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Navigating the Religious Worlds of Science Fiction and Video Games

Written by David McConeghy in response to Ben Banasik and Tara Smith, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

This episode of the Religious Studies Project is a wide-ranging discussion with Ben Banasik, Tara Smith, and Raymond Radford. All are doctoral candidates in the University Of Sydney’s Department of Studies in Religion. Sweeping from Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Nine Billion Names of God to the video game Journey or the Church of All Worlds (CAW) that was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, you may feel out of your depth at times with colleagues at ease in sharing multiple references to sources in their studies on religion in Science Fiction and video gaming.

Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading Leo Tolstoy “A Confession” but not Frank Herbert’s Dune. Or you’ve been lost for hours in the video game world of Skyrim but not Stardew Valley. Perhaps you’ve heard of Jediism but not CAW. There’s always another thing to see as data for religious studies, but widening the boundary for what counts as data comes with a price. Every new category is a multiplication. When your choices are infinite, then explaining your choices becomes an obligation.

To free readers and listeners from the burden of initiation into complex canons of works, I want to discuss instead the way that investigations of imagined worlds lend themselves to scholarship in religious studies. Why do scholars choose expressions of popular culture amid the array of data options? What do they hope to gain from this sort of data that is inaccessible elsewhere? What’s in it for you if you can’t tell Herbert from Heinlein or Skyrim from Starcraft?

For its part, the RSP has been a fierce advocate for the value of studying religion and/in culture, covering topics from comic books to video games, music, clothing, consumerism and more. Ben, Tara, and Raymond all agree with the claim that “Science Fiction is social fiction.” Video games, too. They are always products embedded in time and space and made for the society in which they were produced. Cultural products reveal a society’s culture(s), just as they seek to change the culture(s) that produced them. Observing this discourse is bread-and-butter work for many in our field.

One major premise of studying fictional worlds is that they are immensely powerful forces in human lives. They are capable of replicating many of the moves commonly associated with religion including myth-creation, textual authority and canonicity, the elevation of sacred objects, ritualization and commemoration, pilgrimage, and much more. In the depiction of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine we are compelled to see things racially. In the obsession with tending a virtual farm in Stardew Valley we can investigate ritualization but also the meditative “flow” players enter in long gaming sessions. In the complex mélange of Islam and Buddhism in Dune we can ask about religious syncretism. We can look at Comic Conventions as pilgrimage sites for devoted fans. All of these comparisons are likely to use terms like religion or religious experience, but when we do the terms don’t come without the weight of their origins and contexts. Just as the world religions paradigm is haunted by religions outside of regular order of six or so traditions, each new fictional world is a chance for us to remove the ghosts from the terms. They are laboratories for testing our assumptions about how things work, or, more often, how they might work differently if we understood the stakes in a different way.

Since Science Fiction and video games are data worth considering for religious studies, I’d argue that this reorientation of our field’s shared terms is a major effect of their inclusion on the state of the field. Gamers or readers aren’t blank slates. They’re brimming with a mix of meanings and attitudes about religion already. Scholars also bring the weight of prior studies. If we go looking for religious experiences and mean one kind of experience distinct from all others, then we have quickly moved into essentialism and may find few experiences that match our ideal. The alternative that I’m sure we’d prefer is to assert that some experiences are produced in relation to what we already call religious for some other reason (including that they produce these experiences). They are religious by relation, comparison, or convention to other previously-agreed upon religious data.

This alternative emerges as mode of investigation in our field whose goal is self-definition. We’re left asking, what exactly do players find religious about their experiences in the game Journey? This then reinforces or adjusts the operative definition of religion. It’s a test to make sure an object isn’t “really” religious and is instead reproducing similar experiences, beliefs, actions, or moods. We can then explain such effects and their meaning by relating them to religious ones. Perhaps the experience qualifies as religious but fails to meet the standard for a religion. Similar conclusions emerge when we ask what Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the CAW have to say about religion. In such cases we may offer our reading or present another’s reading and then use the new perspective to engage the model of religion we came in with. It’s still a test of our category–even if it is under the cover of explanation (for whom, about what, and why).

These are the scholarly moves, right? Work in the discipline is always work about the discipline.

Whether we search for the hopes creators embed in their works of Science Fiction or the responses people have to gaming experiences, one of the benefits for religious studies is that in both instances we can see enormous overlap between the categories of religion and technology. Both apply knowledge to solve problems. This operationalizes Science Fiction, for instance, because it becomes a way to ask questions about the future. This is a dynamic process, as we know well, because creative fictional worlds have consequences on our actions and thoughts that change the world that produced them. We think of simulations as merely reproducing the world, for instance, but our engagement in virtual worlds changes the world, too.

Presented in this way, Science Fiction, video games, and religion can all be seen as “existence” technologies. They provide meaning and context for life. Not to all or in every instance, but reliably enough to be studied using observation, surveys, and interviews. This is what we hear Ben claim about his surveys with gamers on their perpetual journeys. This is what Tara says about her upcoming interviews with Nebula writers and Science Fiction fans and how the genre aims for social change.

One of the great challenges of religious studies today is that most of us are convinced religion isn’t a commodity neatly held within conventional boundaries of religious traditions. All the voices in this podcast agree. Religious experiences are likewise not bound to religious traditions. Nor is religion the sole source of experiences and communities we may have formerly said were exclusive to religion. As a technology, Science Fiction “cracked” many of the trade secrets of religion. It didn’t do it intentionally. Science Fiction, like religion, isn’t a thing out there waiting to be found or with independent motives. It is the result of creative effort, communities of reception, marketplaces for production, and so much more working for the last century or more without any distinct plan or concerted agenda. Nevertheless, Science Fiction has forced us to reconsider what we mean when we say “religious experience,” since many of its most notable works have imagined ways of being religious that draw upon but are not exclusive to the cultures that generated them.

Like all technologies, Science Fiction became a posture, an attitude, for certain ways of world-viewing. Video games, too, will have their due as they increasingly find ways to engage gamers through mixed-media immersion, world-building, and simulation. The question must always be: to what end are we comparing Science Fiction, Science Fiction fans, or video games and their gamers? What does it show about how we navigate our world? What does this say about “religion” or how we talk about the category of religion? Can we do it without “religion” or are these subjects “religious” in an inescapable way? I look forward to seeing these bright young scholars complete their work and show the value of looking carefully at popular culture’s connections to religious studies.

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

Religious Studies as a Discipline

Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester) has been a vocal critic of some of the theories and methods used by religious studies scholars working on Islam. In this podcast, he discusses his critique of the discipline and practice of religious studies he has made through works such as Situating Islam (Equinox, 2008), Theorizing Islam (Equinox, 2012), Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2012), The Study of Judaism (SUNY, 2013), and, most recently, Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (Equinox, 2015).

This sustained focus on the field of religious studies is not only a concern with identity–the political boundaries of the field as established by its scholars and professional organizations–but also with method. What should be the critical orientation of our field? Which methods are more or less suited for religious studies when it the discipline is viewed as a critical endeavor? When and how should we critique the way our field is responding to the context of the 21st Century? Are area studies especially vulnerable to these criticisms? What happens when identity politics begins to mix with scholarship?

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion as Sui Generis, The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies, Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies, The Critical Study of Religion, and Biblical Studies and Religious Studies. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, storage boxes, tiny shoes and more.

Video Games and Religious Studies

The project of legitimating new cultural commodities into the canon of interpretative objects can be lengthy process. In this interview with University of North Carolina at Greensboro Associate Professor Greg Grieve, video games are presented as a content moving from the margins to the center of the intersection of religion and popular culture. Grieve explains how he integrates play and critical analysis into his course, and narrates the process by which his university’s library created a space to support his innovative classroom work.

invented religions, allow users to create and experience virtual religious spaces, and much more. Students often come to video games in need to critical tools to move beyond play to critical thinking with/about games, but Grieve’s laboratory methods create miniature experimental situations for students to assess gaming content alongside the gaming experience. Like many other technical tools, games in the classroom require not just some elements of hardware but also new techniques, methods, and theoretical models. This is challenging, yes, but in Greive’s opinion the hurdles are well-worth the results: invested students, powerful classroom experiences, and content that is as diverse and rich as any other popular culture materials.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 AAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

**We are aware that the audio quality this week is not up to our usual standards, but we hope that the content of the interview more than makes up for this. Apologies.** 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Invented Religions, Religion and Film, Religion and Literature, Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You might also be interested in the article Locating the Locus of Study on “Religion” in Video Games, written by our own Jonathan Tuckett and David Robertson. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

The Risks of Reconstruction

This week’s interview with Florida State University Assistant Professor Michael McVicar highlights two important, but competing elements of recent work on Christian conservatism in the 20th century United States. On the one hand, McVicar’s scholarship fills an important gap in the existing literature on conservative Christian figures. Despite significant advances in the last decade of scholarship, the networks of influence that lay behind the rise of the Religious Right are not fully established. McVicar does the vital work of connecting theological figures like R. J. Rushdoony to the movement’s figureheads like Pat Robertson. Generally, this kind of scholarship lags behind biographical or cultural approaches documenting the broader shifts in the American context. This delay is caused by something that is easier to identify than the diverse elements of the rise of the Religious Right–the problem of primary scholarship on recent conservative figures. The challenges McVicar experienced and the concessions he made to complete his work on Rushdoony appear natural, but they are also highly reflective of the challenges facing further inquiry in this area. If there is a wealth of scholarship today on the Religious Right, it is also the case that much of it treats its subjects altogether too forgivingly. Thus, the work of reconciling the movement’s rise with elements of its racist and sexist past seems to be forever left to other works and other scholars.

First, let me commend McVicar for giving an excellent overview of the rise of reconstructionism as an outgrowth of the fundamentalist/modernist split of the post WWI era. As we will all soon be able to read in his work Christian Reconstruction (UNC-CH, 2015), McVicar shows how theologian R. J. Rushdoony helped establish critical elements of the theology that Billy Graham, Frank Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others used to promote turning away from secular values toward Christian ones. Unlike their liberal and moderate counterparts who saw cultural compromise as inevitable, conservative American Christians redoubled their efforts to be as Jesus described in John 17:16 and avoid being “of the world.”

Reconstructionism was a religious revolution that sought to overturn secular governance in favor of (selected features of) Biblical law. The Christian homeschool movement, for instance, coalesced as a response to the secularization of the public school system, particularly in the wake of court decisions in the 1940s-1960s that reshaped the boundaries between religion and state in the classroom. McVicar lays the Christian response to these defeats squarely at Rushdoony’s feet: “He challenges a lot of Christians to think in legal terms…. Here he is instrumental in setting up or creating a context in which some of the major Christian public defense advocacy firms begin to develop in the late 1970s.” Thus we get the Rutherford Institute and later Paula Jones’ legal case against President Clinton. It is a multi-faceted network that remains characterized by parachurch leadership, extra-church organizations, and a strong affinity toward the values that were identified with the Republican party by the early 1980s.

Today the influence of these ideas persists. In a recent U.S. election cycle, some argued that the legacy of Rushdoony lay in the way that Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry adopted dominionist models that were rooted in the theocratic legalism that reconstructionism brought to the Republican party. (See, for instance, Michelle Goldberg’s work at the Daily Beast, Julie Ingersoll  and Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, or Sarah Posner at Salon). So, the legacy of Rushdoony survives, albeit in heavily modified versions that combine a back-to-basic’s theocratic vision with Republican populist rhetoric. With such widespread roots, McVicar is surely making an important contribution by filling in an otherwise-absent backstory.

However, though McVicar’s stands alongside other recently published works on 20th century U.S. Christianity (see the brief appended bibliography), one thing that stands out regarding Rushdoony are the sacrifices that scholars seem to need to make in order to discuss controversial contemporary figures. McVicar identifies the challenges he had obtaining unfettered access to Rushdoony’s private materials at the Chalcedon Foundation. “Over time I gained a little bit of trust and support from them,” he says, “but they still were nervous that I might be coming in to do a smear job on Rushdoony and were really reluctant to let me see his personal correspondence and his diaries.” Only after McVicar submitted his work-in-progress and had published a relatively neutral piece on Rushdoony did Chalcedon grant him permission to access additional unpublished materials. While we don’t know the terms of McVicar’s use of Rushdoony’s private documents, given the inflammatory content of Rushdoony’s public works, we might reasonably expect they could paint him in decidedly negative strokes. So, what do we do when our access to documents is contingent on our neutrality? How much of what we can say about the rise of the Religious Right is similarly hindered by restrictions of speech or limited by access to sensitive personal documents?

I certainly will not fault McVicar for the way Christian Reconstruction turned out. A moderately even-tempered portrayal of Rushdoony in his historical context is no small feat. I would rather have an imperfect portrait to help bridge the gaps in the scholarship than be without one because I insisted on some kind of brutal exposé. And yet I would also expect the Chalcedon’s gate-keeping to inevitably color such a project. The question for the rest of us may be just how much we are willing to be a part of the historical revisionism that sterilizes controversial figures by limiting our ability to discuss their deplorable views on race, sex, colonialism, etc. When we know a figure has been controversial on such topics, are we not obliged to discuss them?

Since McVicar connects Rushdoony directly to the Quiverfull movement that has in recent weeks sent the Internet ablaze with commentary on the Josh Duggar scandal, these questions are also not merely hypothetical nor hyperbole. What should the role of scholars be in interpreting and evaluating these groups? Must we be methodological agnostic about their vices? If we abstain in order to present our subjects neutrally, then what other obligations fall on us. Must we wrestle with Rushdoony’s blatant racism and misogyny? Ignoring them hardly seems neutral, but how does one address them without bias? How can we do so without offending those that hold our primary source documents? As is the case with nearly every figure in the Religious Right, there is ample kindling for the flames. At what point will academic scholarship feel free to raise these issues? And what difference will they make for the study of the Religious Right?

In a recent ethics course I taught, I relied on Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Green Sisters to discuss the intersection of Catholic religious obligations and environmentalism. Taylor retells the story of Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, who supposedly gave a commencement speech at a high school in New York whose only lines were “Know where you stand and stand there.” In the moments where the rubber meets the road, I wonder whether more of us as scholars are becoming unable to know where we stand, unable to stand where we feel we should, and even unable to feel like we can stand where we are. The climate of academic crisis in the United States makes scholarship itself feel at risk. Who among us in the future will still feel secure enough to wrestle with the obvious spectres that haunt our work, but which speaking about brings risks to us and to our continued access to sources?

Selected Recent Scholarship on the Rise of the Religious Right

Comics and the Superhero Afterlife

Comic books are reliable. Every month readers can expect another installment of their favorite comic on the shelves. Characters facing insurmountable odds will find a way to victory. Nemeses will be defeated. And should a hero die, they are likely to be re-born. In some sense, to be a hero is to be immortal. Even extraordinary humans such as Bruce Wayne (Batman), find their identities preserved for all time by turning the secret hero’s mask into a mantle to be bequeathed on worthy successors. One widespread trope has been much ignored by comic fans and scholars–the journey to the afterlife. Like the katabasis or descent into the Underworld of Orpheus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Theseus, and dozens of other mythical figures, modern comic book superheroes routinely journey to heaven, hell, and other landscapes of the afterlife.

A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. In the pages of comic books, Lewis explains, the popular elements of the journey to the afterlife become surfaces upon which can be written a kind of “special reality” whose artificiality makes it possible for readers (and writers) to have discussions about serious issues but never fully commit to the vision of the comic books. For Lewis, that so many different versions of this journey exist but have yet to be readily acknowledged speaks to the major tensions in western culture. One central concern, he maintains, is the unspoken effort to preserve models of self that are unified. “We don’t want see our selves as multiples,” says Lewis. We want to be unified, “whole individuals.” And yet recent work on healthy multiplicity by Helene T. Russell and J. Hills Miller suggests that by accepting “people [as] constructed by many selves” we can further the work of religious pluralism and enhance inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

comicFor those who may still see comic books as unworthy material for serious scholarship, A. David Lewis’ recent work (2014’s American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife or his 2010 co-edited collection Graven Images) should be a warning to re-think your position. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, Flash, Green Arrow) and a rising tide of superhero films and franchises (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers), there has never been a more essential time to recognize the cultural merits of comic books and seek out their academic rewards.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with A. David Lewis on “Religion and Comic Books“, and also recent interviews with Carole Cusack on “Religion and Cultural Production” and Alana Vincent on “Religion and Literature“. 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, Amazon.com, orAmazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying comic books, pizza cutters, incense sticks and other cultural products.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

A Field Little Plowed? The Study of Religion and the Built Environment Today

 

Let me begin with a mythological allusion. The Roman god Janus was often depicted with two faces to signify his interstitial nature. He looked into the future and past, and oversaw beginnings and endings. He marked the boundaries between inside and outside. Janus, the gateway god, seems a suitable reference for my polarized reaction to Durham University Senior Lecturer Peter Collins’s interview on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

From one perspective, I was delighted to hear a fascinating discussion of how Collins came to study the built environment early in his career. Using his experience studying an adjacent Quaker meetinghouse and an Anglican church, he demonstrates the many joys of reading the built environment closely. It is obvious, too, that he is productively sharing his skills with his students in the field. Teaching undergraduates the value of examining the built environment is a true service to the academy. We should all be so lucky to have Durham Cathedral or delightfully juxtaposed religious buildings down the road for our students to explore! [This material begins at 11:15 in the interview.]

From another perspective, however, I feel quite at odds with his view that religion and the built environment remains a “field little plowed.” The dissertation I am finishing at the moment in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, begins with the premise that the built environment has been over-emphasized to the detriment of other modes of creating and maintaining sacred space.While I nodded enthusiastically when he praised Lindsay Jones’s The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. (It is a fascinating and under-utilized two-volume theoretical work.) I confess that I gritted my teeth when he recommend Pierre Bourdieu’s 1971 essay ”The Berber House.” In 2013 we are still falling back on structuralism to look at religious buildings? (Jones, for his part, would probably be shocked.)

However, lest I be uncharitable to a colleague across the Atlantic, I think that my unease may be less disagreement than the simple product of differences in geography, discipline, and the years between our training. Collins is a social anthropologist who specializes in, among many things, Quakerism in 17th and 18th century England. I am a religious studies scholar who specializes in sacred space in the contemporary United States. I am finishing my degree in June, while he has been publishing for over 15 years.

It reminds me somewhat of Hans Rosling’s famous TEDTalk “Let my dataset change your mindset.” Our conceptions about the world, Rosling argued in relation to the division between first and third world, are not shaped by the time we live in, but by the year our teachers were born. Obviously this is overstating the case. 15 years isn’t that long. And academic discourse is not global health. I think it is telling, however, that my own Master’s degree adviser Peter Williams published his bibliographic essay for The Material History of American Religion Project on “The Built Environment of American Religion: The State of the Art”in 1995. He began by saying “Until recently, the study of America’s religious architecture and landscape was something that had largely fallen through the cracks of academe.” Collins similarly says there is very little on the built environment today. It is “fairly sparse” in Anthropology or there is “very little” in the Sociology of religion and only “slightly more prominent” in Religious Studies. I think–although I don’t have elegant charts to make my case–that today this characterization misses the mark.

Perhaps the fundamental challenge to a mighty wave of studies about the built environment, as Collins explores in the interview, occurs when we move beyond defining the critical terms (religion, built environment, material culture, etc.). When we look at the scholarship on the built environment we are forced to consult an ever-widening set of theories and methods. History, Anthropology, Sociology, Religious Studies, Gender Studies, Architectural History, Visual Studies, Literature, and so on all have contributions to the study of the built environment. The list is as broad as the academy itself. Yet, teaching our students the skills necessary to interpret and think critically about the built environment is a significant obstacle.

Durham Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

I also fully agree that a major issue is how easy it is to overlook the built environment all around us. Collins said, rather earthily, that he wondered “if sometimes it is because buildings are so bloody obvious, so huge and so manifest, that we don’t see them.” Isn’t this the very joke from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

For Collins, the environment is humanity’s water. It is “all of that which exists outside of the human being,” and it includes those elements that humans build. If we want to be sensitive to it, then we must cultivate sensibilities that make it visible and legible. Since the scholarship surrounding the built environment comes from across the academy, it can be a tangle of interdisciplinary webs. Structuralism of the type Bourdieu presents in “The Berber House,” I would be the first to confess, can be a way to untangle this web or even avoid it altogether.

Collins later wonders why, when speaking about Jones’ comparative architectural model, so little has been done with it. If you brave Jones’s volumes, you will understand why. It is terrifically complex. It is also not something that can be presented without modification to undergraduates. [Jones is discussed  in the final 15 minutes or so of the interview.] Nevertheless, its presence here is an indication that the conversation may be evolving in ways that will promote its use in the future.

We are still confronting the double challenges of interdisciplinary expansion and, shall we say, legibility or transferability to our students and the public. The close-reading of the Quaker meetinghouse that Collins offers is a strong demonstration that the rewards of overcoming these challenges are high. I can contribute to these rewards by recommending a few recent titles that deal with the built environment in satisfying and novel ways. A comprehensive list, such as that offered by Williams above, is probably not possible without first retreating bookishly to the corners of the academy where our own disciplines lie. In that respect, the few items in my bibliography reflect my contemporary American biases. I also take “built environment” to indicate much more than simply religious buildings. This is a product not merely of my research in spatial theory and place studies, but of my interests in expanding the study of sacred space beyond the walls of the church. I encourage everyone to continue the discussion and add their own favorite recent items on religion and the built environment in the comments.

Selected Bibliography on Religion and the Built Environment since 1990

  • Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Edited by Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Diamond, Etan. And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caronlina Press, 1999.
  • Eiesland, Nancy L. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2003.
  • Griffith, James S. . Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
  • Jones, Lindsay. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. 2 vols, Religions of the World. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000.
  • Kieckhefer, Richard Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Kerstetter, Todd M. God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. Sacred Ground : Americans and Their Battlefields. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Livezey, Lowell W., ed. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. Edited by Peter J. Paris, Religion, Race, and Ethnicity. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Loveland, Anne C. and Otis B. Wheeler. From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. St. Louis: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
  • Mazur, Eric Michael and Kate McCarthy, ed. God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed. Making Muslim Sacred Space in North American and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Meyer, Jeffrey F. . Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Nelson, Louis P. American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006. 
  • Orsi, Bob, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. America’s ChurchThe National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Shrine in Miami. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Williams, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Edited by Conrad Cherry, Public Expressions of Religion in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Wilford, Justin G. Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Winston, Diane. Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Upton, Dell. Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Zepp, Jr., Ira G. The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center. 2nd ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Podcasts

Navigating the Religious Worlds of Science Fiction and Video Games

Written by David McConeghy in response to Ben Banasik and Tara Smith, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

This episode of the Religious Studies Project is a wide-ranging discussion with Ben Banasik, Tara Smith, and Raymond Radford. All are doctoral candidates in the University Of Sydney’s Department of Studies in Religion. Sweeping from Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Nine Billion Names of God to the video game Journey or the Church of All Worlds (CAW) that was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, you may feel out of your depth at times with colleagues at ease in sharing multiple references to sources in their studies on religion in Science Fiction and video gaming.

Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading Leo Tolstoy “A Confession” but not Frank Herbert’s Dune. Or you’ve been lost for hours in the video game world of Skyrim but not Stardew Valley. Perhaps you’ve heard of Jediism but not CAW. There’s always another thing to see as data for religious studies, but widening the boundary for what counts as data comes with a price. Every new category is a multiplication. When your choices are infinite, then explaining your choices becomes an obligation.

To free readers and listeners from the burden of initiation into complex canons of works, I want to discuss instead the way that investigations of imagined worlds lend themselves to scholarship in religious studies. Why do scholars choose expressions of popular culture amid the array of data options? What do they hope to gain from this sort of data that is inaccessible elsewhere? What’s in it for you if you can’t tell Herbert from Heinlein or Skyrim from Starcraft?

For its part, the RSP has been a fierce advocate for the value of studying religion and/in culture, covering topics from comic books to video games, music, clothing, consumerism and more. Ben, Tara, and Raymond all agree with the claim that “Science Fiction is social fiction.” Video games, too. They are always products embedded in time and space and made for the society in which they were produced. Cultural products reveal a society’s culture(s), just as they seek to change the culture(s) that produced them. Observing this discourse is bread-and-butter work for many in our field.

One major premise of studying fictional worlds is that they are immensely powerful forces in human lives. They are capable of replicating many of the moves commonly associated with religion including myth-creation, textual authority and canonicity, the elevation of sacred objects, ritualization and commemoration, pilgrimage, and much more. In the depiction of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine we are compelled to see things racially. In the obsession with tending a virtual farm in Stardew Valley we can investigate ritualization but also the meditative “flow” players enter in long gaming sessions. In the complex mélange of Islam and Buddhism in Dune we can ask about religious syncretism. We can look at Comic Conventions as pilgrimage sites for devoted fans. All of these comparisons are likely to use terms like religion or religious experience, but when we do the terms don’t come without the weight of their origins and contexts. Just as the world religions paradigm is haunted by religions outside of regular order of six or so traditions, each new fictional world is a chance for us to remove the ghosts from the terms. They are laboratories for testing our assumptions about how things work, or, more often, how they might work differently if we understood the stakes in a different way.

Since Science Fiction and video games are data worth considering for religious studies, I’d argue that this reorientation of our field’s shared terms is a major effect of their inclusion on the state of the field. Gamers or readers aren’t blank slates. They’re brimming with a mix of meanings and attitudes about religion already. Scholars also bring the weight of prior studies. If we go looking for religious experiences and mean one kind of experience distinct from all others, then we have quickly moved into essentialism and may find few experiences that match our ideal. The alternative that I’m sure we’d prefer is to assert that some experiences are produced in relation to what we already call religious for some other reason (including that they produce these experiences). They are religious by relation, comparison, or convention to other previously-agreed upon religious data.

This alternative emerges as mode of investigation in our field whose goal is self-definition. We’re left asking, what exactly do players find religious about their experiences in the game Journey? This then reinforces or adjusts the operative definition of religion. It’s a test to make sure an object isn’t “really” religious and is instead reproducing similar experiences, beliefs, actions, or moods. We can then explain such effects and their meaning by relating them to religious ones. Perhaps the experience qualifies as religious but fails to meet the standard for a religion. Similar conclusions emerge when we ask what Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the CAW have to say about religion. In such cases we may offer our reading or present another’s reading and then use the new perspective to engage the model of religion we came in with. It’s still a test of our category–even if it is under the cover of explanation (for whom, about what, and why).

These are the scholarly moves, right? Work in the discipline is always work about the discipline.

Whether we search for the hopes creators embed in their works of Science Fiction or the responses people have to gaming experiences, one of the benefits for religious studies is that in both instances we can see enormous overlap between the categories of religion and technology. Both apply knowledge to solve problems. This operationalizes Science Fiction, for instance, because it becomes a way to ask questions about the future. This is a dynamic process, as we know well, because creative fictional worlds have consequences on our actions and thoughts that change the world that produced them. We think of simulations as merely reproducing the world, for instance, but our engagement in virtual worlds changes the world, too.

Presented in this way, Science Fiction, video games, and religion can all be seen as “existence” technologies. They provide meaning and context for life. Not to all or in every instance, but reliably enough to be studied using observation, surveys, and interviews. This is what we hear Ben claim about his surveys with gamers on their perpetual journeys. This is what Tara says about her upcoming interviews with Nebula writers and Science Fiction fans and how the genre aims for social change.

One of the great challenges of religious studies today is that most of us are convinced religion isn’t a commodity neatly held within conventional boundaries of religious traditions. All the voices in this podcast agree. Religious experiences are likewise not bound to religious traditions. Nor is religion the sole source of experiences and communities we may have formerly said were exclusive to religion. As a technology, Science Fiction “cracked” many of the trade secrets of religion. It didn’t do it intentionally. Science Fiction, like religion, isn’t a thing out there waiting to be found or with independent motives. It is the result of creative effort, communities of reception, marketplaces for production, and so much more working for the last century or more without any distinct plan or concerted agenda. Nevertheless, Science Fiction has forced us to reconsider what we mean when we say “religious experience,” since many of its most notable works have imagined ways of being religious that draw upon but are not exclusive to the cultures that generated them.

Like all technologies, Science Fiction became a posture, an attitude, for certain ways of world-viewing. Video games, too, will have their due as they increasingly find ways to engage gamers through mixed-media immersion, world-building, and simulation. The question must always be: to what end are we comparing Science Fiction, Science Fiction fans, or video games and their gamers? What does it show about how we navigate our world? What does this say about “religion” or how we talk about the category of religion? Can we do it without “religion” or are these subjects “religious” in an inescapable way? I look forward to seeing these bright young scholars complete their work and show the value of looking carefully at popular culture’s connections to religious studies.

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

Religious Studies as a Discipline

Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester) has been a vocal critic of some of the theories and methods used by religious studies scholars working on Islam. In this podcast, he discusses his critique of the discipline and practice of religious studies he has made through works such as Situating Islam (Equinox, 2008), Theorizing Islam (Equinox, 2012), Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2012), The Study of Judaism (SUNY, 2013), and, most recently, Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (Equinox, 2015).

This sustained focus on the field of religious studies is not only a concern with identity–the political boundaries of the field as established by its scholars and professional organizations–but also with method. What should be the critical orientation of our field? Which methods are more or less suited for religious studies when it the discipline is viewed as a critical endeavor? When and how should we critique the way our field is responding to the context of the 21st Century? Are area studies especially vulnerable to these criticisms? What happens when identity politics begins to mix with scholarship?

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion as Sui Generis, The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies, Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies, The Critical Study of Religion, and Biblical Studies and Religious Studies. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, storage boxes, tiny shoes and more.

Video Games and Religious Studies

The project of legitimating new cultural commodities into the canon of interpretative objects can be lengthy process. In this interview with University of North Carolina at Greensboro Associate Professor Greg Grieve, video games are presented as a content moving from the margins to the center of the intersection of religion and popular culture. Grieve explains how he integrates play and critical analysis into his course, and narrates the process by which his university’s library created a space to support his innovative classroom work.

invented religions, allow users to create and experience virtual religious spaces, and much more. Students often come to video games in need to critical tools to move beyond play to critical thinking with/about games, but Grieve’s laboratory methods create miniature experimental situations for students to assess gaming content alongside the gaming experience. Like many other technical tools, games in the classroom require not just some elements of hardware but also new techniques, methods, and theoretical models. This is challenging, yes, but in Greive’s opinion the hurdles are well-worth the results: invested students, powerful classroom experiences, and content that is as diverse and rich as any other popular culture materials.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 AAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

**We are aware that the audio quality this week is not up to our usual standards, but we hope that the content of the interview more than makes up for this. Apologies.** 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Invented Religions, Religion and Film, Religion and Literature, Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You might also be interested in the article Locating the Locus of Study on “Religion” in Video Games, written by our own Jonathan Tuckett and David Robertson. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

The Risks of Reconstruction

This week’s interview with Florida State University Assistant Professor Michael McVicar highlights two important, but competing elements of recent work on Christian conservatism in the 20th century United States. On the one hand, McVicar’s scholarship fills an important gap in the existing literature on conservative Christian figures. Despite significant advances in the last decade of scholarship, the networks of influence that lay behind the rise of the Religious Right are not fully established. McVicar does the vital work of connecting theological figures like R. J. Rushdoony to the movement’s figureheads like Pat Robertson. Generally, this kind of scholarship lags behind biographical or cultural approaches documenting the broader shifts in the American context. This delay is caused by something that is easier to identify than the diverse elements of the rise of the Religious Right–the problem of primary scholarship on recent conservative figures. The challenges McVicar experienced and the concessions he made to complete his work on Rushdoony appear natural, but they are also highly reflective of the challenges facing further inquiry in this area. If there is a wealth of scholarship today on the Religious Right, it is also the case that much of it treats its subjects altogether too forgivingly. Thus, the work of reconciling the movement’s rise with elements of its racist and sexist past seems to be forever left to other works and other scholars.

First, let me commend McVicar for giving an excellent overview of the rise of reconstructionism as an outgrowth of the fundamentalist/modernist split of the post WWI era. As we will all soon be able to read in his work Christian Reconstruction (UNC-CH, 2015), McVicar shows how theologian R. J. Rushdoony helped establish critical elements of the theology that Billy Graham, Frank Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others used to promote turning away from secular values toward Christian ones. Unlike their liberal and moderate counterparts who saw cultural compromise as inevitable, conservative American Christians redoubled their efforts to be as Jesus described in John 17:16 and avoid being “of the world.”

Reconstructionism was a religious revolution that sought to overturn secular governance in favor of (selected features of) Biblical law. The Christian homeschool movement, for instance, coalesced as a response to the secularization of the public school system, particularly in the wake of court decisions in the 1940s-1960s that reshaped the boundaries between religion and state in the classroom. McVicar lays the Christian response to these defeats squarely at Rushdoony’s feet: “He challenges a lot of Christians to think in legal terms…. Here he is instrumental in setting up or creating a context in which some of the major Christian public defense advocacy firms begin to develop in the late 1970s.” Thus we get the Rutherford Institute and later Paula Jones’ legal case against President Clinton. It is a multi-faceted network that remains characterized by parachurch leadership, extra-church organizations, and a strong affinity toward the values that were identified with the Republican party by the early 1980s.

Today the influence of these ideas persists. In a recent U.S. election cycle, some argued that the legacy of Rushdoony lay in the way that Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry adopted dominionist models that were rooted in the theocratic legalism that reconstructionism brought to the Republican party. (See, for instance, Michelle Goldberg’s work at the Daily Beast, Julie Ingersoll  and Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, or Sarah Posner at Salon). So, the legacy of Rushdoony survives, albeit in heavily modified versions that combine a back-to-basic’s theocratic vision with Republican populist rhetoric. With such widespread roots, McVicar is surely making an important contribution by filling in an otherwise-absent backstory.

However, though McVicar’s stands alongside other recently published works on 20th century U.S. Christianity (see the brief appended bibliography), one thing that stands out regarding Rushdoony are the sacrifices that scholars seem to need to make in order to discuss controversial contemporary figures. McVicar identifies the challenges he had obtaining unfettered access to Rushdoony’s private materials at the Chalcedon Foundation. “Over time I gained a little bit of trust and support from them,” he says, “but they still were nervous that I might be coming in to do a smear job on Rushdoony and were really reluctant to let me see his personal correspondence and his diaries.” Only after McVicar submitted his work-in-progress and had published a relatively neutral piece on Rushdoony did Chalcedon grant him permission to access additional unpublished materials. While we don’t know the terms of McVicar’s use of Rushdoony’s private documents, given the inflammatory content of Rushdoony’s public works, we might reasonably expect they could paint him in decidedly negative strokes. So, what do we do when our access to documents is contingent on our neutrality? How much of what we can say about the rise of the Religious Right is similarly hindered by restrictions of speech or limited by access to sensitive personal documents?

I certainly will not fault McVicar for the way Christian Reconstruction turned out. A moderately even-tempered portrayal of Rushdoony in his historical context is no small feat. I would rather have an imperfect portrait to help bridge the gaps in the scholarship than be without one because I insisted on some kind of brutal exposé. And yet I would also expect the Chalcedon’s gate-keeping to inevitably color such a project. The question for the rest of us may be just how much we are willing to be a part of the historical revisionism that sterilizes controversial figures by limiting our ability to discuss their deplorable views on race, sex, colonialism, etc. When we know a figure has been controversial on such topics, are we not obliged to discuss them?

Since McVicar connects Rushdoony directly to the Quiverfull movement that has in recent weeks sent the Internet ablaze with commentary on the Josh Duggar scandal, these questions are also not merely hypothetical nor hyperbole. What should the role of scholars be in interpreting and evaluating these groups? Must we be methodological agnostic about their vices? If we abstain in order to present our subjects neutrally, then what other obligations fall on us. Must we wrestle with Rushdoony’s blatant racism and misogyny? Ignoring them hardly seems neutral, but how does one address them without bias? How can we do so without offending those that hold our primary source documents? As is the case with nearly every figure in the Religious Right, there is ample kindling for the flames. At what point will academic scholarship feel free to raise these issues? And what difference will they make for the study of the Religious Right?

In a recent ethics course I taught, I relied on Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Green Sisters to discuss the intersection of Catholic religious obligations and environmentalism. Taylor retells the story of Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, who supposedly gave a commencement speech at a high school in New York whose only lines were “Know where you stand and stand there.” In the moments where the rubber meets the road, I wonder whether more of us as scholars are becoming unable to know where we stand, unable to stand where we feel we should, and even unable to feel like we can stand where we are. The climate of academic crisis in the United States makes scholarship itself feel at risk. Who among us in the future will still feel secure enough to wrestle with the obvious spectres that haunt our work, but which speaking about brings risks to us and to our continued access to sources?

Selected Recent Scholarship on the Rise of the Religious Right

Comics and the Superhero Afterlife

Comic books are reliable. Every month readers can expect another installment of their favorite comic on the shelves. Characters facing insurmountable odds will find a way to victory. Nemeses will be defeated. And should a hero die, they are likely to be re-born. In some sense, to be a hero is to be immortal. Even extraordinary humans such as Bruce Wayne (Batman), find their identities preserved for all time by turning the secret hero’s mask into a mantle to be bequeathed on worthy successors. One widespread trope has been much ignored by comic fans and scholars–the journey to the afterlife. Like the katabasis or descent into the Underworld of Orpheus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Theseus, and dozens of other mythical figures, modern comic book superheroes routinely journey to heaven, hell, and other landscapes of the afterlife.

A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. In the pages of comic books, Lewis explains, the popular elements of the journey to the afterlife become surfaces upon which can be written a kind of “special reality” whose artificiality makes it possible for readers (and writers) to have discussions about serious issues but never fully commit to the vision of the comic books. For Lewis, that so many different versions of this journey exist but have yet to be readily acknowledged speaks to the major tensions in western culture. One central concern, he maintains, is the unspoken effort to preserve models of self that are unified. “We don’t want see our selves as multiples,” says Lewis. We want to be unified, “whole individuals.” And yet recent work on healthy multiplicity by Helene T. Russell and J. Hills Miller suggests that by accepting “people [as] constructed by many selves” we can further the work of religious pluralism and enhance inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

comicFor those who may still see comic books as unworthy material for serious scholarship, A. David Lewis’ recent work (2014’s American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife or his 2010 co-edited collection Graven Images) should be a warning to re-think your position. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, Flash, Green Arrow) and a rising tide of superhero films and franchises (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers), there has never been a more essential time to recognize the cultural merits of comic books and seek out their academic rewards.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with A. David Lewis on “Religion and Comic Books“, and also recent interviews with Carole Cusack on “Religion and Cultural Production” and Alana Vincent on “Religion and Literature“. 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, Amazon.com, orAmazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying comic books, pizza cutters, incense sticks and other cultural products.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

A Field Little Plowed? The Study of Religion and the Built Environment Today

 

Let me begin with a mythological allusion. The Roman god Janus was often depicted with two faces to signify his interstitial nature. He looked into the future and past, and oversaw beginnings and endings. He marked the boundaries between inside and outside. Janus, the gateway god, seems a suitable reference for my polarized reaction to Durham University Senior Lecturer Peter Collins’s interview on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

From one perspective, I was delighted to hear a fascinating discussion of how Collins came to study the built environment early in his career. Using his experience studying an adjacent Quaker meetinghouse and an Anglican church, he demonstrates the many joys of reading the built environment closely. It is obvious, too, that he is productively sharing his skills with his students in the field. Teaching undergraduates the value of examining the built environment is a true service to the academy. We should all be so lucky to have Durham Cathedral or delightfully juxtaposed religious buildings down the road for our students to explore! [This material begins at 11:15 in the interview.]

From another perspective, however, I feel quite at odds with his view that religion and the built environment remains a “field little plowed.” The dissertation I am finishing at the moment in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, begins with the premise that the built environment has been over-emphasized to the detriment of other modes of creating and maintaining sacred space.While I nodded enthusiastically when he praised Lindsay Jones’s The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. (It is a fascinating and under-utilized two-volume theoretical work.) I confess that I gritted my teeth when he recommend Pierre Bourdieu’s 1971 essay ”The Berber House.” In 2013 we are still falling back on structuralism to look at religious buildings? (Jones, for his part, would probably be shocked.)

However, lest I be uncharitable to a colleague across the Atlantic, I think that my unease may be less disagreement than the simple product of differences in geography, discipline, and the years between our training. Collins is a social anthropologist who specializes in, among many things, Quakerism in 17th and 18th century England. I am a religious studies scholar who specializes in sacred space in the contemporary United States. I am finishing my degree in June, while he has been publishing for over 15 years.

It reminds me somewhat of Hans Rosling’s famous TEDTalk “Let my dataset change your mindset.” Our conceptions about the world, Rosling argued in relation to the division between first and third world, are not shaped by the time we live in, but by the year our teachers were born. Obviously this is overstating the case. 15 years isn’t that long. And academic discourse is not global health. I think it is telling, however, that my own Master’s degree adviser Peter Williams published his bibliographic essay for The Material History of American Religion Project on “The Built Environment of American Religion: The State of the Art”in 1995. He began by saying “Until recently, the study of America’s religious architecture and landscape was something that had largely fallen through the cracks of academe.” Collins similarly says there is very little on the built environment today. It is “fairly sparse” in Anthropology or there is “very little” in the Sociology of religion and only “slightly more prominent” in Religious Studies. I think–although I don’t have elegant charts to make my case–that today this characterization misses the mark.

Perhaps the fundamental challenge to a mighty wave of studies about the built environment, as Collins explores in the interview, occurs when we move beyond defining the critical terms (religion, built environment, material culture, etc.). When we look at the scholarship on the built environment we are forced to consult an ever-widening set of theories and methods. History, Anthropology, Sociology, Religious Studies, Gender Studies, Architectural History, Visual Studies, Literature, and so on all have contributions to the study of the built environment. The list is as broad as the academy itself. Yet, teaching our students the skills necessary to interpret and think critically about the built environment is a significant obstacle.

Durham Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

I also fully agree that a major issue is how easy it is to overlook the built environment all around us. Collins said, rather earthily, that he wondered “if sometimes it is because buildings are so bloody obvious, so huge and so manifest, that we don’t see them.” Isn’t this the very joke from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

For Collins, the environment is humanity’s water. It is “all of that which exists outside of the human being,” and it includes those elements that humans build. If we want to be sensitive to it, then we must cultivate sensibilities that make it visible and legible. Since the scholarship surrounding the built environment comes from across the academy, it can be a tangle of interdisciplinary webs. Structuralism of the type Bourdieu presents in “The Berber House,” I would be the first to confess, can be a way to untangle this web or even avoid it altogether.

Collins later wonders why, when speaking about Jones’ comparative architectural model, so little has been done with it. If you brave Jones’s volumes, you will understand why. It is terrifically complex. It is also not something that can be presented without modification to undergraduates. [Jones is discussed  in the final 15 minutes or so of the interview.] Nevertheless, its presence here is an indication that the conversation may be evolving in ways that will promote its use in the future.

We are still confronting the double challenges of interdisciplinary expansion and, shall we say, legibility or transferability to our students and the public. The close-reading of the Quaker meetinghouse that Collins offers is a strong demonstration that the rewards of overcoming these challenges are high. I can contribute to these rewards by recommending a few recent titles that deal with the built environment in satisfying and novel ways. A comprehensive list, such as that offered by Williams above, is probably not possible without first retreating bookishly to the corners of the academy where our own disciplines lie. In that respect, the few items in my bibliography reflect my contemporary American biases. I also take “built environment” to indicate much more than simply religious buildings. This is a product not merely of my research in spatial theory and place studies, but of my interests in expanding the study of sacred space beyond the walls of the church. I encourage everyone to continue the discussion and add their own favorite recent items on religion and the built environment in the comments.

Selected Bibliography on Religion and the Built Environment since 1990

  • Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Edited by Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Diamond, Etan. And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caronlina Press, 1999.
  • Eiesland, Nancy L. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2003.
  • Griffith, James S. . Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
  • Jones, Lindsay. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. 2 vols, Religions of the World. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000.
  • Kieckhefer, Richard Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Kerstetter, Todd M. God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. Sacred Ground : Americans and Their Battlefields. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Livezey, Lowell W., ed. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. Edited by Peter J. Paris, Religion, Race, and Ethnicity. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Loveland, Anne C. and Otis B. Wheeler. From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. St. Louis: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
  • Mazur, Eric Michael and Kate McCarthy, ed. God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed. Making Muslim Sacred Space in North American and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Meyer, Jeffrey F. . Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Nelson, Louis P. American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006. 
  • Orsi, Bob, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. America’s ChurchThe National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Shrine in Miami. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
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