The Religious Meanings of Borders

For Janette Oke, the border meant she was alone.

The young evangelical women followed her husband from the Canadian prairie to the American Midwest in 1957. The border crossing was not dramatic. Their car loaded down with the household items of newly weds, they crossed from Canada to the United States without much to-do. Recounting the trip for her biographer years later, Oke remembered a flat tire more than the border crossing. Nonetheless, the border was real. Crossing it had its effect. It separated her from family, friends, and the life she’d known.

Edward Oke was studying for his degree at Bethel College, the Missionary Church school in Mishawaka, Indiana, and also pastoring a congregation in nearby Elkhart. He was so busy he didn’t have time to notice. But Janette noticed. She cleaned the $65-a-month apartment. She made her husband dinner. She prepared for her baby to be born. And home was very far away.

When she miscarried, the border was very real to Janette Oke. The cost of calling home, an international call, was so expensive, she could only afford to say a few words to her mother.

“In the strange apartment,” Oke’s biography says, “miles from her mother, and with no doctor’s care, she lay on the fold-out bed and cried” (Logan 139).

The border meant she was alone in her grief. Oke was also an evangelical Christian, though, so in her grief, she turned to Jesus. She had, as she understood it, a personal relationship with Jesus. He loved her and she trusted him. His ways were higher than hers, so she trusted in him. In the cheap apartment with an empty crib, Oke sang hymns to herself about trust and surrender, and that’s how she got through it.

Borders are not inherently meaningful. And yet they have meaning.

Daniel Gorman Jr.’s conversation with historian Laurie Maffly-Kipp for the Religious Studies Project is ostensibly about American Jesuits and Mormons, occasioned by Maffly-Kipp’s invited response to John McGreevy’s new book, American Jesuits in the World (Princeton 2016) at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. But really, it’s a conversation about borders. Gorman, a history PhD. candidate at the University of Rochester, starts by asking Maffly-Kipp, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis’s John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, about her work on the importance of geography in the narration of American religious history. Maffly-Kipp has long argued that geography and the ways that space is mapped can be, as she tells Gorman, “a way to think about religion differently.”

From there, the conversation goes—the pun is unavoidable—all over the map. They talk about difference between Mormons and Catholics in U.S. history, the difference between de facto and de jura religious persecution, the difference between the global history McGreevy has written with the one Maffly-Kip is writing. They talk about the disciplinary divisions in the history department at Rochester (goods, nations, ideas), the future of the American Catholic Church, and the importance of demographic changes to religious institutions. They talk about historian Mark Noll’s work on global Christianity and his influence on the field of religious history and what change is marked by his recent retirement from Notre Dame. The conversation can seem like it has no thesis. But really, it’s about borders. The underlying logic of the conversation is about meaningful distinctions, and lines, and how different divisions can be different ways of thinking about religion.

Maffly-Kipp offers what might be thought of as a mandate for borders for religious historians towards the end of the conversation. She and Gorman are talking about global histories, and specifically how global history re-shapes American religious history. Maffly-Kipp says it’s not enough to note borders and the crossing of borders, in religious histories. Instead, the meaning and affects and effects of borders on religion must be carefully examined.

“The question,” she says, “of what globalism … actually means for piety, for spirituality, for institution 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 building institutions, in building structures, is anybody’s guess.”

My guess, personally, is that the religious meanings of borders are intensely local. Partly this is because all global history is local. And partly it’s because borders are not inherently meaningful, or even, in and of themselves, real. They become real because of what crosses them and what doesn’t. They become real when they have an effect. Thus the religious, historical meaning of a border depends on the specific, religious historical effects on particular things (goods, nations, ideas, to be sure, but also and especially people) that cross them, or don’t.

What does it mean for a body to move from one place to another in terms of piety, for spirituality, for religious institutions? For Janette Oke, as a newly wed mourning the loss of a child, it meant the realization of a very personal sense of religious space. Her spirituality was private prayers. Her hymns were sung without a choir. Her prayers were composed spontaneously and in the first person.

That wasn’t the first time the U.S.-Canadian border shaped her religious life, either. As a child, Oke was converted at a summer camp run by the Missionary Church, an evangelical, Wesleyan-Anabaptist denomination. The camp evangelist was a woman. In fact, much of the church on the Canadian prairie was run by women. The denomination did not really approve of women in leadership, but it made an exception because so few men were available or willing to cross into the “needy prairies” of the Canadian West. So “Sister Workers” did the jobs ordained men did in the U.S. This meant that when a minister urged the little children, day after day, to yield their lives to Jesus, it had a different tone than it would have, if the ministers had been men. For her, conversion was like accepting a hug. Evangelical Christianity was comforting, nurturing, and motherly. In Oke’s biography, written by her daughter in 1993, it’s appears that her religious life was made up almost entirely of women until she met her husband at college and he became a minister.

Oke is known, today, as the pioneer of inspirational fiction. She wrote a successful evangelical romance novel in 1979 and launched an industry. Her novels dramatize a specific kind of evangelical spirituality on the stage of a romance story. That spirituality, notably, is comforting and personal. It’s reassuring and private. It’s depicted as the faith of a woman crying alone, singing a hymn to herself about Jesus, and trusting that God will take care of her even on the wrong side of the border. Real borders, it would seem, had a role in shaping that vision of Christian faith.

The meaning of the border, for Oke, is not by any means universal. She’s quite particular, it would seem. Yet if religious scholars are going to attend to geography, and the religious impact and import of crossing mostly imaginary lines, the particular is a good place to start.


Logan, Laurel Oke. Janette Oke: A Heart for the Prairie. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 1993.

Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. “If It’s South Dakota You Must Be Episcopalian: Lies, Truth-telling, and the Mapping of U.S. Religion,” Church History 71/1 (March 2002): 132-142.

—-. “Looking West: Mormonism and the Pacific World,” Journal of Mormon History 26/1 (Spring 2000): 41-63.

—-. “Mapping the World, Mapping the Race: The Negro Race History, 1874-1915,” Church History 64/4 (December 1995): 610-626.

—-. “Putting Religion on the Map,” Journal of American History 94:2 (September 2007): 515-19.

McGreevy, John T. American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Noll, Mark. The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Oke, Janette. The Calling of Emily Evans. Bloomington, MN: Bethany, 1990.

—-. Love Comes Softly. Bloomington, MN: Bethany,  1979.

Rebecca Rushdoony Once Condemned a Cat as a Heretic

Rebecca Rushdoony once condemned a cat as a heretic.

The eldest child of R.J. Rushdoony, an American theologian dedicated to helping Christians learn to build God’s kingdom on earth, Rebecca was mad the stray cat wouldn’t stay put. So she pronounced the cat damned, much to her father’s amusement.

This is one of only a few family anecdotes in Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, the first in-depth history of Rushdoony and the religious movement he started. This might not seem remarkable. McVicar’s highly anticipated work is an intellectual history. It examines Rushdoony’s theology and the influence that theology has had on Christian conservatives. The focus is not on the small, intimate moments of family life.

It is worth remarking on, though, because Rushdoony was deeply invested in the idea of the importance of the family. His life’s work was aimed at changing the world. He thought that change would happen through Christian families.

As McVicar explains in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Rushdoony’s plan for transforming the world started with biblically “reconstructed” fathers.

“They are going to take control of their families,” McVicar says, “by applying the strictures of biblical law onto first themselves, the male agent, then onto their wives, then onto their children. Rushdoony’s idea was that over time, this would create interlocking networks of godly families that would eventually swell to fill the earth and create the kingdom of God on earth.”

If Rushdoony tried to live out that vision in his own life, with his own family, it is not examined in McVicar’s book.

Christian Reconstruction is not the study of a culture-changing patriarch. It isn’t a book about a father reconstructing himself and his family according to theonomy, God’s law. Rushdoony’s familial relationships and roles are noted only briefly here, evidence of the complexity of his personal character, before receding completely from the narrative.

In this way, McVicar’s historical work on Rushdoony dissents from Rushdoony’s idea of historical change. Christian Reconstruction, the book, starts from and demonstrates a theory of history different than that of Christian Reconstructionism, the movement. McVicar focuses on social networks and institutions as the primary agents of historical change. He does this with great acuity. He is persuasive, not just explaining Rushdoony’s theological work but also in implicitly arguing he can explain this history without attending to Rushdoony’s life and times as a patriarch.

There are compelling reasons to attend to this disjunction. McVicar manages to engage the reader with the ideas that Rushdoony considered crucial even before explicating them. He gives readers an opportunity to examine the generally unreflected-upon assumptions at work in every historical narrative, whether it be recent American religious history or an answer the question, “How was your day?” He gives readers, further, ground to critically examine some of Rushdoony’s basic ideas about the historical change he was attempting to effect.

McVicar also calls attention to this disjunction—which is not to say contradiction—in Rushdoony’s own thought and practice. With unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s correspondence, journals, and unpublished papers, McVicar is able to document Rushdoony’s daily intellectual life, looking not just at what he thought but also how.

What these sources show, McVicar writes, is “a singularly focused, almost mechanical man driven by an all-consuming ambition to build ‘a world-wide ministry through writing.’” Even in his most personal diaries, Rushdoony isn’t particularly interested in applying biblical law to his family. Rather, “Rushdoony’s diaries disproportionately recount his confrontations with theological critics, intellectual ne’er-do-wells at academic conferences, battles with Presbyterian officials, or run-ins with ignorant lay-people,” McVicar writes. “The result is a written record that displays a man more likely to note anger over personal slights and the perceived intellectual vapidity of his enemies than he was to document the happier moments of his life” (11).

Rushdoony, as he emerges in McVicar’s narrative, does not seem inspired by his own vision of biblical families. He seems more compelled by some of the conspiracy-minded thinking that permeated right-wing thought in the mid 20th century.

He was very interested, for example, in a 19th century British group named the Fabian Society. One of the fascinating details McVicar turns up in his archival research is multiple versions of an unpublished essay on the Fabian Society, showing that Rushdoony believed their gradualist and reformist approach to advancing socialism had been profoundly influential. In a memo circulated among conservative think tanks, Rushdoony used the Fabians as a model for what conservatives should be doing. Even as he believed that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, Rushdoony wrote that think tanks could dramatically change the course of history if only it could really coherently unify right-thought with right-practice.

“History,” McVicar quotes Rushdoony, “has never been commanded by majorities but only by dedicated minorities, and the need today is a strategy for the development of that minority into an instrument of thought and action power” (64).

Rushdoony spent large amounts of energy criticizing people who agreed with him on particular issues for their failure to sufficiently unify their thought and action. He thought most Christians and conservatives had under-theorized their activities. At the same time, he struggled to find effective ways to put his theory into practice.

Sometimes, his practice seemed entirely disconnected from his theory.

McVicar looks at Rushdoony’s failed attempts to work inside academia. He looks at Rushdoony’s failed efforts to work with modernist and fundamentalist Presbyterian denominations and then his ill-fated struggle to gain influence over the flagship journal of American evangelicalism, Christianity Today. McVicar follows Rushdoony’s varying success working with right-wing political organizations. He looks at how Rushdoony tried to found a Christian Reconstructionist college, but only managed to build a one-man research organization. He looks, further, at Rushdoony’s conflicted relationships with a younger generation of Christian intellectuals he mentored, notably Greg Bahnsen, John Whitehead, and Gary North.

Even as Rushdoony wrote that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, he was actively engaged in a lot of different ways of trying to influence society.

And some of them were successful.

“Christian Reconstruction, in some important ways, but limited ways, contributed to what Americans would now think of the Christian Right or the New Christian right,” McVicar tells RSP. “I … got to see exactly how much of an influence he had on the rise of things like the religious right, the moral majority, the Rutherford Institute, a handful of really important think tanks, legal advocacy firms, and public defense legal firms that developed in the 1980s. I got to see his influence here, and it did reveal a network of relationships that simply had not been covered in this history before.”

One of the most significant ways Rushdoony had an influence, McVicar shows, was by having his ideas appropriated. Sometimes his thought was adopted quite faithfully, as in some the more conservative streams of the homeschool movement. Other times, the ideas were adapted freely, as was the case with televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, and Tim LaHaye’s somewhat secretive religious-right group, the Council for National Policy. “From Rushdoony’s perspective,” McVicar writes, “CNP participants simultaneously stole his ideas and denied their fundamental truth” (210).

In this way, the story about Rebecca Rushdoony and the cat turns out to be somewhat important. As the theologian was theorizing how Christian patriarchy would bring about the kingdom of God, his daughter was demonstrating the kind of influence he would actually have. She took Rushdoony’s words and repurposed them…

In that case, to condemn a cat as a heretic.


McVicar, Michael J. Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015.

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.



Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.

Other reasons to unpack ‘religious experience’

…scholars should be more conscious of the ways in which some experiences are being distinguished (often implicitly), by either the person having the experience, the community in which the experience is happening, or the scholar studying it. Attention should be paid to the ways in which an experience is being marked as the sort of experience that is interesting.

Other reasons to unpack ‘religions experience’

by Daniel Silliman, Heidelberg University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 13 March 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience (11 March 2013).

Charles Fox Parham’s historical significance is due to one fact: he was the first to outline and define early Pentecostal theology of glossolali, the experience that Pentecostals call “speaking in tongues.” He himself wasn’t the first to have the ecstatic experience of “spirit baptism,” and utter unknown words in an unknown language, but rather, as the religious leader at the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas in 1901 he was the one who theologized the experience of others (Goff 164). He said that the tongues were tongues. He said the experience was the spiritual gift of a new language, the evidence of sanctification, and the tool that God would use to spread the gospel at the end of time. In Ann Taves’ terminology, he was the one who deemed the experience of tongues a religious experience. Parham referred to himself as the movement’s “projector.” In light of Taves’ work, he might more precisely be called the “ascriber,” as he is the one who set this particular experience apart as special, founding this specific religious tradition with his ascriptions.

Lesser known, but perhaps also significant, is another aspect of Parham’s work as founder and leader of the nascent Pentecostal movement. He spent much of his time, from 1901 on, aggressively contesting the validity of Pentecostals’ ecstatic experiences.

After he started the movement, Parham was among its fiercest critics. According to historian Grant Wacker, he dismissed Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, one of the most successful moments of early Pentecostalism,  as “holy-rolling-dancing-jumping, shaking, jabbering, chattering, wind-sucking and giving vent to meaningless sounds and noises” (232). Many ecstatic experiences that others deemed the work of the Holy Ghost were, for Parham, “disorders” (Wacker 107). He dedicated himself, time and again, to brusque denunciations of experiences he considered to be lewd or racially inferior, manifestations of “the flesh” or “spook spirits” in “wild, weird prayer services” (Wacker 53, 125; Goff 130, 132).

These efforts to police the boundaries of Pentecostal experience have not gone unnoticed in Pentecostal historiography. Yet, they haven’t been foregrounded, either. They have been considered as secondary or even tertiary in the beginnings of this movement, construed normally as curious but not critically important power struggles. Taves’ work suggests it might be fruitful for historians to re-focus on these disputes.

Conversely, thinking about how Taves’ work could profitably re-direct religious historians in a case such as this might also serve to demonstrate the broader potential of Taves’ proposals. It can seem like Taves is interested only in very limited questions, that she is restricting herself to theoretical or definitional issues. A lot of what she does, for instance in Religious Experience Reconsidered, is very abstract, and focused on seemingly obtuse issues such as whether or not it’s helpful to use second-order terms such as “religion,” “sacred,” “mystical” and “magic” (Taves 161). The project of unpacking “religious experience,” turns out, though, to be useful for more than just clarifying what is meant by “religious experience.”

For Taves, an intra-tradition dispute over the authenticity and legitimacy of experiences, such as happens with Parham and Pentecostalism, serves much the same purpose as flags at an archeological site: This is where the digging should start. As she tells David Wilson, late in her interview with the Religious Studies Project, “it’s that kind of process that I just kind of have gotten entranced with.” For Pentecostals, this process of separating true and false manifestations of the Holy Spirit is called “discernment.” For scholars, Taves argues, attending to such practices and processes can allow for the differentiation of the many interacting forces at work in experiences that are understood as religious. “We can see,” she says,

how different individuals or groups or traditions characterize the experience in question, so we can look at how they set the boundaries of what counts as religious experience, but we can also watch how these experiences come into being. How they’re shaped. How they develop. How they morph.

That is to say, examinations of the processes by which experiences are marked out as especially needing ascriptive explanation, how they are deemed religious, and the ways in which subsequent contestations over that then play out, might clarify what it is that’s being studied when one studies “religious experience.” But then, further, it might also uncover a host of worthwhile questions that enable new examinations not just of experience as such, but of whole histories and traditions.

From a certain perspective, Taves’ work is perhaps best understood as an attempt to mediate in a theoretical dispute between constructivists and neo-perennialists over what “religious experiences” actually are, or if there are any, and the best way to understand what is “religious” about experiences deemed religious (Taves 91). In her intervention into this dispute, Taves endeavors to destabilize the object of study in places where it has become too stable, so that it is, as she tells Wilson, “this totally clear mystical or spiritual experience [that has] surfaced totally without any attributional processes at all,” and to stabilize the object of study in other places, where it has seemingly dissolved into discourse, so that it seems that “there was no experience there that could be accessed in any sort of way.” The idea is that approaching those experiences that are taken as religious experiences as being either simply, irreducibly religious, i.e., sui generis, or, alternatively, as merely social constructions, as if the experience were invented out of the thin air of discourse, is insufficient. In both cases, too many of the details “on the ground” are obscured or lost by the scholarly approach.

The answer Taves develops to that problem, that theoretical impasse, begins with an apparently sideways inquiry into why any given experience seems interesting in the first place. Taves proposes, first, that scholars should be more conscious of the ways in which some experiences are being distinguished (often implicitly), by either the person having the experience, the community in which the experience is happening, or the scholar studying it. Attention should be paid to the ways in which an experience is being marked as the sort of experience that is interesting. That is to say, attention should be paid to the ways in which certain experiences seem or come to seem special or singular (Taves 162). This can be done by asking a series of inter-related questions of the “specialness” or “singularity” of a given experience:

It is special in what way?

It is special to whom?

It is special to what end?

Such a line of inquiry is proposed as a way to overcome a deadlocked dispute between two schools of thought. The result, however, need not be merely the settling of an academic quarrel: that series of questions can also open up new ways to understand the shape of movements such as Pentecostalism. By focusing first on the question of the importance of an experience, by being interested in the interestingness with which an experience seems to be endowed, it’s possible to come up with all sorts of new questions. As Taves writes in Religious Experience Reconsidered,

we could ask, for example, if there are traditions that consider visualization practices efficacious relative to a goal they deem religious. If so, do the practices always work? If not, how do practitioners deal with or account for that? [….] We could also examine the relationship between experiences that individuals consider religious and traditions that rely on composite ascriptions to make authoritative judgements about experience at the group level. What happens if someone seemingly has a spontaneous experience, which they consider significant, within a tradition or cultural context that places little value on such experiences? Will it still seem important? If it does, what claims will the individual make about the experience in light of what is or is not expected by the group? How will the group respond? Alternatively, what happens if the tradition or culture does value such experiences? Will they develop, shape, and/or constrain it? And what happens if outsiders or internal critics attribute experiences to different causes than insiders do?

One example of the potential for such a project is T.M. Luhrmann’s new book, When God Talks Back, a psychological-anthropological investigation into the prayer practices of Charismatic Christians in The Vineyard church. As Luhrmann explains her project, she “use[d] the ethnographic method to identify a process that seems to be psychological [….] identifying the consequences of those practices that seem to have something to do with the way brains and bodies are built” (377). Lurhmann unpacks the experience that people in these churches are having of God, looking at the contexts in which those experiences happen, the processes by which they happen, the ways in which specialness is ascribed the experience and the ways that that is negotiated. In the story Luhrmann tells, Charismatics begin by learning how to be conscious of and attentive to mental processes that others do not note as important or interesting or special. They become aware of something non-ordinary, which had previously seemed so ordinary as not be notable. They adopt a new “theory of mind,” and “learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind,” as Luhrmann told Terry Gross late last year .

One of the things that’s so compelling about Luhrmann’s work is that it gets at the question of why someone would want to embrace this faith and be a part of these religious communities. There’s lots and lots of work on the ontological commitments of such religious groups, not to mention their political commitments and position in contemporary American culture wars. Much has been done on the content of their belief, but Luhrmann’s work examines instead the questions of the practice and experience of that belief. She isn’t writing about religious experience as such, with the aim of understanding specifically this idea or this category of experience, but by focusing first on the question of the experienced specialness of an experience, she provide a quite compelling account of this contemporary spirituality, of how and why it has the shape it has.

Looking at the way such things were negotiated historically in early intra-Pentecostal disputes over experiences could, I think, lead to a valuable alternative account of how Pentecostalism developed in the way it did. This would mean looking at the acriptive work that was done in the founding moment in 1901, when Agnes Ozman spoke in tongues and was understood, by herself and those around her, to be doing something important and special (Goff 67-69), but it would also mean foregrounding other moments that have been given less attention. A moment such as the one in 1910, for example, where Ozman began to dance ecstatically and danced up the aisle of a church and to the pulpit (Wacker 106), a controversial place for her to be dancing, could be profitably examined using Taves’ ideas about “religious experience.” In that controversy, Ozman offered answers to the questions about how the experience was special, and to whom, and to what end. Her answers were quite different from those that Parham and other religious authorities offered. There were conflicting strategies of discernment. If one follows Taves’, though, in the apparently tangential project of unpacking the various ideas about “religious experience,” and the processes by which such experiences are deemed important, and the ways in which conflicts about their legitimacy play out, the whole history of this tradition starts to open up in new ways.

This is perhaps an unorthodox way to argued for the value of Taves’ theoretical work on the question of experience. When asked what the goal of her work was in 2010, Taves’ told The Immanent Frame that she wanted to “open up pathways that will make it easier to engage the scientific literature on the study of the mind without simplifying the conceptual framework in ways that would frustrate scholars of religion” . Her engagements with these theoretical issues and definitional issues have significant potential for a broad applicability, though, as they give scholars a number of seemingly sideways approaches that turn out to be quite powerful.

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About the Author:

Daniel Silliman teaches American religion and culture at Heidelberg University’s Center for American Studies. His research is focused on 20th century American evangelical engagements with culture, contemporary cultural practices of belief, and religious book history. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation on representations of belief in evangelical Christian fiction. He has an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Tübingen and a B.A. in Philosophy from Hillsdale College. He blogs on American religion at


  • Goff, James R., Jr. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charels F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1988.
  • Luhrmann, T.M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Knopf, 2012.
  • Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton, 2009.
  • Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard, 2003.