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Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

CaptureJames Kapaló takes us inside the Eastern European secret police archives to show us how minority and new religious groups were portrayed. We explore the visual and material presence of religious minorities in the secret police archives in Hungary, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. In particular, we look at Inochentism, a new religious movement in Moldova and Romania. In the discussion, we consider the theoretical and methodological issues in working in archives suh as these, and the historiography of NRMs. We also discuss the complexity of the religious field in post-Communist Europe.

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


Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

Podcast with James Kapaló  

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

David Roberston (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh, on a beautiful sunny day, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr James Kapaló from the University College, Cork, where he’s Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion. First of all: welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

James Kapaló  (JK): Thank you, I’m pleased to be here.

DR: And we’re pleased to be talking to you today about your research programme, which is called “Creative Agency in Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe”. And the obvious place to start, then, is to tell us a little bit about the project.

JK: Great, well, its a bit of a mouthful! But the project really focuses on the secret police archives as a resource for the history and anthropology, let’s say, of contemporary religions in the region. And anyone that knows a little bit about Eastern European history, will be familiar with the authoritarian, sort-of communist regimes, and before them the fascist regimes, that held sway in most of the region. And with the change of system that came in 1989-1990 , the fall of the Berlin Wall, the secret police archives – the archives of the security services – began to be opened up to victims, but also to the scholarly community, to research, to look into. And this created a dramatic change, if you like, in the study of religions in the region. I mean, prior to that, there was a lot of Western scholarship on East and Central Europe, and that was very much of a kind of “advocacy” scholarship type. So, because groups were persecuted under Communism, Western scholars tended to advocate for their human rights, political rights and so on. Post the change of system, the archives took on an identity as the site of “truths” about that past: truths in the sense that people wanted to discover, you know, who the agents had been, who the collaborators had been. The focus was on mainstream political actors, but also mainstream religious figures from the period: bishops that had been arrested and incarcerated, sometimes died, and so- on. So the archive represented an opportunity. But at the heart of the use of the archives there’s a central paradox, which was that these archives were produced by authoritarian, totalitarian regimes, which were discredited. But at the same time, they were considered to hold truths about the period. So, the opening of the archive actually created a lot of controversy. There were blackmail cases, especially of high-profile politicians and religious figures, who were compromised by the findings. It was all part of a process called “lustration”, which was, in post-Communism, vetting people that will go into the public sphere to check that they were not compromised by their past. So, from a Study of Religions perspective, there are some important questions – if you like some dilemmas – to face the scholar. And in 2014, I was lucky enough to spend . . . . I had a sabbatical, so I spent six months in the secret service archives in Romania, and also a couple of months in the Republic of Moldova, looking at KGB files. And what I discovered was that they also contain – apart from containing these incredible biographies of people’s lives, which were collected by agents and often extracted under duress in quite extreme circumstances, sometimes – they also contain a gallery of confiscated materials, artistic products. (5:00) So, not generally the kind of more impressive forms of art, but the ephemera of religious lives: pamphlets, leaflets, photographs, hymns, poems, notebooks, postcards – all this kind of stuff are in the archive. And this is when I began to think about: how than those archives be used in a different way, that will perhaps will not endanger the archive? Because the archives were under threat of closure in a couple of Eastern European countries, because of all the scandals. And scholars across the globe actually campaigned for those archives to remain open. But it highlighted the fact that they needed to be used in a different way. They need to be investigated not simply as sites of truth. It was all about truth and texts: texts that tell us the truth . . . about what happened at a particular time. But they also contain this visual material component. And so that is really what the project is all about. It’s looking into the archives to explore this material. We’re taking a material religion approach, or vernacular religion approach, to the materials that are there, but also beginning to question the legitimacy of those archives to hold sacred materials. The question of the legitimacy of colonial archives in museums to hold the sacred patrimony of indigenous peoples is well-known. It’s been going for several decades now. But no-one’s ever thought about that in the European contexts. We have these archives of stuff which are the product of an arbitrary power, exerted over a population. But what is their right to retrieve those confiscated items? So, the project has a couple of stages. The first stage is the basic research phase: what’s out there? It will be the mapping and creation of a digital archive on the basis of that and, obviously, the production of general scholarly work about what we can learn about cultural production and material production under authoritarianism: how religious communities used new media, photo montage, film to get their message across. The history of the use of new media for political purposes, from the same period, is well-written. But no-one’s written anything about how religious groups, especially religious minorities, managed to engage with those new media. So that’s the first stage. The second stage, then, is taking some of those items back to the communities that produced them. I mean, we’re talking, now – there’s probably a generation gap. But we’ll be fortunate enough to find some people still alive that remember the production, and the context within which those items were confiscated by the security services. So we go back to the communities and explore the meaning of that period, and the material and visual artistic products of the period, in the light of the changes that have taken place since. Because what we have today is the emergence of democracies and more open societies across Eastern Europe, and that is something that perhaps we in the West take for granted. But the societal prejudices that would underlie, and were constructed by, these extreme regimes were extremely wary of new religious groups that emerged.

DRAnd religion at all, in many cases, yes.

JK: More so than mainstream religious groups. There’s been a lot of research – church history, if you like – of mainstream groups and how they managed the situation. But religious minorities – “sectants”, as they were generally referred to – were considered to be especially dangerous, so they were subjected to the most intense oppression and persecution. So, the project will engage with those communities, try and understand how they relate to those objects now, begin a new conversation with the institutions that hold them. And this is, again, building on. . . . There’s a movement in museology – the new museology, the New Museum Movement – that really engage critically with: ethically, what do you do with materials are, perhaps, compromised by the means by which they were collected? So, posing those questions of the institutions is the final phase, and an exhibition will be constructed on that basis.

DR: Wonderful. We’ve talked about this idea of cultural. . .  how we deal with displaying and talking about – for want of a better word – ethnographic material in museums but also in other contexts, quite a few times in the religious studies project. But this is a really interesting example. You’ve kind-of touched on this already, but we’re well used to this post-colonial critique of the ins and outs of displaying, the cultural products of “far away” countries, you know, with – I’m doing scare quotes – “primitive people” and their indigenous religions. (10:00) But we’ve not been so good at applying that same critique to cultures closer to home. And do you think this project has anything to offer that?

JK: Oh, certainly. And I think there are two aspects of that, in terms of the project. One is that, as an ongoing debate in the study of East/Central Europe about the relationship between post-socialism – studies of post-socialism – and post-colonialism. Because many of the societies were actually post-colonial societies as well as being post-socialism: the two overlay each other. So, the importation of post-colonial discourses into East /Central European Studies is ongoing. And it started around questions of difficult knowledge around heritage sites and so on. So that’s the emergence of a movement there. The other is around questions of inclusivity in society, and the way that the vast differences that you talked about, between the ethnographic other and the self, have actually completely collapsed. I mean, the world is that much smaller in that we no longer can take for granted the fact that [for example,] the materials I have from indigenous peoples in Brazil are not going to be visited by indigenous Brazilians – they will be!

DR: Yes.

JK: So that has collapsed. It’s coming to that realisation that it was the product of the ethnographic eye – the ethnographic colonial eye – but also romantic nationalism in Europe where peasants were the “other”. Again the classic peasant class, in anthropological terms, has disappeared but we continue to display things as if, in Ireland, for example, there’s a romantic West of Ireland that was Irish speaking and epitomised the nation. That same problematic goes for, you know, peoples within most nation states in Europe that could be exoticised and represented as an “other”. And what we’re trying to do with this is collapse that . . .  the engaged part of the project, I mean: inclusivity – a more inclusive and holistic narrative; to try and encourage mainstream society to question their distancing of the enemy, the “other”, the heretic, the sectant, and so on; to see the human stories behind those, which have tended not to find a place within scholarship.

DR: Yes. And what’s very interesting is that the distance is not only collapsed geographically, but chronologically as well. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, so we’re talking about something within recent living memory. And I think there’s an important message there that we can apply to ethnography in general. We tend to see – when we’re talking about these so-called “primitive” cultures – that, as soon as we arrive as colonials and as scholars, that we’ve somehow changed this eternal, timeless tradition, that was always there. But the more ethnography that we do, we realise that things are constantly shifting. And this is an example,  within living memory for me, of it changing once. But there would be older people, as you have said, who would remember that situation even starting. And so we have two dramatic changes within living memory. And who’s to say that’s not been the case anywhere else?

JK: Absolutely, I mean one of the classic critiques of early anthropology, Malinowski in particular, was that the impact of British colonialism is not felt through his work, and yes, there’s this idea that when the academic arrives, when the scholar or the ethnographer arrives, you somehow sort of “create meaning” around a place, which is – OK,  it’s translatable to other cultures, to an elite, but for the people that lived at that time, it’s their time, it was their life, it is part of a continuity that on-goes. You know, I’m old enough, myself, to remember very well the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was actually in Budapest at the time, with some friends.

DR: (laughs) Nice!

JK: And we were surrounded by East Germans waiting to cross the Berlin Wall. But I think my whole scholarly trajectory relates to the Iron Curtain. My father was a refugee from Hungary, in 1956.

DR: I see.

JK: (15:00) And as soon as I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve been visiting Hungary through the ’80s – the end of the Communist era when things were beginning to become a bit more relaxed. But I returned to Romania, to begin to do research, immediately after the fall of Communism. And this is where I witnessed this incredible upsurge in interest in religion, plus the arrival of large numbers of American US Missionaries from various denominations. Many Baptists and so on, but also many Hare Krishnas and different religious movements all descended on Eastern Europe and they were incredibly popular to begin with. At the same time, there was a resurgence of the mainstream churches, who tried to recapture that public space that they’d lost during Communism. So I think that experience – I was in my late teens / early twenties – has been on the backburner and what leads, ultimately, to the project that we’re starting now. I think, so yes – a general point: I think biographies of scholars are really important. And it helps us be critical of our own positions.

DR: Yes, yes.

JK: And so when something is – like this – actually quite close to my research topic, I think it’s appropriate to expose where I’ve come from, and maybe pre-empt some of the criticisms that could be levelled at the project. Because it’s far more engaged than many contemporary Study of Religions or Religious Studies Projects would be. But I draw the line at being. . .  or, I try and delineate a position between advocacy and engaged scholarship. For me, there’s a very clear separation there.

DR: I was going to ask: what particular kinds of new religious movements, or minority religions, are we talking about here? Are we predominantly talking about, you know, the religions of immigrants? Or are we talking about quite innovative new religious movements? What was the religious picture on the ground?

JK: So, again, going back to the sort of description of the inspiration of the project, there’s a lot of scholarship. . . . Well, what characterises scholarship on religions in Eastern Europe today? Two very strong currents are: scholarship from the West, funded by institutions in the West, that have looked at all of the main missionary – Christian missionary – religions that were present in Eastern Europe and were persecuted so:  Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, Baptists, Evangelicals of different kinds. So, there’s a large body of historical scholarship on those communities. At the same time, within the region, scholars from those communities have gone into the archive and have decided to write their own histories of their oppression and persecution. So the project doesn’t actually look at those groups.Because there’s  another group that’s fallen off the radar, which are the more kind-of locally-inspired groups that formed around local charismatic leaders, or local powerful pilgrimage sites, around prophets and seers, behind monks and priests, that came into conflict with the church – often because they felt the church had been compromised by its engagement with or collaboration with the regime. So one group, in particular, that I’ve been looking at for the last four or five years now, is called “Inochentism”. It comes from an Orthodox monk named Ioan Inochentie Levizor. He comes

Inochentist women

Inochentist women

from the border region between Russia and Romania. And he initiated a charismatic movement that soon became labelled a sect, and operated underground for over a hundred years. So, during the end of the Tsarist Russian period, during the Fascist period in Romania and during Communism in Romania and the Soviet Union, the group lived underground, digging underground cells and communities and producing a very distinctive visual culture of their own – a very distinctive literary culture of their own. That really can’t be put down simply to resistance. I don’t like reducing any movement to resistance. But actually, there’s a powerful dialogical relationship between the exertion of power on religious communities and the way that they can respond, and it gives birth to these creative responses. So, one of the key terms we’re using, when talking about the project, is: it’s taking emphasis away from religious communities as victims and looking at religious communities as creative communities.

DR: (20:00) We’ve talked to Milda Ališauskienė recently about the beginnings of the academic study of RS in that part of the world. And you touched on a similar point that she did, and that we talked about at the time: how, it’s interesting that for a part of the world that is ostensibly very Christian – I mean there’s variation across the different countries, of course – yet there’s this enormous creativity within that Christian heritage. It’s a very different situation than we see in the Northern and Western European countries – perhaps more to do with the Protestant rather than Catholic context, I think, where we see this sort of religious innovation happening, or identifying as other than Christian. Is that something that you’ve found repeated in Romania and elsewhere?

JK: Yes, absolutely. So, I would stress, really, that each of the countries of Central Europe are very different from one another, and the project covers three: it covers the Republic of Moldova, which was in the Soviet union; Romania, which is the majority Orthodox country; and Hungary, which is split between mainly Catholic and Reformed. So, the project brings in these different cultural and religious settings. But, yes, there was an incredible yearning, if you like, for spirituality. And people – towards the end of the Soviet Union and in the immediate post-Soviet period – people experimented a lot with different forms of religious seeking, which wasn’t. . . . Much of it wasn’t beyond the pale for the Soviet regime and the Communist regimes. They were just wary of the formation of communities that might go alongside that, that would produce an alternate source of authority for groups. So that’s certainly the case. I mean the countries that I’ve worked in – Romania especially – is very strongly Orthodox today, in fact there’s been a massive revival in monasticism in Romania. So, I’d say on the whole, Romania has tended to stay within the Christian tradition, Protestant groups are becoming stronger, especially Pentecostals amongst the Roman community, which is a very interesting sort of area of investigation. It opens up all sorts of comparative possibilities with other parts of the world: Africa and Latin America where it’s similarly. . . Pentecostal forms of Christianity are very popular. But the influence of those groups – the global spread of Pentecostalism, for example – has not been really explored yet with Eastern Orthodoxy or within Catholicism in Eastern Europe, fully. So again, the group that I’m working on, they date back to 1909/1908, which is very soon after the first Pentecostal appeared in the region. And, coincidentally enough, the idea of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world was, sort of pre-eminent. And, in fact, the leader of the movement was considered to be the Holy Spirit embodied or incarnate, and possession, exorcism, healing were right at the heart of the movement. And women took on much greater, very important roles, had a greater range of competencies, if you like, within their religious communities. So these are all very interesting questions to do with the issues of gender and power and authority, and. . . .

DR: But also, they’re all features that we would expect to find in more typical New Age and Millennial new religious movements in the West. And even, just to take the classic example of  When Prophecy Fails  from the ‘50s, that’s exactly what we see. We see the central leader identifying as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, we see prophecy, we see healing central, we see the role of women specifically as channellers: it’s exactly the same pattern that we would expect to see, except within this Christian context.

JK: And I think, what drives much of so many of those points, is also marginalisation.

DR: Yes.

JK: So the process of being marginalised, feeling marginalised, encourages certain religious responses. And that’s certainly what you see in Eastern Europe. I hesitate to use “Eastern Europe” or “Central Europe” in a blanket way, but. . .

DR: (25:00) It’s OK. We only give you twenty-five minutes, so we understand that sometimes there are some complications!

JK: The other point about the project – which I forgot to mention earlier, actually – is that we’ve chosen three different countries and three different societies. The project has another mission to try and encourage cross-cultural, and also inter-disciplinary, but transnational collaboration between Religious Studies scholars in Eastern/ Central Europe. I mean it already goes on, but I think there’s a lot more to be done. There’s a lot of barriers in terms of language, and this has obviously been overcome, to a certain extent, by the increasing use of English in the academic sphere. But I think there are a lot of issues and questions, that scholars in Lithuania, and Hungary, and Romania, and Moldova, and Ukraine have in common, that they can engage with much more vibrantly, if you like, across the region.

DR: Well that’s a perfect place to draw this to a close. Because the Religious Studies Project. . .  we’re striving to bring in scholars from this part of the world, particularly, and people talking about this part of the world. So, you know, we’ll certainly be featuring a lot more. . . . Hopefully we’ll be recording some at the EASR and the IAHR this year coming. Marion Bowman’s currently working on a project involving a lot of Eastern European scholars on the idea of pilgrimage, so hopefully we’ll speak to her. But, as an introduction to this field, this has been an absolute pleasure. So, thank you, James, for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

JK: Thank you very much, again, for the invitation.


Citation Info: Kapaló, James 2017. “Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/minority-religions-in-the-secret-police-archives/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 September 2016

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You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

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Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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.

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

In our ‘post-modern’ world, it should come as no surprise that the built environment – skyscrapers or teepees, sports stadiums or roadside shrines – impact upon the daily lives of individuals and communities in multifarious ways. Buildings dominate our skylines, they shape the nature, size, sound and smell of events within their walls, they provide a connection to the recent and distant past, and they serve as a physical, material instantiation of any number of contextual discourses. But what about the relationship between ‘religion’ and these (generally) human-made structures? How does a building become recognized as in some sense ‘religious’? What other information do we need to infer things about the purpose of a building? About its impact? This week’s podcast features Chris talking with Dr Peter Collins about these sorts of questions, during the BSA SocRel Conference in Durham (April 2013). This sociology of religion conference occurred within a Chemistry department, at one of Britain’s most historic universities, in the vicinity of Durham Castle, and the magisterial Durham Cathedral… unsurprisingly, the built environment had a significant impact.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality and Katie Aston’s essay entitled Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis.

collinsDr Peter J. Collins is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, UK. completed an MA in development studies and a PhD in social anthropology at Manchester University. His research interests include religion (especially Quakerism), ritual and symbolism; historical anthropology; qualitative research methods, particularly narrative analysis; the anthropology of Britain; aesthetics and the built environment. He was recently engaged in an NHS-funded projects looking at hospital design and the space and place of hospital chaplaincies. Recent publications include “On Ritual Knowledge” (in Diskus: The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Vol 13. 2013), “Acute Ambiguity: Towards a Heterotopology of Hospital Chaplaincy” (in Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett and Christopher R. Cotter, Ashgate. pp. 39-60. 2013) and “On the Materialisation of Religious Knowledge and Belief” (in Religion and Knowledge, ed. E.A. Arweck and M. Guest, Ashgate. 2012).

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

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.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html

 

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.

Podcasts

Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

CaptureJames Kapaló takes us inside the Eastern European secret police archives to show us how minority and new religious groups were portrayed. We explore the visual and material presence of religious minorities in the secret police archives in Hungary, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. In particular, we look at Inochentism, a new religious movement in Moldova and Romania. In the discussion, we consider the theoretical and methodological issues in working in archives suh as these, and the historiography of NRMs. We also discuss the complexity of the religious field in post-Communist Europe.

Check out and subscribe to our YouTube channel!

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, dreams, and more.


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


Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

Podcast with James Kapaló  

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

David Roberston (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh, on a beautiful sunny day, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr James Kapaló from the University College, Cork, where he’s Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion. First of all: welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

James Kapaló  (JK): Thank you, I’m pleased to be here.

DR: And we’re pleased to be talking to you today about your research programme, which is called “Creative Agency in Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe”. And the obvious place to start, then, is to tell us a little bit about the project.

JK: Great, well, its a bit of a mouthful! But the project really focuses on the secret police archives as a resource for the history and anthropology, let’s say, of contemporary religions in the region. And anyone that knows a little bit about Eastern European history, will be familiar with the authoritarian, sort-of communist regimes, and before them the fascist regimes, that held sway in most of the region. And with the change of system that came in 1989-1990 , the fall of the Berlin Wall, the secret police archives – the archives of the security services – began to be opened up to victims, but also to the scholarly community, to research, to look into. And this created a dramatic change, if you like, in the study of religions in the region. I mean, prior to that, there was a lot of Western scholarship on East and Central Europe, and that was very much of a kind of “advocacy” scholarship type. So, because groups were persecuted under Communism, Western scholars tended to advocate for their human rights, political rights and so on. Post the change of system, the archives took on an identity as the site of “truths” about that past: truths in the sense that people wanted to discover, you know, who the agents had been, who the collaborators had been. The focus was on mainstream political actors, but also mainstream religious figures from the period: bishops that had been arrested and incarcerated, sometimes died, and so- on. So the archive represented an opportunity. But at the heart of the use of the archives there’s a central paradox, which was that these archives were produced by authoritarian, totalitarian regimes, which were discredited. But at the same time, they were considered to hold truths about the period. So, the opening of the archive actually created a lot of controversy. There were blackmail cases, especially of high-profile politicians and religious figures, who were compromised by the findings. It was all part of a process called “lustration”, which was, in post-Communism, vetting people that will go into the public sphere to check that they were not compromised by their past. So, from a Study of Religions perspective, there are some important questions – if you like some dilemmas – to face the scholar. And in 2014, I was lucky enough to spend . . . . I had a sabbatical, so I spent six months in the secret service archives in Romania, and also a couple of months in the Republic of Moldova, looking at KGB files. And what I discovered was that they also contain – apart from containing these incredible biographies of people’s lives, which were collected by agents and often extracted under duress in quite extreme circumstances, sometimes – they also contain a gallery of confiscated materials, artistic products. (5:00) So, not generally the kind of more impressive forms of art, but the ephemera of religious lives: pamphlets, leaflets, photographs, hymns, poems, notebooks, postcards – all this kind of stuff are in the archive. And this is when I began to think about: how than those archives be used in a different way, that will perhaps will not endanger the archive? Because the archives were under threat of closure in a couple of Eastern European countries, because of all the scandals. And scholars across the globe actually campaigned for those archives to remain open. But it highlighted the fact that they needed to be used in a different way. They need to be investigated not simply as sites of truth. It was all about truth and texts: texts that tell us the truth . . . about what happened at a particular time. But they also contain this visual material component. And so that is really what the project is all about. It’s looking into the archives to explore this material. We’re taking a material religion approach, or vernacular religion approach, to the materials that are there, but also beginning to question the legitimacy of those archives to hold sacred materials. The question of the legitimacy of colonial archives in museums to hold the sacred patrimony of indigenous peoples is well-known. It’s been going for several decades now. But no-one’s ever thought about that in the European contexts. We have these archives of stuff which are the product of an arbitrary power, exerted over a population. But what is their right to retrieve those confiscated items? So, the project has a couple of stages. The first stage is the basic research phase: what’s out there? It will be the mapping and creation of a digital archive on the basis of that and, obviously, the production of general scholarly work about what we can learn about cultural production and material production under authoritarianism: how religious communities used new media, photo montage, film to get their message across. The history of the use of new media for political purposes, from the same period, is well-written. But no-one’s written anything about how religious groups, especially religious minorities, managed to engage with those new media. So that’s the first stage. The second stage, then, is taking some of those items back to the communities that produced them. I mean, we’re talking, now – there’s probably a generation gap. But we’ll be fortunate enough to find some people still alive that remember the production, and the context within which those items were confiscated by the security services. So we go back to the communities and explore the meaning of that period, and the material and visual artistic products of the period, in the light of the changes that have taken place since. Because what we have today is the emergence of democracies and more open societies across Eastern Europe, and that is something that perhaps we in the West take for granted. But the societal prejudices that would underlie, and were constructed by, these extreme regimes were extremely wary of new religious groups that emerged.

DRAnd religion at all, in many cases, yes.

JK: More so than mainstream religious groups. There’s been a lot of research – church history, if you like – of mainstream groups and how they managed the situation. But religious minorities – “sectants”, as they were generally referred to – were considered to be especially dangerous, so they were subjected to the most intense oppression and persecution. So, the project will engage with those communities, try and understand how they relate to those objects now, begin a new conversation with the institutions that hold them. And this is, again, building on. . . . There’s a movement in museology – the new museology, the New Museum Movement – that really engage critically with: ethically, what do you do with materials are, perhaps, compromised by the means by which they were collected? So, posing those questions of the institutions is the final phase, and an exhibition will be constructed on that basis.

DR: Wonderful. We’ve talked about this idea of cultural. . .  how we deal with displaying and talking about – for want of a better word – ethnographic material in museums but also in other contexts, quite a few times in the religious studies project. But this is a really interesting example. You’ve kind-of touched on this already, but we’re well used to this post-colonial critique of the ins and outs of displaying, the cultural products of “far away” countries, you know, with – I’m doing scare quotes – “primitive people” and their indigenous religions. (10:00) But we’ve not been so good at applying that same critique to cultures closer to home. And do you think this project has anything to offer that?

JK: Oh, certainly. And I think there are two aspects of that, in terms of the project. One is that, as an ongoing debate in the study of East/Central Europe about the relationship between post-socialism – studies of post-socialism – and post-colonialism. Because many of the societies were actually post-colonial societies as well as being post-socialism: the two overlay each other. So, the importation of post-colonial discourses into East /Central European Studies is ongoing. And it started around questions of difficult knowledge around heritage sites and so on. So that’s the emergence of a movement there. The other is around questions of inclusivity in society, and the way that the vast differences that you talked about, between the ethnographic other and the self, have actually completely collapsed. I mean, the world is that much smaller in that we no longer can take for granted the fact that [for example,] the materials I have from indigenous peoples in Brazil are not going to be visited by indigenous Brazilians – they will be!

DR: Yes.

JK: So that has collapsed. It’s coming to that realisation that it was the product of the ethnographic eye – the ethnographic colonial eye – but also romantic nationalism in Europe where peasants were the “other”. Again the classic peasant class, in anthropological terms, has disappeared but we continue to display things as if, in Ireland, for example, there’s a romantic West of Ireland that was Irish speaking and epitomised the nation. That same problematic goes for, you know, peoples within most nation states in Europe that could be exoticised and represented as an “other”. And what we’re trying to do with this is collapse that . . .  the engaged part of the project, I mean: inclusivity – a more inclusive and holistic narrative; to try and encourage mainstream society to question their distancing of the enemy, the “other”, the heretic, the sectant, and so on; to see the human stories behind those, which have tended not to find a place within scholarship.

DR: Yes. And what’s very interesting is that the distance is not only collapsed geographically, but chronologically as well. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, so we’re talking about something within recent living memory. And I think there’s an important message there that we can apply to ethnography in general. We tend to see – when we’re talking about these so-called “primitive” cultures – that, as soon as we arrive as colonials and as scholars, that we’ve somehow changed this eternal, timeless tradition, that was always there. But the more ethnography that we do, we realise that things are constantly shifting. And this is an example,  within living memory for me, of it changing once. But there would be older people, as you have said, who would remember that situation even starting. And so we have two dramatic changes within living memory. And who’s to say that’s not been the case anywhere else?

JK: Absolutely, I mean one of the classic critiques of early anthropology, Malinowski in particular, was that the impact of British colonialism is not felt through his work, and yes, there’s this idea that when the academic arrives, when the scholar or the ethnographer arrives, you somehow sort of “create meaning” around a place, which is – OK,  it’s translatable to other cultures, to an elite, but for the people that lived at that time, it’s their time, it was their life, it is part of a continuity that on-goes. You know, I’m old enough, myself, to remember very well the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was actually in Budapest at the time, with some friends.

DR: (laughs) Nice!

JK: And we were surrounded by East Germans waiting to cross the Berlin Wall. But I think my whole scholarly trajectory relates to the Iron Curtain. My father was a refugee from Hungary, in 1956.

DR: I see.

JK: (15:00) And as soon as I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve been visiting Hungary through the ’80s – the end of the Communist era when things were beginning to become a bit more relaxed. But I returned to Romania, to begin to do research, immediately after the fall of Communism. And this is where I witnessed this incredible upsurge in interest in religion, plus the arrival of large numbers of American US Missionaries from various denominations. Many Baptists and so on, but also many Hare Krishnas and different religious movements all descended on Eastern Europe and they were incredibly popular to begin with. At the same time, there was a resurgence of the mainstream churches, who tried to recapture that public space that they’d lost during Communism. So I think that experience – I was in my late teens / early twenties – has been on the backburner and what leads, ultimately, to the project that we’re starting now. I think, so yes – a general point: I think biographies of scholars are really important. And it helps us be critical of our own positions.

DR: Yes, yes.

JK: And so when something is – like this – actually quite close to my research topic, I think it’s appropriate to expose where I’ve come from, and maybe pre-empt some of the criticisms that could be levelled at the project. Because it’s far more engaged than many contemporary Study of Religions or Religious Studies Projects would be. But I draw the line at being. . .  or, I try and delineate a position between advocacy and engaged scholarship. For me, there’s a very clear separation there.

DR: I was going to ask: what particular kinds of new religious movements, or minority religions, are we talking about here? Are we predominantly talking about, you know, the religions of immigrants? Or are we talking about quite innovative new religious movements? What was the religious picture on the ground?

JK: So, again, going back to the sort of description of the inspiration of the project, there’s a lot of scholarship. . . . Well, what characterises scholarship on religions in Eastern Europe today? Two very strong currents are: scholarship from the West, funded by institutions in the West, that have looked at all of the main missionary – Christian missionary – religions that were present in Eastern Europe and were persecuted so:  Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, Baptists, Evangelicals of different kinds. So, there’s a large body of historical scholarship on those communities. At the same time, within the region, scholars from those communities have gone into the archive and have decided to write their own histories of their oppression and persecution. So the project doesn’t actually look at those groups.Because there’s  another group that’s fallen off the radar, which are the more kind-of locally-inspired groups that formed around local charismatic leaders, or local powerful pilgrimage sites, around prophets and seers, behind monks and priests, that came into conflict with the church – often because they felt the church had been compromised by its engagement with or collaboration with the regime. So one group, in particular, that I’ve been looking at for the last four or five years now, is called “Inochentism”. It comes from an Orthodox monk named Ioan Inochentie Levizor. He comes

Inochentist women

Inochentist women

from the border region between Russia and Romania. And he initiated a charismatic movement that soon became labelled a sect, and operated underground for over a hundred years. So, during the end of the Tsarist Russian period, during the Fascist period in Romania and during Communism in Romania and the Soviet Union, the group lived underground, digging underground cells and communities and producing a very distinctive visual culture of their own – a very distinctive literary culture of their own. That really can’t be put down simply to resistance. I don’t like reducing any movement to resistance. But actually, there’s a powerful dialogical relationship between the exertion of power on religious communities and the way that they can respond, and it gives birth to these creative responses. So, one of the key terms we’re using, when talking about the project, is: it’s taking emphasis away from religious communities as victims and looking at religious communities as creative communities.

DR: (20:00) We’ve talked to Milda Ališauskienė recently about the beginnings of the academic study of RS in that part of the world. And you touched on a similar point that she did, and that we talked about at the time: how, it’s interesting that for a part of the world that is ostensibly very Christian – I mean there’s variation across the different countries, of course – yet there’s this enormous creativity within that Christian heritage. It’s a very different situation than we see in the Northern and Western European countries – perhaps more to do with the Protestant rather than Catholic context, I think, where we see this sort of religious innovation happening, or identifying as other than Christian. Is that something that you’ve found repeated in Romania and elsewhere?

JK: Yes, absolutely. So, I would stress, really, that each of the countries of Central Europe are very different from one another, and the project covers three: it covers the Republic of Moldova, which was in the Soviet union; Romania, which is the majority Orthodox country; and Hungary, which is split between mainly Catholic and Reformed. So, the project brings in these different cultural and religious settings. But, yes, there was an incredible yearning, if you like, for spirituality. And people – towards the end of the Soviet Union and in the immediate post-Soviet period – people experimented a lot with different forms of religious seeking, which wasn’t. . . . Much of it wasn’t beyond the pale for the Soviet regime and the Communist regimes. They were just wary of the formation of communities that might go alongside that, that would produce an alternate source of authority for groups. So that’s certainly the case. I mean the countries that I’ve worked in – Romania especially – is very strongly Orthodox today, in fact there’s been a massive revival in monasticism in Romania. So, I’d say on the whole, Romania has tended to stay within the Christian tradition, Protestant groups are becoming stronger, especially Pentecostals amongst the Roman community, which is a very interesting sort of area of investigation. It opens up all sorts of comparative possibilities with other parts of the world: Africa and Latin America where it’s similarly. . . Pentecostal forms of Christianity are very popular. But the influence of those groups – the global spread of Pentecostalism, for example – has not been really explored yet with Eastern Orthodoxy or within Catholicism in Eastern Europe, fully. So again, the group that I’m working on, they date back to 1909/1908, which is very soon after the first Pentecostal appeared in the region. And, coincidentally enough, the idea of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world was, sort of pre-eminent. And, in fact, the leader of the movement was considered to be the Holy Spirit embodied or incarnate, and possession, exorcism, healing were right at the heart of the movement. And women took on much greater, very important roles, had a greater range of competencies, if you like, within their religious communities. So these are all very interesting questions to do with the issues of gender and power and authority, and. . . .

DR: But also, they’re all features that we would expect to find in more typical New Age and Millennial new religious movements in the West. And even, just to take the classic example of  When Prophecy Fails  from the ‘50s, that’s exactly what we see. We see the central leader identifying as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, we see prophecy, we see healing central, we see the role of women specifically as channellers: it’s exactly the same pattern that we would expect to see, except within this Christian context.

JK: And I think, what drives much of so many of those points, is also marginalisation.

DR: Yes.

JK: So the process of being marginalised, feeling marginalised, encourages certain religious responses. And that’s certainly what you see in Eastern Europe. I hesitate to use “Eastern Europe” or “Central Europe” in a blanket way, but. . .

DR: (25:00) It’s OK. We only give you twenty-five minutes, so we understand that sometimes there are some complications!

JK: The other point about the project – which I forgot to mention earlier, actually – is that we’ve chosen three different countries and three different societies. The project has another mission to try and encourage cross-cultural, and also inter-disciplinary, but transnational collaboration between Religious Studies scholars in Eastern/ Central Europe. I mean it already goes on, but I think there’s a lot more to be done. There’s a lot of barriers in terms of language, and this has obviously been overcome, to a certain extent, by the increasing use of English in the academic sphere. But I think there are a lot of issues and questions, that scholars in Lithuania, and Hungary, and Romania, and Moldova, and Ukraine have in common, that they can engage with much more vibrantly, if you like, across the region.

DR: Well that’s a perfect place to draw this to a close. Because the Religious Studies Project. . .  we’re striving to bring in scholars from this part of the world, particularly, and people talking about this part of the world. So, you know, we’ll certainly be featuring a lot more. . . . Hopefully we’ll be recording some at the EASR and the IAHR this year coming. Marion Bowman’s currently working on a project involving a lot of Eastern European scholars on the idea of pilgrimage, so hopefully we’ll speak to her. But, as an introduction to this field, this has been an absolute pleasure. So, thank you, James, for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

JK: Thank you very much, again, for the invitation.


Citation Info: Kapaló, James 2017. “Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/minority-religions-in-the-secret-police-archives/

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

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 September 2016

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just forward them to oppsdigest@gmail.com! Please be aware that the old e-mail addressoppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com does not currently work.

You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Book series: Bloomsbury Studies in Material Religion

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Conference: Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives

July 18–21, 2017

Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, UK

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November 12–13, 2016

McGill University, Montreal, Canada

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Conference: CESNUR: Holy Lands and Sacred Histories in New Religious Movements

July 2–7, 2017

Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Israel

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December 14–16, 2016

Glasgow University, UK

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Meta-analysis: Can religiosity be manipulated in the lab?

Morality and Beliefs Lab, University of London, UK

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Panel: Recovering the Social: Personal troubles and public issues

BSA Annual Conference

April 4–6, 2017

Deadline: October 14, 2016

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Conference: Holding Palestine in the Light: The context of conflict

October 7–9, 2016

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Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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.

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Religion and Cultural Production

Cusack In the second of our podcasts since our summer ‘break’ we are delighted to welcome back Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, who has previously appeared on the RSP speaking on Invented Religions, and offering advice in our roundtable discussions on building an academic career, and academic publishing. In this interview with Chris, recorded in July in Edinburgh, Carole provides a broad introduction and overview of the study of religion and cultural production, making particular reference to her recent publication, Alex Norman, and featuring chapters from many of our contributors, including our own David Robertson.

In the introduction to their volume, Cusack and Norman write:

It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies. Mesopotamian urban centres developed from large temple complexes, Greek drama emerged from religious festivals dedicated to deities including Dionysos and Athena, and in more recent times Christianity has inspired musical masterpieces including the ‘St Matthew Passion’ by the Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach (1686-1750), the motets of the Catholic William Byrd (1540-1023), and the striking paintings of the Counter-Reformation Spaniards Ribera, Zurbaran, and Murillo in the seventeenth century (Stoichita 1995). Nor can we forget the cinematic renderings of biblical story in such works as William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur (1959) starring Charlton Heston, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922-1975) Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Indian religious tradition contributes the magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor (Cambodia), and the exquisite Chola bronze statues, and the many extraordinary renditions of the India epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata onto the small and large screens. Likewise, Islam too has generated the sophisticated Timurid illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the paintings of the various Rajput kingdoms, and from Sufi traditions the devotional qawwali music. Architecturally, perhaps the most obvious cultural products of Islam for those in the West has been the Islamic architecture of Spain such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque or Cordoba, both now sitting as beautiful cultural legacies (Lapunzina 2005). Many more examples could be adduced, including forms of dance, systems of education, theories of government, special diets, and modes of costume and fashion.

Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way? What can we ascertain about a ‘religion’ from its cultural products? And what makes this approach different from that of Material Religion? This broad-ranging interview tackles such questions, and more, via examples as diverse as religious celebrity, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, and Sacred Trees and finishes by addressing whether or not the ‘secular’ university – and, in turn, Religious Studies – can be seen as a cultural product of a particular form of Christianity.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

The bells of Durham Cathedral clearly impacted upon David Wilson and David Robertson (April 2013)

In our ‘post-modern’ world, it should come as no surprise that the built environment – skyscrapers or teepees, sports stadiums or roadside shrines – impact upon the daily lives of individuals and communities in multifarious ways. Buildings dominate our skylines, they shape the nature, size, sound and smell of events within their walls, they provide a connection to the recent and distant past, and they serve as a physical, material instantiation of any number of contextual discourses. But what about the relationship between ‘religion’ and these (generally) human-made structures? How does a building become recognized as in some sense ‘religious’? What other information do we need to infer things about the purpose of a building? About its impact? This week’s podcast features Chris talking with Dr Peter Collins about these sorts of questions, during the BSA SocRel Conference in Durham (April 2013). This sociology of religion conference occurred within a Chemistry department, at one of Britain’s most historic universities, in the vicinity of Durham Castle, and the magisterial Durham Cathedral… unsurprisingly, the built environment had a significant impact.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality and Katie Aston’s essay entitled Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis.

collinsDr Peter J. Collins is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, UK. completed an MA in development studies and a PhD in social anthropology at Manchester University. His research interests include religion (especially Quakerism), ritual and symbolism; historical anthropology; qualitative research methods, particularly narrative analysis; the anthropology of Britain; aesthetics and the built environment. He was recently engaged in an NHS-funded projects looking at hospital design and the space and place of hospital chaplaincies. Recent publications include “On Ritual Knowledge” (in Diskus: The Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Vol 13. 2013), “Acute Ambiguity: Towards a Heterotopology of Hospital Chaplaincy” (in Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett and Christopher R. Cotter, Ashgate. pp. 39-60. 2013) and “On the Materialisation of Religious Knowledge and Belief” (in Religion and Knowledge, ed. E.A. Arweck and M. Guest, Ashgate. 2012).

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

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.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html

 

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.