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]