A Book or Two I’m Pumped about for This Fall Semester

John Schmalzbauer
John Schmalzbauer
Vadim Putzu
Vadim Putzu

This fall I will be taking North American Religions with John Schmalzbauer and Jewish Mysticism with Vadim Putzu. Schmalzbauer is the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies with research interests in religion and American culture, evangelicalism, Ozarks religion, popular culture and religion, and campus ministry/religion in higher education. Putzu came to Missouri State last year. He is ABD from Hebrew Union College with research interests in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and science fiction and religion.

Here are some of the required readings I’m really pumped about…and you should be, too…if you were me. As they come up this fall, I will be including my thoughts on them here on the blog.

1. The Democratization of American Christianity

Hatch- DemocratizationThis book is on reading lists everywhere for religion in America. Nathan Hatch wrote it twenty-four years ago, and it still calls for careful reading if you want to specialize in religion in America (which I do).

It discusses the rise of new Christian movements in the early United States that gained rapid influence because of their populism: the Christian movement, Baptists, Methodists, Black churches, and Mormonism.

Chapters include topics on democratic revolution in the late-eighteenth century, a crisis of authority in pop culture, the spread of sectarianism, and preaching, print, and music.

2. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

Sutton- American ApocalypseHaving grown up in Pentecostalism/Evangelicalism, it’s interesting to read about the movements in the scholarly literature. People sometimes miss things when they are living and breathing something and not outside observers, or just aren’t historians.

Historians, such as Matthew Avery Sutton in this work, help frame how current movements/institutions came about, what they reacted against, how they gained popularity, and what struggles they had (within and without). Chapters include topics such as millennialism, fundamentalism, Christian nationalism, the culture wars, the Religious Right, and American exceptionalism.

3. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life

Ammerman- Sacred Stories, Spiritual TribesThis is a new book by Nancy Tatom Ammerman on the relatively young specialty in religious studies called “lived religion.” Lived religion doesn’t focus so much on doctrines or institutions so much as practices of everyday religionists in everyday life. For example, when is baking a cake more than baking a cake or selling flowers more than mere commerce for some people?

Chapters cover topics of the relationship of spirituality and religion (are they the same or different?), religion at home, religion in the public square, religion at work, and religion and health.

4. Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (American Beginnings, 1500-1900)

Porterfield- Conceived in DoubtAmanda Porterfield in Conceived in Doubt discusses the rampant mistrust in old institutions (including religion) at the dawn of the nineteenth century. She argues that the optimism concerning religious independence (read=no state church) had waned by the early 1800s and that Evangelical ministers spread the message that biblical authority was the solution to a new American identity.

I’m intrigued by this book because I really don’t know where she’s going with it yet. By “religious skepticism,” does she mean agnosticism? Cynicism? Free-thought? Stay tuned to find out.

5. Religious America, Secular Europe?: A Theme and Variations

BERGER PBK(216x138)filmsI’ve always been fascinated by the differences between Europe and the United States. They’re each part of “the West,” and yet they differ significantly when it comes to religion.

Peter Berger and others cover topics relating Europe and the United States like issues regarding constitutionalism, the Enlightenments (the book description only mentions it as if it were one thing, not taking into account the vast differences between British, French, and American secularisms [see link under #3 on my post “Link Wednesday 6“]), law systems, education, gender, class, and generation.

6. Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of Americans’ Shifting Religious Identities

Sherkat- Changing FaithDarren Sherkat covers shifting religious identity in the United States. I’m still not sure if the “change in faith” covers a demographic shift, conversion, or includes both. Pluralism has been an interest of mine for a little while now, particularly as it relates to how different religions relate to political discourse, and I think this work will give me a lot of empirical data to chew on.

7. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

Wilson- Dixie DharmaMy interest in this book is framed by an introduction to material culture and history of religion I encountered in courses last year with Martha Finch and Jack Llewellyn. One insight that stuck with me is that while religion influences other societal structures, it is just as much influenced by those societal structures. This is why one religious tradition looks so different between different times and places, notwithstanding ethnic, racial, gender, class, and other differences.

Jeff Wilson’s Dixie Dharma covers how region influences religious expression. How does Buddhism in the Northeast and west coast differ from that in Wilson’s coverage on a temple in Virginia? How does it differ from Indian and East Asian expression?

8. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

Orsi- BetweenRobert Orsi discusses Italian-American Catholic experiences with saints in this book, but also theoretical issues in studying religious communities. One of those issues includes the difficulty of insider/outsider perspective: does the religionist or the scholar drive the research? I’m interested to see what he has to say, because he and Russell McCutcheon have had scholarly sparring matches over theory. It will be neat to play them against each other.

9. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism

Matt- Essential KabbalahI really don’t know what Kabbalah is about other than that it’s a (the?) mystical tradition of Judaism and some celebrities have dabbled in it. It will be fun to have an entire semester to find out what it is. I had a similar experience going into my Tantra seminar last semester. All I knew of it was its American iteration where people lauded it as a way to have powerful, extended orgasms. There was a touch more to it than that.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my Reading Rainbowesque flyby of some of my readings this fall. I wanted to include another treat for you if you’ve made it this far. Yesterday, I began following Suzanna Krivulskaya (@suzzzanna) on Twitter. She has an amazing resource page on her blog covering gender and nineteenth-century/general history of America. The vast majority of the resources are free.

My Weird Thoughts on “Religion”

Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”

1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms

Religion has classically been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
  • Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
  • A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
  • A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
  • A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
  • An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
  • An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
  • A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)
Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.

Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?

You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.

2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell McCutcheon
Source: Twitter

But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):

A. “Discourse”

By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”

In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.

Source: michel-foucault.com
Source: michel-foucault.com
Source: demotix.com
Source: demotix.com

While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”

So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).

A word on “myth”

Roland Barthes Source: magnumphotos.com
Roland Barthes
Source: magnumphotos.com

Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:

Fable Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Legend Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
History Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Myth Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority

Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.

When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:

When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result

Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.

That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.

I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.