Material Christianity and Sacred Space

27 Dec
English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix.

English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a big fan of Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity (1995). It tackles physical materials of religious activity such as art, bibles, cemeteries, Christian retailers, and sacred clothing. While interesting on their own, together these investigations comprise a serious argument for weakly differentiated categories of sacred and profane. She famously says that sacred and profane are scrambled–with yolk and egg white blended beyond recovery. Contrary to Durkheim or Eliade, McDannell says the materiality of sacred culture means it cannot be effectively distinguished from its profane contexts: Bibles live in homes full of non-religious activities, Christian bookstores find themselves full of secular books to make ends meet, cemeteries become locations for picnics and Sunday strolls. These compromises make a hard-and-fast distinction between sacred and profane all but impossible.

McDannell doesn’t mince words when she establishes the sacred and profane as human-designated categories–“material culture in itself has no intrinsic meaning of its own.” From this perspective, even a church is only religious because we intend to use it religiously. [I’m not sure quite how far I’d be willing to take this line of reasoning, but I do agree that sacred and profane are human-generated and human-assigned categories. The idea of semi-autonomous or self-generating categories (as in Eliade) or wholly oppositional categories (as in both Eliade and Durkheim) strikes me as decidedly unsupportable.]

I find the work helpful today because it seriously addresses the challenges of religious materiality. She splits material culture into artifacts, landscapes (cultivated nature), architecture, and art–and each gets their turn in her work–but the broader context of this material focus is the rejection that religion is all about what people “think” or “believe” rather than what they do. It’s a profoundly functionalist religious examination–not only because the material objects have meaning in relation to the religious work they do, but because belief is dissected at the level of action. When beliefs are concerned, they are non-abstract. Even irrational beliefs emerge functionally as a product of material exchange and interaction.

It’s also helpful as I struggle to understand a subculture of evangelicals that take “doing” very, very seriously (and are routinely attacked because what they do doesn’t reconcile easily with what others do or believe). Part of the challenge of understanding spiritual warriors is that they are doing in a way that isn’t precisely material or immaterial. It’s physical, surely, and bodily, but it doesn’t have an external material substance. It’s not a book or a building. In the spiritual warfare I study the body is a temporary material extension into the immaterial space of the clash of the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Satan. It often feels like bodies are used as a impromptu bridge to bring materiality to immateriality.

Of course, McDannell doesn’t deal with any of this. It’s my work to try to see my subjects in a fashion that jives with her model. The discord keep me busy even as the harmonies make me optimistic. I’m sure we all have texts like that–ones that we keep mulling over and over again in our minds and our work as we try to figure out why they aren’t wholly satisfying. Feel free to share your own.

[P.S. Hope you enjoyed your holiday! I took a few sick days with a winter cold before in-laws came to visit. I’ve got a week to get back to speed for the AHA. Be sure to check here on Friday for a quick last-minute religious studies guide to the AHA. -Dave]


2 Responses to “Material Christianity and Sacred Space”

  1. Eoin O'Mahony December 28, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    While I have not read McDannell’s work, which might make me supremely unqualified to leave a comment here but it seems to me that Knott’s work might be useful to your thought:

    You are right that it does not have to be material although corporeal. One of the most significant challenges for this kind of research is how we relate the internal and the external through representations of space and I have found Lefebvre’s work to be of particular use in that way. You say “Even irrational beliefs emerge functionally as a product of material exchange and interaction.” and I think that is the key to how we do this relational work. I might argue with you though in your use of irrational. That’s another discussion however.

  2. D. McConeghy December 28, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    I’ve been using Lefevbre (and some other folks that if that haven’t appeared on the blog are sure to do so) to tackle precisely that internal/external challenge. The problem with his work is its impenetrability, naturally. His categories are meant to be rather fluid and interactive. This means they are more challenging to bring into a work that is trying to remain history/religious studies and not go too far off the deep end into theory. I’m still working with that line, as you can tell.

    I think I may have read Knott’s argument in article form. Is that possible? I’ll have to run through my filing cabinet to check. The name is certainly familiar, although I definitely haven’t read that particular work. I’ll get it immediately to check it out! Thanks for the helpful recommendation!

    The irrational bit was not necessarily my reading of my own subjects. I was thinking primarily 1) that Per Smith and Daniel Silliman might be lurking with all of their interest in secularism and irreligion/nonreligion/secularity/etc., and 2) that if I take off my rather neutral historian and religious studies hats and attempt to look at the spiritual warfare folks as an non-Chrisitan outsider might, then I may say they are engaging in some seriously irrational behavior. They’ve certainly be accused of it!

    They attempt, for instance, to take credit for radical city-wide changes in crime rates, spiritual atmosphere, congregation size, etc., but they blatantly disregard far more obvious and convincing explanations for those changes. Moreover, they often are accused (by fellow Christians especially) of deliberately misleading their followers about the effectiveness of their activities (e.g., claiming to have an influence that occurred in X year but factually the change occurred prior to X year and they are mis-remembering.) And this doesn’t get into the basic issue that we’re talking about territorial demonology and intensive personal communication with the Holy Spirit through prayer or spiritual gifts.

    So for my own work, this may or may not be precisely irrational–it has a rational basis for them, surely. Yet from anywhere outside of their box and my scholarly stance it can appear non-rational. This line of thinking is nowhere in my work though; I don’t feel it captures my subjects or offers a helpful area of analysis for their activities. So I’d argue with me, too, if that makes you feel better.

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