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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

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.

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.

Podcasts

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

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About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.