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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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Religious Studies Opportunities Digest – 16 May 2017

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Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

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, yoga mats, tantric guides, and more.

Conversion and Deconversion as Concepts in the Sociology of Religion

Religious conversion has traditionally been understood as the abandonment of one religious identity for another, or a switch from no religious identification to a newly religious one. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have viewed conversion as a sudden, singular event in one’s life. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of new religious movements and the flowering of Asian religious traditions in the West, sociologists reformulated conversion as an active, gradual process of transformation.

Conversion, in these understandings, is not a changed subjective or ontological identity but rather a shift in one’s discursive universe, social relationships, and embodied practices, a new role learned through language, behavior, and interpersonal boundary maintenance. Similarly, deconversion and its scholarly synonyms (apostasy, alienation, disaffiliation, defection, exit, leaving) has many contexts, motivations, and processes, including loss of a specific religious experience, doubt or denial of beliefs, moral criticism, emotional suffering, and unlearning particular vocabularies and behaviors.

For this interview with Lynn Davidman, we focus on the concepts of conversion and deconversion*, illustrations of these processes in various contexts, what each term means and how each is experienced in someone’s life, the histories of these terms and their use in scholarship, and issues that arise from their conceptualization or use.

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, jelly beans, the artist formally known as “Prince” memorial T-shirts, and more.

*Our interview took place during the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, held in Chicago. During our conversation, Davidman refers to comments made at an author-meets-critics panel about her new book which took place earlier that day.

*For more on conversion, see L. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (1993) and L. Rambo and C. Farhadian, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (2014), as well as D. Snow and R. Machalek, “The Sociology of Conversion” (1984).

*For more on deconversion, see H. Streib et al, Deconversion (2009) and P. Zuckerman, Faith No More (2011).

‘Lived Religion’ in the Japanese Context: Realities of Individual Practice and Institutional Survival

In the current state of religious affairs, the concept of “lived religion” brought to us by Meredith McGuire in her latest book “Lived Religion: Faith and Practice” appears to be a highly relevant one, and most certainly, a fascinating one. It made me think about the manifestations of personal religiosity and the role of institutional engagement in shaping them in the Japanese context. It also brings to mind the notion of being “practically religious” in Japanese Buddhism and beyond. Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, in their book Practically Religious (1998), argue that “Japanese religion is less a matter of belief than it is of activity, ritual, and custom”[1] and “the promise of this-worldly benefits is an intrinsic element within Japanese religion in general”.[2] In other words, Japanese religiosity is not necessarily based on what one believes in, but rather on what one does or should do and what one can get out of such activities, regardless of whether the fruits are of a spiritual or material nature.

Hence, it is a promise of some kind that lures people into visiting religious sites. For those who seek spiritual support, it might be a promise of deities’ protection against an illness or reassurance of peace for their ancestors’ spirits, which is bought with the offerings for prayers and fees paid for protective o-mamori (amulets). Yet, for those looking for a place to relax, escape their daily routine and experience something exciting, temples and shrines need to invent new ways to satisfy that need, especially at the time when more people claim to have little or no religious affiliation, and when visiting shrines and temples became associated with cultural and tourist activities rather than with religious activities. An increasing number of Japanese people today, especially young, visit famous religious sites for exclusively recreational reasons.

The number of Japanese people claiming lack of religious belief increased to 80% in the post-Aum era,[3] whereas the number of people admitting to have some sort of religious belief is no more than 20-30% and even lower among university students.[4] The semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students[5] revealed that all of them described their religious belief as mushūkyō (“non-religious”), only three of them identified their religious affiliation as Buddhist (mainly due to their family affiliation), and 84 confirmed that they visit temples and shrines on various occasions during the year, including hatsumōde, ō-bon celebrations and cherry blossoms viewings, and usually during their visits they purchase o-mamori (protective talismans) and o-mikuji (written oracle). My interviewees stated three main reasons for those visits, dentō (tradition), nihonjin-no koto (this is what Japanese people do), and tomodachi-to asobu toki (fun time with friends).

None of the interviewees mentioned their spiritual needs, whereas all put a stress on cultural and entertaining aspects of their visits to Buddhist temples. This may hint that young people in particular have low levels of religious affiliation; however this does not mean that they have no connection with religious places. It appears that visiting shrines and temples by young people is a widespread activity, yet the importance of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ motivations is rarely if at all highlighted. It appears that this notion of Japanese practicality in one’s personal engagement with religion may somewhat distort the concept of “lived religion” or “religion as lived” understood by McGuire as a subjective experience. Yet, perhaps this practical or action-based approach of engagement allows people to nurture their subjective experiences of faith without necessarily revealing their personal motivations behind their practices.

On the other hand McGuire discusses the malleability of religion (especially that personal one) and the “pic and mix” nature of “lived religion” with people drawing from a number of different religious traditions for practices and teachings. The very notion of malleability in this context brought my thinking to the ongoing discussion of change in religious traditions, institutions, and personal practices. This again brings me to my area of research in Japan where many institutions, including Japanese Buddhist temples, adapt to facilitate the religious engagement and its financial survival.

Along with the modernisation and commercialisation of society came the necessity to adapt to the new cultural, social and economic conditions; and this is true for all religious traditions in Japan. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it also needed to convince both the ruling class and the people that it was in tune with local spiritual traditions. The Buddhist concept of hōben (skillful means) allows us to understand the secret of religious adaptability in Japan today. Skillful means, in Buddhist terms, represents the idea of not always telling the truth, as long as it helps people in achieving enlightenment, or as it can be understood today, as long as it helps people and attracts potential visitors to temples and shrines. The concept of “untruth” understood in terms of hōben is perpetrated for the sake of others and with the use of any means available at the time which can contribute to the popularisation of a particular practice or religious site.

It can be suggested that religious organisations in Japan today are likely to resort to the use of modern hōben methods such as a wide range of advertising techniques and use of technology in the context of the economic and social changes that affected them after the promulgation of the new constitution in 1946. Through the variety of those advertising techniques and imagery of religious sites promoted with them, I would argue that the emphasis on entertainment themes and the shift from religious to tourist activities associated with visits to Buddhist temples has become especially evident in commercial advertising of the recent years. However, it is essential to understand that the idea of blending of religion and entertainment is not a product of postmodern consumption-driven society and has long-established roots in Japanese religious tradition. It is only in recent years, however, that the notion of fun managed to dominate the sphere of the religious. It may be suggested that Buddhist temples in Japan are also undergoing a process of experimentation and subjectivity of experience associated with the notion of “lived” as opposed to “preached” religion. How these changes impact on the identities of people living in local communities is something that I would like to explore in the future.

 

[1] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.7

[2] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.8

[3] Dorman, Benjamin. and Reader, Ian, (2007) “Projections and Representations of Religion in Japanese Media”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions February 2007 10/3 pp.6-13

[4] Tanatsugu, Masakazu. and Yamanaka, Hiroshi. 棚次 正和 / 山中 弘 2007 宗教学入門  (Introduction to Religious Studies) (東京:ミネルヴア書房)

[5] These are the findings of the semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students during my stay in Japan in 2009-2010. Although the sampling of my research was limited in number, it can still be argued that these numbers provide an evidence for rather secular attitudes towards religious practices permeating in postmodern Japanese society.

Lived Religion: Part 2

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 1 was published on Monday (actually, it was Sunday, because Chris got confused). You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).

Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper.  “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).

Enter “vernacular religion.” Primiano succinctly defines the concept as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it,” and in her podcast Bowman also refers to it as “that everyday religion” (Primiano 1995:44). Here religious studies scholars and sociologists might respectively recognize a pair of conceptual cousins with similar parameters. As religious historian David Hall describes it, to focus on “lived religion” means looking at “religion as practiced and…the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” (Hall 1997:vii). In a similar vein sociologist Nancy Ammerman tells us that the study of “everyday religion” privileges “the experience of the nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas” (Ammerman 2007:5). Yet these conceptual cousins might perhaps still evoke distinctions (like those between the church hierarchy and the laity or the expert and the nonexpert) that Bowman hopes vernacular religion more consciously elides. To Bowman there is a sense in which like “vernacular speech” or “vernacular architecture,” all religious forms are vernacular because all are context specific. In other words the beliefs and practices of religious experts and elites are just as vernacular as those of the laity. The same goes for the variety of religious forms within larger traditions. There is nothing more or less authentic about Hungarian Calvinism than Scottish Calvinism, for instance.

In this vein one might consider Frank Korom’s work on the Indo-Trinidadian celebration of Hosay an excellent example of vernacular religion scholarship, though Korom’s own interpretive frame centers around another linguistic analogy; creolization (Korom 2002). In his monograph, Hosay Trinidad, Korom traces how the somber Shiite commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussain, known as Muharram, was transformed into the carnivalesque Trinidadian celebration of Hosay. As it traveled across space and time Muharram/Hosay adapted to and incorporated various local customs, first on the Indian subcontinent then in the Caribbean. Hosay thus illustrates Bowman’s point that not only are religious vernaculars marked by context dependent differences, but they are formed out of them. As she puts it in the podcast, vernacular religious traditions are like vernacular architecture in that both are built out of local materials.

The idea of “building” a tradition also suggests a certain amount of agency or at least semi-conscious activity by vernacular religionists. Though Bowman never refers to Anne Swidler, one gets the sense that Swidler’s notion of culture as a “‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems,” fits nicely with Bowman’s approach (Swidler 1986:273). While vernacular traditions are products of cultural tinkering they are simultaneously resources through which future tinkering is made possible. Contemporary Druids therefore use the vernacular Christian myth describing Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Glastonbury to support the idea that there was an ancient druidic center of learning there. Why else would Joseph have traveled so far? Likewise the prevalence of Marian devotion (particularly involving St. Brigid) is reinterpreted by the Goddess community as evidence of the presence of the goddess Birdie in Glastonbury (Bowman 2004). Here we see how vernacular religion also provides an alternative to concepts of religious mixing like “syncretism,” which have undergone a sustained critique over the years for, among other things, devaluing agency and reinforcing a two-tiered dominant/subordinate relationship between traditions that are in creative contact with each other (Baird 1971; Korom 2002; Schmidt 2006).

But the championing of human agency also raises questions. How much agency and how much consciousness do individual practitioners actually have? In the podcast Bowman describes “folklore,” and hence the stuff of vernacular traditions, broadly as “mental furniture.” Like a chair in a room we utilize the artifacts of folklore without consciously thinking about the fact that they exist or how they are arranged. This unconscious dimension of folklore qua mental furniture begins to sound a bit more like Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” than a cultural tool kit (Bourdieu 1977). While Swidler favorably compares her cultural tool kit to Bourdieu’s habitus one gets the sense that there is more conscious mastery involved in the utilization of cultural tools than there is in the activities of the “structuring structures” of the habitus. In fact Sherry Ortner has critiqued Bourdieu on these very grounds, claiming that Bourdieu insisted on “the inaccessibility to actors of the underlying logic of their practices.” Ortner suggests instead that people are “at least partially ‘knowing subjects’” who “have some ‘penetration’ into the ways in which they are formed by their circumstances” (Ortner 2005:34). I tend to agree with her.

Now what I find somewhat problematic with Bowman’s presentation of vernacular religion and folklore vis-à-vis agency and consciousness is not that Bowman is a Bourdieuian, since she’s clearly not. It’s that in the end I’m not sure that she’s carved out a firm position. As Primiano develops the notion of vernacular religion in his treatise he individuates it down to the concept of “uniculture” or “the personal discourse which we all carry on with ourselves as self-aware beings” (Primiano 1995:49). In other words, according to Primiano, individuals are capable of being cultures unto themselves in which beliefs and practices are formed out of self-contained relationships between one’s own thoughts. In the end I’m not sure what is gained by the reframing of cognitive processes as folklore other than the celebration of some sort of self-religion but one thing is evident—Primiano’s world is chock full of human agency. So where does Bowman stand?

In the podcast Bowman says that the study of folklore brings value to the study of religion by being about what people “actually” think and do as opposed to what they are supposed to think and do. Here Bowman is echoing Primiano who also writes about folklore dealing with the “actual beliefs of the people” (Primiano 1995:51). In one sense one could say, fair enough. Folklorists collect examples of beliefs and practices from actual practitioners, which may or may not align with what religious authorities proscribe for those practitioners. But how do we know that an informant is presenting a past mental state accurately, or even a present one without exaggeration or distortion? Primiano admits that “[h]uman beings do not always communicate what they believe to others because their individual beliefs can be substantially different. This fact is especially true concerning religious beliefs” (Primiano 1995:50).  Bowman also tells us that lived religion has always had a “mix and match” quality, but that sticking to the “official script” was so necessary in the past that only in the 20th century has there been a “glorious coming out” of what “people actually do.” Clearly neither Bowman nor Primiano believe that we’ve managed to transcend self-distortion entirely, so how productive is it then, in this context, to talk about the “actual?” Finally, and even more broadly what are we to assume about our informants’ capacities to understand the underlying logic of their practices no matter how earnest they are with us?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that Bowman does either. In my view, her work unpacking vernacular religion in Glastonbury seems more nuanced than her description of the concept. For instance she depicts the ceremony of the Holy Thorn in a way that challenges assumptions about “official” Christianity in the U.K. as well as the variable meanings of the practice to Glastonbury’s locals (Bowman 2006). And when she describes Glastonbury as “a context in which cultural tradition, informal transmission and the personal experience of efficacy are likely to be as important as authoritative texts or religious professionals,” she doesn’t cast aside the professionals and their authoritative texts, but instead shows how the thoughts and actions of her informants complicate and are complicated by them (Bowman 2005:165). But in my opinion this type of nuance needs more adequate formulation in the theoretical description of vernacular religion, or else it could lead other adopters of the term to believe “the actual” is actually within their grasp. There is also a case to be made for Catherine Albanese’s suggestion that vernacular religion should be rescued from its radical individualism and repositioned within the communal frame one expects from something being likened to a communal linguistic practice (Albanese 1996:736). And in fact Bowman’s ethnographic work seems to reflect the communal model more than the individual one.

The final critique I would raise goes back to perhaps the essential premise behind Primiano’s creation of vernacular religion as a concept—the dissolving of the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” forms of religion. Both Primiano and Bowman make a strong case for scholars getting out of the business of accepting centralized, authoritative forms of religion as more authentic or even more ideal typical than local practices. However, this should not mean analytically abandoning such distinctions altogether because when they exist in the world we study they are bound to be part of the “mental furniture” of our informants. They are also bound, therefore to structure their religious experiences and practices. So while vernacular religion is invaluable in reminding scholars of the heterogeneity and ambiguity of religion as it is lived this reminder needs to be tempered by the realization that religious actors often work hard to demarcate and disambiguate their religious experiences and that such actions often have meaningful consequences. No study of religion can be complete without taking these consequences into account.

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

References

  • Albanese, C. L. 1996. “Religion and American Popular Culture: An Introductory Essay.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV(4):733–742.
  • Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford University Press US.
  • Baird, Robert D. 1971. Category formation and the history of religions. Mouton.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2005. “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: the Local and the Global in Glastonbury.” Numen 52(2):157–190.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2004. “Procession and Possession in Glastonbury: Continuity, Change and the Manipulation of Tradition.” Folklore 115(3):273–285.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2006. “The Holy Thorn Ceremony: Revival, Rivalry and Civil Religion in Glastonbury.” Folklore 117(2):123–140.
  • Bowman, Marion, and Ülo Valk, eds. 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.
  • Hall, David D, ed. 1997. Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise. 1996. Popular religion in late Saxon England: elf charms in context. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Korom, Frank J. 2002. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ortner, Sherry B. 2005. “Subjectivity and Cultural Critique.” Anthropological Theory 5(1):31 –52. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Primiano, Leonard Norman. 1995. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.” Western Folklore 54(1):37–56.
  • Schmidt, Bettina E. 2006. “The Creation of Afro-Caribbean Religions and their Incorporation of Christian Elements: A Critique against Syncretism.” Transformation (02653788) 23(4):236–243.
  • Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51(2):273–286. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Vrijhof, P. H., and Jean Jacques Waardenburg. 1979. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. Walter de Gruyter.
  • Yoder, Don. 1974. “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion.” Western Folklore 33(1):2–15. Retrieved June 20, 2012.

Podcasts

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.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


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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Religious Studies Opportunities Digest – 16 May 2017

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Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

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, yoga mats, tantric guides, and more.

Conversion and Deconversion as Concepts in the Sociology of Religion

Religious conversion has traditionally been understood as the abandonment of one religious identity for another, or a switch from no religious identification to a newly religious one. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have viewed conversion as a sudden, singular event in one’s life. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of new religious movements and the flowering of Asian religious traditions in the West, sociologists reformulated conversion as an active, gradual process of transformation.

Conversion, in these understandings, is not a changed subjective or ontological identity but rather a shift in one’s discursive universe, social relationships, and embodied practices, a new role learned through language, behavior, and interpersonal boundary maintenance. Similarly, deconversion and its scholarly synonyms (apostasy, alienation, disaffiliation, defection, exit, leaving) has many contexts, motivations, and processes, including loss of a specific religious experience, doubt or denial of beliefs, moral criticism, emotional suffering, and unlearning particular vocabularies and behaviors.

For this interview with Lynn Davidman, we focus on the concepts of conversion and deconversion*, illustrations of these processes in various contexts, what each term means and how each is experienced in someone’s life, the histories of these terms and their use in scholarship, and issues that arise from their conceptualization or use.

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, jelly beans, the artist formally known as “Prince” memorial T-shirts, and more.

*Our interview took place during the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, held in Chicago. During our conversation, Davidman refers to comments made at an author-meets-critics panel about her new book which took place earlier that day.

*For more on conversion, see L. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (1993) and L. Rambo and C. Farhadian, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (2014), as well as D. Snow and R. Machalek, “The Sociology of Conversion” (1984).

*For more on deconversion, see H. Streib et al, Deconversion (2009) and P. Zuckerman, Faith No More (2011).

‘Lived Religion’ in the Japanese Context: Realities of Individual Practice and Institutional Survival

In the current state of religious affairs, the concept of “lived religion” brought to us by Meredith McGuire in her latest book “Lived Religion: Faith and Practice” appears to be a highly relevant one, and most certainly, a fascinating one. It made me think about the manifestations of personal religiosity and the role of institutional engagement in shaping them in the Japanese context. It also brings to mind the notion of being “practically religious” in Japanese Buddhism and beyond. Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, in their book Practically Religious (1998), argue that “Japanese religion is less a matter of belief than it is of activity, ritual, and custom”[1] and “the promise of this-worldly benefits is an intrinsic element within Japanese religion in general”.[2] In other words, Japanese religiosity is not necessarily based on what one believes in, but rather on what one does or should do and what one can get out of such activities, regardless of whether the fruits are of a spiritual or material nature.

Hence, it is a promise of some kind that lures people into visiting religious sites. For those who seek spiritual support, it might be a promise of deities’ protection against an illness or reassurance of peace for their ancestors’ spirits, which is bought with the offerings for prayers and fees paid for protective o-mamori (amulets). Yet, for those looking for a place to relax, escape their daily routine and experience something exciting, temples and shrines need to invent new ways to satisfy that need, especially at the time when more people claim to have little or no religious affiliation, and when visiting shrines and temples became associated with cultural and tourist activities rather than with religious activities. An increasing number of Japanese people today, especially young, visit famous religious sites for exclusively recreational reasons.

The number of Japanese people claiming lack of religious belief increased to 80% in the post-Aum era,[3] whereas the number of people admitting to have some sort of religious belief is no more than 20-30% and even lower among university students.[4] The semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students[5] revealed that all of them described their religious belief as mushūkyō (“non-religious”), only three of them identified their religious affiliation as Buddhist (mainly due to their family affiliation), and 84 confirmed that they visit temples and shrines on various occasions during the year, including hatsumōde, ō-bon celebrations and cherry blossoms viewings, and usually during their visits they purchase o-mamori (protective talismans) and o-mikuji (written oracle). My interviewees stated three main reasons for those visits, dentō (tradition), nihonjin-no koto (this is what Japanese people do), and tomodachi-to asobu toki (fun time with friends).

None of the interviewees mentioned their spiritual needs, whereas all put a stress on cultural and entertaining aspects of their visits to Buddhist temples. This may hint that young people in particular have low levels of religious affiliation; however this does not mean that they have no connection with religious places. It appears that visiting shrines and temples by young people is a widespread activity, yet the importance of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ motivations is rarely if at all highlighted. It appears that this notion of Japanese practicality in one’s personal engagement with religion may somewhat distort the concept of “lived religion” or “religion as lived” understood by McGuire as a subjective experience. Yet, perhaps this practical or action-based approach of engagement allows people to nurture their subjective experiences of faith without necessarily revealing their personal motivations behind their practices.

On the other hand McGuire discusses the malleability of religion (especially that personal one) and the “pic and mix” nature of “lived religion” with people drawing from a number of different religious traditions for practices and teachings. The very notion of malleability in this context brought my thinking to the ongoing discussion of change in religious traditions, institutions, and personal practices. This again brings me to my area of research in Japan where many institutions, including Japanese Buddhist temples, adapt to facilitate the religious engagement and its financial survival.

Along with the modernisation and commercialisation of society came the necessity to adapt to the new cultural, social and economic conditions; and this is true for all religious traditions in Japan. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it also needed to convince both the ruling class and the people that it was in tune with local spiritual traditions. The Buddhist concept of hōben (skillful means) allows us to understand the secret of religious adaptability in Japan today. Skillful means, in Buddhist terms, represents the idea of not always telling the truth, as long as it helps people in achieving enlightenment, or as it can be understood today, as long as it helps people and attracts potential visitors to temples and shrines. The concept of “untruth” understood in terms of hōben is perpetrated for the sake of others and with the use of any means available at the time which can contribute to the popularisation of a particular practice or religious site.

It can be suggested that religious organisations in Japan today are likely to resort to the use of modern hōben methods such as a wide range of advertising techniques and use of technology in the context of the economic and social changes that affected them after the promulgation of the new constitution in 1946. Through the variety of those advertising techniques and imagery of religious sites promoted with them, I would argue that the emphasis on entertainment themes and the shift from religious to tourist activities associated with visits to Buddhist temples has become especially evident in commercial advertising of the recent years. However, it is essential to understand that the idea of blending of religion and entertainment is not a product of postmodern consumption-driven society and has long-established roots in Japanese religious tradition. It is only in recent years, however, that the notion of fun managed to dominate the sphere of the religious. It may be suggested that Buddhist temples in Japan are also undergoing a process of experimentation and subjectivity of experience associated with the notion of “lived” as opposed to “preached” religion. How these changes impact on the identities of people living in local communities is something that I would like to explore in the future.

 

[1] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.7

[2] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.8

[3] Dorman, Benjamin. and Reader, Ian, (2007) “Projections and Representations of Religion in Japanese Media”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions February 2007 10/3 pp.6-13

[4] Tanatsugu, Masakazu. and Yamanaka, Hiroshi. 棚次 正和 / 山中 弘 2007 宗教学入門  (Introduction to Religious Studies) (東京:ミネルヴア書房)

[5] These are the findings of the semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students during my stay in Japan in 2009-2010. Although the sampling of my research was limited in number, it can still be argued that these numbers provide an evidence for rather secular attitudes towards religious practices permeating in postmodern Japanese society.

Lived Religion: Part 2

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 1 was published on Monday (actually, it was Sunday, because Chris got confused). You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).

Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper.  “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).

Enter “vernacular religion.” Primiano succinctly defines the concept as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it,” and in her podcast Bowman also refers to it as “that everyday religion” (Primiano 1995:44). Here religious studies scholars and sociologists might respectively recognize a pair of conceptual cousins with similar parameters. As religious historian David Hall describes it, to focus on “lived religion” means looking at “religion as practiced and…the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” (Hall 1997:vii). In a similar vein sociologist Nancy Ammerman tells us that the study of “everyday religion” privileges “the experience of the nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas” (Ammerman 2007:5). Yet these conceptual cousins might perhaps still evoke distinctions (like those between the church hierarchy and the laity or the expert and the nonexpert) that Bowman hopes vernacular religion more consciously elides. To Bowman there is a sense in which like “vernacular speech” or “vernacular architecture,” all religious forms are vernacular because all are context specific. In other words the beliefs and practices of religious experts and elites are just as vernacular as those of the laity. The same goes for the variety of religious forms within larger traditions. There is nothing more or less authentic about Hungarian Calvinism than Scottish Calvinism, for instance.

In this vein one might consider Frank Korom’s work on the Indo-Trinidadian celebration of Hosay an excellent example of vernacular religion scholarship, though Korom’s own interpretive frame centers around another linguistic analogy; creolization (Korom 2002). In his monograph, Hosay Trinidad, Korom traces how the somber Shiite commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussain, known as Muharram, was transformed into the carnivalesque Trinidadian celebration of Hosay. As it traveled across space and time Muharram/Hosay adapted to and incorporated various local customs, first on the Indian subcontinent then in the Caribbean. Hosay thus illustrates Bowman’s point that not only are religious vernaculars marked by context dependent differences, but they are formed out of them. As she puts it in the podcast, vernacular religious traditions are like vernacular architecture in that both are built out of local materials.

The idea of “building” a tradition also suggests a certain amount of agency or at least semi-conscious activity by vernacular religionists. Though Bowman never refers to Anne Swidler, one gets the sense that Swidler’s notion of culture as a “‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems,” fits nicely with Bowman’s approach (Swidler 1986:273). While vernacular traditions are products of cultural tinkering they are simultaneously resources through which future tinkering is made possible. Contemporary Druids therefore use the vernacular Christian myth describing Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Glastonbury to support the idea that there was an ancient druidic center of learning there. Why else would Joseph have traveled so far? Likewise the prevalence of Marian devotion (particularly involving St. Brigid) is reinterpreted by the Goddess community as evidence of the presence of the goddess Birdie in Glastonbury (Bowman 2004). Here we see how vernacular religion also provides an alternative to concepts of religious mixing like “syncretism,” which have undergone a sustained critique over the years for, among other things, devaluing agency and reinforcing a two-tiered dominant/subordinate relationship between traditions that are in creative contact with each other (Baird 1971; Korom 2002; Schmidt 2006).

But the championing of human agency also raises questions. How much agency and how much consciousness do individual practitioners actually have? In the podcast Bowman describes “folklore,” and hence the stuff of vernacular traditions, broadly as “mental furniture.” Like a chair in a room we utilize the artifacts of folklore without consciously thinking about the fact that they exist or how they are arranged. This unconscious dimension of folklore qua mental furniture begins to sound a bit more like Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” than a cultural tool kit (Bourdieu 1977). While Swidler favorably compares her cultural tool kit to Bourdieu’s habitus one gets the sense that there is more conscious mastery involved in the utilization of cultural tools than there is in the activities of the “structuring structures” of the habitus. In fact Sherry Ortner has critiqued Bourdieu on these very grounds, claiming that Bourdieu insisted on “the inaccessibility to actors of the underlying logic of their practices.” Ortner suggests instead that people are “at least partially ‘knowing subjects’” who “have some ‘penetration’ into the ways in which they are formed by their circumstances” (Ortner 2005:34). I tend to agree with her.

Now what I find somewhat problematic with Bowman’s presentation of vernacular religion and folklore vis-à-vis agency and consciousness is not that Bowman is a Bourdieuian, since she’s clearly not. It’s that in the end I’m not sure that she’s carved out a firm position. As Primiano develops the notion of vernacular religion in his treatise he individuates it down to the concept of “uniculture” or “the personal discourse which we all carry on with ourselves as self-aware beings” (Primiano 1995:49). In other words, according to Primiano, individuals are capable of being cultures unto themselves in which beliefs and practices are formed out of self-contained relationships between one’s own thoughts. In the end I’m not sure what is gained by the reframing of cognitive processes as folklore other than the celebration of some sort of self-religion but one thing is evident—Primiano’s world is chock full of human agency. So where does Bowman stand?

In the podcast Bowman says that the study of folklore brings value to the study of religion by being about what people “actually” think and do as opposed to what they are supposed to think and do. Here Bowman is echoing Primiano who also writes about folklore dealing with the “actual beliefs of the people” (Primiano 1995:51). In one sense one could say, fair enough. Folklorists collect examples of beliefs and practices from actual practitioners, which may or may not align with what religious authorities proscribe for those practitioners. But how do we know that an informant is presenting a past mental state accurately, or even a present one without exaggeration or distortion? Primiano admits that “[h]uman beings do not always communicate what they believe to others because their individual beliefs can be substantially different. This fact is especially true concerning religious beliefs” (Primiano 1995:50).  Bowman also tells us that lived religion has always had a “mix and match” quality, but that sticking to the “official script” was so necessary in the past that only in the 20th century has there been a “glorious coming out” of what “people actually do.” Clearly neither Bowman nor Primiano believe that we’ve managed to transcend self-distortion entirely, so how productive is it then, in this context, to talk about the “actual?” Finally, and even more broadly what are we to assume about our informants’ capacities to understand the underlying logic of their practices no matter how earnest they are with us?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that Bowman does either. In my view, her work unpacking vernacular religion in Glastonbury seems more nuanced than her description of the concept. For instance she depicts the ceremony of the Holy Thorn in a way that challenges assumptions about “official” Christianity in the U.K. as well as the variable meanings of the practice to Glastonbury’s locals (Bowman 2006). And when she describes Glastonbury as “a context in which cultural tradition, informal transmission and the personal experience of efficacy are likely to be as important as authoritative texts or religious professionals,” she doesn’t cast aside the professionals and their authoritative texts, but instead shows how the thoughts and actions of her informants complicate and are complicated by them (Bowman 2005:165). But in my opinion this type of nuance needs more adequate formulation in the theoretical description of vernacular religion, or else it could lead other adopters of the term to believe “the actual” is actually within their grasp. There is also a case to be made for Catherine Albanese’s suggestion that vernacular religion should be rescued from its radical individualism and repositioned within the communal frame one expects from something being likened to a communal linguistic practice (Albanese 1996:736). And in fact Bowman’s ethnographic work seems to reflect the communal model more than the individual one.

The final critique I would raise goes back to perhaps the essential premise behind Primiano’s creation of vernacular religion as a concept—the dissolving of the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” forms of religion. Both Primiano and Bowman make a strong case for scholars getting out of the business of accepting centralized, authoritative forms of religion as more authentic or even more ideal typical than local practices. However, this should not mean analytically abandoning such distinctions altogether because when they exist in the world we study they are bound to be part of the “mental furniture” of our informants. They are also bound, therefore to structure their religious experiences and practices. So while vernacular religion is invaluable in reminding scholars of the heterogeneity and ambiguity of religion as it is lived this reminder needs to be tempered by the realization that religious actors often work hard to demarcate and disambiguate their religious experiences and that such actions often have meaningful consequences. No study of religion can be complete without taking these consequences into account.

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References

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