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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, 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.

Protected: Doctors and Stigmatics in the 19th and 20th centuries (classroom edit)

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Unnatural Narratives: Religion in Horror Stories

by Regina Hansen

In response to America’s Dark Theologian Stephen King: A Religious Imagination Explored.

Though often marginalized as a popular pursuit, the genre of supernatural horror has an important place in American history and culture and, in particular, reflects the American relationship with religion. In his current scholarship about Stephen King, Douglas Cowan highlights the ways in which popular culture engages with the “properly human questions” that have traditionally been associated with theology, questions about life and death, good and evil.  Indeed, supernatural horror not only portrays the specific “unnatural narratives” found in religious scripture, but also engages with Cowan’s properly human questions in ways that reflect specific scriptural and theological writings. In supernatural horror film and television, elements of Christian religious observance are often used to signal the fantastic, Tzevetan Todorov’s word for the “hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” [1] Horror in particular focuses on the area of the fantastic known as the “uncanny”, Sigmund Freud’s “unheimlich” or “unhomely”,  “the opposite of what is familiar”[2], but without the appeal of the unfamiliar, invoking instead secrecy, strangeness, and the occult, the hidden, that which cannot be trusted.[3]  Religious and scriptural narratives are, needless to say, filled with fantastical, supernatural and uncanny events; and the theological texts that explain religious beliefs also make reference to the fantastic and the uncanny. Because of their ubiquity in American culture, Christian beliefs and scriptural narratives are both familiar and strange, “heimlich” and “unheimlich”, making them perfect fodder for horror narratives.  Horror’s engagement with specifically religious texts, both scripture and theology, is evidenced in many recent films and television series.

Among the most popular scriptural narratives reflected in horror are those to do with angels, demons and Satan. In seasons four and five of the television series Supernatural, [4] the narrative concerns the War in Heaven, a Christian concept, briefly mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation and fleshed out by Biblical commentators and scholars in the early Christian and medieval periods, as well as in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Supernatural sets up parallels between the heroic Winchester brothers and the angelic “brotherhood,” especially through the archangel Michael and the fallen angel Lucifer, Milton’s name for Satan used in some translations of Isaiah 14:12  (“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!” (KJV) ). In the Bible, the events of the Fall of Satan and the Apocalypse are not presented in a linear or necessarily literal fashion but reconstructed by early commentators (and later by Milton) from a number of Biblical passages. Ezekiel 28:12, Jude 1:6, 2 Peter 2:4, and Revelation 12:9* are also understood by Christian commentators as references to Satan’s rebellion against God and the angels’ subsequent ejection from heaven at the hands of the Archangel Michael.  Revelation 20 then envisions another battle, an apocalyptic one, in which Michael and the good angels fight Satan in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ.

Supernatural’s fourth and fifth season narrative arc posits that the literal apocalypse is now upon us. Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles), have been groomed since birth to be the vessels of brothers Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) and Michael (Matthew Cohen 5:13, Jake Abel 5:22) for the final battle. Now in its 14th season, Supernatural continues to engage with Judeo-Christian religious narratives and eschatology, incorporating concepts such as Purgatory, the Leviathan of the Book of Revelation, the character of Lilith, and, most recently, God’s sister Amara, also known as the Darkness, a personification of the pre-Creation darkness in the Genesis story.

As these later seasons of Supernatural show, the engagement with religious texts goes beyond simply reproducing specific narratives. Many recent films and television series have used their understanding of scripture and theology to question religious assumptions. Again dealing with angels and demons, and released ten years apart, the films The Prophecy (1995) and Constantine (2005) posit a narrow distinction between the angelic and the demonic and satanic, giving us not just expressly evil “fallen” angels but also supposedly “good” angels who do evil deeds even while seeing themselves as performing God’s will. This depiction reflects Christian scriptural and theological texts in which angels are seen as beings of pure spirit meant to carry out God’s will, even when it leads to destruction.  In these films, good angels behave monstrously despite, and indeed because of, their professed love for God – as well as their entrenched belief in their own unalterable goodness. By contrast, the fallen angel Lucifer, or Satan,  is portrayed as the more honest and rational of the angels, as a sometime ally of humans and as the character most likely to follow God’s rules. At the same time, this filmic Satan’s power is limited in that it always depends on the consent of human beings, again reflecting theological concerns. In Constantine and The Prophecy, we see the progenitors of the ‘Satan as hero’ trope, originating with Milton and now familiar from television shows such as Lucifer.

Above, Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel and Keanu Reeve’s Constantine negotiate in Constantine

Supernatural horror’s depiction of religion takes place note only within fantastic spaces but can also depict the uncanny elements of religious belief within an otherwise recognizable “heimlich” space. Early scenes of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby establish the character’s ordinary lives taking place in fully evoked and familiar locations – Washington DC’s Georgetown area and Manhattan respectively.  These will soon be transformed into fantastic uncanny spaces with the intrusion, and reality within the narrative, of the more arcane elements of religious tradition and belief. These depictions of Satan and demonic possession often portray the experience of supernatural evil through the eyes of a skeptic.  Indeed, possession films contain two narratives: the liberation of the possessed person from the demon’s power; and the skeptic’s eventual acceptance of the fact of supernatural evil (at least within the world of the film) and thus the powerlessness of reason and science to defeat the Devil. Depicted from the point of view of agnostic lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) emphasizes this notion by advertising the film’s connection to actual events.

Still other horror narratives approach skepticism through the argument between faith and reason, and the attempts to reconcile them, that found voice in the work of Thomas Aquinas among many others. This argument – both properly human and specifically religious —  is thematically and narratively central to The X Files television series and films and can be seen specifically in skeptic Dana Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) evolution from nonbeliever to character of faith, even as she holds on to her scientific skepticism.[5] Scully’s reawakening to religious belief is hinted at after her abduction in season two, begins in earnest during the investigation of a series of religiously motivated killings in season three, and continues throughout her subsequent battle with cancer and the loss of her daughter and is tested and to some degree resolved in the most recent film in series, The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008). In almost all these episodes, narrative reference is made to elements of Scully’s Catholic upbringing, including the sacrament of reconciliation, the lives of the saints, and angels and the afterlife. Scully’s gradual acceptance that ‘the truth is out there’ – both religious/spiritual truth and the truths about the paranormal insisted upon by her partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) – is portrayed at least in part a result of her return to Catholicism.

On the other hand, reason is narratively absent from the recent horror film The Witch: A New England Folktale, which depicts a family of 17th Century Puritan settlers besieged and eventually destroyed by the machinations of Satan, who – along with the witch of the title — are portrayed as at least possibly real within the context of the film.  Throughout The Witch, characters engage in prayer as well as in theological discussions having to do with the faith, damnation, confession and forgiveness. Moreover, The Witch engages specifically with religious subjects not only in its storyline but in its dialogue, parts of which are taken directly from 17th century documents.

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch.

Above, Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch.

Although this article has focused mainly on horror’s engagement with Christian and to a certain extent Judeo-Christian narratives and arguments, these filmic and televisual narratives are only a few of those that engage directly with profound human concerns through reference to specific religious texts. Arguments can and have been made for and against the sincerity of this engagement, as well as its theological accuracy (at least in some cases) but these films and television series remain evidence of the continued resonance of age old religious ideas as well as the intellectual and spiritual curiosity inherent in the genre of supernatural horror.

References

* The Biblical Book of Revelation is also called The Apocalypse, particularly in Catholic versions of the Bible, but the more common term, Revelation, is used here.

[1] Todorov, Tzvetan, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1975, reprint 1973, 41.

[2] Freud, Sigmund, “The Uncanny,” Writings on Art and Literature, Stanford, CA: Stanford, UP, 1997, 191.

[3] Ibid., 195.

[4] Hansen, Regina. “Deconstructing the Apocalypse? Supernatural’s Postmodern Appropriation of Angelic Hierarchies”, Eds. George, Susan and Hansen, Regina, Supernatural, Humanity and the Soul: On the Highway to Hell and Back, New York, Palgrave, 2014, 13-26.

[5] Hansen, Regina. “Catholicism in the X-Files: Dana Scully and the Harmony of Faith and Reason, Science Fiction Film and Television, 6:1, Spring 2013, 55-69.

About the Author

Regina Hansen is Master Lecturer in Rhetoric at Boston University’s College of General Studies.  Her relevant publications include Supernatural, Humanity and the Soul: On the Highway to Hell and Back  (Palgrave 2014, with Susan George),  Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film (McFarland, 2011), and the Stephen King edition of the journal Science Fiction Film and Television  (Summer 2017, with Simon Brown). She has also written and presented on The X-Files, demonic possession narratives, and angels in horror. Her work on Halloween and supernatural subjects has appeared in The Conversation, The Wall Street Journal, and the children’s magazines Calliope and Dig Into History.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

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

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

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

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

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

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

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

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

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

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

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Podcasts

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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Unnatural Narratives: Religion in Horror Stories

by Regina Hansen

In response to America’s Dark Theologian Stephen King: A Religious Imagination Explored.

Though often marginalized as a popular pursuit, the genre of supernatural horror has an important place in American history and culture and, in particular, reflects the American relationship with religion. In his current scholarship about Stephen King, Douglas Cowan highlights the ways in which popular culture engages with the “properly human questions” that have traditionally been associated with theology, questions about life and death, good and evil.  Indeed, supernatural horror not only portrays the specific “unnatural narratives” found in religious scripture, but also engages with Cowan’s properly human questions in ways that reflect specific scriptural and theological writings. In supernatural horror film and television, elements of Christian religious observance are often used to signal the fantastic, Tzevetan Todorov’s word for the “hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” [1] Horror in particular focuses on the area of the fantastic known as the “uncanny”, Sigmund Freud’s “unheimlich” or “unhomely”,  “the opposite of what is familiar”[2], but without the appeal of the unfamiliar, invoking instead secrecy, strangeness, and the occult, the hidden, that which cannot be trusted.[3]  Religious and scriptural narratives are, needless to say, filled with fantastical, supernatural and uncanny events; and the theological texts that explain religious beliefs also make reference to the fantastic and the uncanny. Because of their ubiquity in American culture, Christian beliefs and scriptural narratives are both familiar and strange, “heimlich” and “unheimlich”, making them perfect fodder for horror narratives.  Horror’s engagement with specifically religious texts, both scripture and theology, is evidenced in many recent films and television series.

Among the most popular scriptural narratives reflected in horror are those to do with angels, demons and Satan. In seasons four and five of the television series Supernatural, [4] the narrative concerns the War in Heaven, a Christian concept, briefly mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation and fleshed out by Biblical commentators and scholars in the early Christian and medieval periods, as well as in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Supernatural sets up parallels between the heroic Winchester brothers and the angelic “brotherhood,” especially through the archangel Michael and the fallen angel Lucifer, Milton’s name for Satan used in some translations of Isaiah 14:12  (“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!” (KJV) ). In the Bible, the events of the Fall of Satan and the Apocalypse are not presented in a linear or necessarily literal fashion but reconstructed by early commentators (and later by Milton) from a number of Biblical passages. Ezekiel 28:12, Jude 1:6, 2 Peter 2:4, and Revelation 12:9* are also understood by Christian commentators as references to Satan’s rebellion against God and the angels’ subsequent ejection from heaven at the hands of the Archangel Michael.  Revelation 20 then envisions another battle, an apocalyptic one, in which Michael and the good angels fight Satan in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ.

Supernatural’s fourth and fifth season narrative arc posits that the literal apocalypse is now upon us. Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles), have been groomed since birth to be the vessels of brothers Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) and Michael (Matthew Cohen 5:13, Jake Abel 5:22) for the final battle. Now in its 14th season, Supernatural continues to engage with Judeo-Christian religious narratives and eschatology, incorporating concepts such as Purgatory, the Leviathan of the Book of Revelation, the character of Lilith, and, most recently, God’s sister Amara, also known as the Darkness, a personification of the pre-Creation darkness in the Genesis story.

As these later seasons of Supernatural show, the engagement with religious texts goes beyond simply reproducing specific narratives. Many recent films and television series have used their understanding of scripture and theology to question religious assumptions. Again dealing with angels and demons, and released ten years apart, the films The Prophecy (1995) and Constantine (2005) posit a narrow distinction between the angelic and the demonic and satanic, giving us not just expressly evil “fallen” angels but also supposedly “good” angels who do evil deeds even while seeing themselves as performing God’s will. This depiction reflects Christian scriptural and theological texts in which angels are seen as beings of pure spirit meant to carry out God’s will, even when it leads to destruction.  In these films, good angels behave monstrously despite, and indeed because of, their professed love for God – as well as their entrenched belief in their own unalterable goodness. By contrast, the fallen angel Lucifer, or Satan,  is portrayed as the more honest and rational of the angels, as a sometime ally of humans and as the character most likely to follow God’s rules. At the same time, this filmic Satan’s power is limited in that it always depends on the consent of human beings, again reflecting theological concerns. In Constantine and The Prophecy, we see the progenitors of the ‘Satan as hero’ trope, originating with Milton and now familiar from television shows such as Lucifer.

Above, Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel and Keanu Reeve’s Constantine negotiate in Constantine

Supernatural horror’s depiction of religion takes place note only within fantastic spaces but can also depict the uncanny elements of religious belief within an otherwise recognizable “heimlich” space. Early scenes of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby establish the character’s ordinary lives taking place in fully evoked and familiar locations – Washington DC’s Georgetown area and Manhattan respectively.  These will soon be transformed into fantastic uncanny spaces with the intrusion, and reality within the narrative, of the more arcane elements of religious tradition and belief. These depictions of Satan and demonic possession often portray the experience of supernatural evil through the eyes of a skeptic.  Indeed, possession films contain two narratives: the liberation of the possessed person from the demon’s power; and the skeptic’s eventual acceptance of the fact of supernatural evil (at least within the world of the film) and thus the powerlessness of reason and science to defeat the Devil. Depicted from the point of view of agnostic lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) emphasizes this notion by advertising the film’s connection to actual events.

Still other horror narratives approach skepticism through the argument between faith and reason, and the attempts to reconcile them, that found voice in the work of Thomas Aquinas among many others. This argument – both properly human and specifically religious —  is thematically and narratively central to The X Files television series and films and can be seen specifically in skeptic Dana Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) evolution from nonbeliever to character of faith, even as she holds on to her scientific skepticism.[5] Scully’s reawakening to religious belief is hinted at after her abduction in season two, begins in earnest during the investigation of a series of religiously motivated killings in season three, and continues throughout her subsequent battle with cancer and the loss of her daughter and is tested and to some degree resolved in the most recent film in series, The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008). In almost all these episodes, narrative reference is made to elements of Scully’s Catholic upbringing, including the sacrament of reconciliation, the lives of the saints, and angels and the afterlife. Scully’s gradual acceptance that ‘the truth is out there’ – both religious/spiritual truth and the truths about the paranormal insisted upon by her partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) – is portrayed at least in part a result of her return to Catholicism.

On the other hand, reason is narratively absent from the recent horror film The Witch: A New England Folktale, which depicts a family of 17th Century Puritan settlers besieged and eventually destroyed by the machinations of Satan, who – along with the witch of the title — are portrayed as at least possibly real within the context of the film.  Throughout The Witch, characters engage in prayer as well as in theological discussions having to do with the faith, damnation, confession and forgiveness. Moreover, The Witch engages specifically with religious subjects not only in its storyline but in its dialogue, parts of which are taken directly from 17th century documents.

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch.

Above, Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch.

Although this article has focused mainly on horror’s engagement with Christian and to a certain extent Judeo-Christian narratives and arguments, these filmic and televisual narratives are only a few of those that engage directly with profound human concerns through reference to specific religious texts. Arguments can and have been made for and against the sincerity of this engagement, as well as its theological accuracy (at least in some cases) but these films and television series remain evidence of the continued resonance of age old religious ideas as well as the intellectual and spiritual curiosity inherent in the genre of supernatural horror.

References

* The Biblical Book of Revelation is also called The Apocalypse, particularly in Catholic versions of the Bible, but the more common term, Revelation, is used here.

[1] Todorov, Tzvetan, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1975, reprint 1973, 41.

[2] Freud, Sigmund, “The Uncanny,” Writings on Art and Literature, Stanford, CA: Stanford, UP, 1997, 191.

[3] Ibid., 195.

[4] Hansen, Regina. “Deconstructing the Apocalypse? Supernatural’s Postmodern Appropriation of Angelic Hierarchies”, Eds. George, Susan and Hansen, Regina, Supernatural, Humanity and the Soul: On the Highway to Hell and Back, New York, Palgrave, 2014, 13-26.

[5] Hansen, Regina. “Catholicism in the X-Files: Dana Scully and the Harmony of Faith and Reason, Science Fiction Film and Television, 6:1, Spring 2013, 55-69.

About the Author

Regina Hansen is Master Lecturer in Rhetoric at Boston University’s College of General Studies.  Her relevant publications include Supernatural, Humanity and the Soul: On the Highway to Hell and Back  (Palgrave 2014, with Susan George),  Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film (McFarland, 2011), and the Stephen King edition of the journal Science Fiction Film and Television  (Summer 2017, with Simon Brown). She has also written and presented on The X-Files, demonic possession narratives, and angels in horror. Her work on Halloween and supernatural subjects has appeared in The Conversation, The Wall Street Journal, and the children’s magazines Calliope and Dig Into History.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

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

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

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

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

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

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

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

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

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

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

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.