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Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

In a co-edited volume, Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Contested Desires, Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen bring together innovative perspectives on the prevalence of images in religious traditions often described as harboring aniconistic tendencies. Should we really see these traditions as “anti-image”? This episode charts some of the major moves taking place in the volume, especially the presumption of the normative stance of aniconism. What if we turn instead to the aesthetic regimes of the religious traditions in question by  considering their shared habitus or the methods of “seeing”used by their members? Such moves reveal the political nature of debates over images, and the power of iconoclasm. Referring to specific case studies from the volume, the conversation offers ideas about re-imagining and challenging the assumption that practitioners of religious traditions such as Islam, Judaism, or Christianity hold a contemptuous view of images. Perhaps an increased focus on aesthetic regimes rather than images can provide a superior way to analyze and select data for this area of religious studies.

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Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam

Podcast with Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen

Interviewed by Candace Mixon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/challenging-the-normative-stance-of-aniconism-in-christianity-judaism-and-islam/

 

Candace Mixon (CM): I am Candace Mixon and I am here with Terje Stordalen and Birgit Meyer. Good morning from me, and good afternoon to you all!

Terje Stordalen (TS): Hello.

Birgit Meyer (BM): Hello, Candace!

CM: Yes, and welcome. I’m so excited to be talking with these fine scholars on the topic of aniconism and we’ll learn all about what that is, and the kind-of theories behind it, and how it matters for the study of religion. I will just note that my interest in this as an interviewer is also invested in my own academic interest. I’m an Islamic studies scholar who works on contemporary visual and material culture related to Shia Islam, and especially regarding Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed, and how she is conceptualised, visually and materially, in Iran. So I’ve travelled there, and seen images there of the family of the prophet kind-of all together in the fabric of contemporary Iranian society. And then some of those images are lessening a bit now, and that’s due to all kinds of different pressures and reasons. But certainly the visual culture is there, the images are there. The spirit of all of that is there. So I’m so excited to talk with you all about your research in this field.

TS: Well I’m excited too, Candace!

CM: Wonderful. So part of the rationale for getting you all together is that you did co-edit a book together called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So I was wondering if each of you could just mention a bit about your own research, and maybe what connected you with wanting to publish and collect the articles in Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

TS: Ok. Do you want to go first, Birgit?

BM: Ok, I can do that. Ok, I am Birgit Meyer. I have been trained as an anthropologist and scholar in Religious Studies. And I have been conducting research on Christianity in Africa for a long time. And in this research I also focused on mission societies, mission societies from Germany, active on the West African coast who, of course, in trying to convert local populations, in a way produce ideas about idolatry, fetish worship and all this. So indigenous worship was recast as being idolatrous and strongly materially focussed, whereas missionary Protestantism was profiled as religiosity that was devoted to the interior, devoted to book reading and all that. And I had long wondered how to come to terms with this clash about indigenous objects and the denigration of indigenous religious traditions as idolatry. I noticed with my move into Religious Studies that there is some kind-of dearth with regard to taking seriously the material dimension of religion which, with Talal Asad, I would attribute to a post-Enlightenment Protestant bias. And I have been struggling, not only empirically but also conceptually, to create more room for material objects and other material media in the study of religion. And it was in this context that I met Terje at a conference, in fact on Media and Mediation, at Oslo University. And there we noticed that although he comes from a different background – he will soon talk about that – we had a number of shared concerns. And so this ultimately led us to delve in this project together. Maybe, Terje, you can first say more about your background?

TS: Yes. Well, I’m Terje Stordalen and I’ll start by saying I’m very happy to be part of this podcast. I was trained as a classical scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament literature and Ancient Near Eastern Religion. So there is a lot of language issues and literature issues of course. But, for a decade or so, I have been headed out of the – you could say – disciplinary silo that they live in down there in Hebrew Bible Studies, and looking more at the wider landscape around. And I headed a few international cross-disciplinary enterprises, one of them was Religion in Pluralist Societies, which was the host for the conference that Birgit mentioned before (5:00). And really it’s been an eye-opener for me to come to Religious Studies, to come to anthropology in particular, and see it’s possible to reflect outside of the scholarly tradition and see new aspects. And I think that’s what we’re doing in this volume. We have a lot of disciplinary traditions meet and converse. And what emerges is somewhat surprising for all of us, I think. A somewhat surprising view of the topic that we had at hand. Of course, down in the disciplinary silo, aniconism is a given. That is just something that everybody thinks is a fact in the old ancient Hebrew Bible religion. But it turns out it’s much more complicated than that.

CM: Well we can think about how pervasive it is. I don’t know what kinds of courses you all teach, but I’m in a Religious Studies program or Religious Studies department. And I often teach “Introduction to Islam”. Or something very introductory and wide-ranging related to Islamic studies. And almost always, the first thing that my students say, if I start talking about Muhammed, or images, or something like that, they say, “Well that’s not allowed, right?” And I don’t know if that’s been your experience also in the classroom, and not just your research there?

TS: Well, very much in the classroom. And not just the classroom. Outside the classroom this perception is very pervasive, as well. Everybody talking about ancient Judaism or Islam thinks that this is the case. Evidently it’s not. It’s not that simple.

BM: Yes, and like, speaking from Calvinist Holland, where I’m teaching, we have also one of the very strong much-reproduced evidences of the iconoclasm of Calvinism that was unleashed in the late sixteenth century – and totally smashed alter images. So often this is taken as proof that truly, from a Calvinist perspective, there’s no right for Christian to use images. But, of course, all these standpoints are far too simplistic and, of course, one concern of our volume is to show very simply and empirically this is not the case. And though we do notice, of course, some reservations with regard to images and visual representation in three Abrahamic traditions, at the same time we encounter a lot of image-making practices, and images that may give rise to all kinds of debates. But nonetheless, there is a whole stock of visual materials that is there, concerning Islam. In our volume we also feature an article by Christiane Gruber, who also has been writing extensively about the situation of images of Mohammed in the Islamic world. You may be familiar with her work?

CM: Oh yes. Definitely. I definitely sort-of work with, and have been in conversation with her about some of these images. So, yes, it was great to see that representation in the volume. But yes, just going back to these issues . . . so we’ve started to dance around the idea of some Protestant biases and some sort-of shaking up of the image question across these three traditions. But I wondered if one or both of you could talk to us a little bit more about what you’ve seen, or how you’ve pitched in the volume, which is as a normative belief. Because that’s something that we always, in Religious Studies, we want to interrogate, what are these normative or – quote unquote – “orthodox” beliefs that seem to take precedence? And maybe just conceptualise that idea for me, that aniconism has become a normative practice in both the academy and in the very specific subfield. Anything more you could say on that?

TS: Well, you know, aniconism is a very ambiguous concept to start with. So in my disciplinary fields it’s used to denote two very different kinds of practices. One is what is called the de facto aniconism, which should name the non-use of figural or symbolic objects – simply the non-use, or the absence of them (10:00). The other is the militant aniconism, which is associated with iconoclasm and the destroying of cultic objects – almost all kinds of cultic objects, but certainly objects that are thought to represent a deity. And already this is a distinction that is lost on many people. They always think of aniconism as the latter, which, in the historical record, evidently is not the case. But then you have some normative concepts on top of that. And usually in Christian and, I think, Islamic tradition, very often this goes to the idea that figurative media are inferior to words. So there is more value in representing the other side – or the “unseen” as we call it in the volume – by words. And that seems to be a perception that caught on with scholars as well. I mean it resonates with modernist philosophy which, for instance, Yvonne Sherwood documents very well in our book. But it doesn’t really make sense when you go back and look at the material. I think my greatest surprise was when, having done the research, I realised that aniconism is just another aesthetic regime. You’re still using material media and certain constellations to convey specific things. And it’s not all that different from a more iconic-oriented cult.

BM: And that’s, of course, interesting. So even if you notice certain aniconic strands in Christian or Judaic and Islamic traditions, this would not apply to uplift this aniconism into a more general scholarly stance. And what motivated us very much to do this book is on the one hand, to document attitudes towards images, different visual regimes at different times and places in these religious traditions. But we also wanted to, in a way, challenge the study of religion to move beyond a kind-of presumed normative idea that is tied to these religious traditions, that somehow images would matter less. And you can find even a kind-of normative resuscitation of the second commandment in critical works that Bruno Latour and WT Mitchell – scholars whose work I value very strongly but I also find somewhat limited, perhaps due to some distance from theology or knowledge about the Old Testament. So in my own article, in the first part, I also addressed Latour’s famous introduction to the Iconclash volume, in which he writes about the second commandment and its interpretation. And the second commandment, in his view, stating that humans are not allowed to make any representations. And obviously, this is not at all how this commandment would have been understood across time by most of the people who were trying to obey it. So the irony is that, even in secular theory formation that deals in interesting ways with images, we find remnants of normative ideas about the interdiction to use images. And we decided, in this volume, to work through these things, and work towards an approach to visual regimes in which images function by, for example, getting some more information from art history. Which is I think a very fertile cross-disciplinary encounter that stimulated a lot of the scholars in this book.

CM: Yes. So these are wonderful points. And something that Terje mentioned was that these inclinations to either distrust the image, or put it on a lower pedestal, are also represented of course in the academy as well – so, how we produce knowledge. And, as Birgit also mentioned, in sort-of secular theory, all of these systems reproduce the idea of logos as being the primary method through which we prove that we have knowledge. So dissertations are written in text, and visual means, or video, or other sorts of things might be an accessory, or an appendix, or some sort-of additional thing (15:00). But even within the academy the way that we have our knowledge structured is also centred on the written language as the primary and authoritative means. And that’s something that I often work through with my students considering, when we talk about early Islamic history, and we think about, of course, oral traditions and spoken word. And I know that you have some chapters related to sound in Islam, for example. But thinking about the sort-of prevalence that our students and our publics see in the trust that they give the written word over any other means of representation I think is really striking and kind-of just shows how pervasive this normative idea of aniconism, in various ways, has become.

TS: I think you’re right. I think you’re right. And I think, actually, it relates to our understanding of concepts. Because we tend to identify words as concepts. We don’t see the fact that words are media too. So there is an underlying sense, in our culture, that if you can just grasp the concept you have grasped reality. Whereas material media have more distance, and they’re more fixed, so they’re not so flexible and so forth. So there is a very fundamental philosophical perception underlying all of this. And that needs to be challenged properly, I think.

BM: Yes. And for me, in a way, to point out that the way in which we have configured research in religion, in privileging textual and word-centric approaches. And figuring out how these approaches are tied, in fact, to perhaps quite hidden normative claims that are grounded in the religious traditions we are then studying. And pointing that out. It is important to see that we need to move beyond this lingering aniconism and develop alternative concepts, but also methods. I’m very much interested in developing a new ways of studying religion. I have been working for quite some time in mediation approach. And I would say that, in a way, religions develop different kinds of media and text as well as images, as well as buildings, as well as even food. And, as scholars, we need to be able to analyse these kinds of media – also, of course, by engaging with scholars who have a lot of knowledge about them. And in this volume, our attempt was very much to unpack, in a way, visual media and processes of figuration and imagination, in conversation with scholars in art history. And, in particular, with a particular German strand in art history which is called bildwissenschaft. It’s developed by such scholars as Hans Belting, Christiane Kruse – who also has an article in our volume – Gottfreid Boehm and others.

TS: And you might add to all that also an interest which is brought on by you, Birgit, a focus on the sensation, the use of the human sensorium, here. And in order to get a grasp of what religion does to people, or what people do with religion, you need to see all the senses playing together and all the different media form a sort-of totality. And that’s what we should see, as scholars of religion, when we approach these phenomena. Not just the concepts that the religious elites or scholarly elites would condense from all that.

BM: Exactly. And I think that is how we try to broaden, here, thoughts, figurations and sensations of the unseen. And it is these two strands. So the figuration of the unseen, the mediation of the unseen – which is, of course, projected through these figurations and becomes tangible through them. And the ways in which this process of making tangible an unseen also calls on particular kinds of sensations. And we argue that different religious traditions may well be compared and distinguished by looking at the ways in which they offer figurations of an unseen, and represent mediated different sensorial profiles that are engaged in doing so. And I think this is a kind-of programme that adjoins the different chapters in this volume (20:00).

CM: Yes, that’s really wonderful. I was thinking both about the sort-of insistence on media as mediation. And I know that’s a very obvious sort-of connection for the word to make. But I think saying it like that, so saying “media as mediation”, I think really helps us draw that point home: that it is some sort-of communication. And whether that image is between trying to figure out how to represent god, a god, some sort-of deity, or some other expression of a religious practice, feeling etc., that that media is the communicative work there. So I just really like that sort-of repeating that, and thinking through that word. So with that I wondered, I mean, Terje – I know, in your chapter, you mention the challenges of a logo-centric ideology and the distrust of a medium to be able to represent, or perhaps mediate a deity. So I wondered if, in your specific example, if you could tell us a little bit more about the idea of distrusting a media to be able to work enough to represent a deity or some other religious idea.

TS: OK. I can do that. I will need to get a little specific, then, and chart some of the presumptions that I work on.

CM: Yes. It would just be nice to have a little bit more of, maybe, a detailed case study that we can think through, as we get these more generic and broader sweeps that we’ve made, or that you all made in the volume. So that’d be wonderful.

TS: OK. Well it’s an accepted view among scholars that there are different strata, different strands of Biblical Hebrew literature. And they’re not all equally strange to figurative representations of the deity. So I decided that I’ll take the most restrictive strand: the Deuteronomistic strand, as we call it. And they’re the ones that give these bans on images that have become so normative in scholarship. They have edited a long line of literature, which we call the Deuteronomistic history. And in this work you have early sources. So you can, in that work, see how they interacted with less iconoclastically-minded ideologies. I thought that might be a good case study. So I took a narrative on the building of the Temple of Solomon. I’m not saying that temple ever existed, but it’s very easy to imagine that temple from the account given in the Biblical record. In fact it has been imagined time and over, and still is around the world. So you would expect, if these people really were as aniconic as we think they should be, they would make sure to present for us an image of a temple where imagery and symbolisations played no role at all. Almost like a Calvinistic chapel or something like that. But the fact is, their accounts in 1Kings Chapter 6-8 is full of figurations. There are palms, there a lions, there are carobs, there are pomegranates – and, moreover, there is a very clear architectural symbolism. So you have one stage, then they go onto the second stage, and then they go onto the third stage. So I mean it’s full of non-verbal media. The presence of the deity in this imagined temple is not verbal at all. Because when you get to the inner sanctuary it is a complete silence. Right? There is no image. There is no word. So I came to see this as a sort-of expression of a conviction that you simply cannot grasp this deity, and words do not grasp this deity either. And I thought this was, to me, a very instructional view into something that I thought I already knew all about.

CM: Interesting.

BM: But the interesting thing, Terje, is that you do not take this as proof of aniconism, but that you develop this case to show the importance of all kinds of figural representations in evoking a sense of an unseen that is withdrawn. And I found that very interesting. That is, of course, a theme that we find in other articles in the book as well (25:00). For example in the Heike Behrend’s piece on the aesthetics of withdrawal, which I find very interesting. So she makes a point that she works on the Swahili coast, where of course there are certain restrictions among Muslims, with regard to the use of images. But, at the same time, images that themselves are being used in order to conceal certain things. So the image itself maybe employed as a medium for concealment. And I think these are the more fine-tuned aspects in the way of working with images that we try to focus on in our book. We really want to get away from all too simplistic question of “yes” or “no” images are allowed, so as to look at the working with images. And I very much learned a lot from Terje’s piece in particular. Because, Terje, you show the importance of the iconic in reproducing a sense of something that is withdrawn from view, right?

TS: Yes, I think through my piece, but even more through Heike Behrend’s piece, we arrive at the view of aniconism as a regime, as an aesthetic regime. And it makes use of all the media and all the opportunities that you have in other regimes. But it just has a particular profile. So that means that we should go back and look at all these different solutions, and different traditions, and see them more or less on a par, and describe how they actually employ the media and the sensations in different ways.

CM: Yes. Thanks you so much for that detailed look at your case study there, and sort-of rethinking something that sounds familiar. And that’s always the task. How can I interrogate again something that I’m taking for granted? And again that’s the whole point of rethinking the normativity of aniconism. So thank you for sharing that. And another point that I made, as I was reviewing some of these things and thinking through this, is you were mentioning the shared habitus: of means of seeing, or sound, or sort-of the shared communities that make certain regimes of sensation possible in religious traditions. So I wonder if you can mention anything, or offer any examples of a shared habitus of seeing, sensation, in any of the religious traditions you’re working with – especially related to media or images.

BM: Well, I think what was very interesting to look, even across the Christian tradition on which I’m working quite a lot. We have a very interesting piece by Sonja Luehrmann, a splendid anthropologist who unfortunately passed away last August, just after our book had come out. She was an expert on orthodox Christianity and has offered a fantastic piece about the importance of the icon in these orthodox traditions. And what I found fascinating here is that the icon is important, in a way, so as to prevent the human mind, the individual mind, in going astray, and depicting God in all kinds of ways. It is especially the two-dimensional icon that is, in a way, to control, to check the human imagination and frame it in a particular way. So the icon, in this sense, is definitely part of an aesthetic regime that teaches people to imagine the unseen in a particular synchronised manner, which evolves around the figure of the icon. And I thought that this is a really very interesting example here.

TS: We didn’t write this, but I’ve been thinking of it afterwards. Maybe Birgit would want to comment on this. But my impression is that these regimes are all designed in order to intensify certain chosen experiences, and even bodily experiences. So you have, for instance, the one that Øyvind Norderval describes in ancient Rome using the Baroque technique of contemplation and you know, looking at the very Baroque themes that are there. It’s all about approaching a centre, and then releasing the tension at the centre (30:00). And that seems to me to be the point. Whether you use images, or you use them in a restricted sense, or you don’t use them at all, it’s all about heightening the experience when you get to what is perceived to be the central point.

BM: Yes. And I think that is something that I tried even to thematise in my preceding work, when I developed the notion of the sensational forms: the sensational forms that are developed within religious traditions to do exactly the job as you have just described it, Terje. And I would say that in the visual regimes they operate in the context of particular sensational forms that develop, make tangible the transcendent in certain ways, and organise the access to it in particular ways. And I think that one can very well make comparison between religious traditions by focussing in on the different sensational forms and the sensorial regimes within which they function. So, for me, our volume was also one way of playing out in a way or focusing on a particular sensational form that evolves around visuality.

TS: Yes.

CM: Awesome. So with that I was just thinking about learning to see, or learning to experience religion in certain ways through your own . . . through the different traditions. So, I work on contemporary Shia Islam and I know that there’s some pieces in this volume that relate somewhat to that work. But basically thinking about the idea that certain Shia Muslims would have the ability to see particular images and respond, and know that that’s who they are, or who they’re representing, based on just on the common knowledge, and the reinforcing of particular regimes, and aesthetic regimes that make those intelligible; that make an image of Husayn, holding the slain commander general Qasem Soleimani in his arms, as an understandable image that can convey something specific to that audience, where it might not make as much sense to someone who’s outside of that audience. And I think that that shared language of images and of media, especially within religious traditions, is so amazing to think through.

BM: Yes, and indeed we have a piece by Pedram Khosronejad who deals with that. And Gruber’s piece also deals with this kind-of tradition, in part. Perhaps it’s also important to emphasise that in moving, in a way, beyond the idea of a bilderverbot – an interdiction of images – we really focus on the use of images in very different contexts. So it is not necessarily the case – as is, of course, behind the fear of the image being mistaken for the divine – that all uses of images are intended as representations, as figural representations of God. Usually, if one looks more closely, one sees that there are constant deliberations about the potential of images to allude to the unseen. Actually the whole charge even of idolatry, of the mistaking of an image for the deity, is usually a figment of accusation and by no means shared by those making use of these kinds of images. So once one looks more closely, one comes . . . one is able to access much more sophisticated uses of images and image theologies that move far out of this simplistic charge of idolatry, as we find it from conversations and pleasures in the Christian tradition, also within the Islamic tradition, and vis-a-vis for example indigenous traditions in an African context. We barely came across, or I think we never came across anything like idolatry per se, even if there was a profuse use of images made.

TS: I think your point, Candace, is very interesting from another perspective as well. So these regimes tend to develop certain semiotics, so sign systems that will convey certain views and certain values to the spectators. And you need to learn the semiotic in order to understand what is going on (35:00). Now this is, of course, the same also in the European painting and in European Christianity at large. And that brings us to a point which is also important in this book: religious imagery and heritage, cultural heritage. Because it becomes part of a shared cultural property. And people may use it and re-use it in different ways. And there is one piece in our book studying the opera, Salome, and just documenting how many of these original semiotic signs are still there, but in very subversive ways. So that also helps us understand what’s going on with religion and the religious heritage, today. And, Birgit, this is something that you’re very into, for the time being, so maybe you want to comment?

BM: Well, I’m interested in the way that the decline, perhaps, of Christianity as a living tradition across European in all this . . . we should not overlook the fact that Christian images . . . . All kinds of tropes, of course, survive in secular forms. And we believe that with this volume, it builds, in a way, on practices of figuration and sensation within living religious traditions. We are also able to identify the afterlives of these images in secular contexts. So we have indeed Ulrike Brunotte’s piece on Salome, we have Christiane Kruse who works around Michel Houellebecq’s, Soumission, we have Else Marie Bukdahl who also works on modern abstract art, and all that. So that is, in fact, the last part of this volume, where these afterlives of Christian visual regimes are being addressed.

CM: Great. So thank you so much for that too, and again the details . . . thinking through the cultural heritage and yes, these images being part-and-parcel of how, also, outsiders see and visualise these religious traditions. I mean there’s a reason, when people go to Florence or different museums in Italy, they absorb and take in all the beautiful Christian art forms without necessarily understanding the contexts that sort-of brought those particular art forms to light, that would have made a lot of sense for the communities in which they were born into. So on the one hand, we can appreciate the art and the beauty of them, but for people within that community they take on a different meaning.

BM: Exactly and Christiane Kruse, for example, in an earlier work (German title) unfortunately only in German, she offered a really interesting analysis, in a way, of the ways in which theology and art move together – but also, to some degree of course, expand and extend into each other. So she discusses, indeed, all kinds of restrictions with regard to the depiction of the divine with deliberations by artists, who say “Well, the condition for the evocation of the unseen, of the divine, is it’s mediation via the image.” So you see already, in the medieval times, in the Baroque . . . all kinds of attempts at mobilising images in order to make an invisible visible, in the framework of the image, and at the same time seeking to circumvent charges of idolatry which would claim that this would amount to representing the divine as such. So there is a lot of deliberation about the work of mediation that images as media can do, in alluding to a kind-of unseen without ever fully rendering it present as such. And I hope that, perhaps, reading our volume may also alert people that when they watch these masterpieces of art they embed it in broader debates within the Christian realm in this case.

CM: Yes. Exactly. Great. So we’ve gone a little bit more specific. And then I wonder if we can sort-of get closer to wrapping up by thinking, again, more broadly. So, back to the points that I brought up at the beginning of the interview (40:00). Back to this issue – and I think Terje mentioned it a few times – but aniconism is just absence, and anti-iconism, or iconoclasm as “No” – and destruction of images. So I wonder if we can sort-of just think through again that tension or that conflation. And then final approaches to what we can learn from that, for going forward in the field of Religious Studies: how you hope that people will take this scholarship and either apply it, or rethink their own research materials. So perhaps just suggestions or, again, detail about this aniconism conflation with anti-iconism . . . wherever you’d like to go from there.

TS: If I may have some first thoughts. From my perspective, there isn’t all that much difference between the one and the other. The difference is more in politics than in the use of images. But, obviously, setting out to destroy someone else’s material basis for religion is a very powerful political move. And setting out to destroy someone for destroying one’s own material basis is another political move. And it has created opportunities for religious agents around the world to use the image or non-image question for their political religious purposes. But I think, when you look at the practices, it’s very difficult to see substantial differences between these. Now that’s the religious experts. They would like us to see those distinctions and I think demounting the distinctions is maybe one of the services that we can provide with this volume.

BM: Yes, I think I would endorse this. And say that as scholars we have to be very much aware of the epistemic regimes that have been guiding our research. And we have to be aware to what extent they have been guided, in fact, by normative assumptions rooted in religious traditions themselves. And we suggest, in fact, with this volume, to move beyond the issue of the image question per se, to move beyond the issue of aniconism or anti-iconism versus iconodule attitudes, towards a broader approach that would look at practices of decoration, at visual regimes in which images may take very, very different roles. And of course bilderverbot – the interdiction of images – may be one, but there may be many, many other options. And we should, as scholars, be prepared to see all these options as, yes – on the conceptual level – definitely equal. I think that this is very important also in relation to debates about images and religion in our contemporary society. There is some kind-of irony that, nowadays, often Muslims are told that Christians have no problems with depicting images, with depictions of the divine, anything goes. But it’s only Muslims are not able to see this. Now this is definitely false, of course. And I hope that through our comparative approach, or by taking, in a way, the Abrahamic traditions – and I know that the term also comes with its own problems – but by taking these three traditions together, we can get beyond these very simplistic ideas as we encounter them now, through which post-Christian secular people distinguish themselves from Muslims who are told to also now be able to become iconoclasts. All these are very cheap and simplistic rhetoric, I think, that ask for being further unpacked. And in fact the Figurations and Sensations volume has a sister volume, which is a volume called Taking Offence which I co-edited with two colleagues, Anna-Marie Korte and Christiane Kruse, in which we look at images . . . wars and contestations around offensive images in the contemporary world. So it may be nice to see the volumes together. So in addressing, in a way, image questions conceptually we just have to broaden our scope, I would say.

TS: Yes.

CM: Wonderful. Yes, Terje thank you so much for bringing in the politics of the utilisation of when we get to have that power over the images (45:00). Obviously the Buddhas of Bamyan are often the most iconic example of that, of the destruction of those Buddhas by the Taliban and thinking about, then, the power of trying to provoke, also. So that sort-of Taking Offence volume you mentioned is really interesting there: of having images of Mohammed contests out there, to try to provoke some sort-of response that would then . . . I don’t know, prove something . . . prove all kinds of offensiveness being taken. So the political-ness of when to apply aniconism, anti-iconism or iconoclasm are also prescient, especially right now. And thinking about how relevant images are for communicating larger political goal, not just religious ones. So thank you so much for that. Any final words you’ve got for us? I mean this has been really awesome, and I’ve loved talking to you. And it just makes me more excited to dive in deeper to this book and also the Taking Offence book. But anything other, that you’d like to mention before we wrap up?

BM: Maybe just a small footnote about what I try to emphasise in my chapter and also my work is of course the tremendous iconoclastic attacks with regard to indigenous traditions that have been launched by both Protestant and Catholic mission societies, leading also to the collection of lots of items from Africa, and other parts of the world, that are now located in mission and ethnographic museums. And of course the point that this iconoclastic attack is in fact still going on and launched by many Pentecostal churches. I’m addressing this to some extent, also, in my chapter in the book. And I think this should also be remembered when talking about IS, or the Banyan examples. Otherwise I’m just very happy about this conversation. I’m also very happy about this collaboration with Terje, and the other scholars, and I hope very much that, yes, this work will trigger debates, will trigger more works. So in many ways I’m must say I’m not yet done with this anti-image question! I really hope that, with this, we will be able to offer some incentives to broaden the study of religion conceptually, and methodologically, to indeed research on processes of figuration and the imagination, beyond rather simplistic views. And, of course, there is some good work out there: Sally Promey, David Morgan, we mentioned people in the field of material religion for example, but I do think that this is really a strand that’s ready to have some more attention, in our very heavily media-saturated and image-full world. So we live just in the world with so many images and we don’t know their provenance. We are not so much aware about of the provenance of our stances with regard to images, our preparedness to believe in them or not, and all that. And I think Religious Studies has much to say and unpack here.

CM: Wonderful. Anything other you’d like to note Terje, before we . . . ?

TS: No, I think you’ve covered most of it now.

CM: Yes. That was a great summation. Well, thank you all again. And the book that they’ve been kind-of mentioning, and we’ve been dancing through, is called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and is thankfully open access, which is amazing! So people can access it, regardless of institutional affiliation, and library access. So it’s very accessible. And we do thank you for making that book so accessible. So, on behalf of the Religious Studies Project, thank you all.

TS: Thank you for having us.

BM: Thank you.

 

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Lady Death and the Pluralization of Latin American Religion

In today’s podcast Professor R. Andrew Chesnut reflects on the broad changes in Latin America that show why Santa Muerte is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world. By connecting Brazil’s colonial past to its pluralist present, Dr. Chesnut explains how folk saint culture connects the country’s diverse population of Catholic, Pentecostal, and Afro-Brazilian religious groups. Focusing on lived religious experiences, including Santa Muerte’s unofficial role in Day of the Dead in Mexico, this episode highlights the many different ways Lady Death operates for her devotees and reveals some of the ongoing challenges of studying the religion amid the rapidly changing religious landscape of the Global South today.

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Lady Death and the Pluralisation of Latin American Religion

 

Podcast with R. Andrew Chesnut (31 October 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/lady-death-and-the-pluralisation-of-latin-american-religion/

PDF version of the transcript is available here.

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. I am David McConeghy, and today I’m joined by Dr R. Andrew Chesnut, holder of the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. A Latin American specialist, Professor Chesnut is the author of numerous articles and five books, including his latest – Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint – which is the first and only academic study in English of the folk saint of death. Dr Chesnut is a regular commentator on news and religious affairs and writes a blog for Patheos, called The Global Catholic Review. Dr Chesnut, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s a real pleasure to speak with you.

  1. Andrew Chesnut (AC). Oh it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for the invitation, Dr McConeghy.

DMcC. One of the things that I’m really excited about in your work is that you – especially for American audiences – really let us into an entire world that the Global South is participating in, and that is thriving in Latin America. I think here in the US, and perhaps in Europe – our two major audiences, the folks that listen to us – we need some orientation. We need some help, really understanding what’s going on in the areas that you study. So can you say a little bit about your research, and the kind of questions that really drive your focus in Latin America?

AC: Yes. I really started as a specialist in Pentecostalism in Latin America; more specifically, Brazil. My book, Born Again in Brazil, which was published in 1997, was the first book in English on the Pentecostal movement in Brazil. And over two decades later, it’s still very relevant as today, Brazil is home to the largest Pentecostal population on Earth – larger than even here, in the United States – and who were integral in electing Brazilian President Bolsonaro. After that I moved on. It was very obvious to me, as I was doing my field research in Brazil and the Amazonian city of Belém, that there was intense religious competition taking place among the three major religious groups of Brazil: Pentecostals, Catholics, and the Afro-Brazilian religious groups such as Umbanda and Candomblé – the two most important ones. So for my second book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy, I look at the religious competition taking place in Latin America, through the theoretical paradigm of religious economy – in which you kind-of look at faith institutions competing with each other, much in the same way that commercial enterprises do in the commercial economy. And so I focussed on those religious groups, who in the past century have had the most success in terms of attracting membership. And that would be the Pentecostals, and the Catholic Charismatic renewal – which is the Catholic Church’s own version of Pentecostalism – has been thriving in Latin America and the Global South, as its response to stiff Pentecostal competition. And again, looking at the religions of the African diaspora I also observed Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santería. And then I moved on. As you mentioned, my latest work is on what is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the entire West. Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte, which translates in English both as Saint Death and Holy Death. Unfortunately, Pew Research hasn’t stepped in or Gallup poll, so we don’t have any hard numbers. But after a decade of research, I estimate some ten-to-twelve million Santa Muerte devotees, mostly concentrated in Mexico, Central America and here in United States. So, I don’t know, I’d say if there’s one major or two major connecting threads, in my two decades of research, first would be the paramountcy of faith healing. My main argument that the motor driving the Pentecostal boom in Brazil and Latin America is its emphasis on faith healing. I found that so many nominal Catholics had converted at the time of an acute health crisis, which they weren’t able to solve through the Catholic Church or through secular health care either. And so the Pentecostal Churches always kind of put faith healing: “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, be baptised by the Holy Spirit and this will cure your affliction of poverty” (5:00). And so that, I really find to be kind-of the motor that’s been propelling the Pentecostal boom in Latin America and the Global South. And I was so surprised when I started my research on Santa Muerte in 2009, that also a key component of her appeal, both in Mexico and here in the United States, is her role as a curandera or faith healer. So many people come to her major shrines in Mexico, either giving thanks for a healing they believe that she performed for them or for a family member, or asking her for that. And so that was just one of the great surprises in my research. Who was going to imagine that this fierce looking death saint is also a potent healer as well? So this kind of thread of the great importance of faith healing has been a commonality in my two decades of research, as is my primary focus, really, that’s been on lived religion – religion as it’s played out in the grassroots, in terms of rites and rituals – and (I’ve been) much less interested in the written word, and dogma, and doctrine in my focus.

DMcC: This is a really interesting way to think about your work. One of the questions that I already had for you – and I’ve been engaging with your work, Born Again in Brazil, for some time – talking about the kind of charismatic exchanges between groups like the New Apostolic Reformation, and folks in Guatemala or Brazil. On those kinds of things, you really frame it as a solution to the health crisis of poverty. And it sounds as if, twenty years later – this is an amazing thing to say – twenty years later, you still think that’s true!

AC: Yes, I make the same argument. And especially, as I throw in, since prosperity theology has essentially become hegemonic theology among Pentecostals, and many Evangelicals across the Americas. And, as we see, it’s kind-of the unofficial theology of the Trump administration here.

DMcC: Right. Absolutely.

AC: So I’d throw in the element of prosperity, which wasn’t as prevalent when I initiated my research – what, twenty-five years ago? But yes, the health component is still, I’d say, the sine qua non of Pentecostalism’s appeal in Latin America and the Global South. And even here, in the United States. You know the great pioneering Pentecostal televangelist, Oral Roberts, who brought the message on TV for the first time in the United States: really the crux of his message was faith healing, as well. Benny Hinn, as well. So the whole prosperity element of it gets so much attention lately, but we can’t forget the other part of the equation.

DMcC: Do you think that part of this is sales pitch for the shift, maybe, from stronger Catholicism that was not charismatic, to the rising Pentecostals, and then Catholic competition in charismatic spaces? That that framework is really only exposed through the kind of lived experience stuff that you work on? You suggested that perhaps the written stuff is less crucial for the way that you think about things. But, when I think of the Pentecostal orientation to what’s important: “Show me the power”, right? “Show me a thing that will have results and that will connect me to the power of the Holy Spirit.” It will do that immediately. It will do it vibrantly. It will do it within my community. It will do it day in, day out. Is that part of the mix, there, that kind of “We’re making really strong claims about what the religious adoption of this can do for you”? And then, collectively, the power of that choice brings . . . the rising tide lifts all boats on that.

RAC: Yes, no doubt, at the macro level. Particularly that emphasis on access and demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit, needs to be physically manifest, right? And so thus the Pentecostal emphasis, particularly in Latin America, of constructing monumental temples, for being seen with presidents and governmental authorities (10:00). Such as I think is poignantly the case with billionaire Pentecostal Bishop Edir Macedo, who has become one of the most visible and prominent backers of the Brazilian president, Bolsonaro. And who recently had him attend one of his Sunday worship services in San Paolo and gave him a five minute blessing, which you can see on YouTube. It’s pretty extraordinary! So yes, at the macro level, there needs to be physical representations and manifestations of the power. And, particularly if we’re talking about the ascendant prosperity theology, you know, that Pentecostal pastors themselves need to be paragons of prosperity – so, the ostentatious display of their prosperity in terms of their choice of vehicles, and their houses, and the temples themselves. So yes, it’s not only at the grass roots, it’s not only lived religion, it’s also the institution. That just tends to be my focus less, but I’m not saying that it’s a less interesting or valid focus.

DMcC: So in the last two decades you kind-of highlighted that prosperity has really taken root. Can you talk a little bit more, for any of the Listeners that may not be familiar with the background, especially of Brazil? I know that many centuries of Catholic dominance there really started to shift mid-twentieth century, with the growth of Pentecostalism there. But then there’s also this backdrop of West African and syncretic kind of openness. And that configuration is so unique, not only in Brazil, but in each country in Latin America, and the way that they do it. Can you talk just little bit about that? The blending that they do so well?

AC: Yes. I think Brazil is particularly fascinating as a country of over two hundred million people, and such diversity! It’s kind-of the country that most mirrors the United States, and is most similar, really – the religious economy – to the United States. So yes, historically of course, like all Latin American countries, it’s a Catholic country. And at the end of the nineteenth century, you had the disestablishment of the Catholic Church from the Brazilian State. Which, of course, sets the legal foundation for . . . not for Afro-Brazilian religions, but the legal foundation for Protestants to start setting up their chapels. And indeed, at that time in the nineteenth Century, you have some of the major US-based mainline denominations going down to Brazil: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. They have very little success in converting Brazilian Catholics. But they do have success in setting up prep schools and universities and such. And then, building on this new legal foundation – at least for Protestants to set up shop – Pentecostals arrive in 1910-1911, and find really quick success in converting Brazilian Catholics. To the point that we already start to have a critical mass of converts by the mid-twentieth century, by the1950s. And Pentecostalism really starts to mushroom in the 1970s and really has been growing like wildfire for the past five decades or so. Talking about the Afro-Brazilian religions . . . and I should say I need to make this so clear. Of the twelve million African slaves who were forcibly brought to our Americas, forty-three percent go to Brazil. In comparison only three percent come here, to the United States. So anybody with any interest in matters of the African diaspora, be it religion or any other facet, by necessity has to take a look at Brazil, if not start with Brazil, because of the sheer numbers. And so it’s no surprise that Brazil is the place – maybe with the exception of Haiti – Brazil is the place where today we have the most vibrant religions of the African diaspora, which historically were repressed, suppressed by both Brazilian church and state, and really only are legalised in the late 1960s (15:00). And today, and again the two main ones are Umbanda and Candomblé. And today they’re thriving – however, they’re facing a new round of persecution by Pentecostals, particularly in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where Pentecostal gangsters raid their houses of worship and try to drive them out of their zones of influence. And so this is another kind of fascinating development. Never, twenty-five years ago, did I imagine that I’d be writing articles about armed Pentecostal gangsters in Rio de Janeiro, who are the agents of persecution and harassment of practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda!

DMcC: When you tweeted out your latest post on that from Patheos, it exploded on my timeline! It got retweeted so much. Clearly, I think, the rest of us share that surprise – that this is one of the configurations that we’re seeing, right now.

AC: It’s surreal. We’re living in surreal times across the board, though!

DMcC: So if we can take that kind-of grass-roots activism that’s happening: one access point from your current research on that is really the broad appeal of Santa Muerte. Can you tell us a little bit about why it is that this really potent symbol is connected to health, and love, and money, and drugs, and crime and cartels?! How did we get from a folk saint to narco-cartels, Pentecostals attacking Afro-Brazilian religious groups? It’s such a stunning transformation!

AC: Yes. That’s a big question. Let me think about where I should start with that! So Santa Muerte goes back to Spanish colonial times, in Mexico, and really is the syncretism or fusion of the Spanish Grim Reapress. And I say Grim Reapress because in Mediterranean Europe, Spain, Portugal, Italy, more often than not it was a female representation. The Spanish Catholic Church puts over the figure of the Grim Reapress as a tool of evangelisation of the indigenous people, here in the Americas. Because of course, in the beginning, they have no idea who the indigenous people are. They’re not in the Bible. Are they humans are they animals? Do they have their own religion? So the Spanish Catholic Church brings in the Grim Reapress to represent death. And of course, for the Europeans, the Grim Reaper was a mere artistic representation or rendition of death that arises during the great death and dying of the Black Plague of the fourteenth century. Europeans did not venerate or worship the Grim Reaper, or repress and imbue him or her with any supernatural powers. And so it’s the case that the Grim Reapress comes over here, for example, as part of Holy Week processions, representing the good death, the holy death of Christ. And again, one of the English translations of Santa Muerte’s name is Holy Death, referring to the holy death of Christ. And so it’s the case that some of the indigenous groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, Paraguay – because there’s two other skeletal death saints which I’ll mention in a minute – interpret the Grim Reapress through their own pre-existing religious contexts, in which the Aztecs, and the Mayans, and the (audio unclear) in South America, had their own death deities, their own death gods and goddesses, such as the Aztec Mictēcacihuātl, which presided over what used to be the Aztec month of the dead – which, of course, the Spanish Catholic Church collapsed into the present two Days of the Dead. So anyway, she’s the syncretism of this indigenous belief in death deities and the Grim Reapress. She goes off the historical record in 1797, and only resurfaces a century-and-a-half later, in the 1940s, when American anthropologists report her for the first time on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, interestingly among Afro-Mexicans (20:00). And, from the 1940s to the 1980s, we have both American and Mexican anthropologists starting to find mostly females, Mexican females, dressed in black, venerating, Santa Muerte. By the time we get to the 1980s, across the Mexican Republic. But during this time, our anthropologist friends were reporting her working only one type of magic, and that is love magic. And so, at the mid-century, the only type of miracle that she is recorded performing is love sorcery – mostly for aggrieved Mexican women who believe their husbands or boyfriends are cheating on them. And so they petition Santa Muerte to take her over-sized scythe, and to cut out the other woman from their husband’s path and to bring that husband, that badly behaving man, back home – humbled at her feet, under the threat of Santa Muerte’s scythe, to never be adulterous once again.

DMcC: That’s a terrifying image!

AC: It is! And so her origins, at least in the twentieth century – and last time I checked and when I did the research for my book, Devoted to Death, her number one selling coloured votive candle was the red candle, not of blood and death, but of the heart: of love and passion. And indeed, still one of her premier roles is as love doctor, or love sorceress. At some point in the late eighties she starts to become associated with organised crime, to the point that today – you’ve probably seen some of my writing along with my colleague and research partner Dr Kate Kingsbury – where she’s been labelled a “narco-saint”. And, in fact, that was the catalyst of my own interest, is when the Filipe Calderón administration ordered the Mexican army, in March 2009, to go onto the border with California and Texas and to demolish some forty Santa Muerte shrines. When I saw that I thought . . . . I knew about Santa Muerte, because I’d been going to Mexico since the early 1980s, but I had no idea that she had been fingered as the religious enemy number one of the Mexican government, at that point. And so . . .

DMcC; Right. If the Mexican Government is issuing statements calling for disruption of roadside temples by bulldozer, you know you’ve really got something on your hands!

AC: Exactly. So we just published with Patheos yesterday about these narco-saints. And so, one of Santa Muerte’s roles is as protectress of cartel members, protecting them from harm, from rival cartel members, law enforcement. But obviously since she’s a folk saint and she’s amoral – she’s not a Catholic saint – they also ask her to eliminate or bring harm to their rivals, as well. And so that’s another important role that she plays – but one of many.

DMcC: Right. One of the things that struck me about it, and I work with far more American stuff, is the work on Saint Jude, for instance, where we really see the lived experience of the relationship of Catholics with their saint of choice as revealing all of the kind-of issues that really matter to a person, and really how it builds their whole world out from the saint, organising the perspectives about it. I think it’s really interesting if Santa Muerte starts off as love . . . the avenging angel for infidelity. We don’t have to work too hard, to draw a line to the cartels, mentally, if we think of the protection of secrecy, right? The protection of the sphere where cartel members are not wanting to talk about their activities, and then avenging those that break that silence, or that are working against them? It’s not a hard road: (25:00) the passion that the scythe brings to the unfaithful husband is the same passion that cartel members hope that she’ll bring to the enemies of the cartel. Is that the kind of way that we should think about it, or is something else going on, do you think?

AC: Right, I think so – particularly since most Catholic saints tend to specialise in one or two types of miracles, such as Saint Anthony will help you find your lost keys or cell phone. And so, very quickly, Santa Muerte morphs from this exclusive focus on love sorcery to, today, being a multi-tasking saint who does it all. So, yes, she covers all bases and that’s part of her appeal, as well. Not only that she covers . . . And going back to her coloured votive candles – which was the schema for the way I organised my book – she has a seven power rainbow coloured candle for those folks who are looking for a miracles on multiple fronts! Which are a lot of people, right?

DMcC: Yes, aren’t we all?

AC: And particularly, we can’t ignore the fact that devotion to Santa Muerte has mushroomed during a time of great death and dying – of bad death, juxtaposed to her name Holy Death – in Mexico. In the last decade, the only country that surpasses Mexico on violent death is another country where I have relatives, Syria. And so we’re well over two hundred thousand violent deaths in Mexico in the past ten years. And so, I’m not making that one-to-one correlation in the mushrooming rise. But there’s no doubt that this hyper-violence of the interminable drug war creates fertile soil. Because there’s a lot of folks who ask her for more life, for more grains of life in that hour glass that she holds, in addition, again, to narcos asking her to cut the life down from their rivals, as well. And so that a saint of death should become so popular in a Mexico of such bad death, in the past ten-to-fifteen years, is of little surprise.

DMcC: You’ve written about a lot of other folk saints as well, like the Our Lady of Oxum, the Black Madonna. Should we be – as Religious Studies observers of folk practice and lived experience – should we be paying far more attention to the kind of constellation of major figures? I think you rightly point that Santa Muerte’s rise reveals how hard it is sometimes for Religious Studies scholars to address the rapid rise of a new religious movement, a new religious emphasis, a new religious symbol. It takes us a long time to catch on to what’s on the ground, to do the research, to publish the research, to have the conversations that really kind-of unpack everything. And what I’ve been really pleased about, every time I see something coming across on Patheos, is how vibrant it all seems. Everything is new to me about this, being a non-specialist in the area. Do you feel like more of this is needed, that we need to pay attention to more of these things, in all the places that we can find them?

AC: Yes. I think what you’re pointing at is . . . . And I’m also a big fan of paying attention to macro trends. In fact, I was a lead academic consultant on the landmark Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape that came out in 2014. So I paid attention to macro trends as well. So one of the great . . . the greatest trend in Latin America, on a religious landscape, in the past four or five decades is pluralisation. And whereas for four centuries one’s religious identity was inherited or bequeathed, Catholicism now, for many folks – as it is the United States – it’s elected, it’s chosen. And so, you know, there’s Mexicans who are finding Santa Muerte is far more appealing – far more, let’s say, efficacious than certain Catholic saints – and so they go that route. New Age beliefs are also very prevalent in Latin America. And so it’s a diversification, it’s a pluralisation. And indeed, just like in the United States, one of the fastest growing groups are the religious “nones”: those who have no institutional religious affiliation (30:00). The last Pew Survey shows that, here in the United States, the religious nones are up to twenty six percent, which means there are six percent more of them than there are Catholics, because Catholics are down to twenty percent in the United States. And in Latin America it’s about fifteen percent, and exceedingly higher among Latin American millennials and Generation Z as well. So Santa Muerte and all of these other folk saints I would just put under this big tent of pluralisation, of the kind of robust diversification and religious choices that we’ve had for a long time in our own country.

DMcC; It’s really interesting to think about that as a kind of great awakening that’s happening in Brazil, right? The voluntary-ism of America, that we tend to associate with the development of multiple Protestant denominations, really, in my mind, is the kind of language that I’m hearing you talk about with that, to hear the pluralisation of religious impulses there. But also, the nones really surprises me too. I heard a talk recently by one of Pew Forum’s head researchers and like you, he highlighted that the nones are growing basically, in the US, at about one percent per year. Catholics are down to twenty-one percent now. But he cited that globally, when you talk about that, that’s not what we’re seeing. I’m hearing a little pushback from you that Brazil, in its parallels with the US, is actually . . .

AC: Yes. I hate to contradict my associates at Pew, but I just saw the other day on Twitter, that in the Arab world we’re seeing significant rise over the last decade of religious nones as well. So there’s a hemispheric-wide trend from Canada, down to Argentina, and the United States. Western Europe, of course, was the one who really pioneered secularisation. In fact, all the sociological models of secularisation that arose in the seventies and the eighties were mostly based on the Western European experience. Peter and his associates. So, yeah, we have evidence that in other parts of the world –namely, lately, the Arab world – it’s happening as well. So it’s not only peculiar to our own Americas here.

DMcC: I don’t know that those are necessarily contradictory. I think what it tells us is that the situation is changing so rapidly right now, that data that’s even a few years old – if you’re thinking of data from 2010, right? We’re off by many percentage points now, in that data. And when you’re talking on a global scale you run into huge problems. I always tell my students, when we’re talking about China, that as far as I can tell and based on the work of other experts, the survey data that we have on religion in China is basically useless. When there’s a global survey about what religion is like in China, that billion people in China is not being reflected by that data very well at all. And I think we see that in sub-Saharan Africa, where we’re talking about the rise of Islam alongside the rise of Catholicism and Pentecostalism. And at the same time, if there’s a secular movement – it’s all happening all at once! I don’t know that the broadness of the data is there yet, and it may take us decades to sort this out. Which, I guess, I’m thankful for – because hopefully it will keep us all busy and in business, right?

AC: (Laughs) Right, right. Thanks to Pew in particular, right?

DMcC: Yeah. Absolutely. So we’ve been talking a little bit in the last few minutes about this meta approach. One of the things you said right at the start of our conversation today, was a comparison between President Bolsonaro and maybe some of the current American politics that are going on. In a recent interview with Bradley Onishi that I did, he said similar things to a Patheos post that you posted, with Dr Ana Keila Mosca Pinez, about how Brazilian Pentecostals are seeing President Bolsonaro as the Messiah, or as a messiah. (35:00) Can you talk a little bit more about the parallels between how Brazilian Pentecostals and Catholics are religiously relating to their leaders like Bolsonaro, and how, maybe for audiences in the US, that might be resembling the American evangelical relationship to Trump.

AC: Oh yes. There’s a really amazing parallel there. Again, just as white evangelicals are a major religious political constituency of president Trump, Pentecostals are that for Bolsonaro and Brazil. We know that overall about seventy percent of Brazilian evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro. I don’t think we have precise data specifically on Pentecostals. But one has to remember that about seventy-five percent of all Protestants in Brazil are specifically Pentecostals, so there’s no doubt that Bolsonaro would have received over eighty percent of the Pentecostal vote. And in the United States, actually sixty-one percent of white Catholics voted for Trump. I still think he has majority support, although I have seen it declining. Maybe fifty-one, fifty-two percent. And so we see that same convergence of more conservative Catholics allied with Pentecostals in Brazil, and supporting Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro recently was baptised by an Assembly of God pastor, in the River Jordan. And he definitely hangs around and kind-of identifies Evangelical. But historically he’s been a conservative Catholic. Anyway, so he has the support of many Brazilian conservative Catholics who very much oppose Pope Francis’s agenda on the Amazon, the Amazon Synod that’s taking place right now. So there’s just the Christian Zionism that I’ve written about, too, is just as important in Brazil for Pentecostals as it is for white Evangelicals. And so I think Brazil under Bolsonaro . . . . He’s also in the process of probably moving their embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well. Some of the major Pentecostal pastors in Brazil, such again as billionaire Edir Macedo, actually sometimes dress up in rabbinical vestments and cut rabbinical figures more than they do Protestant pastors! And so, yeah. There’s just a great kind-of parallel taking place politically and religiously between the two giants of the hemisphere these days – Brazil and the United States.

DMcC: Keeping on our kind of current timeliness issue: you said, before we began recording today, that with Halloween coming up – we’re recording in mid-October here, All Saints Day and especially Day of the Dead – that there are actually a lot of really interesting things going on right now, connecting a lot of these themes. The next few weeks are going to be pretty interesting. I heard you say that you were headed down to Mexico for the Day of the Dead. Can you tell us about that? And maybe what you’re hoping to do?

AC: Yes. My current research project focuses on Catholic death culture. So I’m looking at things like Day of the Dead, relics, some of the memento mori that you see in Europe. But specifically, since we’re on the eve of Day of the Dead, this is what I’m kind of most immediately working on. And it’s also related to my previous work on Santa Muerte, in that one of the major trends in Santa Muerte devotion of the past five years is for devotees to integrate the Mexican Death Saint into their commemorations of Day of the Dead. In fact it’s become so popular and so controversial that, annually, the Catholic Church in Mexico issues admonitions for parishioners not to do that, because Santa Muerte is satanic. Honouring your departed loved ones is one thing, but bringing in this heretical Death Saint is quite another. So please keep her out of your commemorations. But I should say, at his point, Santa Muerte has no official annual feast day. But if she ever does in the future, it probably will be November 2nd, the Day of the Dead. Because, again, before the Spanish conquest and colonisation (40:00), it was the Aztecs had this roughly “month of the dead”, roughly corresponding to our August, presided over by Aztec death goddess, Mictēcacihuātl – who many Mexican Santa Muerte devotees see Santa Muerte, really, as the latest kind of incarnation, or reincarnation of.

DMcC: That’s so interesting!

AC: And so it’s like I knew that, since I wrote the first academic book in English on Santa Muerte, that it would probably hard to move onto a new topic. And so here again, in Day of the Dead, we see that nexus with Santa Muerte as well: again, me having trouble moving beyond the Death Saint

DMcC: I don’t know that we should ever apologise when we find something . . . such a rich topic, that connects to so many issues in so many different ways: from immigration, to cartels, to love, to the kind of syncretism that we’re seeing, to politics, it’s such a multifaceted area.

AC: It is, yes. For example my research partner, Dr Kingsbury, is now focusing on her appeal to women and how she’s kind of a defender and protectress of vulnerable women. Because, I didn’t mention it, but, in addition to the narco-violence besetting Mexico, there’s also an epidemic of femicide as well. And so some of these women who are at risk, look to Santa Muerte as a fierce protectress, to protect them from the predatory men. So that’s a whole ‘nother angle that I didn’t really look into in Devotees of Death, that Dr Kingsbury is moving forward with.

DMcC: I can’t wait. I will reach out immediately, so that we can hear the second half of the new story here. One of the things that I’ve really been impressed by, is how collaborative your work is. And as we wrap up here, I’d love to hear about your thoughts about collaboration as a scholar, and what you see as the kind of challenges and benefits of doing that scholarship in a collaborative way. Because I really do think that you and Dr Kingsbury, together, have a special kind of public relationship that feeds off one another, and produces really interesting work. Can you share with us what that’s like?

AC: Yes. For me it’s been very strange because up until I recently started collaborating with her, I had mostly just flown solo. I can’t even think of any other co-authored . . . at least, academic journal articles that I have. All my books were my own, single-authored books. So, yeah, this has been new to me and has taken me by surprise, because our particular collaboration is so easy and seamless. And that, ironically, had been one of the reasons why maybe I had shied away from collaboration: imagining it being difficult, and time consuming, and everything. But yeah. We have great intellectual and academic chemistry, and so everything we do together is as easy as me writing on my own. And so I think both of us have just been fortunate with that. Because one can imagine that, you know, you’re not going to have that rapport with everybody to facilitate that. But it’s been wonderful, because with Patheos, I’ll just say, or she’ll say, “I’ll take this, and you take that” and it all comes together. And she’s British, so at first I was like “OK. So what do we do about our British vs American English?” But we just leave our respective versions of the English language alone and nobody seems to be bothered by that.

DMcC: We run into that frequently at the Religious Studies Project, too! When the emails come from our British founders, Chris and David. You know it’s all the‘s’s and when we’re replying back it’s all the ‘z’s. You just have to roll with it, right?

AC: Exactly. Well, the good thing for me is, she’s in Canada. So it’s kind of up to her to assimilate to our New World English, right?! (45:00)

DMcC: Right. You’re pulling the rug right out from under the English language there. It’s been so wonderful to talk to you, today. I really do appreciate your time, and I hope that all of our Listeners have enjoyed hearing about this really thriving area of research. And if they wanted to find you on Patheos, what’s the name of the Blog that they should head to?

AC: Yes. It’s the Global Catholic Review.

DMcC: Perfect.

AC: And in addition, I also run a Santa Muerte blog with my research partner, David Metcalfe. And it’s called the Skeleton Saint. And it’s like in its seventh year. And it’s the only impartial blog out there, that covers Santa Muerte news.

DMcC: And if folks wanted to find you on Twitter, where you are extremely active and always posting interesting things, what should they look for?

AC: I’m @AndrewChesnut1. Number 1.

DMcC: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for your time, and have a great day.

AC: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, Dr McConeghy.

 

 

 

 

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Discourse #8 (June 2019)

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Discourse, Australia Edition

This week’s episode is a bit special. We’re sharing the newest episode of Discourse, a spin-off show our Patreon supporters have been enjoying this year. Discourse has a globally rotating cast of RSP editors, friends and guests, who take a critical look at the discourse on ‘religion’ in the news and media! If you enjoy the episode, you can enjoy monthly episodes by subscribing just a dollar a month at patreon.com/projectrs.

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 16 June 2017

Sponsored

Conference: CenSAMM: 500 years: The Reformation and its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

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Anthology: Religious Violence Today: Faith and Conflict in the Modern World

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Conference: Going Viral: Religion and Health

October 14, 2017

Boston University, USA

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Conference: Re-imagining the Christian Body

November 2–3, 2017

University of Turku, Finland

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Conference: On Memory, Spirits and Selves

March 9–10, 2018

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July 14–21, 2018

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Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

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Postdoc: Jewish Life in Modern Islamic Contexts

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Jesuits, Mormons, and American Religion in the World

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Dr. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp has written extensively on the importance of space and geography in studying American religions. I interviewed her at the University of Notre Dame, Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion. This session dealt with Dr. John McGreevy (History, Notre Dame)’s new book, “American Jesuits and the World.” Maffly-Kipp and Thomas Bender (History, NYU) gave remarks about the book; McGreevy responded; and two hours of Q&A with scholars and graduate students followed.

My conversation with Maffly-Kipp begins with McGreevy’s book, expands to include her work on Mormonism in contrast to Catholicism, and ends with a discussion of evangelical historian Mark Noll, in whose honor Notre Dame was originally going to host a conference, but was cancelled at the last minute. This free-ranging conversation nonetheless centers on Jesuits, Mormons, and transnational religious history.

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, Frankincense, and Myrh.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World

Podcast with Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Maffly-Kipp_-_Jesuits,_Mormons_and_American_Religion_in_the_World_1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Dr Maffly-Kipp, welcome to the Religious Studies Project

Laurie Maffly-Kipp (LMK): Thank you.

DG: We’re here at the Morris Inn, at the University of Notre Dame. We just finished the Cushwa Centre’s Biannual Seminar in American Religion, discussing John McGreevy’s book on Jesuits in the World. So, you have been writing about space, and geography, and understanding religion for more than twenty years now, beginning with your essay in Thomas Tweed’s edited volume, Retelling US Religious History. I’d be curious to know how your views have evolved, and what you believe is the importance of space and geography in studying American religions.

LMK: That essay was my initial foray into the field and it was more of a thought piece, based on sort-of the hypothetical question of: what would you do if you didn’t narrate American religious history from the perspective of European movements from East to West – particularly British American movements. In a sense, it was also inspired by the work, in the 1930s, of Herbert Bolton – who was a historian of empires in the New World – and his basic observation that the Spanish Empire had been a part of North America and South America, long before the British ever came along. So, what would it do to sort-of retell the story of the growth of the US nation and religion in that sort-of setting, but come at it from the perspective of all theses different movements into North America, at various points in time? So that was, I think, a framework that I laid out. And since then I’ve been, I guess, exploring different avenues into that. Most recently, I’ve been spending time doing work on Mormon history and looking at Mormonism. But I think that that focus on space has then led me to think about Mormonism differently: how do I think about Mormonism as having a particular kind of centre in the United States, but also has having other areas in other parts of the world that are significant for particular purposes?

DG: So today, the book we’ve been talking about – American Jesuits in the World, by John McGreevy – it’s dealing with, well, somewhat missionary activity, but a little different from what you focus on. Because you’re often talking about American Mormons going outwards, whereas he’s talking about, at first, Europeans coming to missionise America. Can you talk a little bit about the differences you see between Mormons and Jesuits operating on the world stage?

LMK: Well, they’re very different. I mean, certainly, they’re different in terms of having a different focus on what they were doing with other people. So, for Jesuits: Jesuits are a particular Catholic order; their jobs revolve around educating peoples, administering the sacraments and keeping people in the faith. For Mormons, the goal tends to be to create habits of discipline and industry – much like those of the missionaries themselves. There’s sort-of a distinct separation between the kinds of spiritual practices that a Jesuit missionary undertakes, and what he’s trying to inculcate in other people. Whereas, for Mormon’s, they were sort-of one and the same thing. So that’s just one small difference. But, I think, on all kinds of different levels there are differences. But there are also similarities, because Mormons are also exiles – perhaps exiles in their own land. But they have a very – I guess, the best way to put it is – angular relationship to the US government in the 19th century, and often a very combative relationship. So, they aren’t sold on the idea of the nation state as necessarily an all-encompassing good, just as the Catholics are disaffected from the US Government in various ways.

DG: Well, certainly, one of the points that came up in the Q and A session, today, was that the Jesuits were roundly denounced as a secret society on the floor of Congress – one that should be banned. But there wasn’t widespread Catholic persecution in the 19th century, the way we saw against the Mormons.

LMK: I don’t know, I think you could argue with that: the burning of convents, riots in the streets . . .

DG: Well, that’s true.

LMK: . . . in Philadelphia and Boston. So, in some ways, I think that the tensions were manifest in more physical kinds of ways than they were for the Mormons. There were a few incidents with the Mormons. And the Mormons certainly fought back at various points. So I think, actually, a comparison of them is really helpful to see the ways that Protestant America was shaping the limits of its own toleration.

DG: I suppose, what I was thinking of more was that there was not state legislation against the Catholic Church in the way that there was, for instance, when the Governor of Missouri declared war on the Mormon people, saying: “Leave my state or I’m going to kill all of you!” (5:00) That is a difference.

LMK: Right! Yes. You’re right. That’s a difference. Although, I think one of the interesting things about John McGreevy’s book is the way he points out how assiduously Protestant Americans worked to create laws that would exclude Catholics in certain kinds of ways. So, from public education: there were certain rules put in place that made it obvious that the Catholics were not going to fall within the bounds of the law. I mean, their kind of education wouldn’t be acceptable as a form of public education. So, it seems to me that the very creating and shaping of laws is another way to put boundaries around religious toleration.

DG: Now, I’m curious also . . . You’ve obviously read the book – you’ve just delivered a short paper commenting on it. If you were writing a book about transnational religion in the 19th century – I mean, McGreevy is focussing on the ideas of nationhood and politics – what would be the factors that you’d want to pursue? What do you see as mattering the most?

LMK: Well, in fact, I am writing that kind of book right now.

DG: Well that’s fortuitous!

LMK: Yes. So, in fact, I am writing a book on transnational religion, in that I am writing a history of Mormonism that tries to take seriously Mormonism as a global religion and an international movement from the beginning, not simply since World War II. It’s certainly the case that there are now more Mormons outside the US than in, but even in the 1850s there were more Mormon’s in England than in the US.

DG: Oh certainly, they were very active with sending missionaries – also to Scandinavia as well as England.

LMK: Later, to Scandinavia. There were sort-of waves of migration, and missionisation and migration, starting with England and moving into Scandinavia by the 1860s and 1870s. And all of those – or many, many of those people – came over to the US, and really saved what had been a dying movement by the 1850s.

DG: Yes. I believe you mentioned, during the Q and A period, that most Mormons at the end of the 19th Century in America were foreign-born.

LMK: Either foreign-born or second generation at best. Because, yes, the bulk had been immigrants.

DG: That’s not a comment that the Church stresses very much any more!

LMK: No, but it’s also not a comment that other historians have noticed much.

DG: Certainly not.

LMK: I think the focus has been on Mormonism as a distinctly American religion, which is certainly true in terms of the influences on its founders. But it’s not true in terms of who joined the movement in the first half-century.

DG: Very interesting. I think the claims you’re making will certainly overhaul graduate reading lists round the country – including my own! So, the other thing . . . I’m thinking that at my University , the University of Rochester, the graduate . . .well, loosely defined, our graduate interests are supposed to be around “the world of goods, the world of nations and the world of ideas”. So, a nice way to integrate cultural and social history. Now, listening to the Q and A today, lo and behold! The comments wind up revolving around ideas, goods and nations. So the comments from, for instance, Thomas Bender – one of your co-panellists – saying that we should think of the Jesuits as a cosmopolitan religion; the discussion from Dr McGreevy that later Jesuits were embracing American nationalism, even though they weren’t necessarily OK with separation of church and state; and your discussion of the culture Jesuits were bringing from around the world. Now, I just recapped – for the listeners – a lot of material and I certainly threw a lot at you, but I’d be curious . . . . These concepts of the physical things and the more intangible things: what do you see of those as their place in American religion?

LMK: What do I see as the place of those in American religion?

DG: So, I suppose, is there an aspect: nationhood, ideology, material culture? Do you see one factor as being more important than another?

LMK: No. I think what I was trying to call for was not separating them – at least, disaggregating them in some way but not isolating any of them one from another. I think it’s easy. . . . We often get a little too free with our definitions of globalism, internationalism, transnationalism. . .

DG: Sure

LMK: . . . and I think, part of what my colleague was calling for was the use of the term cosmopolitan as sort-of an orientation towards the rest of the world. (10:00) What it seems to me, though, that using that term can do is to draw attention away from the way power flows in the movements: the power of states is one kind of power, economic power is another kind of power. I think that’s how I would break things down. Material goods are interesting to focus on, but there’s also, appending to that, the question of “Who’s paying for what?”

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: Right? And that determines the flow of those goods.

DG: So, if you were to say, simply, that “Oh, the Jesuits were cosmopolitan”, that may be obscuring who’s leading their operations.

LMK: Right. So, if you just notice that they’re bringing chalices over from Italy and putting them into chapels in North Dakota, it doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the circumstances behind those movements. And so, you just don’t want to separate those two things out. I suppose that’s the simple point I’m trying to make.

DG: So, a lot of the conversation today dealt with the fact that the Jesuits do eventually, wind up launching outward from their bases in America to the Pacific Empire. And that really intersects with several of your books dealing with Pacific missionaries. Could you expand a bit on missionaries in the Pacific?

LMK: Yes. I think the 19th Century was the Pacific Century in that regard. If one could say that the 17th and 18th centuries sort-of focussed on Atlantic movements – with the slave trade, with European migrations to the new World – the Pacific Century is very much caught up, at least in terms of the relationship of the US to other nations, with: movements from various countries in Asia, eastward; the US becoming an imperial power, moving to places like Hawaii and later down to Central and South America. And those sorts of exchanges and contexts become focal points for interesting religious phenomena.

DG: Sure. And then the other thing, I’m thinking about, though, was – coming towards the end of the conversation – was that McGreevy’s book is mostly focussing on putting Jesuits into the international story, not so much on their interior life. I mean, he touches on that in the discussion with Father Bapst but it’s not the main point of the book. And we’re sitting here at the Cushwa Centre which has. . . the nature of spirituality and history has been a recurring topic for them. Do you think the book could have done more to consider the interior life of these priests?

LMK: By interior life, do you mean . . . ? I mean, he does consider things like the devotionalism, the increasing devotionalism in the 19th century – which is tied to interiority, I guess.

DG: I suppose I was thinking of the one gentleman’s comments which were about: “the book doesn’t really deal with the sort of spiritual exercises that Jesuits do”.

LMK: Yes. It ‘s certainly more focussed on the Jesuits as missionaries. And it struck me, as that conversation was going on, that Jesuits are not necessarily trying to inculcate the same disciplines in the people they are leading to the faith as they do in themselves. And, in a sense, those are almost two different tasks of a missionary. One question is: how do you inculcate discipline, education, bodily exercises or whatever into your subjects? But, as members of a Jesuit order, how do you try to maintain your own spiritual discipline, which might be a very different thing?

DG: Oh, certainly.

LMK: That’s certainly not where McGreevy’s interest lays.

DG: Well, it also brings up an interesting contrast with your work, for instance, studying Mormons – who take the Protestant idea of “every man his own priest” to an extreme, compared to the Catholic priest, saying: “There are certain things that are just for us and not for you.”

LMK: Exactly. Exactly, yes. So Mormons: they’re trying to replicate themselves and say, “This is how you live a Christian life – do as I do.” It’s a lay order, there isn’t a trained ministry, in that sense. So, I think , the tasks are really different. And what the Jesuits are trying to preserve for themselves in their own spiritual lives, can be – and in some situations is – very different from what they’re trying to get others to do.

DG: Another topic that comes up, involving America in the World in Dr McGreevy’s book, is the fact that Jesuits were becoming more politically liberal as the 20th century approached, but they had an interesting relationship to America as empire. For instance, they’re perfectly happy to sail on American ships to go into the Pacific. But on the other hand, they oppose, for instance, the war in the Philippines, in the early 1900s, because it’s a war against a Catholic nation. So, in the Mormon Church, did you find similar ambivalence about the imperial message?

LMK: Earlier on there was a lot of ambivalence about it. (15:00) When Mormons send off missionaries to the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, and later to places like New Zealand, the message is, “We’re also being oppressed by our government, just as you are being oppressed.” In other words, they’re an anti-colonialist movement spreading a message of joining common cause with the oppressed people’s in Utah. “And we will”, you know, “have more strength together”. So, yes, it’s sort-of an interesting thing. And, of course, by the 20th century they are certainly in line with American liberal values in a very different way. But there are other traditions that have a much more – I would say – a much more conflicted relationship to the US Government throughout. So, African American Christians, for example, also have some debates about how much to support the American imperial project, in various places: be it Haiti, where there’s a long tradition of African American missionaries in Haiti; or in Africa, because they have their own loyalties as they see it to people in Africa. So I think the whole issue of loyalties to religion and nation – aside from the Protestant mainstream one – have always been much more conflicted, and often more complicated, than we’ve realised.

DG: So we’ve spent a long time talking about comparative aspects of your work and Dr McGreevy’s work. But, I’m curious now. The role of the Catholic Church today in the United States is . . . . So, just to narrow in on Catholicism: the Catholic Church today is a large supporter of the United States Government, although it’s basically at odds with – sometimes at odds over – social issues. Do you think that trend is going to continue, of the Catholic Church having a liberal voice in American society? Because there certainly was a resurgence of conservatism under John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

LMK: Yes . . . . Historians, typically, aren’t very good prophets.

DG: Yes, so I caveat all of this with, “This may go wrong!”

LMK: Right! You know, I think there are potentially lots of counter-cultural elements in Catholicism . Even the social teachings of Catholicism – there is an anti-militarism which goes way back, that is combined, in ways different for Catholics, with their pro-life policies. So even though they might agree with evangelical Christians or other Protestants about questions of abortion, they’d part ways over the role of the American military and its work abroad. So it’s a complicated picture, I think. And as we’ve seen – and as a historian I suppose my take is – it’ll probably come around again. We will see more episodes of liberal . . . . I’m not a whiggish historian, so I don’t believe that we are in some inevitable march towards progress of all sorts, or enlightenment. And therefore it’s hard to predict what the next step would look like.

DG: Absolutely. The thing that’s been weighing on my mind – less so than recent political developments – is population shifts and demographics in the Catholic Church. I mean, certainly, with the rise of birth control – despite what bishops might want to know – the families are smaller now than they were in, say, the 1800s. And certainly, with the rise of secularity, I am curious to see the role of Catholicism in American public life. Dr McGreevy’s book deals with them taking on a larger role and now, I wonder, as the population shrinks, what’s going to happen?

LMK: That’s a great question. We have certainly seen revivals before in this country.

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: So it’s hard to predict. The demographic shifts are obviously significant, but exactly how they’ll play out, I think, is not easy to prognosticate. Just because there are people in the Southern Hemisphere who are becoming the voice of Christianity, it’s not clear to me what political pay-off that has, or what path that portends. In fact, if you look at something that I know a little more about, in Protestant missionary work, the kinds of Protestantism that are making in-roads in places like Africa and South America are some of the more conservative kinds of Protestantism: Pentecostalism . . .

DG: Which is a counter-narrative to the modern, growing secularism in America.

LMK: And now they’re sending missionaries back to the United States.

DG: Really?

LMK: Yes. There are reverse migratory flows of missionaries. One of the biggest churches in Western Europe right now is a church – and this may be out of date because it’s a few years ago someone told me this: that there’s a huge evangelical church that was founded by a Nigerian pastor that has grown by leaps and bounds in Europe. (20:00) Now who that’s growing among, in Europe, is an interesting question. But, of course, the make-up of Western Europe and the United States is changing, as well. So the demography may just follow back to the Northern Hemisphere.

DG: Sure. Well, this discussion of transnational Catholicism and which particular voice will win out, makes me think of the original intention for why we’re sitting here in Notre Dame. So, for our listeners, this conference was originally meant to be part of a much larger conference on the work of Mark Noll, the historian of American Christianity. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the conference had to be, mostly, scrapped. But I’m curious what you would think of this, to bring in Mr Noll as an evangelical historian and historian of evangelicalism. His recent work has been abandoning America Studies, to some extent, to talk about the world. His book, Clouds of Witnesses is about Africa and Asia. So, the work of Mark Noll: how, if at all, does that influence your research? Do you see his views about pluralism . . . do you think those are going to carry more weight, going forwards, in the academy?

LMK: In certain sections of the academy, absolutely. I mean, Mark has been a pioneer in that sort of field, looking at global Christianity, for a long time. And thinking about, well – he’s a historian with an eye to the future, and where the church is going. And that’s certainly a big piece of the puzzle that I think has trickled back into the academy, in all kinds of ways. So I don’t see that stopping, by any means. But the question of what globalism or increasing globalisation of any of these religious traditions actually means for piety, for spirituality, for institutional life is, I think, the next big question. We know what it means in terms of bodies moving from one place to another, but how that actually, then, plays out – in terms of building institutions and building structures – is anybody’s guess.

DG: Well, and you’ve also mentioned – on sort-of a final note – that you and the other panellists talk about how the Catholics have become, you know, comfortable with their place in American society. Whereas Mark Noll, in his works, is talking about how some evangelicals want to make the country an explicitly evangelical nation – and he rejects that, as an evangelical man. So do you see these fights in the academy at all, over how to define religion? Should there be an exclusively Protestant historical mould, or should we find news ways of thinking and defining religion – ways that aren’t just tied to Christianity?

LMK: So, are you thinking . . . ? Yes – I think the horse is out of barn on that one! I don’t see going back to any kind of narrow focus on either churches, or institutional life or Protestantism. But I think, in some ways, the study of religion in all of its dimensions can only enrich the future study of Protestantism, along with other traditions.

DG: Yes, I think pluralism is here to stay. Or, at least, that’s what we’re supporting, right?

LMK: Yes.

DG: And then, a genuinely final note, I’ll ask: some scholars consider Mormonism a Christian faith; others say it is a Christian inspired faith.Where do you stand on those issues?

LMK: It’s certainly inspired by Protestantism and that’s where, if you look at the first sort of members of the movement, they came by way of other Christian traditions. I don’t . . . . The theological question – of whether it is a Christian tradition – I don’t feel, as a scholar, is mine to answer. I guess, on one level, I take seriously the self-identification of Mormons who see themselves as Christians. I think it’s an interesting question to look at. I think there are other Mormons who don’t see themselves as Christian, so that’s also an interesting question: where are the fault lines, and when and where do these questions matter? As a cultural historian, I think those are the more interesting questions for me. But I am not a theologian and I am not a historian of a particular kind of church tradition, so I’ll leave that to the experts.

DG: Laurie Maffly-Kipp discussing bodies in space: what they think, what they say and what they do. Thank you very much.

LMK: You’re welcome. Thank you.


Citation Info: Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. 2017. “Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/jesuits-mormons-and-american-religion-in-the-world/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

 

Healing and higher power: a response to Dr Wendy Dossett

Headlines warning of the social fallout from alcohol and drug addiction often fail to record the remarkable fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have successfully “recovered” from these often devastating dependencies.  The highly lauded “12 Steps” programme, that has fronted the decades long efforts of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as similar organisations, have undoubtedly saved many lives.

At the heart of this success story is an acceptance of a spiritual “higher power” available to all, one which supersedes mere will power and puts them on the road to recovery. In her interview Dr Wendy Dossett explains that Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, founders of the AA and the 12 Steps programme, were influenced by the religious practices of the Oxford Group, a conservative evangelical form of Protestantism, which looked back to the early Christian church for its inspiration. As a result the pair believed alcoholism was a “spiritual malady”.

However, Dossett agrees that this “higher power” in no way automatically means the “God of religion”.  The religious studies academic, a senior lecturer at Chester University, tells the interviewer this higher power “can be anything so long as it is not will power”. Discussing her research she explains that while some of the recovered addicts she spoke to about their experiences identified this power with God, others variously described it as the “spirit of the universe”, nature, or even ”the force” – an echo of Star Wars.  On the other hand, a number felt this power was derived from fellow addicts in their recovery group, while some associated it with their friends and one even initially identified it as the ‘unconditional love’ from her cat.

Dossett makes clear it is essential that religious studies researchers listen to, value and document the experiences of the practitioners of contemporary spiritualities.  And it is equally appropriate for them to use their subject knowledge and skills to identify the religious elements and separate them out so that they did not unduly influence the interpretation of their findings. What resulted in her work “is the actual experience of people who work these programmes”.

It is worthwhile at this stage to point out that while Dossett describes of what she has discovered, what the ‘higher power’ or ‘spirituality’ can mean to others, she offers no definition of her own. I suggest that this disinclination to define the words limits or even forecloses their meaning.  To support her view that the ‘higher power’ is not necessarily religious she referred to Robert C. Fuller’s book (Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, OUP, 2001) which made it clear that although organisations like AA were spiritual they were not aligned to any religion or faith and had no “requirements of belief to be a member”. However does this not beg the familiar question: can we genuinely understand spirituality without relating it to religion or metaphysics?  Can we legitimately define it to be whatever anyone wants it to be at any particular time?  Is there not a danger that a concept like spirituality, when deprived of a specific definition, loses its depth and profundity?

In a direct challenge to those unprepared to countenance a metaphysical view viewpoint, the late Vaclav Havel once warned: “Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment.”  The former Czech president and philosopher continued: “The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility” [i]. It seems to me Havel’s reference to the “immensely complex and mysterious tissue” helps, to some extent, in explaining the concept of spirituality associated with the 12 Steps’ “higher power” and the remarkable recoveries Dossett documented in her research.  And I certainly feel the importance Havel gives to “humility” is mirrored by Dossett’s sensitive approach to her research group and the analysis of her findings.

While those that reject the concept of God can never associate the “higher power” with the divine, it is obviously still appropriate to explore if a metaphysical force might lie at the back of this power and, if so, what it might be. After all the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the late 1930s, are undeniably Christian.

Given these Christian origins, it is relevant to look at the accounts of Jesus’ healings. Like those the programme has successfully treated, Jesus, too, spoke of a “higher power”, although he called it the “kingdom of heaven”.  Interestingly, he also said that he could do nothing on his own[ii], a remark that, in my view, alludes to a “power greater than ourselves”, a phrase 12 Steps participants have also used when explaining their recovery. The Bible clearly links Jesus’ view of the kingdom of heaven with the power he healed by.  Furthermore, later New Testament writings show others in the early Christian Church echoed Jesus’ cures.

But even Christians, particularly within the last 150 years, have often found it hard to regard Jesus’ healings as anything other than myths or natural events.  Paul Tillich recognised this neglect of the healing aspect of Jesus. He wrote that the Gospels ‘abound in stories of healing; but we are responsible, ministers, laymen, theologians, who forgot that “Saviour” means “healer”, he who makes whole and sane what is broken and insane, in body and mind’ [iii]Thus he identifies healing as an essential element of salvation.

Nevertheless, not only has the healing element of Christianity gone largely unacknowledged, it has in fact been almost subsumed by the advances of modern medicine. Be that as it may, many Christians combine their prayers with the work of doctors. In my research on Christianity and healing I am aware of several studies that identify the health benefits of a combined approach to healing such as those done by Harold G. Koenig at the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University, North Carolina.

One denomination of Christianity was founded specifically on the practice of healing through reliance on the power of God alone. The French sociologist, Regis Dericquebourg, using the Weberian typification of ‘ideal types’, defines The Church of Christ, Scientist as the “first healing church”[iv].  Started by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 – Christian Science was a precursor to the approach of the Oxford Group in that it looks to “primitive Christianity” for its inspiration and practice [v]. According to its own periodicals it claims hundreds of thousands of recoveries and cures, many accompanied by medical diagnoses.

If Jesus healed two millennia ago, if subsequent Christians have also used similar healing powers down the centuries, and, if the healings reported by Christian Scientists are genuine, it is plausible that the “higher power” of the 12 steps programme is sourced in a divine power It is beyond the scope of this commentary to explore what kind of divine power this is, but given the roots of the AA, it is likely to correspond with a Christian understanding of God. Whatever the case, the recoveries and healing experiences of those who use a ‘higher power’ are too numerous and too well documented for it not to evoke further study as to how it works and where it comes from. For all its reticence to use religious terminology and perhaps because of it, Dossett’s research indicates that the answers are going to be new and surprising.

Endnotes

[i] The New York Times, 3 June 1992

[ii] Luke 17: 21

[iii] Tillich P, The New Being, Scribner, New York, 1955, p42

[iv] Dericquebourg R, ‘Christian Science: The first healing church’ presented at The Evolutions of Christian Science in Scholarly Perspective seminar, April 23/24 2015, FVG Wilrijk-Antwerp, Belgium. Published in Acta Comparanda Subsidia ll, FVG, June 2015

[v] Church Manual, Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, p17

Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality

When we think about ‘religion’ and ‘youth’ a number of images might come to mind. Young people rebelling against their parents. Young people as mere containers for the religiosity of their parents. Creative reinterpretation of stagnant traditions. Systemic abuse and lack of agency. And so on. In the context of the United Kingdom, where we are recording today, with its historically hegemonic Christianity, one scholar has written that

young_old

“It is no secret that Christian churches are struggling to attract and retain young people. The current generation of young people has largely abandoned the church or never known it as a significant part of their lives. The 2005 church census revealed that many churches have no young people at all in their congregations: around half have no 11- to 14-year-olds attending and well over half have no 15- to 19-year-olds (Brierley 2006).” (Stanton 2012, 385)

But of course, this misses much of what is going on. That scholar is Naomi Thompson (formerly Stanton) who joins us today on the Religious Studies Project to give us a more nuanced overview of the broad topic “Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality.”

We begin this interview by asking what is ‘youth’? How do sociologists define it? What are some of the current trends in sociological research on youth? What, if anything, is distinctive about youth experience? Discussion then turns to ‘religion and youth’, focusing on why scholars might be interested in it, the current state of play, common assumptions, how we might go about researching it, before focusing on some of Dr Thompson’s own research. Towards the end of the interview, we focus on the ‘transmission model’ and the relationship between generations, before thinking to the future of this growing area of research.

This episode is the fourth in a series co-produced with Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, Jaffa Cakes, Lion bars, and more.


References:

Stanton, Naomi. 2012. Christian youth work: teaching faith, filling churches or response to social need? Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 33, No. 3, December 2012, 385–403

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 30 August 2016

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Special issue: Journal for the Study of Religion

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January 9-10, 2017

Pembroke, Oxford, UK

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Aarhus University, Denmark

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – March 15, 2016

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 8 December 2015

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We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

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December 7, 2015

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June 8–10, 2016

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Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

11836824_10156115965565413_2643880199811797492_n

For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, hamster cages, vintage VHS tapes, and more.

Podcasts

Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

In a co-edited volume, Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Contested Desires, Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen bring together innovative perspectives on the prevalence of images in religious traditions often described as harboring aniconistic tendencies. Should we really see these traditions as “anti-image”? This episode charts some of the major moves taking place in the volume, especially the presumption of the normative stance of aniconism. What if we turn instead to the aesthetic regimes of the religious traditions in question by  considering their shared habitus or the methods of “seeing”used by their members? Such moves reveal the political nature of debates over images, and the power of iconoclasm. Referring to specific case studies from the volume, the conversation offers ideas about re-imagining and challenging the assumption that practitioners of religious traditions such as Islam, Judaism, or Christianity hold a contemptuous view of images. Perhaps an increased focus on aesthetic regimes rather than images can provide a superior way to analyze and select data for this area of religious studies.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam

Podcast with Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen

Interviewed by Candace Mixon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/challenging-the-normative-stance-of-aniconism-in-christianity-judaism-and-islam/

 

Candace Mixon (CM): I am Candace Mixon and I am here with Terje Stordalen and Birgit Meyer. Good morning from me, and good afternoon to you all!

Terje Stordalen (TS): Hello.

Birgit Meyer (BM): Hello, Candace!

CM: Yes, and welcome. I’m so excited to be talking with these fine scholars on the topic of aniconism and we’ll learn all about what that is, and the kind-of theories behind it, and how it matters for the study of religion. I will just note that my interest in this as an interviewer is also invested in my own academic interest. I’m an Islamic studies scholar who works on contemporary visual and material culture related to Shia Islam, and especially regarding Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed, and how she is conceptualised, visually and materially, in Iran. So I’ve travelled there, and seen images there of the family of the prophet kind-of all together in the fabric of contemporary Iranian society. And then some of those images are lessening a bit now, and that’s due to all kinds of different pressures and reasons. But certainly the visual culture is there, the images are there. The spirit of all of that is there. So I’m so excited to talk with you all about your research in this field.

TS: Well I’m excited too, Candace!

CM: Wonderful. So part of the rationale for getting you all together is that you did co-edit a book together called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So I was wondering if each of you could just mention a bit about your own research, and maybe what connected you with wanting to publish and collect the articles in Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

TS: Ok. Do you want to go first, Birgit?

BM: Ok, I can do that. Ok, I am Birgit Meyer. I have been trained as an anthropologist and scholar in Religious Studies. And I have been conducting research on Christianity in Africa for a long time. And in this research I also focused on mission societies, mission societies from Germany, active on the West African coast who, of course, in trying to convert local populations, in a way produce ideas about idolatry, fetish worship and all this. So indigenous worship was recast as being idolatrous and strongly materially focussed, whereas missionary Protestantism was profiled as religiosity that was devoted to the interior, devoted to book reading and all that. And I had long wondered how to come to terms with this clash about indigenous objects and the denigration of indigenous religious traditions as idolatry. I noticed with my move into Religious Studies that there is some kind-of dearth with regard to taking seriously the material dimension of religion which, with Talal Asad, I would attribute to a post-Enlightenment Protestant bias. And I have been struggling, not only empirically but also conceptually, to create more room for material objects and other material media in the study of religion. And it was in this context that I met Terje at a conference, in fact on Media and Mediation, at Oslo University. And there we noticed that although he comes from a different background – he will soon talk about that – we had a number of shared concerns. And so this ultimately led us to delve in this project together. Maybe, Terje, you can first say more about your background?

TS: Yes. Well, I’m Terje Stordalen and I’ll start by saying I’m very happy to be part of this podcast. I was trained as a classical scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament literature and Ancient Near Eastern Religion. So there is a lot of language issues and literature issues of course. But, for a decade or so, I have been headed out of the – you could say – disciplinary silo that they live in down there in Hebrew Bible Studies, and looking more at the wider landscape around. And I headed a few international cross-disciplinary enterprises, one of them was Religion in Pluralist Societies, which was the host for the conference that Birgit mentioned before (5:00). And really it’s been an eye-opener for me to come to Religious Studies, to come to anthropology in particular, and see it’s possible to reflect outside of the scholarly tradition and see new aspects. And I think that’s what we’re doing in this volume. We have a lot of disciplinary traditions meet and converse. And what emerges is somewhat surprising for all of us, I think. A somewhat surprising view of the topic that we had at hand. Of course, down in the disciplinary silo, aniconism is a given. That is just something that everybody thinks is a fact in the old ancient Hebrew Bible religion. But it turns out it’s much more complicated than that.

CM: Well we can think about how pervasive it is. I don’t know what kinds of courses you all teach, but I’m in a Religious Studies program or Religious Studies department. And I often teach “Introduction to Islam”. Or something very introductory and wide-ranging related to Islamic studies. And almost always, the first thing that my students say, if I start talking about Muhammed, or images, or something like that, they say, “Well that’s not allowed, right?” And I don’t know if that’s been your experience also in the classroom, and not just your research there?

TS: Well, very much in the classroom. And not just the classroom. Outside the classroom this perception is very pervasive, as well. Everybody talking about ancient Judaism or Islam thinks that this is the case. Evidently it’s not. It’s not that simple.

BM: Yes, and like, speaking from Calvinist Holland, where I’m teaching, we have also one of the very strong much-reproduced evidences of the iconoclasm of Calvinism that was unleashed in the late sixteenth century – and totally smashed alter images. So often this is taken as proof that truly, from a Calvinist perspective, there’s no right for Christian to use images. But, of course, all these standpoints are far too simplistic and, of course, one concern of our volume is to show very simply and empirically this is not the case. And though we do notice, of course, some reservations with regard to images and visual representation in three Abrahamic traditions, at the same time we encounter a lot of image-making practices, and images that may give rise to all kinds of debates. But nonetheless, there is a whole stock of visual materials that is there, concerning Islam. In our volume we also feature an article by Christiane Gruber, who also has been writing extensively about the situation of images of Mohammed in the Islamic world. You may be familiar with her work?

CM: Oh yes. Definitely. I definitely sort-of work with, and have been in conversation with her about some of these images. So, yes, it was great to see that representation in the volume. But yes, just going back to these issues . . . so we’ve started to dance around the idea of some Protestant biases and some sort-of shaking up of the image question across these three traditions. But I wondered if one or both of you could talk to us a little bit more about what you’ve seen, or how you’ve pitched in the volume, which is as a normative belief. Because that’s something that we always, in Religious Studies, we want to interrogate, what are these normative or – quote unquote – “orthodox” beliefs that seem to take precedence? And maybe just conceptualise that idea for me, that aniconism has become a normative practice in both the academy and in the very specific subfield. Anything more you could say on that?

TS: Well, you know, aniconism is a very ambiguous concept to start with. So in my disciplinary fields it’s used to denote two very different kinds of practices. One is what is called the de facto aniconism, which should name the non-use of figural or symbolic objects – simply the non-use, or the absence of them (10:00). The other is the militant aniconism, which is associated with iconoclasm and the destroying of cultic objects – almost all kinds of cultic objects, but certainly objects that are thought to represent a deity. And already this is a distinction that is lost on many people. They always think of aniconism as the latter, which, in the historical record, evidently is not the case. But then you have some normative concepts on top of that. And usually in Christian and, I think, Islamic tradition, very often this goes to the idea that figurative media are inferior to words. So there is more value in representing the other side – or the “unseen” as we call it in the volume – by words. And that seems to be a perception that caught on with scholars as well. I mean it resonates with modernist philosophy which, for instance, Yvonne Sherwood documents very well in our book. But it doesn’t really make sense when you go back and look at the material. I think my greatest surprise was when, having done the research, I realised that aniconism is just another aesthetic regime. You’re still using material media and certain constellations to convey specific things. And it’s not all that different from a more iconic-oriented cult.

BM: And that’s, of course, interesting. So even if you notice certain aniconic strands in Christian or Judaic and Islamic traditions, this would not apply to uplift this aniconism into a more general scholarly stance. And what motivated us very much to do this book is on the one hand, to document attitudes towards images, different visual regimes at different times and places in these religious traditions. But we also wanted to, in a way, challenge the study of religion to move beyond a kind-of presumed normative idea that is tied to these religious traditions, that somehow images would matter less. And you can find even a kind-of normative resuscitation of the second commandment in critical works that Bruno Latour and WT Mitchell – scholars whose work I value very strongly but I also find somewhat limited, perhaps due to some distance from theology or knowledge about the Old Testament. So in my own article, in the first part, I also addressed Latour’s famous introduction to the Iconclash volume, in which he writes about the second commandment and its interpretation. And the second commandment, in his view, stating that humans are not allowed to make any representations. And obviously, this is not at all how this commandment would have been understood across time by most of the people who were trying to obey it. So the irony is that, even in secular theory formation that deals in interesting ways with images, we find remnants of normative ideas about the interdiction to use images. And we decided, in this volume, to work through these things, and work towards an approach to visual regimes in which images function by, for example, getting some more information from art history. Which is I think a very fertile cross-disciplinary encounter that stimulated a lot of the scholars in this book.

CM: Yes. So these are wonderful points. And something that Terje mentioned was that these inclinations to either distrust the image, or put it on a lower pedestal, are also represented of course in the academy as well – so, how we produce knowledge. And, as Birgit also mentioned, in sort-of secular theory, all of these systems reproduce the idea of logos as being the primary method through which we prove that we have knowledge. So dissertations are written in text, and visual means, or video, or other sorts of things might be an accessory, or an appendix, or some sort-of additional thing (15:00). But even within the academy the way that we have our knowledge structured is also centred on the written language as the primary and authoritative means. And that’s something that I often work through with my students considering, when we talk about early Islamic history, and we think about, of course, oral traditions and spoken word. And I know that you have some chapters related to sound in Islam, for example. But thinking about the sort-of prevalence that our students and our publics see in the trust that they give the written word over any other means of representation I think is really striking and kind-of just shows how pervasive this normative idea of aniconism, in various ways, has become.

TS: I think you’re right. I think you’re right. And I think, actually, it relates to our understanding of concepts. Because we tend to identify words as concepts. We don’t see the fact that words are media too. So there is an underlying sense, in our culture, that if you can just grasp the concept you have grasped reality. Whereas material media have more distance, and they’re more fixed, so they’re not so flexible and so forth. So there is a very fundamental philosophical perception underlying all of this. And that needs to be challenged properly, I think.

BM: Yes. And for me, in a way, to point out that the way in which we have configured research in religion, in privileging textual and word-centric approaches. And figuring out how these approaches are tied, in fact, to perhaps quite hidden normative claims that are grounded in the religious traditions we are then studying. And pointing that out. It is important to see that we need to move beyond this lingering aniconism and develop alternative concepts, but also methods. I’m very much interested in developing a new ways of studying religion. I have been working for quite some time in mediation approach. And I would say that, in a way, religions develop different kinds of media and text as well as images, as well as buildings, as well as even food. And, as scholars, we need to be able to analyse these kinds of media – also, of course, by engaging with scholars who have a lot of knowledge about them. And in this volume, our attempt was very much to unpack, in a way, visual media and processes of figuration and imagination, in conversation with scholars in art history. And, in particular, with a particular German strand in art history which is called bildwissenschaft. It’s developed by such scholars as Hans Belting, Christiane Kruse – who also has an article in our volume – Gottfreid Boehm and others.

TS: And you might add to all that also an interest which is brought on by you, Birgit, a focus on the sensation, the use of the human sensorium, here. And in order to get a grasp of what religion does to people, or what people do with religion, you need to see all the senses playing together and all the different media form a sort-of totality. And that’s what we should see, as scholars of religion, when we approach these phenomena. Not just the concepts that the religious elites or scholarly elites would condense from all that.

BM: Exactly. And I think that is how we try to broaden, here, thoughts, figurations and sensations of the unseen. And it is these two strands. So the figuration of the unseen, the mediation of the unseen – which is, of course, projected through these figurations and becomes tangible through them. And the ways in which this process of making tangible an unseen also calls on particular kinds of sensations. And we argue that different religious traditions may well be compared and distinguished by looking at the ways in which they offer figurations of an unseen, and represent mediated different sensorial profiles that are engaged in doing so. And I think this is a kind-of programme that adjoins the different chapters in this volume (20:00).

CM: Yes, that’s really wonderful. I was thinking both about the sort-of insistence on media as mediation. And I know that’s a very obvious sort-of connection for the word to make. But I think saying it like that, so saying “media as mediation”, I think really helps us draw that point home: that it is some sort-of communication. And whether that image is between trying to figure out how to represent god, a god, some sort-of deity, or some other expression of a religious practice, feeling etc., that that media is the communicative work there. So I just really like that sort-of repeating that, and thinking through that word. So with that I wondered, I mean, Terje – I know, in your chapter, you mention the challenges of a logo-centric ideology and the distrust of a medium to be able to represent, or perhaps mediate a deity. So I wondered if, in your specific example, if you could tell us a little bit more about the idea of distrusting a media to be able to work enough to represent a deity or some other religious idea.

TS: OK. I can do that. I will need to get a little specific, then, and chart some of the presumptions that I work on.

CM: Yes. It would just be nice to have a little bit more of, maybe, a detailed case study that we can think through, as we get these more generic and broader sweeps that we’ve made, or that you all made in the volume. So that’d be wonderful.

TS: OK. Well it’s an accepted view among scholars that there are different strata, different strands of Biblical Hebrew literature. And they’re not all equally strange to figurative representations of the deity. So I decided that I’ll take the most restrictive strand: the Deuteronomistic strand, as we call it. And they’re the ones that give these bans on images that have become so normative in scholarship. They have edited a long line of literature, which we call the Deuteronomistic history. And in this work you have early sources. So you can, in that work, see how they interacted with less iconoclastically-minded ideologies. I thought that might be a good case study. So I took a narrative on the building of the Temple of Solomon. I’m not saying that temple ever existed, but it’s very easy to imagine that temple from the account given in the Biblical record. In fact it has been imagined time and over, and still is around the world. So you would expect, if these people really were as aniconic as we think they should be, they would make sure to present for us an image of a temple where imagery and symbolisations played no role at all. Almost like a Calvinistic chapel or something like that. But the fact is, their accounts in 1Kings Chapter 6-8 is full of figurations. There are palms, there a lions, there are carobs, there are pomegranates – and, moreover, there is a very clear architectural symbolism. So you have one stage, then they go onto the second stage, and then they go onto the third stage. So I mean it’s full of non-verbal media. The presence of the deity in this imagined temple is not verbal at all. Because when you get to the inner sanctuary it is a complete silence. Right? There is no image. There is no word. So I came to see this as a sort-of expression of a conviction that you simply cannot grasp this deity, and words do not grasp this deity either. And I thought this was, to me, a very instructional view into something that I thought I already knew all about.

CM: Interesting.

BM: But the interesting thing, Terje, is that you do not take this as proof of aniconism, but that you develop this case to show the importance of all kinds of figural representations in evoking a sense of an unseen that is withdrawn. And I found that very interesting. That is, of course, a theme that we find in other articles in the book as well (25:00). For example in the Heike Behrend’s piece on the aesthetics of withdrawal, which I find very interesting. So she makes a point that she works on the Swahili coast, where of course there are certain restrictions among Muslims, with regard to the use of images. But, at the same time, images that themselves are being used in order to conceal certain things. So the image itself maybe employed as a medium for concealment. And I think these are the more fine-tuned aspects in the way of working with images that we try to focus on in our book. We really want to get away from all too simplistic question of “yes” or “no” images are allowed, so as to look at the working with images. And I very much learned a lot from Terje’s piece in particular. Because, Terje, you show the importance of the iconic in reproducing a sense of something that is withdrawn from view, right?

TS: Yes, I think through my piece, but even more through Heike Behrend’s piece, we arrive at the view of aniconism as a regime, as an aesthetic regime. And it makes use of all the media and all the opportunities that you have in other regimes. But it just has a particular profile. So that means that we should go back and look at all these different solutions, and different traditions, and see them more or less on a par, and describe how they actually employ the media and the sensations in different ways.

CM: Yes. Thanks you so much for that detailed look at your case study there, and sort-of rethinking something that sounds familiar. And that’s always the task. How can I interrogate again something that I’m taking for granted? And again that’s the whole point of rethinking the normativity of aniconism. So thank you for sharing that. And another point that I made, as I was reviewing some of these things and thinking through this, is you were mentioning the shared habitus: of means of seeing, or sound, or sort-of the shared communities that make certain regimes of sensation possible in religious traditions. So I wonder if you can mention anything, or offer any examples of a shared habitus of seeing, sensation, in any of the religious traditions you’re working with – especially related to media or images.

BM: Well, I think what was very interesting to look, even across the Christian tradition on which I’m working quite a lot. We have a very interesting piece by Sonja Luehrmann, a splendid anthropologist who unfortunately passed away last August, just after our book had come out. She was an expert on orthodox Christianity and has offered a fantastic piece about the importance of the icon in these orthodox traditions. And what I found fascinating here is that the icon is important, in a way, so as to prevent the human mind, the individual mind, in going astray, and depicting God in all kinds of ways. It is especially the two-dimensional icon that is, in a way, to control, to check the human imagination and frame it in a particular way. So the icon, in this sense, is definitely part of an aesthetic regime that teaches people to imagine the unseen in a particular synchronised manner, which evolves around the figure of the icon. And I thought that this is a really very interesting example here.

TS: We didn’t write this, but I’ve been thinking of it afterwards. Maybe Birgit would want to comment on this. But my impression is that these regimes are all designed in order to intensify certain chosen experiences, and even bodily experiences. So you have, for instance, the one that Øyvind Norderval describes in ancient Rome using the Baroque technique of contemplation and you know, looking at the very Baroque themes that are there. It’s all about approaching a centre, and then releasing the tension at the centre (30:00). And that seems to me to be the point. Whether you use images, or you use them in a restricted sense, or you don’t use them at all, it’s all about heightening the experience when you get to what is perceived to be the central point.

BM: Yes. And I think that is something that I tried even to thematise in my preceding work, when I developed the notion of the sensational forms: the sensational forms that are developed within religious traditions to do exactly the job as you have just described it, Terje. And I would say that in the visual regimes they operate in the context of particular sensational forms that develop, make tangible the transcendent in certain ways, and organise the access to it in particular ways. And I think that one can very well make comparison between religious traditions by focussing in on the different sensational forms and the sensorial regimes within which they function. So, for me, our volume was also one way of playing out in a way or focusing on a particular sensational form that evolves around visuality.

TS: Yes.

CM: Awesome. So with that I was just thinking about learning to see, or learning to experience religion in certain ways through your own . . . through the different traditions. So, I work on contemporary Shia Islam and I know that there’s some pieces in this volume that relate somewhat to that work. But basically thinking about the idea that certain Shia Muslims would have the ability to see particular images and respond, and know that that’s who they are, or who they’re representing, based on just on the common knowledge, and the reinforcing of particular regimes, and aesthetic regimes that make those intelligible; that make an image of Husayn, holding the slain commander general Qasem Soleimani in his arms, as an understandable image that can convey something specific to that audience, where it might not make as much sense to someone who’s outside of that audience. And I think that that shared language of images and of media, especially within religious traditions, is so amazing to think through.

BM: Yes, and indeed we have a piece by Pedram Khosronejad who deals with that. And Gruber’s piece also deals with this kind-of tradition, in part. Perhaps it’s also important to emphasise that in moving, in a way, beyond the idea of a bilderverbot – an interdiction of images – we really focus on the use of images in very different contexts. So it is not necessarily the case – as is, of course, behind the fear of the image being mistaken for the divine – that all uses of images are intended as representations, as figural representations of God. Usually, if one looks more closely, one sees that there are constant deliberations about the potential of images to allude to the unseen. Actually the whole charge even of idolatry, of the mistaking of an image for the deity, is usually a figment of accusation and by no means shared by those making use of these kinds of images. So once one looks more closely, one comes . . . one is able to access much more sophisticated uses of images and image theologies that move far out of this simplistic charge of idolatry, as we find it from conversations and pleasures in the Christian tradition, also within the Islamic tradition, and vis-a-vis for example indigenous traditions in an African context. We barely came across, or I think we never came across anything like idolatry per se, even if there was a profuse use of images made.

TS: I think your point, Candace, is very interesting from another perspective as well. So these regimes tend to develop certain semiotics, so sign systems that will convey certain views and certain values to the spectators. And you need to learn the semiotic in order to understand what is going on (35:00). Now this is, of course, the same also in the European painting and in European Christianity at large. And that brings us to a point which is also important in this book: religious imagery and heritage, cultural heritage. Because it becomes part of a shared cultural property. And people may use it and re-use it in different ways. And there is one piece in our book studying the opera, Salome, and just documenting how many of these original semiotic signs are still there, but in very subversive ways. So that also helps us understand what’s going on with religion and the religious heritage, today. And, Birgit, this is something that you’re very into, for the time being, so maybe you want to comment?

BM: Well, I’m interested in the way that the decline, perhaps, of Christianity as a living tradition across European in all this . . . we should not overlook the fact that Christian images . . . . All kinds of tropes, of course, survive in secular forms. And we believe that with this volume, it builds, in a way, on practices of figuration and sensation within living religious traditions. We are also able to identify the afterlives of these images in secular contexts. So we have indeed Ulrike Brunotte’s piece on Salome, we have Christiane Kruse who works around Michel Houellebecq’s, Soumission, we have Else Marie Bukdahl who also works on modern abstract art, and all that. So that is, in fact, the last part of this volume, where these afterlives of Christian visual regimes are being addressed.

CM: Great. So thank you so much for that too, and again the details . . . thinking through the cultural heritage and yes, these images being part-and-parcel of how, also, outsiders see and visualise these religious traditions. I mean there’s a reason, when people go to Florence or different museums in Italy, they absorb and take in all the beautiful Christian art forms without necessarily understanding the contexts that sort-of brought those particular art forms to light, that would have made a lot of sense for the communities in which they were born into. So on the one hand, we can appreciate the art and the beauty of them, but for people within that community they take on a different meaning.

BM: Exactly and Christiane Kruse, for example, in an earlier work (German title) unfortunately only in German, she offered a really interesting analysis, in a way, of the ways in which theology and art move together – but also, to some degree of course, expand and extend into each other. So she discusses, indeed, all kinds of restrictions with regard to the depiction of the divine with deliberations by artists, who say “Well, the condition for the evocation of the unseen, of the divine, is it’s mediation via the image.” So you see already, in the medieval times, in the Baroque . . . all kinds of attempts at mobilising images in order to make an invisible visible, in the framework of the image, and at the same time seeking to circumvent charges of idolatry which would claim that this would amount to representing the divine as such. So there is a lot of deliberation about the work of mediation that images as media can do, in alluding to a kind-of unseen without ever fully rendering it present as such. And I hope that, perhaps, reading our volume may also alert people that when they watch these masterpieces of art they embed it in broader debates within the Christian realm in this case.

CM: Yes. Exactly. Great. So we’ve gone a little bit more specific. And then I wonder if we can sort-of get closer to wrapping up by thinking, again, more broadly. So, back to the points that I brought up at the beginning of the interview (40:00). Back to this issue – and I think Terje mentioned it a few times – but aniconism is just absence, and anti-iconism, or iconoclasm as “No” – and destruction of images. So I wonder if we can sort-of just think through again that tension or that conflation. And then final approaches to what we can learn from that, for going forward in the field of Religious Studies: how you hope that people will take this scholarship and either apply it, or rethink their own research materials. So perhaps just suggestions or, again, detail about this aniconism conflation with anti-iconism . . . wherever you’d like to go from there.

TS: If I may have some first thoughts. From my perspective, there isn’t all that much difference between the one and the other. The difference is more in politics than in the use of images. But, obviously, setting out to destroy someone else’s material basis for religion is a very powerful political move. And setting out to destroy someone for destroying one’s own material basis is another political move. And it has created opportunities for religious agents around the world to use the image or non-image question for their political religious purposes. But I think, when you look at the practices, it’s very difficult to see substantial differences between these. Now that’s the religious experts. They would like us to see those distinctions and I think demounting the distinctions is maybe one of the services that we can provide with this volume.

BM: Yes, I think I would endorse this. And say that as scholars we have to be very much aware of the epistemic regimes that have been guiding our research. And we have to be aware to what extent they have been guided, in fact, by normative assumptions rooted in religious traditions themselves. And we suggest, in fact, with this volume, to move beyond the issue of the image question per se, to move beyond the issue of aniconism or anti-iconism versus iconodule attitudes, towards a broader approach that would look at practices of decoration, at visual regimes in which images may take very, very different roles. And of course bilderverbot – the interdiction of images – may be one, but there may be many, many other options. And we should, as scholars, be prepared to see all these options as, yes – on the conceptual level – definitely equal. I think that this is very important also in relation to debates about images and religion in our contemporary society. There is some kind-of irony that, nowadays, often Muslims are told that Christians have no problems with depicting images, with depictions of the divine, anything goes. But it’s only Muslims are not able to see this. Now this is definitely false, of course. And I hope that through our comparative approach, or by taking, in a way, the Abrahamic traditions – and I know that the term also comes with its own problems – but by taking these three traditions together, we can get beyond these very simplistic ideas as we encounter them now, through which post-Christian secular people distinguish themselves from Muslims who are told to also now be able to become iconoclasts. All these are very cheap and simplistic rhetoric, I think, that ask for being further unpacked. And in fact the Figurations and Sensations volume has a sister volume, which is a volume called Taking Offence which I co-edited with two colleagues, Anna-Marie Korte and Christiane Kruse, in which we look at images . . . wars and contestations around offensive images in the contemporary world. So it may be nice to see the volumes together. So in addressing, in a way, image questions conceptually we just have to broaden our scope, I would say.

TS: Yes.

CM: Wonderful. Yes, Terje thank you so much for bringing in the politics of the utilisation of when we get to have that power over the images (45:00). Obviously the Buddhas of Bamyan are often the most iconic example of that, of the destruction of those Buddhas by the Taliban and thinking about, then, the power of trying to provoke, also. So that sort-of Taking Offence volume you mentioned is really interesting there: of having images of Mohammed contests out there, to try to provoke some sort-of response that would then . . . I don’t know, prove something . . . prove all kinds of offensiveness being taken. So the political-ness of when to apply aniconism, anti-iconism or iconoclasm are also prescient, especially right now. And thinking about how relevant images are for communicating larger political goal, not just religious ones. So thank you so much for that. Any final words you’ve got for us? I mean this has been really awesome, and I’ve loved talking to you. And it just makes me more excited to dive in deeper to this book and also the Taking Offence book. But anything other, that you’d like to mention before we wrap up?

BM: Maybe just a small footnote about what I try to emphasise in my chapter and also my work is of course the tremendous iconoclastic attacks with regard to indigenous traditions that have been launched by both Protestant and Catholic mission societies, leading also to the collection of lots of items from Africa, and other parts of the world, that are now located in mission and ethnographic museums. And of course the point that this iconoclastic attack is in fact still going on and launched by many Pentecostal churches. I’m addressing this to some extent, also, in my chapter in the book. And I think this should also be remembered when talking about IS, or the Banyan examples. Otherwise I’m just very happy about this conversation. I’m also very happy about this collaboration with Terje, and the other scholars, and I hope very much that, yes, this work will trigger debates, will trigger more works. So in many ways I’m must say I’m not yet done with this anti-image question! I really hope that, with this, we will be able to offer some incentives to broaden the study of religion conceptually, and methodologically, to indeed research on processes of figuration and the imagination, beyond rather simplistic views. And, of course, there is some good work out there: Sally Promey, David Morgan, we mentioned people in the field of material religion for example, but I do think that this is really a strand that’s ready to have some more attention, in our very heavily media-saturated and image-full world. So we live just in the world with so many images and we don’t know their provenance. We are not so much aware about of the provenance of our stances with regard to images, our preparedness to believe in them or not, and all that. And I think Religious Studies has much to say and unpack here.

CM: Wonderful. Anything other you’d like to note Terje, before we . . . ?

TS: No, I think you’ve covered most of it now.

CM: Yes. That was a great summation. Well, thank you all again. And the book that they’ve been kind-of mentioning, and we’ve been dancing through, is called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and is thankfully open access, which is amazing! So people can access it, regardless of institutional affiliation, and library access. So it’s very accessible. And we do thank you for making that book so accessible. So, on behalf of the Religious Studies Project, thank you all.

TS: Thank you for having us.

BM: Thank you.

 

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Lady Death and the Pluralization of Latin American Religion

In today’s podcast Professor R. Andrew Chesnut reflects on the broad changes in Latin America that show why Santa Muerte is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world. By connecting Brazil’s colonial past to its pluralist present, Dr. Chesnut explains how folk saint culture connects the country’s diverse population of Catholic, Pentecostal, and Afro-Brazilian religious groups. Focusing on lived religious experiences, including Santa Muerte’s unofficial role in Day of the Dead in Mexico, this episode highlights the many different ways Lady Death operates for her devotees and reveals some of the ongoing challenges of studying the religion amid the rapidly changing religious landscape of the Global South today.

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Lady Death and the Pluralisation of Latin American Religion

 

Podcast with R. Andrew Chesnut (31 October 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/lady-death-and-the-pluralisation-of-latin-american-religion/

PDF version of the transcript is available here.

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. I am David McConeghy, and today I’m joined by Dr R. Andrew Chesnut, holder of the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. A Latin American specialist, Professor Chesnut is the author of numerous articles and five books, including his latest – Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint – which is the first and only academic study in English of the folk saint of death. Dr Chesnut is a regular commentator on news and religious affairs and writes a blog for Patheos, called The Global Catholic Review. Dr Chesnut, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s a real pleasure to speak with you.

  1. Andrew Chesnut (AC). Oh it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for the invitation, Dr McConeghy.

DMcC. One of the things that I’m really excited about in your work is that you – especially for American audiences – really let us into an entire world that the Global South is participating in, and that is thriving in Latin America. I think here in the US, and perhaps in Europe – our two major audiences, the folks that listen to us – we need some orientation. We need some help, really understanding what’s going on in the areas that you study. So can you say a little bit about your research, and the kind of questions that really drive your focus in Latin America?

AC: Yes. I really started as a specialist in Pentecostalism in Latin America; more specifically, Brazil. My book, Born Again in Brazil, which was published in 1997, was the first book in English on the Pentecostal movement in Brazil. And over two decades later, it’s still very relevant as today, Brazil is home to the largest Pentecostal population on Earth – larger than even here, in the United States – and who were integral in electing Brazilian President Bolsonaro. After that I moved on. It was very obvious to me, as I was doing my field research in Brazil and the Amazonian city of Belém, that there was intense religious competition taking place among the three major religious groups of Brazil: Pentecostals, Catholics, and the Afro-Brazilian religious groups such as Umbanda and Candomblé – the two most important ones. So for my second book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy, I look at the religious competition taking place in Latin America, through the theoretical paradigm of religious economy – in which you kind-of look at faith institutions competing with each other, much in the same way that commercial enterprises do in the commercial economy. And so I focussed on those religious groups, who in the past century have had the most success in terms of attracting membership. And that would be the Pentecostals, and the Catholic Charismatic renewal – which is the Catholic Church’s own version of Pentecostalism – has been thriving in Latin America and the Global South, as its response to stiff Pentecostal competition. And again, looking at the religions of the African diaspora I also observed Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santería. And then I moved on. As you mentioned, my latest work is on what is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the entire West. Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte, which translates in English both as Saint Death and Holy Death. Unfortunately, Pew Research hasn’t stepped in or Gallup poll, so we don’t have any hard numbers. But after a decade of research, I estimate some ten-to-twelve million Santa Muerte devotees, mostly concentrated in Mexico, Central America and here in United States. So, I don’t know, I’d say if there’s one major or two major connecting threads, in my two decades of research, first would be the paramountcy of faith healing. My main argument that the motor driving the Pentecostal boom in Brazil and Latin America is its emphasis on faith healing. I found that so many nominal Catholics had converted at the time of an acute health crisis, which they weren’t able to solve through the Catholic Church or through secular health care either. And so the Pentecostal Churches always kind of put faith healing: “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, be baptised by the Holy Spirit and this will cure your affliction of poverty” (5:00). And so that, I really find to be kind-of the motor that’s been propelling the Pentecostal boom in Latin America and the Global South. And I was so surprised when I started my research on Santa Muerte in 2009, that also a key component of her appeal, both in Mexico and here in the United States, is her role as a curandera or faith healer. So many people come to her major shrines in Mexico, either giving thanks for a healing they believe that she performed for them or for a family member, or asking her for that. And so that was just one of the great surprises in my research. Who was going to imagine that this fierce looking death saint is also a potent healer as well? So this kind of thread of the great importance of faith healing has been a commonality in my two decades of research, as is my primary focus, really, that’s been on lived religion – religion as it’s played out in the grassroots, in terms of rites and rituals – and (I’ve been) much less interested in the written word, and dogma, and doctrine in my focus.

DMcC: This is a really interesting way to think about your work. One of the questions that I already had for you – and I’ve been engaging with your work, Born Again in Brazil, for some time – talking about the kind of charismatic exchanges between groups like the New Apostolic Reformation, and folks in Guatemala or Brazil. On those kinds of things, you really frame it as a solution to the health crisis of poverty. And it sounds as if, twenty years later – this is an amazing thing to say – twenty years later, you still think that’s true!

AC: Yes, I make the same argument. And especially, as I throw in, since prosperity theology has essentially become hegemonic theology among Pentecostals, and many Evangelicals across the Americas. And, as we see, it’s kind-of the unofficial theology of the Trump administration here.

DMcC: Right. Absolutely.

AC: So I’d throw in the element of prosperity, which wasn’t as prevalent when I initiated my research – what, twenty-five years ago? But yes, the health component is still, I’d say, the sine qua non of Pentecostalism’s appeal in Latin America and the Global South. And even here, in the United States. You know the great pioneering Pentecostal televangelist, Oral Roberts, who brought the message on TV for the first time in the United States: really the crux of his message was faith healing, as well. Benny Hinn, as well. So the whole prosperity element of it gets so much attention lately, but we can’t forget the other part of the equation.

DMcC: Do you think that part of this is sales pitch for the shift, maybe, from stronger Catholicism that was not charismatic, to the rising Pentecostals, and then Catholic competition in charismatic spaces? That that framework is really only exposed through the kind of lived experience stuff that you work on? You suggested that perhaps the written stuff is less crucial for the way that you think about things. But, when I think of the Pentecostal orientation to what’s important: “Show me the power”, right? “Show me a thing that will have results and that will connect me to the power of the Holy Spirit.” It will do that immediately. It will do it vibrantly. It will do it within my community. It will do it day in, day out. Is that part of the mix, there, that kind of “We’re making really strong claims about what the religious adoption of this can do for you”? And then, collectively, the power of that choice brings . . . the rising tide lifts all boats on that.

RAC: Yes, no doubt, at the macro level. Particularly that emphasis on access and demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit, needs to be physically manifest, right? And so thus the Pentecostal emphasis, particularly in Latin America, of constructing monumental temples, for being seen with presidents and governmental authorities (10:00). Such as I think is poignantly the case with billionaire Pentecostal Bishop Edir Macedo, who has become one of the most visible and prominent backers of the Brazilian president, Bolsonaro. And who recently had him attend one of his Sunday worship services in San Paolo and gave him a five minute blessing, which you can see on YouTube. It’s pretty extraordinary! So yes, at the macro level, there needs to be physical representations and manifestations of the power. And, particularly if we’re talking about the ascendant prosperity theology, you know, that Pentecostal pastors themselves need to be paragons of prosperity – so, the ostentatious display of their prosperity in terms of their choice of vehicles, and their houses, and the temples themselves. So yes, it’s not only at the grass roots, it’s not only lived religion, it’s also the institution. That just tends to be my focus less, but I’m not saying that it’s a less interesting or valid focus.

DMcC: So in the last two decades you kind-of highlighted that prosperity has really taken root. Can you talk a little bit more, for any of the Listeners that may not be familiar with the background, especially of Brazil? I know that many centuries of Catholic dominance there really started to shift mid-twentieth century, with the growth of Pentecostalism there. But then there’s also this backdrop of West African and syncretic kind of openness. And that configuration is so unique, not only in Brazil, but in each country in Latin America, and the way that they do it. Can you talk just little bit about that? The blending that they do so well?

AC: Yes. I think Brazil is particularly fascinating as a country of over two hundred million people, and such diversity! It’s kind-of the country that most mirrors the United States, and is most similar, really – the religious economy – to the United States. So yes, historically of course, like all Latin American countries, it’s a Catholic country. And at the end of the nineteenth century, you had the disestablishment of the Catholic Church from the Brazilian State. Which, of course, sets the legal foundation for . . . not for Afro-Brazilian religions, but the legal foundation for Protestants to start setting up their chapels. And indeed, at that time in the nineteenth Century, you have some of the major US-based mainline denominations going down to Brazil: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. They have very little success in converting Brazilian Catholics. But they do have success in setting up prep schools and universities and such. And then, building on this new legal foundation – at least for Protestants to set up shop – Pentecostals arrive in 1910-1911, and find really quick success in converting Brazilian Catholics. To the point that we already start to have a critical mass of converts by the mid-twentieth century, by the1950s. And Pentecostalism really starts to mushroom in the 1970s and really has been growing like wildfire for the past five decades or so. Talking about the Afro-Brazilian religions . . . and I should say I need to make this so clear. Of the twelve million African slaves who were forcibly brought to our Americas, forty-three percent go to Brazil. In comparison only three percent come here, to the United States. So anybody with any interest in matters of the African diaspora, be it religion or any other facet, by necessity has to take a look at Brazil, if not start with Brazil, because of the sheer numbers. And so it’s no surprise that Brazil is the place – maybe with the exception of Haiti – Brazil is the place where today we have the most vibrant religions of the African diaspora, which historically were repressed, suppressed by both Brazilian church and state, and really only are legalised in the late 1960s (15:00). And today, and again the two main ones are Umbanda and Candomblé. And today they’re thriving – however, they’re facing a new round of persecution by Pentecostals, particularly in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where Pentecostal gangsters raid their houses of worship and try to drive them out of their zones of influence. And so this is another kind of fascinating development. Never, twenty-five years ago, did I imagine that I’d be writing articles about armed Pentecostal gangsters in Rio de Janeiro, who are the agents of persecution and harassment of practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda!

DMcC: When you tweeted out your latest post on that from Patheos, it exploded on my timeline! It got retweeted so much. Clearly, I think, the rest of us share that surprise – that this is one of the configurations that we’re seeing, right now.

AC: It’s surreal. We’re living in surreal times across the board, though!

DMcC: So if we can take that kind-of grass-roots activism that’s happening: one access point from your current research on that is really the broad appeal of Santa Muerte. Can you tell us a little bit about why it is that this really potent symbol is connected to health, and love, and money, and drugs, and crime and cartels?! How did we get from a folk saint to narco-cartels, Pentecostals attacking Afro-Brazilian religious groups? It’s such a stunning transformation!

AC: Yes. That’s a big question. Let me think about where I should start with that! So Santa Muerte goes back to Spanish colonial times, in Mexico, and really is the syncretism or fusion of the Spanish Grim Reapress. And I say Grim Reapress because in Mediterranean Europe, Spain, Portugal, Italy, more often than not it was a female representation. The Spanish Catholic Church puts over the figure of the Grim Reapress as a tool of evangelisation of the indigenous people, here in the Americas. Because of course, in the beginning, they have no idea who the indigenous people are. They’re not in the Bible. Are they humans are they animals? Do they have their own religion? So the Spanish Catholic Church brings in the Grim Reapress to represent death. And of course, for the Europeans, the Grim Reaper was a mere artistic representation or rendition of death that arises during the great death and dying of the Black Plague of the fourteenth century. Europeans did not venerate or worship the Grim Reaper, or repress and imbue him or her with any supernatural powers. And so it’s the case that the Grim Reapress comes over here, for example, as part of Holy Week processions, representing the good death, the holy death of Christ. And again, one of the English translations of Santa Muerte’s name is Holy Death, referring to the holy death of Christ. And so it’s the case that some of the indigenous groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, Paraguay – because there’s two other skeletal death saints which I’ll mention in a minute – interpret the Grim Reapress through their own pre-existing religious contexts, in which the Aztecs, and the Mayans, and the (audio unclear) in South America, had their own death deities, their own death gods and goddesses, such as the Aztec Mictēcacihuātl, which presided over what used to be the Aztec month of the dead – which, of course, the Spanish Catholic Church collapsed into the present two Days of the Dead. So anyway, she’s the syncretism of this indigenous belief in death deities and the Grim Reapress. She goes off the historical record in 1797, and only resurfaces a century-and-a-half later, in the 1940s, when American anthropologists report her for the first time on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, interestingly among Afro-Mexicans (20:00). And, from the 1940s to the 1980s, we have both American and Mexican anthropologists starting to find mostly females, Mexican females, dressed in black, venerating, Santa Muerte. By the time we get to the 1980s, across the Mexican Republic. But during this time, our anthropologist friends were reporting her working only one type of magic, and that is love magic. And so, at the mid-century, the only type of miracle that she is recorded performing is love sorcery – mostly for aggrieved Mexican women who believe their husbands or boyfriends are cheating on them. And so they petition Santa Muerte to take her over-sized scythe, and to cut out the other woman from their husband’s path and to bring that husband, that badly behaving man, back home – humbled at her feet, under the threat of Santa Muerte’s scythe, to never be adulterous once again.

DMcC: That’s a terrifying image!

AC: It is! And so her origins, at least in the twentieth century – and last time I checked and when I did the research for my book, Devoted to Death, her number one selling coloured votive candle was the red candle, not of blood and death, but of the heart: of love and passion. And indeed, still one of her premier roles is as love doctor, or love sorceress. At some point in the late eighties she starts to become associated with organised crime, to the point that today – you’ve probably seen some of my writing along with my colleague and research partner Dr Kate Kingsbury – where she’s been labelled a “narco-saint”. And, in fact, that was the catalyst of my own interest, is when the Filipe Calderón administration ordered the Mexican army, in March 2009, to go onto the border with California and Texas and to demolish some forty Santa Muerte shrines. When I saw that I thought . . . . I knew about Santa Muerte, because I’d been going to Mexico since the early 1980s, but I had no idea that she had been fingered as the religious enemy number one of the Mexican government, at that point. And so . . .

DMcC; Right. If the Mexican Government is issuing statements calling for disruption of roadside temples by bulldozer, you know you’ve really got something on your hands!

AC: Exactly. So we just published with Patheos yesterday about these narco-saints. And so, one of Santa Muerte’s roles is as protectress of cartel members, protecting them from harm, from rival cartel members, law enforcement. But obviously since she’s a folk saint and she’s amoral – she’s not a Catholic saint – they also ask her to eliminate or bring harm to their rivals, as well. And so that’s another important role that she plays – but one of many.

DMcC: Right. One of the things that struck me about it, and I work with far more American stuff, is the work on Saint Jude, for instance, where we really see the lived experience of the relationship of Catholics with their saint of choice as revealing all of the kind-of issues that really matter to a person, and really how it builds their whole world out from the saint, organising the perspectives about it. I think it’s really interesting if Santa Muerte starts off as love . . . the avenging angel for infidelity. We don’t have to work too hard, to draw a line to the cartels, mentally, if we think of the protection of secrecy, right? The protection of the sphere where cartel members are not wanting to talk about their activities, and then avenging those that break that silence, or that are working against them? It’s not a hard road: (25:00) the passion that the scythe brings to the unfaithful husband is the same passion that cartel members hope that she’ll bring to the enemies of the cartel. Is that the kind of way that we should think about it, or is something else going on, do you think?

AC: Right, I think so – particularly since most Catholic saints tend to specialise in one or two types of miracles, such as Saint Anthony will help you find your lost keys or cell phone. And so, very quickly, Santa Muerte morphs from this exclusive focus on love sorcery to, today, being a multi-tasking saint who does it all. So, yes, she covers all bases and that’s part of her appeal, as well. Not only that she covers . . . And going back to her coloured votive candles – which was the schema for the way I organised my book – she has a seven power rainbow coloured candle for those folks who are looking for a miracles on multiple fronts! Which are a lot of people, right?

DMcC: Yes, aren’t we all?

AC: And particularly, we can’t ignore the fact that devotion to Santa Muerte has mushroomed during a time of great death and dying – of bad death, juxtaposed to her name Holy Death – in Mexico. In the last decade, the only country that surpasses Mexico on violent death is another country where I have relatives, Syria. And so we’re well over two hundred thousand violent deaths in Mexico in the past ten years. And so, I’m not making that one-to-one correlation in the mushrooming rise. But there’s no doubt that this hyper-violence of the interminable drug war creates fertile soil. Because there’s a lot of folks who ask her for more life, for more grains of life in that hour glass that she holds, in addition, again, to narcos asking her to cut the life down from their rivals, as well. And so that a saint of death should become so popular in a Mexico of such bad death, in the past ten-to-fifteen years, is of little surprise.

DMcC: You’ve written about a lot of other folk saints as well, like the Our Lady of Oxum, the Black Madonna. Should we be – as Religious Studies observers of folk practice and lived experience – should we be paying far more attention to the kind of constellation of major figures? I think you rightly point that Santa Muerte’s rise reveals how hard it is sometimes for Religious Studies scholars to address the rapid rise of a new religious movement, a new religious emphasis, a new religious symbol. It takes us a long time to catch on to what’s on the ground, to do the research, to publish the research, to have the conversations that really kind-of unpack everything. And what I’ve been really pleased about, every time I see something coming across on Patheos, is how vibrant it all seems. Everything is new to me about this, being a non-specialist in the area. Do you feel like more of this is needed, that we need to pay attention to more of these things, in all the places that we can find them?

AC: Yes. I think what you’re pointing at is . . . . And I’m also a big fan of paying attention to macro trends. In fact, I was a lead academic consultant on the landmark Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape that came out in 2014. So I paid attention to macro trends as well. So one of the great . . . the greatest trend in Latin America, on a religious landscape, in the past four or five decades is pluralisation. And whereas for four centuries one’s religious identity was inherited or bequeathed, Catholicism now, for many folks – as it is the United States – it’s elected, it’s chosen. And so, you know, there’s Mexicans who are finding Santa Muerte is far more appealing – far more, let’s say, efficacious than certain Catholic saints – and so they go that route. New Age beliefs are also very prevalent in Latin America. And so it’s a diversification, it’s a pluralisation. And indeed, just like in the United States, one of the fastest growing groups are the religious “nones”: those who have no institutional religious affiliation (30:00). The last Pew Survey shows that, here in the United States, the religious nones are up to twenty six percent, which means there are six percent more of them than there are Catholics, because Catholics are down to twenty percent in the United States. And in Latin America it’s about fifteen percent, and exceedingly higher among Latin American millennials and Generation Z as well. So Santa Muerte and all of these other folk saints I would just put under this big tent of pluralisation, of the kind of robust diversification and religious choices that we’ve had for a long time in our own country.

DMcC; It’s really interesting to think about that as a kind of great awakening that’s happening in Brazil, right? The voluntary-ism of America, that we tend to associate with the development of multiple Protestant denominations, really, in my mind, is the kind of language that I’m hearing you talk about with that, to hear the pluralisation of religious impulses there. But also, the nones really surprises me too. I heard a talk recently by one of Pew Forum’s head researchers and like you, he highlighted that the nones are growing basically, in the US, at about one percent per year. Catholics are down to twenty-one percent now. But he cited that globally, when you talk about that, that’s not what we’re seeing. I’m hearing a little pushback from you that Brazil, in its parallels with the US, is actually . . .

AC: Yes. I hate to contradict my associates at Pew, but I just saw the other day on Twitter, that in the Arab world we’re seeing significant rise over the last decade of religious nones as well. So there’s a hemispheric-wide trend from Canada, down to Argentina, and the United States. Western Europe, of course, was the one who really pioneered secularisation. In fact, all the sociological models of secularisation that arose in the seventies and the eighties were mostly based on the Western European experience. Peter and his associates. So, yeah, we have evidence that in other parts of the world –namely, lately, the Arab world – it’s happening as well. So it’s not only peculiar to our own Americas here.

DMcC: I don’t know that those are necessarily contradictory. I think what it tells us is that the situation is changing so rapidly right now, that data that’s even a few years old – if you’re thinking of data from 2010, right? We’re off by many percentage points now, in that data. And when you’re talking on a global scale you run into huge problems. I always tell my students, when we’re talking about China, that as far as I can tell and based on the work of other experts, the survey data that we have on religion in China is basically useless. When there’s a global survey about what religion is like in China, that billion people in China is not being reflected by that data very well at all. And I think we see that in sub-Saharan Africa, where we’re talking about the rise of Islam alongside the rise of Catholicism and Pentecostalism. And at the same time, if there’s a secular movement – it’s all happening all at once! I don’t know that the broadness of the data is there yet, and it may take us decades to sort this out. Which, I guess, I’m thankful for – because hopefully it will keep us all busy and in business, right?

AC: (Laughs) Right, right. Thanks to Pew in particular, right?

DMcC: Yeah. Absolutely. So we’ve been talking a little bit in the last few minutes about this meta approach. One of the things you said right at the start of our conversation today, was a comparison between President Bolsonaro and maybe some of the current American politics that are going on. In a recent interview with Bradley Onishi that I did, he said similar things to a Patheos post that you posted, with Dr Ana Keila Mosca Pinez, about how Brazilian Pentecostals are seeing President Bolsonaro as the Messiah, or as a messiah. (35:00) Can you talk a little bit more about the parallels between how Brazilian Pentecostals and Catholics are religiously relating to their leaders like Bolsonaro, and how, maybe for audiences in the US, that might be resembling the American evangelical relationship to Trump.

AC: Oh yes. There’s a really amazing parallel there. Again, just as white evangelicals are a major religious political constituency of president Trump, Pentecostals are that for Bolsonaro and Brazil. We know that overall about seventy percent of Brazilian evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro. I don’t think we have precise data specifically on Pentecostals. But one has to remember that about seventy-five percent of all Protestants in Brazil are specifically Pentecostals, so there’s no doubt that Bolsonaro would have received over eighty percent of the Pentecostal vote. And in the United States, actually sixty-one percent of white Catholics voted for Trump. I still think he has majority support, although I have seen it declining. Maybe fifty-one, fifty-two percent. And so we see that same convergence of more conservative Catholics allied with Pentecostals in Brazil, and supporting Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro recently was baptised by an Assembly of God pastor, in the River Jordan. And he definitely hangs around and kind-of identifies Evangelical. But historically he’s been a conservative Catholic. Anyway, so he has the support of many Brazilian conservative Catholics who very much oppose Pope Francis’s agenda on the Amazon, the Amazon Synod that’s taking place right now. So there’s just the Christian Zionism that I’ve written about, too, is just as important in Brazil for Pentecostals as it is for white Evangelicals. And so I think Brazil under Bolsonaro . . . . He’s also in the process of probably moving their embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well. Some of the major Pentecostal pastors in Brazil, such again as billionaire Edir Macedo, actually sometimes dress up in rabbinical vestments and cut rabbinical figures more than they do Protestant pastors! And so, yeah. There’s just a great kind-of parallel taking place politically and religiously between the two giants of the hemisphere these days – Brazil and the United States.

DMcC: Keeping on our kind of current timeliness issue: you said, before we began recording today, that with Halloween coming up – we’re recording in mid-October here, All Saints Day and especially Day of the Dead – that there are actually a lot of really interesting things going on right now, connecting a lot of these themes. The next few weeks are going to be pretty interesting. I heard you say that you were headed down to Mexico for the Day of the Dead. Can you tell us about that? And maybe what you’re hoping to do?

AC: Yes. My current research project focuses on Catholic death culture. So I’m looking at things like Day of the Dead, relics, some of the memento mori that you see in Europe. But specifically, since we’re on the eve of Day of the Dead, this is what I’m kind of most immediately working on. And it’s also related to my previous work on Santa Muerte, in that one of the major trends in Santa Muerte devotion of the past five years is for devotees to integrate the Mexican Death Saint into their commemorations of Day of the Dead. In fact it’s become so popular and so controversial that, annually, the Catholic Church in Mexico issues admonitions for parishioners not to do that, because Santa Muerte is satanic. Honouring your departed loved ones is one thing, but bringing in this heretical Death Saint is quite another. So please keep her out of your commemorations. But I should say, at his point, Santa Muerte has no official annual feast day. But if she ever does in the future, it probably will be November 2nd, the Day of the Dead. Because, again, before the Spanish conquest and colonisation (40:00), it was the Aztecs had this roughly “month of the dead”, roughly corresponding to our August, presided over by Aztec death goddess, Mictēcacihuātl – who many Mexican Santa Muerte devotees see Santa Muerte, really, as the latest kind of incarnation, or reincarnation of.

DMcC: That’s so interesting!

AC: And so it’s like I knew that, since I wrote the first academic book in English on Santa Muerte, that it would probably hard to move onto a new topic. And so here again, in Day of the Dead, we see that nexus with Santa Muerte as well: again, me having trouble moving beyond the Death Saint

DMcC: I don’t know that we should ever apologise when we find something . . . such a rich topic, that connects to so many issues in so many different ways: from immigration, to cartels, to love, to the kind of syncretism that we’re seeing, to politics, it’s such a multifaceted area.

AC: It is, yes. For example my research partner, Dr Kingsbury, is now focusing on her appeal to women and how she’s kind of a defender and protectress of vulnerable women. Because, I didn’t mention it, but, in addition to the narco-violence besetting Mexico, there’s also an epidemic of femicide as well. And so some of these women who are at risk, look to Santa Muerte as a fierce protectress, to protect them from the predatory men. So that’s a whole ‘nother angle that I didn’t really look into in Devotees of Death, that Dr Kingsbury is moving forward with.

DMcC: I can’t wait. I will reach out immediately, so that we can hear the second half of the new story here. One of the things that I’ve really been impressed by, is how collaborative your work is. And as we wrap up here, I’d love to hear about your thoughts about collaboration as a scholar, and what you see as the kind of challenges and benefits of doing that scholarship in a collaborative way. Because I really do think that you and Dr Kingsbury, together, have a special kind of public relationship that feeds off one another, and produces really interesting work. Can you share with us what that’s like?

AC: Yes. For me it’s been very strange because up until I recently started collaborating with her, I had mostly just flown solo. I can’t even think of any other co-authored . . . at least, academic journal articles that I have. All my books were my own, single-authored books. So, yeah, this has been new to me and has taken me by surprise, because our particular collaboration is so easy and seamless. And that, ironically, had been one of the reasons why maybe I had shied away from collaboration: imagining it being difficult, and time consuming, and everything. But yeah. We have great intellectual and academic chemistry, and so everything we do together is as easy as me writing on my own. And so I think both of us have just been fortunate with that. Because one can imagine that, you know, you’re not going to have that rapport with everybody to facilitate that. But it’s been wonderful, because with Patheos, I’ll just say, or she’ll say, “I’ll take this, and you take that” and it all comes together. And she’s British, so at first I was like “OK. So what do we do about our British vs American English?” But we just leave our respective versions of the English language alone and nobody seems to be bothered by that.

DMcC: We run into that frequently at the Religious Studies Project, too! When the emails come from our British founders, Chris and David. You know it’s all the‘s’s and when we’re replying back it’s all the ‘z’s. You just have to roll with it, right?

AC: Exactly. Well, the good thing for me is, she’s in Canada. So it’s kind of up to her to assimilate to our New World English, right?! (45:00)

DMcC: Right. You’re pulling the rug right out from under the English language there. It’s been so wonderful to talk to you, today. I really do appreciate your time, and I hope that all of our Listeners have enjoyed hearing about this really thriving area of research. And if they wanted to find you on Patheos, what’s the name of the Blog that they should head to?

AC: Yes. It’s the Global Catholic Review.

DMcC: Perfect.

AC: And in addition, I also run a Santa Muerte blog with my research partner, David Metcalfe. And it’s called the Skeleton Saint. And it’s like in its seventh year. And it’s the only impartial blog out there, that covers Santa Muerte news.

DMcC: And if folks wanted to find you on Twitter, where you are extremely active and always posting interesting things, what should they look for?

AC: I’m @AndrewChesnut1. Number 1.

DMcC: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for your time, and have a great day.

AC: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, Dr McConeghy.

 

 

 

 

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Discourse #8 (June 2019)

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Discourse, Australia Edition

This week’s episode is a bit special. We’re sharing the newest episode of Discourse, a spin-off show our Patreon supporters have been enjoying this year. Discourse has a globally rotating cast of RSP editors, friends and guests, who take a critical look at the discourse on ‘religion’ in the news and media! If you enjoy the episode, you can enjoy monthly episodes by subscribing just a dollar a month at patreon.com/projectrs.

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 16 June 2017

Sponsored

Conference: CenSAMM: 500 years: The Reformation and its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, United Kingdom

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Anthology: Religious Violence Today: Faith and Conflict in the Modern World

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Conference: Going Viral: Religion and Health

October 14, 2017

Boston University, USA

Deadline: June 30, 2017

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Conference: Re-imagining the Christian Body

November 2–3, 2017

University of Turku, Finland

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Conference: On Memory, Spirits and Selves

March 9–10, 2018

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Deadline: September 1, 2017

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Conference: ISA World Congress of Sociology

July 14–21, 2018

Deadline: September 30, 2017

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Journal: Religion, State & Society

Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

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Postdoc: Jewish Life in Modern Islamic Contexts

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Jesuits, Mormons, and American Religion in the World

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Conception de Ataco, El Salvador

Dr. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp has written extensively on the importance of space and geography in studying American religions. I interviewed her at the University of Notre Dame, Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion. This session dealt with Dr. John McGreevy (History, Notre Dame)’s new book, “American Jesuits and the World.” Maffly-Kipp and Thomas Bender (History, NYU) gave remarks about the book; McGreevy responded; and two hours of Q&A with scholars and graduate students followed.

My conversation with Maffly-Kipp begins with McGreevy’s book, expands to include her work on Mormonism in contrast to Catholicism, and ends with a discussion of evangelical historian Mark Noll, in whose honor Notre Dame was originally going to host a conference, but was cancelled at the last minute. This free-ranging conversation nonetheless centers on Jesuits, Mormons, and transnational religious history.

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, Frankincense, and Myrh.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World

Podcast with Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Maffly-Kipp_-_Jesuits,_Mormons_and_American_Religion_in_the_World_1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Dr Maffly-Kipp, welcome to the Religious Studies Project

Laurie Maffly-Kipp (LMK): Thank you.

DG: We’re here at the Morris Inn, at the University of Notre Dame. We just finished the Cushwa Centre’s Biannual Seminar in American Religion, discussing John McGreevy’s book on Jesuits in the World. So, you have been writing about space, and geography, and understanding religion for more than twenty years now, beginning with your essay in Thomas Tweed’s edited volume, Retelling US Religious History. I’d be curious to know how your views have evolved, and what you believe is the importance of space and geography in studying American religions.

LMK: That essay was my initial foray into the field and it was more of a thought piece, based on sort-of the hypothetical question of: what would you do if you didn’t narrate American religious history from the perspective of European movements from East to West – particularly British American movements. In a sense, it was also inspired by the work, in the 1930s, of Herbert Bolton – who was a historian of empires in the New World – and his basic observation that the Spanish Empire had been a part of North America and South America, long before the British ever came along. So, what would it do to sort-of retell the story of the growth of the US nation and religion in that sort-of setting, but come at it from the perspective of all theses different movements into North America, at various points in time? So that was, I think, a framework that I laid out. And since then I’ve been, I guess, exploring different avenues into that. Most recently, I’ve been spending time doing work on Mormon history and looking at Mormonism. But I think that that focus on space has then led me to think about Mormonism differently: how do I think about Mormonism as having a particular kind of centre in the United States, but also has having other areas in other parts of the world that are significant for particular purposes?

DG: So today, the book we’ve been talking about – American Jesuits in the World, by John McGreevy – it’s dealing with, well, somewhat missionary activity, but a little different from what you focus on. Because you’re often talking about American Mormons going outwards, whereas he’s talking about, at first, Europeans coming to missionise America. Can you talk a little bit about the differences you see between Mormons and Jesuits operating on the world stage?

LMK: Well, they’re very different. I mean, certainly, they’re different in terms of having a different focus on what they were doing with other people. So, for Jesuits: Jesuits are a particular Catholic order; their jobs revolve around educating peoples, administering the sacraments and keeping people in the faith. For Mormons, the goal tends to be to create habits of discipline and industry – much like those of the missionaries themselves. There’s sort-of a distinct separation between the kinds of spiritual practices that a Jesuit missionary undertakes, and what he’s trying to inculcate in other people. Whereas, for Mormon’s, they were sort-of one and the same thing. So that’s just one small difference. But, I think, on all kinds of different levels there are differences. But there are also similarities, because Mormons are also exiles – perhaps exiles in their own land. But they have a very – I guess, the best way to put it is – angular relationship to the US government in the 19th century, and often a very combative relationship. So, they aren’t sold on the idea of the nation state as necessarily an all-encompassing good, just as the Catholics are disaffected from the US Government in various ways.

DG: Well, certainly, one of the points that came up in the Q and A session, today, was that the Jesuits were roundly denounced as a secret society on the floor of Congress – one that should be banned. But there wasn’t widespread Catholic persecution in the 19th century, the way we saw against the Mormons.

LMK: I don’t know, I think you could argue with that: the burning of convents, riots in the streets . . .

DG: Well, that’s true.

LMK: . . . in Philadelphia and Boston. So, in some ways, I think that the tensions were manifest in more physical kinds of ways than they were for the Mormons. There were a few incidents with the Mormons. And the Mormons certainly fought back at various points. So I think, actually, a comparison of them is really helpful to see the ways that Protestant America was shaping the limits of its own toleration.

DG: I suppose, what I was thinking of more was that there was not state legislation against the Catholic Church in the way that there was, for instance, when the Governor of Missouri declared war on the Mormon people, saying: “Leave my state or I’m going to kill all of you!” (5:00) That is a difference.

LMK: Right! Yes. You’re right. That’s a difference. Although, I think one of the interesting things about John McGreevy’s book is the way he points out how assiduously Protestant Americans worked to create laws that would exclude Catholics in certain kinds of ways. So, from public education: there were certain rules put in place that made it obvious that the Catholics were not going to fall within the bounds of the law. I mean, their kind of education wouldn’t be acceptable as a form of public education. So, it seems to me that the very creating and shaping of laws is another way to put boundaries around religious toleration.

DG: Now, I’m curious also . . . You’ve obviously read the book – you’ve just delivered a short paper commenting on it. If you were writing a book about transnational religion in the 19th century – I mean, McGreevy is focussing on the ideas of nationhood and politics – what would be the factors that you’d want to pursue? What do you see as mattering the most?

LMK: Well, in fact, I am writing that kind of book right now.

DG: Well that’s fortuitous!

LMK: Yes. So, in fact, I am writing a book on transnational religion, in that I am writing a history of Mormonism that tries to take seriously Mormonism as a global religion and an international movement from the beginning, not simply since World War II. It’s certainly the case that there are now more Mormons outside the US than in, but even in the 1850s there were more Mormon’s in England than in the US.

DG: Oh certainly, they were very active with sending missionaries – also to Scandinavia as well as England.

LMK: Later, to Scandinavia. There were sort-of waves of migration, and missionisation and migration, starting with England and moving into Scandinavia by the 1860s and 1870s. And all of those – or many, many of those people – came over to the US, and really saved what had been a dying movement by the 1850s.

DG: Yes. I believe you mentioned, during the Q and A period, that most Mormons at the end of the 19th Century in America were foreign-born.

LMK: Either foreign-born or second generation at best. Because, yes, the bulk had been immigrants.

DG: That’s not a comment that the Church stresses very much any more!

LMK: No, but it’s also not a comment that other historians have noticed much.

DG: Certainly not.

LMK: I think the focus has been on Mormonism as a distinctly American religion, which is certainly true in terms of the influences on its founders. But it’s not true in terms of who joined the movement in the first half-century.

DG: Very interesting. I think the claims you’re making will certainly overhaul graduate reading lists round the country – including my own! So, the other thing . . . I’m thinking that at my University , the University of Rochester, the graduate . . .well, loosely defined, our graduate interests are supposed to be around “the world of goods, the world of nations and the world of ideas”. So, a nice way to integrate cultural and social history. Now, listening to the Q and A today, lo and behold! The comments wind up revolving around ideas, goods and nations. So the comments from, for instance, Thomas Bender – one of your co-panellists – saying that we should think of the Jesuits as a cosmopolitan religion; the discussion from Dr McGreevy that later Jesuits were embracing American nationalism, even though they weren’t necessarily OK with separation of church and state; and your discussion of the culture Jesuits were bringing from around the world. Now, I just recapped – for the listeners – a lot of material and I certainly threw a lot at you, but I’d be curious . . . . These concepts of the physical things and the more intangible things: what do you see of those as their place in American religion?

LMK: What do I see as the place of those in American religion?

DG: So, I suppose, is there an aspect: nationhood, ideology, material culture? Do you see one factor as being more important than another?

LMK: No. I think what I was trying to call for was not separating them – at least, disaggregating them in some way but not isolating any of them one from another. I think it’s easy. . . . We often get a little too free with our definitions of globalism, internationalism, transnationalism. . .

DG: Sure

LMK: . . . and I think, part of what my colleague was calling for was the use of the term cosmopolitan as sort-of an orientation towards the rest of the world. (10:00) What it seems to me, though, that using that term can do is to draw attention away from the way power flows in the movements: the power of states is one kind of power, economic power is another kind of power. I think that’s how I would break things down. Material goods are interesting to focus on, but there’s also, appending to that, the question of “Who’s paying for what?”

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: Right? And that determines the flow of those goods.

DG: So, if you were to say, simply, that “Oh, the Jesuits were cosmopolitan”, that may be obscuring who’s leading their operations.

LMK: Right. So, if you just notice that they’re bringing chalices over from Italy and putting them into chapels in North Dakota, it doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the circumstances behind those movements. And so, you just don’t want to separate those two things out. I suppose that’s the simple point I’m trying to make.

DG: So, a lot of the conversation today dealt with the fact that the Jesuits do eventually, wind up launching outward from their bases in America to the Pacific Empire. And that really intersects with several of your books dealing with Pacific missionaries. Could you expand a bit on missionaries in the Pacific?

LMK: Yes. I think the 19th Century was the Pacific Century in that regard. If one could say that the 17th and 18th centuries sort-of focussed on Atlantic movements – with the slave trade, with European migrations to the new World – the Pacific Century is very much caught up, at least in terms of the relationship of the US to other nations, with: movements from various countries in Asia, eastward; the US becoming an imperial power, moving to places like Hawaii and later down to Central and South America. And those sorts of exchanges and contexts become focal points for interesting religious phenomena.

DG: Sure. And then the other thing, I’m thinking about, though, was – coming towards the end of the conversation – was that McGreevy’s book is mostly focussing on putting Jesuits into the international story, not so much on their interior life. I mean, he touches on that in the discussion with Father Bapst but it’s not the main point of the book. And we’re sitting here at the Cushwa Centre which has. . . the nature of spirituality and history has been a recurring topic for them. Do you think the book could have done more to consider the interior life of these priests?

LMK: By interior life, do you mean . . . ? I mean, he does consider things like the devotionalism, the increasing devotionalism in the 19th century – which is tied to interiority, I guess.

DG: I suppose I was thinking of the one gentleman’s comments which were about: “the book doesn’t really deal with the sort of spiritual exercises that Jesuits do”.

LMK: Yes. It ‘s certainly more focussed on the Jesuits as missionaries. And it struck me, as that conversation was going on, that Jesuits are not necessarily trying to inculcate the same disciplines in the people they are leading to the faith as they do in themselves. And, in a sense, those are almost two different tasks of a missionary. One question is: how do you inculcate discipline, education, bodily exercises or whatever into your subjects? But, as members of a Jesuit order, how do you try to maintain your own spiritual discipline, which might be a very different thing?

DG: Oh, certainly.

LMK: That’s certainly not where McGreevy’s interest lays.

DG: Well, it also brings up an interesting contrast with your work, for instance, studying Mormons – who take the Protestant idea of “every man his own priest” to an extreme, compared to the Catholic priest, saying: “There are certain things that are just for us and not for you.”

LMK: Exactly. Exactly, yes. So Mormons: they’re trying to replicate themselves and say, “This is how you live a Christian life – do as I do.” It’s a lay order, there isn’t a trained ministry, in that sense. So, I think , the tasks are really different. And what the Jesuits are trying to preserve for themselves in their own spiritual lives, can be – and in some situations is – very different from what they’re trying to get others to do.

DG: Another topic that comes up, involving America in the World in Dr McGreevy’s book, is the fact that Jesuits were becoming more politically liberal as the 20th century approached, but they had an interesting relationship to America as empire. For instance, they’re perfectly happy to sail on American ships to go into the Pacific. But on the other hand, they oppose, for instance, the war in the Philippines, in the early 1900s, because it’s a war against a Catholic nation. So, in the Mormon Church, did you find similar ambivalence about the imperial message?

LMK: Earlier on there was a lot of ambivalence about it. (15:00) When Mormons send off missionaries to the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, and later to places like New Zealand, the message is, “We’re also being oppressed by our government, just as you are being oppressed.” In other words, they’re an anti-colonialist movement spreading a message of joining common cause with the oppressed people’s in Utah. “And we will”, you know, “have more strength together”. So, yes, it’s sort-of an interesting thing. And, of course, by the 20th century they are certainly in line with American liberal values in a very different way. But there are other traditions that have a much more – I would say – a much more conflicted relationship to the US Government throughout. So, African American Christians, for example, also have some debates about how much to support the American imperial project, in various places: be it Haiti, where there’s a long tradition of African American missionaries in Haiti; or in Africa, because they have their own loyalties as they see it to people in Africa. So I think the whole issue of loyalties to religion and nation – aside from the Protestant mainstream one – have always been much more conflicted, and often more complicated, than we’ve realised.

DG: So we’ve spent a long time talking about comparative aspects of your work and Dr McGreevy’s work. But, I’m curious now. The role of the Catholic Church today in the United States is . . . . So, just to narrow in on Catholicism: the Catholic Church today is a large supporter of the United States Government, although it’s basically at odds with – sometimes at odds over – social issues. Do you think that trend is going to continue, of the Catholic Church having a liberal voice in American society? Because there certainly was a resurgence of conservatism under John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

LMK: Yes . . . . Historians, typically, aren’t very good prophets.

DG: Yes, so I caveat all of this with, “This may go wrong!”

LMK: Right! You know, I think there are potentially lots of counter-cultural elements in Catholicism . Even the social teachings of Catholicism – there is an anti-militarism which goes way back, that is combined, in ways different for Catholics, with their pro-life policies. So even though they might agree with evangelical Christians or other Protestants about questions of abortion, they’d part ways over the role of the American military and its work abroad. So it’s a complicated picture, I think. And as we’ve seen – and as a historian I suppose my take is – it’ll probably come around again. We will see more episodes of liberal . . . . I’m not a whiggish historian, so I don’t believe that we are in some inevitable march towards progress of all sorts, or enlightenment. And therefore it’s hard to predict what the next step would look like.

DG: Absolutely. The thing that’s been weighing on my mind – less so than recent political developments – is population shifts and demographics in the Catholic Church. I mean, certainly, with the rise of birth control – despite what bishops might want to know – the families are smaller now than they were in, say, the 1800s. And certainly, with the rise of secularity, I am curious to see the role of Catholicism in American public life. Dr McGreevy’s book deals with them taking on a larger role and now, I wonder, as the population shrinks, what’s going to happen?

LMK: That’s a great question. We have certainly seen revivals before in this country.

DG: Oh, sure.

LMK: So it’s hard to predict. The demographic shifts are obviously significant, but exactly how they’ll play out, I think, is not easy to prognosticate. Just because there are people in the Southern Hemisphere who are becoming the voice of Christianity, it’s not clear to me what political pay-off that has, or what path that portends. In fact, if you look at something that I know a little more about, in Protestant missionary work, the kinds of Protestantism that are making in-roads in places like Africa and South America are some of the more conservative kinds of Protestantism: Pentecostalism . . .

DG: Which is a counter-narrative to the modern, growing secularism in America.

LMK: And now they’re sending missionaries back to the United States.

DG: Really?

LMK: Yes. There are reverse migratory flows of missionaries. One of the biggest churches in Western Europe right now is a church – and this may be out of date because it’s a few years ago someone told me this: that there’s a huge evangelical church that was founded by a Nigerian pastor that has grown by leaps and bounds in Europe. (20:00) Now who that’s growing among, in Europe, is an interesting question. But, of course, the make-up of Western Europe and the United States is changing, as well. So the demography may just follow back to the Northern Hemisphere.

DG: Sure. Well, this discussion of transnational Catholicism and which particular voice will win out, makes me think of the original intention for why we’re sitting here in Notre Dame. So, for our listeners, this conference was originally meant to be part of a much larger conference on the work of Mark Noll, the historian of American Christianity. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the conference had to be, mostly, scrapped. But I’m curious what you would think of this, to bring in Mr Noll as an evangelical historian and historian of evangelicalism. His recent work has been abandoning America Studies, to some extent, to talk about the world. His book, Clouds of Witnesses is about Africa and Asia. So, the work of Mark Noll: how, if at all, does that influence your research? Do you see his views about pluralism . . . do you think those are going to carry more weight, going forwards, in the academy?

LMK: In certain sections of the academy, absolutely. I mean, Mark has been a pioneer in that sort of field, looking at global Christianity, for a long time. And thinking about, well – he’s a historian with an eye to the future, and where the church is going. And that’s certainly a big piece of the puzzle that I think has trickled back into the academy, in all kinds of ways. So I don’t see that stopping, by any means. But the question of what globalism or increasing globalisation of any of these religious traditions actually means for piety, for spirituality, for institutional life is, I think, the next big question. We know what it means in terms of bodies moving from one place to another, but how that actually, then, plays out – in terms of building institutions and building structures – is anybody’s guess.

DG: Well, and you’ve also mentioned – on sort-of a final note – that you and the other panellists talk about how the Catholics have become, you know, comfortable with their place in American society. Whereas Mark Noll, in his works, is talking about how some evangelicals want to make the country an explicitly evangelical nation – and he rejects that, as an evangelical man. So do you see these fights in the academy at all, over how to define religion? Should there be an exclusively Protestant historical mould, or should we find news ways of thinking and defining religion – ways that aren’t just tied to Christianity?

LMK: So, are you thinking . . . ? Yes – I think the horse is out of barn on that one! I don’t see going back to any kind of narrow focus on either churches, or institutional life or Protestantism. But I think, in some ways, the study of religion in all of its dimensions can only enrich the future study of Protestantism, along with other traditions.

DG: Yes, I think pluralism is here to stay. Or, at least, that’s what we’re supporting, right?

LMK: Yes.

DG: And then, a genuinely final note, I’ll ask: some scholars consider Mormonism a Christian faith; others say it is a Christian inspired faith.Where do you stand on those issues?

LMK: It’s certainly inspired by Protestantism and that’s where, if you look at the first sort of members of the movement, they came by way of other Christian traditions. I don’t . . . . The theological question – of whether it is a Christian tradition – I don’t feel, as a scholar, is mine to answer. I guess, on one level, I take seriously the self-identification of Mormons who see themselves as Christians. I think it’s an interesting question to look at. I think there are other Mormons who don’t see themselves as Christian, so that’s also an interesting question: where are the fault lines, and when and where do these questions matter? As a cultural historian, I think those are the more interesting questions for me. But I am not a theologian and I am not a historian of a particular kind of church tradition, so I’ll leave that to the experts.

DG: Laurie Maffly-Kipp discussing bodies in space: what they think, what they say and what they do. Thank you very much.

LMK: You’re welcome. Thank you.


Citation Info: Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. 2017. “Jesuits, Mormons and American Religion in the World”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/jesuits-mormons-and-american-religion-in-the-world/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Healing and higher power: a response to Dr Wendy Dossett

Headlines warning of the social fallout from alcohol and drug addiction often fail to record the remarkable fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have successfully “recovered” from these often devastating dependencies.  The highly lauded “12 Steps” programme, that has fronted the decades long efforts of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as similar organisations, have undoubtedly saved many lives.

At the heart of this success story is an acceptance of a spiritual “higher power” available to all, one which supersedes mere will power and puts them on the road to recovery. In her interview Dr Wendy Dossett explains that Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, founders of the AA and the 12 Steps programme, were influenced by the religious practices of the Oxford Group, a conservative evangelical form of Protestantism, which looked back to the early Christian church for its inspiration. As a result the pair believed alcoholism was a “spiritual malady”.

However, Dossett agrees that this “higher power” in no way automatically means the “God of religion”.  The religious studies academic, a senior lecturer at Chester University, tells the interviewer this higher power “can be anything so long as it is not will power”. Discussing her research she explains that while some of the recovered addicts she spoke to about their experiences identified this power with God, others variously described it as the “spirit of the universe”, nature, or even ”the force” – an echo of Star Wars.  On the other hand, a number felt this power was derived from fellow addicts in their recovery group, while some associated it with their friends and one even initially identified it as the ‘unconditional love’ from her cat.

Dossett makes clear it is essential that religious studies researchers listen to, value and document the experiences of the practitioners of contemporary spiritualities.  And it is equally appropriate for them to use their subject knowledge and skills to identify the religious elements and separate them out so that they did not unduly influence the interpretation of their findings. What resulted in her work “is the actual experience of people who work these programmes”.

It is worthwhile at this stage to point out that while Dossett describes of what she has discovered, what the ‘higher power’ or ‘spirituality’ can mean to others, she offers no definition of her own. I suggest that this disinclination to define the words limits or even forecloses their meaning.  To support her view that the ‘higher power’ is not necessarily religious she referred to Robert C. Fuller’s book (Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, OUP, 2001) which made it clear that although organisations like AA were spiritual they were not aligned to any religion or faith and had no “requirements of belief to be a member”. However does this not beg the familiar question: can we genuinely understand spirituality without relating it to religion or metaphysics?  Can we legitimately define it to be whatever anyone wants it to be at any particular time?  Is there not a danger that a concept like spirituality, when deprived of a specific definition, loses its depth and profundity?

In a direct challenge to those unprepared to countenance a metaphysical view viewpoint, the late Vaclav Havel once warned: “Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment.”  The former Czech president and philosopher continued: “The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility” [i]. It seems to me Havel’s reference to the “immensely complex and mysterious tissue” helps, to some extent, in explaining the concept of spirituality associated with the 12 Steps’ “higher power” and the remarkable recoveries Dossett documented in her research.  And I certainly feel the importance Havel gives to “humility” is mirrored by Dossett’s sensitive approach to her research group and the analysis of her findings.

While those that reject the concept of God can never associate the “higher power” with the divine, it is obviously still appropriate to explore if a metaphysical force might lie at the back of this power and, if so, what it might be. After all the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the late 1930s, are undeniably Christian.

Given these Christian origins, it is relevant to look at the accounts of Jesus’ healings. Like those the programme has successfully treated, Jesus, too, spoke of a “higher power”, although he called it the “kingdom of heaven”.  Interestingly, he also said that he could do nothing on his own[ii], a remark that, in my view, alludes to a “power greater than ourselves”, a phrase 12 Steps participants have also used when explaining their recovery. The Bible clearly links Jesus’ view of the kingdom of heaven with the power he healed by.  Furthermore, later New Testament writings show others in the early Christian Church echoed Jesus’ cures.

But even Christians, particularly within the last 150 years, have often found it hard to regard Jesus’ healings as anything other than myths or natural events.  Paul Tillich recognised this neglect of the healing aspect of Jesus. He wrote that the Gospels ‘abound in stories of healing; but we are responsible, ministers, laymen, theologians, who forgot that “Saviour” means “healer”, he who makes whole and sane what is broken and insane, in body and mind’ [iii]Thus he identifies healing as an essential element of salvation.

Nevertheless, not only has the healing element of Christianity gone largely unacknowledged, it has in fact been almost subsumed by the advances of modern medicine. Be that as it may, many Christians combine their prayers with the work of doctors. In my research on Christianity and healing I am aware of several studies that identify the health benefits of a combined approach to healing such as those done by Harold G. Koenig at the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University, North Carolina.

One denomination of Christianity was founded specifically on the practice of healing through reliance on the power of God alone. The French sociologist, Regis Dericquebourg, using the Weberian typification of ‘ideal types’, defines The Church of Christ, Scientist as the “first healing church”[iv].  Started by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 – Christian Science was a precursor to the approach of the Oxford Group in that it looks to “primitive Christianity” for its inspiration and practice [v]. According to its own periodicals it claims hundreds of thousands of recoveries and cures, many accompanied by medical diagnoses.

If Jesus healed two millennia ago, if subsequent Christians have also used similar healing powers down the centuries, and, if the healings reported by Christian Scientists are genuine, it is plausible that the “higher power” of the 12 steps programme is sourced in a divine power It is beyond the scope of this commentary to explore what kind of divine power this is, but given the roots of the AA, it is likely to correspond with a Christian understanding of God. Whatever the case, the recoveries and healing experiences of those who use a ‘higher power’ are too numerous and too well documented for it not to evoke further study as to how it works and where it comes from. For all its reticence to use religious terminology and perhaps because of it, Dossett’s research indicates that the answers are going to be new and surprising.

Endnotes

[i] The New York Times, 3 June 1992

[ii] Luke 17: 21

[iii] Tillich P, The New Being, Scribner, New York, 1955, p42

[iv] Dericquebourg R, ‘Christian Science: The first healing church’ presented at The Evolutions of Christian Science in Scholarly Perspective seminar, April 23/24 2015, FVG Wilrijk-Antwerp, Belgium. Published in Acta Comparanda Subsidia ll, FVG, June 2015

[v] Church Manual, Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, p17

Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality

When we think about ‘religion’ and ‘youth’ a number of images might come to mind. Young people rebelling against their parents. Young people as mere containers for the religiosity of their parents. Creative reinterpretation of stagnant traditions. Systemic abuse and lack of agency. And so on. In the context of the United Kingdom, where we are recording today, with its historically hegemonic Christianity, one scholar has written that

young_old

“It is no secret that Christian churches are struggling to attract and retain young people. The current generation of young people has largely abandoned the church or never known it as a significant part of their lives. The 2005 church census revealed that many churches have no young people at all in their congregations: around half have no 11- to 14-year-olds attending and well over half have no 15- to 19-year-olds (Brierley 2006).” (Stanton 2012, 385)

But of course, this misses much of what is going on. That scholar is Naomi Thompson (formerly Stanton) who joins us today on the Religious Studies Project to give us a more nuanced overview of the broad topic “Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality.”

We begin this interview by asking what is ‘youth’? How do sociologists define it? What are some of the current trends in sociological research on youth? What, if anything, is distinctive about youth experience? Discussion then turns to ‘religion and youth’, focusing on why scholars might be interested in it, the current state of play, common assumptions, how we might go about researching it, before focusing on some of Dr Thompson’s own research. Towards the end of the interview, we focus on the ‘transmission model’ and the relationship between generations, before thinking to the future of this growing area of research.

This episode is the fourth in a series co-produced with Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, Jaffa Cakes, Lion bars, and more.


References:

Stanton, Naomi. 2012. Christian youth work: teaching faith, filling churches or response to social need? Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 33, No. 3, December 2012, 385–403

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 30 August 2016

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Conference: Shia Minorities in the Contemporary World

May 20–21, 2016

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Conference: Esotericism, Literature and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe

May 27–28, 2016

Belgrade, Serbia

Deadline: December 1, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: January 21, 2016

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Conference: Dialogue among religions as strategy and means for peace

July 12–15, 2016

Havana, Cuba

Deadline: November 20, 2015

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Conference: Anticipating the End Times: Millennialism, Apocalypticism, and Utopianism in Intentional Communities

October 6–8, 2016

Salt Lake City, UT, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

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Conference: Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits

July 5–7, 2016

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 10, 2015

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Colloquium: Translating Christianities

December 7, 2015

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: October 30, 2015

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Symposium: The End of the World: A Universal Imagination

June 8–10, 2016

Nantes, France

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2015

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: December 7, 2014

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Symposium: Oxford Symposium on Religious Studies

December 7–9, 2015

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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EASR panel: Nonreligion and Atheism in Central and Eastern Europe

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

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Journal: Preternature

Special issue: Delineating the Preternatural: Modern Occultism in a Scientific Context

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Religion and Racism: Intercultural Perspectives

Deadline: January 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Religion, Addiction and Recovery

November 2, 2015

University of Chester, UK

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Seminar: Islamic Studies in Scotland: Retrospect and Prospect

October 23–24, 2015

University of Edinburgh, UK

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Jobs

4 PhD positions: “Communication and Exploitation of Knowledge in the Middle Ages”

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: October 15, 2015

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Assistant Professor of Religion: Buddhist Studies

Bard College, NY, USA

Deadline: November 1, 2015

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Senior Research Associate: CREST

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

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Doctoral positions: Muslim Cultures and Societies

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, hamster cages, vintage VHS tapes, and more.