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two women, rabbis, and a man holding a guitar

When the Word is a Sound: Toward a Sensory Scholarship of Religion

  • A response to the podcast “Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism”
  • By Judah Cohen, PhD, Indiana University Bloomington
  • I began writing this response on the day before Thanksgiving, and the day after the conclusion of the American Academy of Religion (AAR)’s 2018 meeting in Denver. My colleagues Monique Ingalls, Alisha L. Jones, and Zöe Sherinian all attended AAR, jetting over from the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM)’s more intimate (c. 1000 attendees) annual meeting the day before. I did not. The last time I attended AAR, in 2006, I felt overwhelmed by bigness, unsure how to go beyond my small disciplinary circle in a scholarly sea of logocentrism. While I sought out like-minded colleagues, I found, like Illman, a significant center of scholarship oriented around the arts as an adornment to worship, rather than as a core part of it. In the exhibit hall, meanwhile, music seemed to be the domain of media companies presenting their latest (typically Christian) worship technologies. Finding a place for music in the already huge conference felt particularly fraught to me. 
  • How much has changed by 2018? A quick perusal of the AAR/SBL program shows four sessions on music out of about twelve hundred organized events. I admire my ethnomusicology colleagues’ initiative and energy—in their own Society they have successfully organized a thriving Section on Music, Religion and Sound; and Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Reily’s recently published Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities received recognition as an outstanding collection of essays. Yet connecting this approach to the core concerns of Religious Studies remains a daunting affair.
  • So thank you, Ruth Illman. 

Above, Obadiah the Proselyte (early 12th century): manuscript for the liturgical poem “Mi Al Har Morev.” 
  • The book that inspired Dr. Illman’s podcast offers a meaningful model for bridging Ethnomusicology and Religion as mature scholarly disciplines. Citing Rosalind I. J. Hackett, and channeling assertions by Isaac Weiner and others, Illman seeks to restore to Religious Studies the soundtrack that has long made worship and liturgy viable, both publicly and (sometimes) privately:
“We need to realize that music, and the arts in general, are not just ornaments or illustrations of something more profoundly important to religion, but they are aspects of religious engagement in their own right that we need actively to give serious scholarly attention.”
  • Illman’s assertion can sound like a challenge to a field where text’s inherent physicality gives it a privileged place: where the very act of reading, writing or printing not only preserves a record, but can sacralize a ritual. Text conveniently symbolizes the multisensory experience of spirituality and tradition, which we describe and ritualize in the process of projecting a broader experience of the numinous. But what happens if we enter the experience directly through music—in a sense turning music into the center of focus, with text as an auxiliary? It’s more than a thought experiment: as Illman points out, drawing on decades of work in ethnomusicology to support her, people regularly give sound more weight than text as a determinant of religious tradition and authenticity. The view holds in different ways across faith traditions. Liberal populations might at first seem the most likely to observe here, due to (often biased) perceptions that they interpret core religious texts less literally than more “orthodox” groups. Yet music can also be a powerful lens of authenticity even in those populations: in Judaism, for example, we can see such issues in the nigunim (melodies) of Hasidic populations, the Lernensteiger melodies used to teach rabbinic texts (as studied by Lionel Wohlberger), and the universal dilemmas of melody choice, timbre, and sound production that pervade many forms of worship.
  • Indeed, public prayer frequently shifts into musical primacy, as anyone who has attempted to decipher the words of a polyphonic Mass in a cathedral (including Church officials!) might recognize. Music forcefully reminds us of religion’s timebound nature and holds  its own systems of rhythm and inflection—as I tell my students, you cannot skim music the way you can cram a text. And the more closely we look into the topic, the more deeply we can notice how congregants bring to a complex and sophisticated palette of descriptors and tastes to the music they experience in their spiritual lives. We hear these descriptors regularly, as Illman shows in her larger study, and as Jeffrey Summit has explored in his book The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Liturgical music jobs are won and lost by them. And the “worship wars”—disputes between the music of “high” and “low” culture­—show how crucial they are to the worship experience (as illustrated by several selections in Routledge’s recent Congregational Music Studies Series). 
< p style=”text-align: center;”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcTneBjgaA8

Above, a Friday evening service during Chanukah 2014 at B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue in New York City, known for at least 25 years now for its musical services. 

  • Entering scholarly discussions of religion through music can thus open new perspectives for understanding communal spiritual dynamics and normalize the idea that populations can be spiritually articulate even when they identify only loosely (or symbolically) with core texts —allowing us to move beyond moralistic critiques of “losing touch” with tradition that pervade both scholarship and practice.
  • Illman’s description of authenticity as described through her contemporary interlocutors’ musical experiences can also extend to broader discourses of authority, including debates over the performance of sacred text and the role of music (and by extension other arts) in conferring spiritual authority. Whether through Quran recitation contests, the training of Jewish cantors, mantra chanting, or the long parallel development of music and text in various Christian denominations, music and text depend on each other for their continued vitality. In my own research on both contemporary liturgies and the American Jewish nineteenth century, I found music to be more than just a liturgical enhancement: it made sacred text viable, connecting the often obtuse and generalized words with congregants’ personal needs and cultural norms.
  • When it comes to music, then, Illman’s study offers an excellent opportunity to see how ethno/musicologists can bring greater depth to the study of religion—and particularly how their/our methods can enhance historical debates around the status of text. David Stern, among a growing number of scholars, now highlights physical and textual mutability as a central part of what we consider textual “tradition.” What greater depth we can find, then, when we restore sound to the experience and think of text as a contributor to a crowded and rich sensory view of the numinous—while seeing other modes of expression as equally rich doors into our intellectual discussions.

 

Suggested Reading (at least as a start):

  • Judah M. Cohen, Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming April 2019).
  • Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Ana Reily, The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Rosalind I. J. Hackett, “Sound, Music, and the Study of Religion.” Temenos 48, 1 (2012), 11-27.
  • Monique Ingalls, Singing in the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Deborah R. Justice, “The Curious Longevity of the Traditional–Contemporary Divide: Mainline Musical Choices in Post–Worship War America,” Liturgy 32, 1 (2017), 16-23.
  • Mark L. Kligman, Maqām and Liturgy : Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009). 
  • Ellen Koskoff, Music in Libavitcher Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
  • Anna Nekola and Tom Wagner, eds. Congregational Music Making and Community in a Mediated Age. (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  • Zoe Sherinian, Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).
  • David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).
  • Jeffrey Summit, The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Jeffrey Summit, Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Bible Chant in Contemporary Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sounds, Public Space, and American Pluralism (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
  • Lionel Wolberger, “The Music of Holy Argument: The Ethnomusicology of a Talmud Study Session,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry IX (1993), 110-138.

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Superhero Shamans and Magickal Scribes: Appraising the study of Religion and Comics

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 24 October 2013, in response to A. David Lewis’s Interview on Religion in Comic Books (21 October 2013).

“What does a study of religion and comics look like?” A. David Lewis is asked at the beginning of this podcast. His answers, along with the wealth of essays in his co-edited volume, Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels, suggest that, happily, its boundaries have yet to be defined. In his broad-ranging conversation with Per Smith, Lewis highlights the many connections between religion and comic books; connections which arguably stretch back through woodcuttings and illuminated manuscripts to Egyptian hieroglyphics. This sometimes tempestuous relationship has given rise to some peculiar ironies. For instance, as Lewis points out, Chick Tracts have become the best-selling independent comics of all time, but are barely known outwith of the evangelical communities that utilise them. Another strange connection: Max Gaines founded Educational Comics by publishing Picture Stories from the Bible. When his son William took over the company following Gaine’s death, Educational Comics became Entertaining Comics, soon becoming infamous for its gore-ridden horror comics such as Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, a startling about-face from Picture Stories from the Bible! But the strange relations between comics and religion go beyond just these odd, amusing facts.

For instance, in Alvin Schwartz’s metaphysical memoir An Unlikely Prophet, the former Superman and Batman writer describes his encounters with a seven-foot Buddhist monk who is in fact a tulpa, an individual who was thought into being by a Tibetan mystic. This monk proceeds to teach Schwartz that Superman is also a tulpa. Schwartz’s memoirs point to a fascinating history of what Kripal (2010) and Knowles (2007) have described as the “surprisingly intimate ties” superhero comics have to “the histories of occultism, psychical research, and related paranormal phenomena” (Kripal, 2010:6). Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Lewis is now turning his attention to the depiction of death in superhero comics. Lewis’s description of this sub-genre, and it’s six recurring features – journey to the after-life; encounter with family member; dream/hallucination; opponent; heroic reversal; and liberation – inevitably calls to mind Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, opening the way for a fruitful dialogue between the study of comics and religion to other disciplines such as the study of mythology and folklore.

Certainly we might suggest Lewis’s closing statements, in which he highlights the capacity of the secular medium of comic books to introduce the reader to the transcendent points beyond just organised religions towards shamanism and other pre-modern spiritualties. Wright (2007), for example, has suggested that, “the modern superhero is a contemporary manifestation of the ancient shamanic role” (2007:127). Pedler has argued that, “Morrison’s mission […is] to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264), making them, in effect, shamanic fictions. In this regard it is interesting that Lewis only briefly mentions Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, as it is another of those strange coincidences that two of the most prominent creators in the field are self-confessed magical practitioners. Certainly their work and philosophies extend far beyond the realm of Paganism mentioned by Lewis to include the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley and the postmodern practices of Chaos Magick.

Lewis correctly points out that superhero comics have used invented religions to interrogate real-world religions. However, the work of Moore and Morrison demonstrate that comic books have been surprisingly welcoming of more ‘fringe’ spiritualities, or at least an intimation of more esoteric religious teachings, as in Klock’s (2004) suggestion that contemporary X-Men comics reflect what he calls a “Gnostic, or pessimistic, Post-humanism”, or the wealth of ascended Tibetan masters that populate superhero universes, such as the Ancient One who taught Marvel’s Dr. Strange to become ‘master of the mystic arts!’ Moreover, superhero comics present to us worlds in which the transcendent and the material are intertwined. Unlike our world, the universes that superheroes inhabit see no mutual exclusivity between science and magic. As Bainbridge says, “the premodern, the sacred, the mythological are replaced with science and technology […] in images like the Cosmic Cube, ego the Living planet, the scientific mythology of Asgard and the towering figure of Galactus” (2009:74).  It is arguably this blurring of categorical distinctions that has led many to note the affinities between superhero comics and modern spiritualities such as the ‘New Age’ Human Potential Movement, which itself combined Eastern spiritualities with the methodology of Western science.

As Lewis points out, Possamai has posited that superheroes comics may constitute a kind of hyper-religion, encouraging the reader to develop a manifest a vision of their ‘super-self’ (Possamai, 2006:60). Meanwhile, Kripal (2002) highlights the synchronicity of the foundation of the Esalen Institute coinciding with the introduction of the “evolutionary mythology” of Marvel’s X-Men in 1963. Indeed, Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, the think tank-come-retreat set up to investigate human development and informed by a kind of “evolutionary mysticism”, cites Superman and other science-fictional texts as expressing, “intimations of capacities that are available to us” (Murphy, 1992:213), much as Jules Verne anticipated atomic power in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H.G. Wells’ placement of The First Men on the Moon. Murphy wonders if such images, “might prefigure luminous knowings and powers […] that can be realized by the human race”.

As both Lewis’s book and interview demonstrate, the study of comic books and religion remains a rich and fertile field, from which our understanding of both comics and religion can only benefit. Certainly there is a thirst for such knowledge. The bewilderingly detailed website, comicbookreligion.com – where we discover that the Fantastic Four’s the Thing is Jewish, the Incredible Hulk is a lapsed catholic, while the X-Men’s Wolverine was “raised Protestant; sometimes atheist; has practiced Buddhism; sceptical seeker”- suggests that this interest is true of even non-academic audiences. The impetus for such studies can only be bolstered by the self-confessed interest in religion and transcendent experiences expressed by writers as varied as superhero comic luminaries Steve Engelhart, Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith, as well as the aforementioned Moore and Morrison and independent creators such as Craig Thompson (whose Blankets is an autobiographical account of his Evangelical Christian upbringing) and, surely, the unique and apocalyptic creations of Jack Chick.

This multiplicity of approaches and texts is to be celebrated. While still a young discipline the study of comics is now gaining momentum. As such there has been a tendency to study comics in the light of religion (and, more commonly, mythology), as a way of legitimating their object of study. As if to say, “look at this illegitimate art-form, it’s like something respectable that you are familiar with!” However, as the interview with Lewis, and, one hopes, this reply, demonstrate, if we take comics on their own terms, rather than as a shadow of some original source, they can also allow us to cast the shadow of comics onto those original sources, allowing us to discern or reclaim even the most illegitimate of religious experiences.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Bainbridge, J. (2009) “‘Worlds Within Worlds’: The Role of the Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes” in Angela Ndalianis (Ed.) The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero New York pp. 64-85
  • Klock, G (2004) “X-Men, Emerson and Gnosticism” Reconstruction 4:3 available online: http://reconstruction.eserver.org/043/Klock/Klock.html
  • Kripal, J. (2010) Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred University ofChicago Press
  • Murphy, M. (1992) The Future of the Body: explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature Los Angeles: Tarcher
  • Pedler, M. (2009) “Morrison’s Muscle Mystery Versus Everyday Reality…and Other Parallel Worlds!” in Ndalianis, A. The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero Oxon: Routledge pp.250-269
  • Possamai, A. (2006) “Superheroes and the development of latent abilities: A hyper-real enchantment?” in Hume, L. and Kathleen Mcphillips (eds) (2006) Popular Spiritualities: The Politics of Contemporary Enchantment Ashgate Publishing pp. 53-62
  • Schwartz, A. (1997) An Unlikely Prophet Vermont: Destiny Books

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

Podcasts

two women, rabbis, and a man holding a guitar

When the Word is a Sound: Toward a Sensory Scholarship of Religion

  • A response to the podcast “Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism”
  • By Judah Cohen, PhD, Indiana University Bloomington
  • I began writing this response on the day before Thanksgiving, and the day after the conclusion of the American Academy of Religion (AAR)’s 2018 meeting in Denver. My colleagues Monique Ingalls, Alisha L. Jones, and Zöe Sherinian all attended AAR, jetting over from the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM)’s more intimate (c. 1000 attendees) annual meeting the day before. I did not. The last time I attended AAR, in 2006, I felt overwhelmed by bigness, unsure how to go beyond my small disciplinary circle in a scholarly sea of logocentrism. While I sought out like-minded colleagues, I found, like Illman, a significant center of scholarship oriented around the arts as an adornment to worship, rather than as a core part of it. In the exhibit hall, meanwhile, music seemed to be the domain of media companies presenting their latest (typically Christian) worship technologies. Finding a place for music in the already huge conference felt particularly fraught to me. 
  • How much has changed by 2018? A quick perusal of the AAR/SBL program shows four sessions on music out of about twelve hundred organized events. I admire my ethnomusicology colleagues’ initiative and energy—in their own Society they have successfully organized a thriving Section on Music, Religion and Sound; and Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Reily’s recently published Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities received recognition as an outstanding collection of essays. Yet connecting this approach to the core concerns of Religious Studies remains a daunting affair.
  • So thank you, Ruth Illman. 

Above, Obadiah the Proselyte (early 12th century): manuscript for the liturgical poem “Mi Al Har Morev.” 
  • The book that inspired Dr. Illman’s podcast offers a meaningful model for bridging Ethnomusicology and Religion as mature scholarly disciplines. Citing Rosalind I. J. Hackett, and channeling assertions by Isaac Weiner and others, Illman seeks to restore to Religious Studies the soundtrack that has long made worship and liturgy viable, both publicly and (sometimes) privately:
“We need to realize that music, and the arts in general, are not just ornaments or illustrations of something more profoundly important to religion, but they are aspects of religious engagement in their own right that we need actively to give serious scholarly attention.”
  • Illman’s assertion can sound like a challenge to a field where text’s inherent physicality gives it a privileged place: where the very act of reading, writing or printing not only preserves a record, but can sacralize a ritual. Text conveniently symbolizes the multisensory experience of spirituality and tradition, which we describe and ritualize in the process of projecting a broader experience of the numinous. But what happens if we enter the experience directly through music—in a sense turning music into the center of focus, with text as an auxiliary? It’s more than a thought experiment: as Illman points out, drawing on decades of work in ethnomusicology to support her, people regularly give sound more weight than text as a determinant of religious tradition and authenticity. The view holds in different ways across faith traditions. Liberal populations might at first seem the most likely to observe here, due to (often biased) perceptions that they interpret core religious texts less literally than more “orthodox” groups. Yet music can also be a powerful lens of authenticity even in those populations: in Judaism, for example, we can see such issues in the nigunim (melodies) of Hasidic populations, the Lernensteiger melodies used to teach rabbinic texts (as studied by Lionel Wohlberger), and the universal dilemmas of melody choice, timbre, and sound production that pervade many forms of worship.
  • Indeed, public prayer frequently shifts into musical primacy, as anyone who has attempted to decipher the words of a polyphonic Mass in a cathedral (including Church officials!) might recognize. Music forcefully reminds us of religion’s timebound nature and holds  its own systems of rhythm and inflection—as I tell my students, you cannot skim music the way you can cram a text. And the more closely we look into the topic, the more deeply we can notice how congregants bring to a complex and sophisticated palette of descriptors and tastes to the music they experience in their spiritual lives. We hear these descriptors regularly, as Illman shows in her larger study, and as Jeffrey Summit has explored in his book The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Liturgical music jobs are won and lost by them. And the “worship wars”—disputes between the music of “high” and “low” culture­—show how crucial they are to the worship experience (as illustrated by several selections in Routledge’s recent Congregational Music Studies Series). 
< p style=”text-align: center;”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcTneBjgaA8

Above, a Friday evening service during Chanukah 2014 at B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue in New York City, known for at least 25 years now for its musical services. 

  • Entering scholarly discussions of religion through music can thus open new perspectives for understanding communal spiritual dynamics and normalize the idea that populations can be spiritually articulate even when they identify only loosely (or symbolically) with core texts —allowing us to move beyond moralistic critiques of “losing touch” with tradition that pervade both scholarship and practice.
  • Illman’s description of authenticity as described through her contemporary interlocutors’ musical experiences can also extend to broader discourses of authority, including debates over the performance of sacred text and the role of music (and by extension other arts) in conferring spiritual authority. Whether through Quran recitation contests, the training of Jewish cantors, mantra chanting, or the long parallel development of music and text in various Christian denominations, music and text depend on each other for their continued vitality. In my own research on both contemporary liturgies and the American Jewish nineteenth century, I found music to be more than just a liturgical enhancement: it made sacred text viable, connecting the often obtuse and generalized words with congregants’ personal needs and cultural norms.
  • When it comes to music, then, Illman’s study offers an excellent opportunity to see how ethno/musicologists can bring greater depth to the study of religion—and particularly how their/our methods can enhance historical debates around the status of text. David Stern, among a growing number of scholars, now highlights physical and textual mutability as a central part of what we consider textual “tradition.” What greater depth we can find, then, when we restore sound to the experience and think of text as a contributor to a crowded and rich sensory view of the numinous—while seeing other modes of expression as equally rich doors into our intellectual discussions.

 

Suggested Reading (at least as a start):

  • Judah M. Cohen, Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming April 2019).
  • Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Ana Reily, The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Rosalind I. J. Hackett, “Sound, Music, and the Study of Religion.” Temenos 48, 1 (2012), 11-27.
  • Monique Ingalls, Singing in the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Deborah R. Justice, “The Curious Longevity of the Traditional–Contemporary Divide: Mainline Musical Choices in Post–Worship War America,” Liturgy 32, 1 (2017), 16-23.
  • Mark L. Kligman, Maqām and Liturgy : Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009). 
  • Ellen Koskoff, Music in Libavitcher Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
  • Anna Nekola and Tom Wagner, eds. Congregational Music Making and Community in a Mediated Age. (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  • Zoe Sherinian, Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).
  • David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).
  • Jeffrey Summit, The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Jeffrey Summit, Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Bible Chant in Contemporary Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sounds, Public Space, and American Pluralism (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
  • Lionel Wolberger, “The Music of Holy Argument: The Ethnomusicology of a Talmud Study Session,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry IX (1993), 110-138.

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Superhero Shamans and Magickal Scribes: Appraising the study of Religion and Comics

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 24 October 2013, in response to A. David Lewis’s Interview on Religion in Comic Books (21 October 2013).

“What does a study of religion and comics look like?” A. David Lewis is asked at the beginning of this podcast. His answers, along with the wealth of essays in his co-edited volume, Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels, suggest that, happily, its boundaries have yet to be defined. In his broad-ranging conversation with Per Smith, Lewis highlights the many connections between religion and comic books; connections which arguably stretch back through woodcuttings and illuminated manuscripts to Egyptian hieroglyphics. This sometimes tempestuous relationship has given rise to some peculiar ironies. For instance, as Lewis points out, Chick Tracts have become the best-selling independent comics of all time, but are barely known outwith of the evangelical communities that utilise them. Another strange connection: Max Gaines founded Educational Comics by publishing Picture Stories from the Bible. When his son William took over the company following Gaine’s death, Educational Comics became Entertaining Comics, soon becoming infamous for its gore-ridden horror comics such as Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, a startling about-face from Picture Stories from the Bible! But the strange relations between comics and religion go beyond just these odd, amusing facts.

For instance, in Alvin Schwartz’s metaphysical memoir An Unlikely Prophet, the former Superman and Batman writer describes his encounters with a seven-foot Buddhist monk who is in fact a tulpa, an individual who was thought into being by a Tibetan mystic. This monk proceeds to teach Schwartz that Superman is also a tulpa. Schwartz’s memoirs point to a fascinating history of what Kripal (2010) and Knowles (2007) have described as the “surprisingly intimate ties” superhero comics have to “the histories of occultism, psychical research, and related paranormal phenomena” (Kripal, 2010:6). Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Lewis is now turning his attention to the depiction of death in superhero comics. Lewis’s description of this sub-genre, and it’s six recurring features – journey to the after-life; encounter with family member; dream/hallucination; opponent; heroic reversal; and liberation – inevitably calls to mind Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, opening the way for a fruitful dialogue between the study of comics and religion to other disciplines such as the study of mythology and folklore.

Certainly we might suggest Lewis’s closing statements, in which he highlights the capacity of the secular medium of comic books to introduce the reader to the transcendent points beyond just organised religions towards shamanism and other pre-modern spiritualties. Wright (2007), for example, has suggested that, “the modern superhero is a contemporary manifestation of the ancient shamanic role” (2007:127). Pedler has argued that, “Morrison’s mission […is] to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264), making them, in effect, shamanic fictions. In this regard it is interesting that Lewis only briefly mentions Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, as it is another of those strange coincidences that two of the most prominent creators in the field are self-confessed magical practitioners. Certainly their work and philosophies extend far beyond the realm of Paganism mentioned by Lewis to include the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley and the postmodern practices of Chaos Magick.

Lewis correctly points out that superhero comics have used invented religions to interrogate real-world religions. However, the work of Moore and Morrison demonstrate that comic books have been surprisingly welcoming of more ‘fringe’ spiritualities, or at least an intimation of more esoteric religious teachings, as in Klock’s (2004) suggestion that contemporary X-Men comics reflect what he calls a “Gnostic, or pessimistic, Post-humanism”, or the wealth of ascended Tibetan masters that populate superhero universes, such as the Ancient One who taught Marvel’s Dr. Strange to become ‘master of the mystic arts!’ Moreover, superhero comics present to us worlds in which the transcendent and the material are intertwined. Unlike our world, the universes that superheroes inhabit see no mutual exclusivity between science and magic. As Bainbridge says, “the premodern, the sacred, the mythological are replaced with science and technology […] in images like the Cosmic Cube, ego the Living planet, the scientific mythology of Asgard and the towering figure of Galactus” (2009:74).  It is arguably this blurring of categorical distinctions that has led many to note the affinities between superhero comics and modern spiritualities such as the ‘New Age’ Human Potential Movement, which itself combined Eastern spiritualities with the methodology of Western science.

As Lewis points out, Possamai has posited that superheroes comics may constitute a kind of hyper-religion, encouraging the reader to develop a manifest a vision of their ‘super-self’ (Possamai, 2006:60). Meanwhile, Kripal (2002) highlights the synchronicity of the foundation of the Esalen Institute coinciding with the introduction of the “evolutionary mythology” of Marvel’s X-Men in 1963. Indeed, Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, the think tank-come-retreat set up to investigate human development and informed by a kind of “evolutionary mysticism”, cites Superman and other science-fictional texts as expressing, “intimations of capacities that are available to us” (Murphy, 1992:213), much as Jules Verne anticipated atomic power in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H.G. Wells’ placement of The First Men on the Moon. Murphy wonders if such images, “might prefigure luminous knowings and powers […] that can be realized by the human race”.

As both Lewis’s book and interview demonstrate, the study of comic books and religion remains a rich and fertile field, from which our understanding of both comics and religion can only benefit. Certainly there is a thirst for such knowledge. The bewilderingly detailed website, comicbookreligion.com – where we discover that the Fantastic Four’s the Thing is Jewish, the Incredible Hulk is a lapsed catholic, while the X-Men’s Wolverine was “raised Protestant; sometimes atheist; has practiced Buddhism; sceptical seeker”- suggests that this interest is true of even non-academic audiences. The impetus for such studies can only be bolstered by the self-confessed interest in religion and transcendent experiences expressed by writers as varied as superhero comic luminaries Steve Engelhart, Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith, as well as the aforementioned Moore and Morrison and independent creators such as Craig Thompson (whose Blankets is an autobiographical account of his Evangelical Christian upbringing) and, surely, the unique and apocalyptic creations of Jack Chick.

This multiplicity of approaches and texts is to be celebrated. While still a young discipline the study of comics is now gaining momentum. As such there has been a tendency to study comics in the light of religion (and, more commonly, mythology), as a way of legitimating their object of study. As if to say, “look at this illegitimate art-form, it’s like something respectable that you are familiar with!” However, as the interview with Lewis, and, one hopes, this reply, demonstrate, if we take comics on their own terms, rather than as a shadow of some original source, they can also allow us to cast the shadow of comics onto those original sources, allowing us to discern or reclaim even the most illegitimate of religious experiences.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Bainbridge, J. (2009) “‘Worlds Within Worlds’: The Role of the Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes” in Angela Ndalianis (Ed.) The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero New York pp. 64-85
  • Klock, G (2004) “X-Men, Emerson and Gnosticism” Reconstruction 4:3 available online: http://reconstruction.eserver.org/043/Klock/Klock.html
  • Kripal, J. (2010) Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred University ofChicago Press
  • Murphy, M. (1992) The Future of the Body: explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature Los Angeles: Tarcher
  • Pedler, M. (2009) “Morrison’s Muscle Mystery Versus Everyday Reality…and Other Parallel Worlds!” in Ndalianis, A. The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero Oxon: Routledge pp.250-269
  • Possamai, A. (2006) “Superheroes and the development of latent abilities: A hyper-real enchantment?” in Hume, L. and Kathleen Mcphillips (eds) (2006) Popular Spiritualities: The Politics of Contemporary Enchantment Ashgate Publishing pp. 53-62
  • Schwartz, A. (1997) An Unlikely Prophet Vermont: Destiny Books

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

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