer’s weighty tome(s) opens by invoking JMW Turner’s painting “The Golden Bough” (above). Its idyllic sylvan setting, he notes, was the stage of recurring carnage. In Diana’s sacred grove above the town of Nemi, a runaway slave could appear at any moment to challenge and kill the reigning priest-king, whose tenure lasted only as long as he defended the wood. Harnessing the sun’s power of dying and rising, the sacrifice of the king provided necessary renewal for the forest kingdom. For Frazer, this story tells of humanity’s primeval religion. In short, he argues that the earliest religion consisted of fertility cults involving the worship, and ritual killing, of a dying/rising sunlike priest-king. Jesus, anyone? To demonstrate this claim, Frazer sets forth page after excruciating page of evidence from mythology, puzzling out the hidden meaning of everything from blood drops to mistletoe. I’m crusty and lonely this Valentine’s Day, so perhaps I’m not giving him a fair deal. He proves quite a talented wordsmith on occasion, and some people seem to love his work…
For my purposes, Frazer’s theories of magic proved the most useful part of the book. Much like E.B. Tylor, Frazer considers magic as a kind of primitive science and believes that modern science eliminates the need for religion (see 624, 53). For Frazer, magic operates according to rational laws—though it doesn’t work as well as science, the scholar can still “discern the spurious science behind the bastard art” (20a). Frazer uses the phrase “sympathetic magic” to describe this proto-scientific activity. Sympathetic magic assumes that by acting on one thing, people can produce effects on other things according to rational laws. The two great rational laws of magic are the “Law of Similarity” and the “Law of Contact/Contagion.” Thus, Frazer breaks sympathetic magic into two main types: homoeopathic (imitative) and contagious (contact) magic. Homoeopathic magic operates according to the principle that “like produces like,” that effects resemble their causes (19b). IMAGES play an important role in this type of magic—stabbing the image of an enemy’s arm with a pin causes the arm to become inefficacious in battle, touching the taboo eyes of a pig will make your eyes fall out, etc. Contagious magic presumes that things once in contact with each other remain connected despite distance of place or time—what happens to one symmetrically affects the other. Burning the hair of the enemy causes harm to the person, what happens to the placenta after birth affects the child’s future, injure the footprints and you injure the feet that made them.
May my outline of Frazer’s magic help you all find love this Valentine’s Day…
Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, (2011)
In his ethnography of two megachurches in Knoxville, Elisha argues that socially engaged evangelicals navigate between many competing demands. In a tradition often associated with individualism, this minority seeks to call others “out of their comfort zone” and thereby change the world for Christ. While cultivating personal religious virtues, they make moral demands on other Christians and society at large. As social reformers, the evangelical institutions from which they emerge both inspire and inhibit them, support them and view them suspiciously. They are inheritors of the complex legacies of revivalism, overseas missions, Christian temperance, and fundamentalism. Elisha’s conservative evangelical reformers are intensely self-critical members of the middle class who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, but who generally don’t see capitalism as a problem in itself—and who see the poor as fundamentally lacking. Elisha uses the term “moral ambitions” to unpack this “particular style of religious subjectivity, one that manifests in moments of concerted action and mobilization and yet reflects a range of personal desires, theological and cultural norms, historical circumstances, and social opportunities” (18). Elisha talks to ambitious people: reformers with a new vision for the church, activists who want to bring about meaningful change. But these folks display moral ambition: their ambitions are fundamentally social, being focused on others and produced by particular institutions.
Elisha’s book offers several important reminders to scholars of evangelicalism. First, he reminds us that conservative evangelicals care about more than just language and texts—much of their religious activity consists of doing, not saying or reading. Because the concept of the Word is so important for evangelical theology, we scholars tend to look to language/semiotics as the key to understanding evangelicalism. Elisha engages words surprisingly rarely. Second, Elisha offers a refreshing emphasis on evangelical sociality. Anthropologists probably deal better in general with relationships than historians do, but Elisha proves especially adept at drawing out the institutional and interpersonal side of evangelicalism. In Elisha’s telling, evangelicalism emerges through social structures like class, institutional structures of financial support, small groups of friends, and shared discourses. Personal salvation, silent prayer, and private reading play their parts, but they’re bit players in Elisha’s ethnography. Third, Elisha’s book reminds us that serious books can also be funny. As a Jewish anthropologist from New York, Elisha could never really shake his outsider status among the evangelicals of Knoxville. But that didn’t stop them from putting him to good use. I actually laughed out loud reading the epilogue, when Elisha finds himself thrust into the role of chaperone for a youth mission trip: “After nearly a year of participant observation… I was used to performing unfamiliar roles. But I honestly never imagined I would one day be the driver of a big church van, shuttling pubescent soldiers of Christ through the streets of DC on their mission to do God’s work” (213-214). Though Elisha’s subtle turns of phrase exaggerate the humor of an awkward situation, his disquiet also reveals how his subjects’ moral ambitions work. The mission trip pulled the kids out of their “comfort zones”; in a completely different way, Elisha got pulled out of his. Being thrust into the role of a socially engaged evangelical leader, Elisha could get down to the business of seeing the world change.
E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture 2 vols. (1871)
Recently, a regular reader accused me of rashly “slitting the throats of the old guys” in my posts on Max Müller and William James. Though mutual accusations of bias made for good beer banter, there was a real point buried somewhere in the comment. Facile critique was never my intent, so I’ll try to be nicer to E.B. Tylor for my misguided young reader’s sake…
I’ve got a soft spot for iconoclasts, and Tylor seems to be one. Tylor locates the study of religion within the broader study of culture. This is important. Unlike James or even Müller, he does not cede religion an intrinsic place in human life—for him, it is simply a feature of many cultures. Again breaking with his contemporaries, particularly Matthew Arnold’s “best which has been thought and said,” Tylor defines culture in broad terms: it is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1, p1). Individuals have to learn their culture as members of a society. Cultures are complex, incorporating everything from practical knowledge and art objects to values and codes of law. These diverse parts adhere as bounded entities.
But this is the 1870s, and evolution is in the air. Though he assumes that all people possess similar rational faculties, Tylor understands cultures hierarchically—some are simply more evolved and rational than others. But questions then arise: how did cultures become so unequal? How do we explain the persistence of irrationality in highly advanced, scientific cultures? Again, breaking with a popular theory, Tylor presents two volumes worth of evidence to demonstrate that cultures always progress (1, p14). In other words, they move from low to high, primitive to advanced—they never regress from an advanced state to a lower one. This means that primitive cultures have simply not been educated to the same degree as advanced societies. Primitive people are just as rational as other people; primitive cultures are not as rational as other cultures because they lack the necessary education. Myths, for example, provide evidence for this progression. Tales of the gods and heroes offer useful explanations for otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena (257-258). Some cultures learn the scientific truth and abandon the old myths, others do not.
Enter religion. Tylor’s evolutionary understanding of culture becomes the base for his famous theory of animism. As I’m sure we all know, he offers a “minimum definition” of religion as “belief in spiritual beings” (1, p383). His evolutionary thinking holds the definition together. Before humanity acquired belief in spiritual beings, we had no religion because religion is not an innate human quality. After we acquired that minimal religion, some religions evolved into extremely complex systems of belief in modern cultures. Others did not. For Tylor, “animism” holds the “essence” of spiritualist metaphysics, in contrast to materialist metaphysics. It provides “the groundwork of the philosophy of religion” (1, p385). In its most primitive form, animism attributes a spiritual essence to animals, plants, people, natural forces. Later, it develops into pantheons of gods, monotheism, eternal spirits, and the like. Sometimes, a cultural feature learned in an earlier evolutionary phase will persist. Though they be completely irrational in the more advanced phase of cultural development, they subsist “by mere force of ancestral tradition” (2, p403). These he calls “survivals.” Though he never quite says it, Tylor seems to think that most of religion in modern culture constitutes a survival: “there seems no human thought so primitive as to have lost its bearing on our own thought, nor so ancient as to have broken its connection with our own life” (2, p409). The appropriate methods for the study of religion are, therefore, history and ethnography.
Daniel Miller, “Materiality: An Introduction.” In Materiality (Duke Press, 2005)
With an impressive list of contributors, Miller’s edited volume both surveys the field of material culture studies and advances key arguments about materiality. Regarding the former, all I will say is that the essays in this book would make excellent—if challenging—material for a seminar on materiality. Now, as to the latter…
Miller claims that the study of materiality belongs at the center of anthropological inquiry. Materiality can reveal as much about how people love, think, and conduct science as it can about the “artifacts” of, say, classical archaeology. Materiality, particularly the everyday materiality we often ignore, constitutes our worlds, our modes of subjectivity. But, lest we reify materiality itself, Miller insists on a “pluralism” of materialities—there is no one “materiality” to which we scholars must appeal (such as Marx’s objects of production), but only particular materialities whose dynamics we must uncover through careful, empathetic ethnography. Just like materiality, immateriality does not drop from the sky, but emerges through particular practices. More importantly for Miller’s argument, immateriality always finds itself expressed materially, whether in finance or in Protestantism. Materiality is no footnote to anthropology, even studies concerned with the abstract, the spiritual. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, Miller also demands that we acknowledge pluralism in the relationship between materiality and immateriality. He does so to overthrow “the tyranny of the subject,” which is “the assumption that objects represent people” (29). Why, he asks, must we assume that every object has a person behind it—as its creator, manufacturer, user, etc.? The clothes have no emperor. The clothing and emperor together form an “integral phenomenon” in which the clothes make the person: writes Miller “the subject is the product of the same act of objectification that creates the clothing” (32). Humans ought not have pride of place in our analysis, for we need our objects as much as they need us—we cannot be human without them.
Summary by A.T. Coates
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Here’s a free pdf: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/wjames/varieties-rel-exp.pdf
You may want to save reading this until you need a nap…
One of the world’s first champions of a self-consciously American academia, James places his study of religion in the budding scientific field of psychology. He breaks with the established European disciplines of church history and theology, insisting that institutions and traditions have little to do with the enduring power of religion. Writing against a tradition of “medical materialism,” by which he almost certainly means Freud, James declares that we cannot “explain away” religions based on the psychopathology of their founders. He also insists that religion is no mere “survival” of a more primitive evolutionary state, but forms an essential part of human nature. For James, the kernel of religion occurs in the powerful experiences of individuals: he defines “religion” for the purpose of his lectures as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (38). Religion brings individuals into union with something more (God, self, Buddha-mind, the subconscious), producing feelings of tenderness and solemnity toward the world (see 493).
James’s chapters on mysticism contain the meat of his psychological theory. It’s worth noting that James was one of the first scholars to offer a comparative basis for the study of mysticism. Namely, James’s radical innovation consisted of scientifically examining the mystic’s experiences themselves. He identifies four basic features of mystical experience: 1) ineffability, 2) noetic quality, by which he means that the mystic understands the experience to bring knowledge, 3) transiency, 4) passivity, by which he means that the mystic feels pulled into the experience by a power outside the self (365-367). According to James, mystical experiences are not outliers, but are actually closer to true essence of religion than, say, sitting through an Episcopalian church service. Adducing long citation after long citation, James connects the mystical experiences of al-Ghazali, Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Upanishads, Walt Whitman, and Madame Blavatsky: all drift toward “optimism” and “monism” (403). In short, mystical experiences prove prototypical of religious experiences because: a) they are authoritative experiences for those who have them, similar to conversion, b) they are not coercive, having no power for those who haven’t had similar experiences, c) they reveal that rational consciousness is only one kind of consciousness, adding supersensuous meanings to the ordinary “facts” of experience that science usually tries to examine (410).
As far as I’m concerned, Varieties reads as little more than a curiosity of a bygone age. James’s internalized, generalized “experiences” oppose almost my own interests in fundamentalist materiality. Though he calls himself a skeptical scientist, it’s hard to read James’s book as anything but a thinly veiled apology for liberal Protestantism. In these lectures, one’s experience counts as genuinely “religious” so long as it produces good feelings—it can be oriented toward “whatever [one] may consider the divine.” Needless to say, he offers scant attention to his prophecy-conferencing contemporaries, who were probably too preoccupied determining the “literal” meaning of Daniel 7 to have bona fide religious experiences (see 394).
I would only assign James to undergraduates as a punishment. But I may be slightly biased…
Review by A.T. Coates
Todd Ramón Ochoa, Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (UC Press, 2010).
Armchair anthropology this ain’t. Ochoa’s book proves worth the price of admission just for its riveting first-person stories. In Society of the Dead, Ochoa narrates being ritually cut and told he swore allegiance to the devil in an initiation ceremony, holding an overnight vigil with a plastic bag containing human remains, and being reduced to a “vomiting mess” in the presence of a particularly powerful spectral entity. Ochoa not only knows how to tell a good story—one reviewer describes his work as itself a kind of sorcery, conjuring an ontology completely foreign to the western metaphysical tradition. For his part, Ochoa calls it a thoroughly empirical experiment.
Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Havana from the 1990s-2000s, Ochoa dives into the “immanent materiality” of Palo, a Kongo-inspired creole tradition related to Ocha/Santo (Santería). Ochoa states that Palo “is best understood as a fluid mode of engaging the dead in matter to transform fate in a flash” (8). Palo practitioners engage the dead through drumming, candles, cauldrons, singing, and animal sacrifice. But they also feel called by the dead, get pulled out of bed at night by it, feel chilled and troubled in the gut by it. What Ochoa calls the “ambient dead,” Kalunga, is a sea: constantly in flux, the dead saturates, surrounds, generates, and dissipates. It flows through matter and assumes surprising, even contradictory, aspects. The dead is not a spirit that manifests, but material that rises and falls and folds: “Kalunga is a plane of immanence from which subjects and objects emerge and into which they are lost” (34). As a craft, Palo works with the dead to help or harm the living: it involves the creation and care of prendas (also called ngangas or enquisos). Prendas are cauldrons/urns stuffed full of dirt, sticks, feathers, and nfumbe—entities constituted of human remains. The most powerful, and the most unpredictable, prendas are the prendas judías, which contain “Jewish” or “unbaptized” nfumbe. These prendas can end a human life—but they only respond to practitioners’ pleas on Good Friday, when Jesus is busy dying on the cross. And they are volatile, unpredictable things known to turn on their keepers. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Palo doesn’t want to steal Cuban children to stuff them into these cauldrons. It wants to change fate by working with the dead immanent in matter; occasionally, doing so brings the living to their limits.
Reading Ochoa’s beautifully crafted stories, it’s easy to forget that this book presents a sustained philosophical meditation on an entire metaphysical tradition. In the conclusion, Ochoa names the villain of his story: the dualistic tradition that runs from Plato through Hegel’s dialectics to Marx and Adorno. In this tradition, matter usually appears as the abject, the base, the object, the negation of truth, spirit, subject. If this metaphysical tradition concerns the living, Ochoa’s book engages theorists of the dead: Bataille, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Deleuze. Society of the Dead explodes the subject-object dialectic—it just doesn’t work with Palo. Holding up matter without shape or form, abandoning rigid conceptual schemes and clever interpretive devices, Ochoa experiments with theory’s possibilities. He looks to matter, to the dead, to change theory’s fate.
Review by A.T. Coates
Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. (U California, 2007).
Engelke examines immateriality in the Masowe weChishanu Church of Zimbabwe. Known as the “Friday apostolics,” members of this church proudly identify themselves as “Christians who don’t read the Bible.” In fact, they claim to have moved beyond the Bible to a “live and direct” faith, one that does not require the mediation of mere things like books to experience God’s presence. Conversing with the work of Webb Keane, Engelke unpacks “live and direct” as a semiotic ideology, a set of underlying assumptions about signification, representation, etc. An apostolic prophet, Madzibaba Godfrey Nzira, once phrased this “live and direct” semiotic ideology in terms unthinkable to other Protestants: “What is the Bible to me?… After keeping it for some time it falls apart, the pages come out. And then you can take it and use it as toilet paper until it’s finished. We don’t talk Bible-talk here. We have a true Bible here” (2). The thingyness, the materiality of a paper Bible makes it suspect. By contrast, the immaterial “true Bible” does not need words on the page to make its message clear, and in fact does better without them. This creates a problem for apostolics: a problem of presence. Certain objects, utterances, rituals, etc. do bring about live and direct encounters with the Holy Spirit, the true Bible, the angels—the prophet speaks, the church sings, congregants wear white robes. There is no such thing as pure immateriality, even in this tradition that prizes it. Some things are just more material than others.
Engelke’s prose sparkles. Chapter 7, “The Substance of Healing,” offered a very memorable case in point—it would work very well in a seminar on materiality. As an anthropologist, you’re bound to get sick while in the field. During one of his illnesses, church members insisted on giving Engelke “holy honey,” the most potent spiritual medicine made by apostolic elders. According to Friday principles, the therapeutic power of the honey comes only from the Holy Spirit—not from anything about the honey itself. But when Engelke drove a friend to work after church, the man, facing a long day at the office, hinted that a spoonful of the honey might really help him and sheepishly asked for one. In Engelke’s own phrasing, honey is a “sticky subject” of conversation and a “sticky object” for apostolics, since it is “the practical channel through which the apostolics articulate an exception to the rule that a Friday faith should be immaterial. . . .it represents the realization that even ‘strong’ Christians cannot divorce themselves from the material” (243). Materiality is not an either/or proposition, but rather “a matter of degree and kind” (ibid). Materiality is a sticky business indeed.
Review by A.T. Coates
Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale, 2008).
Albanese’s ambitious tome attempts to establish “metaphysical religion” as a major force in American religious history. Allow me to repeat: Albanese discovers (or invents) a movement hitherto unknown to the historiography, discerns its roots and tracks development from the pre-colonial era to the present, and argues that it has exerted major influence on the evolution of American religion writ large. If you are willing to go along for the ride, this is the kind of book that can dramatically alter the way you see the field.
Four features characterize “metaphysical religion.” First, it shows a deep concern with the mind and its powers. Whether in the secret knowledge of the early freemasons or the healing powers of mind in Christian Science, Albanese argues that the tradition understand and harness the mind’s capabilities. Second, the tradition takes interest in the correspondences between worlds—between this world and the other world, the spirit world and the physical world, etc. Thus, its practices have often taken the form of “magic,” a manipulation of this world to make contact with the other. Third, the tradition focuses on movements and action. The spirits move, the dead appear and vanish, energies flow, forces pass through us, and thus the tradition is not terribly interested in rigid codification or fixity. The metaphysical tradition reveals itself through its combinative character, its networks of action. Fourth, the tradition emphasizes salvation as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing. Despite the accusations of otherworldliness others fling at it, the metaphysical tradition seeks change in embodied life—from the transformative power of positive thinking to the comfort of a séance with a lost love.
Albanese attempts to recover the grand story of religion in America from “perspectives and data deployed to protect and promote the role of Christianity in the nation’s history” (4). She first takes aim at the “evangelical thesis,” which locates the distinctive Americanness of American religion in the evangelical tradition. Traipsing from Edwards through Finney through Moody to Graham, this narrative finds evangelicalism’s influence present in American religious individualism, religion’s focus on the heart, and in the USA’s evangelicalized national culture (see my review of Noll). According to Albanese, this thesis received its antithesis from Jon Butler, who declared that the rise of evangelicalism only told part of the story of religion in America. Insofar as religious unity and symmetry existed in America, he contended, it confirmed the triumph of “mainstream denominationalism” modeled on the state churches of Europe over “popular occultism.” Albanese holds this “occultism” to the light. Rather than seeing occultism as lowbrow, quasi-religious doings doomed to folklorization at the hands of “mainstream” churches (à la Butler), she considers it part of a robust metaphysical tradition that reached its mature form around the time of the Civil War. To recover this tradition from the dustbins of history, she posits the “metaphysical thesis.” According to the metaphysical thesis, the distinctive Americanness of American religion developed under the influence of all three forces, often in combination with each other: evangelical, mainstream denominational, and metaphysical. More importantly, she considers the metaphysical tradition to be at least as influential as the evangelical tradition in guiding that development.
As someone who works on a tradition usually linked to the “evangelical” thesis, I’m excited by the possibilities this book opens. Albanese demonstrates the value of the odd combinations, the evanescent networks, the loose associations of religion in America. As a youngster, I remember being terrified when I first saw a Ouija board in a toy store. I had always been told that demons pushed the planchette in that particular game, and I couldn’t imagine why such an item sat so innocently on a shelf near Hungry Hungry Hippos. The plural of anecdote isn’t evidence, but Albanese’s thesis looms large over such seemingly trivial, everyday happenings. At the very least, it seems probable that the metaphysical tradition exerted some influence over 20th-century fundamentalism. But even if one wants to deny the existence of the “metaphysical tradition” altogether (which I don’t), Albanese challenges us to see the connections between religious practices, institutions, and individuals. We have to explain why Ouija boards even registered on conservative evangelical radar, why both stoned teenagers and fastidious pastors would assert the spiritual powers of a board game. Albanese shakes up the comfortable, respectable portraits we have created of what counts as “religion” in America.
Review by A.T. Coates
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937)
Niebuhr argues that the kingdom of God stands at the center of American Christianity. He attempts “to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which finds its center in the faith in the kingdom of God” (ix). No, not all of his sentences are that bad. In fact, one sentence still echoes in our field. In an influential form of liberal Christianity, Niebuhr charges, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (193). To appreciate what this famous sentence is getting at, we have to return to the beginning. According to Niebuhr, American Christians have persistently believed in “the kingdom of God.” However, the meaning of the concept has changed over time. Americans have adapted this key gospel concept to their own needs. For the earliest Protestant colonizers of America, the kingdom of God meant “the living reality of God’s present rule, not only in human spirits but also in the world of nature and of human history” (51). Establishing this “kingdom” meant living properly under God’s sovereignty. For their evangelical descendants, the kingdom of God became the kingdom of Christ. This kingdom sought to establish itself in hearts, achieving the regeneration of society through faith and love. Later, American Christians wanted to see the kingdom come. They hoped for “its manifestation in power,” for the earthly reign of Christ in his millennial kingdom or for a Christian takeover of society (Social Gospel). For Niebuhr, the evangelicals (Edwards and co.) came the closest to getting it right. They didn’t wed their “kingdom” to social institutions but demanded social change, they understood God’s judgment and sovereignty, and they insisted on individual change through faith in Christ. Hence his criticism of liberalism.
My edition of this book contains a nice little introduction by Martin Marty. Marty reminds that Niebuhr considered himself a theologian, not a historian. He links Niebuhr’s approach to Weber’s, suggesting that both show the consequences of religious ideas for societies. He points out that this book was once revisionist. He admires Niebuhr’s insight into “the American spirit.” I’m not interested in arguing with Marty tonight.
Niebuhr outlines three of interesting “convictions” about American Christianity. First, he sees his work as a first step to something larger. He wants nothing less than to inspire a future Jonathan Edwards or “American Augustine” who will change people’s understanding of the relationship between faith and society. Theological claims like this make me queasy, but one has to admire his lofty ambitions. Second, he insists that Christianity cannot be adequately understood as only otherworldly or this-worldly. While he elaborates some dense theological points about the dialectical movement by which the church progresses toward its ultimate union with God, his main concern is that historians recognize their own partiality. Rather than chastising our predecessors for being too much of this or that, Niebuhr demands that we take them as interlocutors with whom we can argue fruitfully. Finally, Niebuhr studies American Christianity as a “movement,” not “an institution or series of institutions” (xxiii-xxiv). Again, Niebuhr’s theology motivates this “conviction.” But it does seem an interesting accident of history that most of us now write about movements, not particular institutions. Would any of the big university presses even consider publishing a denominational history of the Presbyterian Church of America? Almost certainly not. The times may be a changin’ in our guild, but we still live with Niebuhr’s legacy…
Review by A.T. Coates
F. Max Müller, Natural Religion (1888-1892) – http://www.giffordlectures.org/Author.asp?AuthorID=127
F. Max Müller, Preface to Sacred Books of the East (1879) – http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01002.htm
When Max Müller delivered the first ever Gifford Lectures in 1888, he already had an impressive C.V. Müller’s scientific approach to language helped pave the way for modern linguistics. He “discovered” many of the world’s major language families, systematically tracing connections between languages as different as Sanskrit and English (Indo-European). He presented European readers with some of the first serious translations of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada. His 50-volume edited series Sacred Books of the East brought together some of the best Orientalist scholarship of the day, convincing westerners that Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Islam (which he called Mohammedanism), Buddhism, and Hinduism had their own “Bibles.” His reputation has justifiably suffered in our own time at the hands of postcolonial theory, but his work is indispensible for any interested in the disciplinary history of religious studies. In some ways, Müller represents the most repugnant form of Orientalism: completely oblivious to his work’s relationship to European imperialism (e.g. he heartily thanks the British East India Company for giving him manuscripts of the Upanishads), Müller truly believed that his project leveled the playing field between religions and created a basis for fair comparison. In the preface to Sacred Books of the East, he writes: “If some of those who read and mark these translations learn how to discover some such precious grains in the sacred books of other nations, though hidden under heaps of rubbish, our labour will not have been in vain, for there is no lesson which at the present time seems more important than to learn that in every religion there are such precious grains.” Every religion holds precious grains in heaps of rubbish… yikes.
Müller attempts to establish a scientific system for studying religion by linking religion with language. There’s a fine distinction worth noting here: Müller links religion to language, not to texts. Though his systematic approach to the documentation and translation of sacred texts still drives much of religious studies today, Müller himself understood the study of religious texts as only one necessary part of the historical study of religion and language—if there’s one thing textual studies do well, after all, it is to document miniscule changes in language over time. But Müller’s scope is much bigger than just textual study, for he sees texts as a window into the “purer” data provided by ancient minds. He aims at nothing less than discovering the basic essence of religion, and uses texts to remove the accretions that have built over time. For Müller, religion forms part of human nature—it belongs to the natural world, to humanity’s capabilities as creatures in nature. It begins with the basic experiences of sensation, perception, conception, and naming. As many a pot-smoking high school student has discovered, we perceive that the sky is blue because we have a word “blue” that names a particular concept (not red, green, yellow, etc.). Müller goes one step further, asserting that we understand why the sky sometimes seems to hurt us if we attach religious significance to the word “sky.” Religion, according to Müller, helps us to make sense of the infinite in our finite experience, allows us to conceptualize and explain things like the boundlessness of the horizon, the world in a grain of sand, and elemental causes: “Anything that lifts a man above the realities of this material life is religion” (lecture 20). Müller argues that we can only achieve accurate comparison and classification of religions by beginning with this “natural religion,” since it levels the field between bookless religions and religions of the book, individual religions (with a founder) and non-individual religions (no founder), primitive religions and advanced religions.
Review by A.T. Coates