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Urban Bells — The Sound of Religion in the City

1 Oct

In my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, an argument over church bells saw tourism pitted against religious practice and religious history. As the Boston Globe reported this past February, guests of the Hotel Providence complained that Grace Episcopal Church‘s quarterly bell ringing from 8am-9pm made their visits unbearable. The church agreed to reduce its bell ringing to twice an hour, but bells continue to ring out the start of the day bright and early every day at 8am.


A little background: Grace Episcopal Church is the church I grew up in. I attended roughly from the time I was 7 until I left for college at 18. As a member of the boy’s choir, I spent more time in the church than nearly any of its parishioners. We practiced twice a week and arrived early on Sundays to rehearse before the service. The choirmaster from the article, Mark Johnson, was my choirmaster then, too. It’s funny how some things don’t change much. There is also no mistaking his personality in this quote:

“In my mind it’s a huge sacrifice,” said Mark Johnson, ­organist and choirmaster at the church for more than 20 years. “It’s an extremely generous gesture, one which I have objected to very strenuously.”

More background: When I was in high school, I was one of a select group of choristers to be allowed to ring the bells. As you can see in the video, ringing the bells consists of pushing handles down–hard. You really needed to put all of your weight into it. And woe unto you if you made a mistake. Your mistakes would be ringing for miles across the city, echoing in the alleys and parks of scenic downtown Providence.

English: Grace Church, Westminster Street, Pro...

Grace Church, Westminster Street, Providence, Rhode Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the intersection of urban living and historical religious practice are holdovers like bell chimes. In the era before affordable time-keeping, church bells measured the day for workers. The sound of bells ringing will, for me, forever be the sound of urbanity. Today it blends together with honks and the mechanic hum of buses and cars, but these sounds carry shallowly. By design a bell is made to be heard.

Beyond the historical reality–“the bells were here first”– and the legal precedent that preserves the ringing of church bells, there are larger questions the Globe insufficiently explores. What expectations do tourists have that are unmet by the reality of the city? How is it that they come to the city and expect it to be a quiet interlude? Would you expect subway cars to cease running in New York City? The trains to quit blowing their whistles in Chicago or Boston? How does one come so unprepared for the sound of cities? If you lived in an apartment complex and this was a leaf blower outside of your window, would you have been similarly incensed?

I suspect, but I could easily be wrong, that one of the major hurdles here is that today the bell ringing is seen as little more than “religious noise.” This is not an instance of past and present. This is a battle between the secular and religious. The bells are offensive because, lacking any secular purpose today, they are left with little but religious meaning.

In counties that have battled with the Islamic call to prayer, noise pollution, and other zoning excuses have been put forward as reasons to prevent the adhān from reaching its audience. Much like the church bells, the sunrise call must be especially galling to those who would like to sleep in.

Sound can be orientation just as easily as geography. If we have lost the chronological orientation of church bells, then they may still serve to orient urbanites to the intermingling of religious and secular in the city.

After all, Grace Church, like many other urban religious churches, lies in a developed residential zone. The skyscrapers, apartment complexes, hotels, lofts, malls, warehouses, and other buildings that surround it are built on the ruins of old homes. The combination of development and the investment in the religious structure left the church as a last oasis of a formerly integrated city. Now that the city is attempting to return to a mixed development zone (with businesses and residences across the downtown), they’re rediscovering what was left there. It’s probably inevitable that such clashes are occurring. In fact, I’m surprised there haven’t been more (despite the links below).

I suppose that in cities where residents never fled the urban center, these problems were addressed decades ago. That leaves the terms of negotiation up to folks like my choirmaster and the Pastor. The parishioners live in the suburbs–or at least they did when I attended. Thankfully, it seems like a reasonable compromise was made that preserved the historical elements of the practice as well as good relations between  the church and its new neighbors.


World Religions in Sid Meier’s Civilization 5

11 Aug

As I prepare an article for a volume on the World Religions Paradigm (WRP), I’ve been rereading classic works such as Russell T. McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion and Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions. In the midst of John Kerry’s comment that were he to return to school today he would study Comparative Religions, it is evident we need more discussion of the way “religion” has been constructed and deployed. Michael J. Altman has an excellent post on with his recommendations for how Secretary Kerry might revise his understanding of religions. I don’t intend anything quite so grand, but I do want to point out how freely the WRP works itself into unusual niches in our lives. Sometimes its appearance can be pretty confusing, as I found in the case of a popular computer game.

Sid Meier’s immensely popular game franchise Civilization has been the go-to turn-based strategy computer game for nearly two decades. Since the release of Civilization in 1991, gamers have logged millions of hours conquering the world hexagon by hexagon. As the ruler of an ancient civilization, players must found cities, gather resources to feed their populations, build armies to defend their lands, and research technologies that mirror humanity’s rise to the present. For the level of commitment some players have to the series, check out this account of a man who has been playing the same game for over a decade!

One of the more recent versions of the game, Civilization 5: Gods and Kings, added religion as a core mechanic for gamers to enhance their empires. You can select various traits that give bonuses for possessing certain resources or tiles. Desert tiles, for instance, produce very little food and can make it harder for your cities to grow. Often you might avoid placing cities in areas where they would be surrounded by lots of desert. One religious trait you can adopt adds a bonus for desert tiles, making them much more desirable.

Civilization V

Civilization V (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is probably enough in the details of religious attributes to merit another post or two in the future. For now I want to emphasize the way in which the world religions are constructed in the game. Players begin by accumulating faith (usually by building a shrine which takes several turns to build and has a maintenance cost every turn). Eventually they accrue enough faith to found a “pantheon” and select an initial gameplay bonus.

After even more faith a “Great Prophet” is born and players can choose to found a religion and select two more gameplay bonuses. While one is always free to found a fictional religion, the preset options are primarily the standard core of World Religions. The 13 choices are listed alphabetically (and not tied to chronology, culture, or geography): Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Tengriism, and Zoroastrianism. [Originally there was only “Christianity,” but an expansion split Christianity into Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.]

If a player accumulates enough faith a Great Prophet appears and s/he can found a religion.

While faith is universally represented by a dove carrying a small green branch, each of these religions is represented by an icon. The icons serve one primary purpose:  when multiple religions exist in a city, the small icons fit in the pop-up HUD to display the breakdown of a population’s religious affiliation. There are also no bonuses for pairing religions with traits that might appear appropriate to their historical or cultural pasts. You can have Buddhist Cathedrals or Catholics that receive a bonus from temples. It’s a massive and confusing religious buffet.

And as I see it that is part of the problem. The choices of traits are not confined to particular religious traditions. Players are not penalized for mixing and matching, nor must they take both good and bad traits. This format presents all religions as functionally equivalent–the name is irrelevant.

I can understand from a designer’s standpoint that this mechanic is meant to offer players diverse bonuses that are appropriate for their particular circumstances in-game. It works, too. It is immensely satisfying to find your economy or scientific research pulling ahead because you carefully planned your religion’s abilities.

From a religious studies stance, however, every time I found a religion in a game of Civilization, I find myself cringing at the underlying consequences of the whitewashing of historical and cultural context. Why should the Protestants get a bonus in the desert! Why are the Tengriists getting bonuses for printing presses? How are the Buddhist monasteries generating so much wealth for my cities? It’s a endless hodgepodge.

On the one hand, I want all the many thousands of Civilization 5 players to run out and read Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One rather than Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions or Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Implicitly and explicitly, the game makes it possible for its players to treat the world’s religions as simply different paths up the same mountain. Prothero lays out the case for laypersons that these “world” religions simply do not believe in the same deity. When Civilization makes it inconsequential to pick Zoroastrianism over Buddhism, they’ve made it easier for gamers to think there is little difference between the two. [Note I say “easier.” I don’t believe the game is responsible for getting its gamers to think much about the differences among any of its religions–that’s the problem!]

The beliefs of many faiths are mutually exclusive or, at the very least, perennial antagonistic. The attempt to synchronize world religions is not simply an effort of categorization (scholars being scholars) but of faith and its role in creating and shaping scholarship. It is the product of a certain way of looking at the world and a certain way of judging its people’s beliefs and behaviors. Because we know that the WRP is so profoundly entangled in the rise of enlightenment rationalism and Protestantism in the West, at least we have a chance to develop a very good sense of the biases and contortions of the categories. This, I suppose, is the other hand: even Prothero’s work can be fundamentally misleading.

One of the great challenges in avoiding the WRP is stepping outside of the boxes into which we’ve placed religious lives. It’s not easy and there are pitfalls that the game exposes. Civilization is a game that puts players at the dawn of time and hopes they’ll survive until the present day and beyond. This inevitably compresses (or obliterates) not simply the details of the lives that would render the WRP less powerful, but also the differences of time, space, and culture that led to the possibility of the WRP in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether I pick Catholicism or Islam–the game doesn’t care and there are no consequences to my selection. I guess that means that religion has been so spectacularly reduced by the game that its arbitrary-ness is more evident than its special-ness. As I said, a hot mess.

At least the gameplay is still spectacular.

A Field Little Plowed? The Study of Religion and the Built Environment Today

29 May

This post originally was initially published at the Religious Studies Project on 29 May 2013. 

Head over to the website to see dozens of great podcast interviews and responses by scholars around the world! 

Let me begin with a mythological allusion. The Roman god Janus was often depicted with two faces to signify his interstitial nature. He looked into the future and past, and oversaw beginnings and endings. He marked the boundaries between inside and outside. Janus, the gateway god, seems a suitable reference for my polarized reaction to University of Durham Senior Lecturer Peter Collins’s interview on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

English: Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome F...

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

From one perspective, I was delighted to hear a fascinating discussion of how Collins came to study the built environment early in his career. Using his experience studying an adjacent Quaker meetinghouse and an Anglican church, he demonstrates the many joys of reading the built environment closely. It is obvious, too, that he is productively sharing his skills with his students in the field. Teaching undergraduates the value of examining the built environment is a true service to the academy. We should all be so lucky to have Durham Cathedral or delightfully juxtaposed religious buildings down the road for our students to explore! [This material begins at 11:15 in the interview.]

From another perspective, however, I feel quite at odds with his view that religion and the built environment remains a “field little plowed.” The dissertation I am finishing at the moment in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, begins with the premise that the built environment has been over-emphasized to the detriment of other modes of creating and maintaining sacred space.While I nodded enthusiastically when he praised Lindsay Jones’s The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. (It is a fascinating and under-utilized two-volume theoretical work.) I confess that I gritted my teeth when he recommend Pierre Bordieu’s 1971 essay “The Berber House.” In 2013 we are still falling back on structuralism to look at religious buildings? (Jones, for his part, would probably be shocked.)

However, lest I be uncharitable to a colleague across the Atlantic, I think that my unease may be less disagreement than the simple product of differences in geography, discipline, and the years between our training. Collins is a social anthropologist who specializes in, among many things, Quakerism in 17th and 18th century England. I am a religious studies scholar who specializes in sacred space in the contemporary United States. I am finishing my degree in June, while he has been publishing for over 15 years.

It reminds me somewhat of Hans Rosling’s famous TEDTalk “Let my dataset change your mindset.” Our conceptions about the world, Rosling argued in relation to the division between first and third world, are not shaped by the time we live in, but by the year our teachers were born. Obviously this is overstating the case. 15 years isn’t that long. And academic discourse is not global health. I think it is telling, however, that my own Master’s degree adviser Peter Williams published his bibliographic essay for The Material History of American Religion Project on “The Built Environment of American Religion: The State of the Art” in 1995. He began by saying “Until recently, the study of America’s religious architecture and landscape was something that had largely fallen through the cracks of academe.” Collins similarly says there is very little on the built environment today. It is “fairly sparse” in Anthropology or there is “very little” in the Sociology of religion and only “slightly more prominent” in Religious Studies. I think–although I don’t have elegant charts to make my case–that today this characterization misses the mark.

Perhaps the fundamental challenge to a mighty wave of studies about the built environment, as Collins explores in the interview, occurs when we move beyond defining the critical terms (religion, built environment, material culture, etc.). When we look at the scholarship on the built environment we are forced to consult an ever-widening set of theories and methods. History, Anthropology, Sociology, Religious Studies, Gender Studies, Architectural History, Visual Studies, Literature, and so on all have contributions to the study of the built environment. The list is as broad as the academy itself. Yet, teaching our students the skills necessary to interpret and think critically about the built environment is a significant obstacle.

English: Durham Cathedral Català: Catedral de ...

Durham Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

I also fully agree that a major issue is how easy it is to overlook the built environment all around us. Collins said, rather earthily, that he wondered “if sometimes it is because buildings are so bloody obvious, so huge and so manifest, that we don’t see them.” Isn’t this the very joke from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

For Collins, the environment is humanity’s water. It is “all of that which exists outside of the human being,” and it includes those elements that humans build. If we want to be sensitive to it, then we must cultivate sensibilities that make it visible and legible. Since the scholarship surrounding the built environment comes from across the academy, it can be a tangle of interdisciplinary webs. Structuralism of the type Bordieu presents in “The Berber House,” I would be the first to confess, can be a way to untangle this web or even avoid it altogether.

Collins later wonders why, when speaking about Jones’ comparative architectural model, so little has been done with it. If you brave Jones’s volumes, you will understand why. It is terrifically complex. It is also not something that can be presented without modification to undergraduates. [Jones is discussed  in the final 15 minutes or so of the interview.] Nevertheless, its presence here is an indication that the conversation may be evolving in ways that will promote its use in the future.

We are still confronting the double challenges of interdisciplinary expansion and, shall we say, legibility or transferability to our students and the public. The close-reading of the Quaker meetinghouse that Collins offers is a strong demonstration that the rewards of overcoming these challenges are high. I can contribute to these rewards by recommending a few recent titles that deal with the built environment in satisfying and novel ways. A comprehensive list, such as that offered by Williams above, is probably not possible without first retreating bookishly to the corners of the academy where our own disciplines lie. In that respect, the few items in my bibliography reflect my contemporary American biases. I also take “built environment” to indicate much more than simply religious buildings. This is a product not merely of my research in spatial theory and place studies, but of my interests in expanding the study of sacred space beyond the walls of the church. I encourage everyone to continue the discussion and add their own favorite recent items on religion and the built environment in the comments.

Selected Bibliography on Religion and the Built Environment since 1990

  • Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Edited by Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Diamond, Etan. And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caronlina Press, 1999.
  • Eiesland, Nancy L. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2003.
  • Griffith, James S. . Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
  • Jones, Lindsay. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. 2 vols, Religions of the World. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000.
  • Kieckhefer, Richard Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Kerstetter, Todd M. God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. Sacred Ground : Americans and Their Battlefields. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Livezey, Lowell W., ed. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. Edited by Peter J. Paris, Religion, Race, and Ethnicity. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Loveland, Anne C. and Otis B. Wheeler. From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. St. Louis: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
  • Mazur, Eric Michael and Kate McCarthy, ed. God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed. Making Muslim Sacred Space in North American and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Meyer, Jeffrey F. . Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Nelson, Louis P. American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006. 
  • Orsi, Bob, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. America’s ChurchThe National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Shrine in Miami. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Williams, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Edited by Conrad Cherry, Public Expressions of Religion in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Wilford, Justin G. Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Winston, Diane. Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Zepp, Jr., Ira G. The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center. 2nd ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Mapping Spiritual Mapping

16 Jan

Short post today on works-in-progress. 

One of the questions about spiritual mapping that has emerged in my studies is whether it has a geographical component. Is spiritual mapping in the United States primarily confined to urban areas? Is it mostly a Sun Belt phenomena? Etc.

Thanks to some quick THATCamp training at the American Historical Assocation, I feel a little more comfortable with my Google Earth skills. Eventually I hope to map the full database I’ve been collecting of churches that have clear involvement in spiritual mapping. I trace “involvement” mostly by looking at testimonies in my primary sources. It’s limited in its scope but it’s all I have until I start sending surveys and doing some fieldwork. (My dissertation is mostly textual, so this kind of fieldwork has been put on the back burner.)

I’ve inputted one or two that you can see in this map, but mostly it’s been cataloguing so far. Since Google Earth outputs what is basically an XML document, I can add details later with a better editing platform than Google Earth itself. XML will also make it easy to use the data in another platform, like my SIMILE authorship project.

Spiritual Mapping in Google Earth

Google Earth is just a platform for the development and organization of this geographic information. Thankfully the information isn’t tied to the platform! It’s the visualization of the information itself for me that’s the payoff–a better grasp of the range of places where spiritual mapping happened.

The related project, a more difficult one, will be to map the routes that were used by prayerwalkers. Thankfully these are often the same churches. What’s challenging isn’t mapping the paths, it’s knowing what paths to map. This is another area where future research will be helpful to continue developing this project. Gotta plan for the long-term, right?

AHA Day 4 — Why are Pentecostal Studies Stuck on Race?

9 Jan

As my quarter begins I’m gad that the AHA recaps are almost done. I take pride in being pretty thorough in my session reviews. As Chris Cantwell said to me while sipping a bourbon at Arnaud’s French 75 in the French Quarter, “You take this conference thing pretty seriously.” I do! For graduate students the expense of the conference experience is very high–even when sharing hotel rooms and when travel costs are defrayed in some why by your university. From clothing to food, there is always one more thing that can tug at your purse strings. Since it costs me a lot to do this, I try to be really focused about why I’m there. [And since I won’t be writing about my networking, y’all get this.]

For the last session recap, though, I can say that taking conferences seriously paid huge dividends. [Even when I discovered in the morning that I’d forgotten to plug my netbook in and had a dead battery.]

Sunday 8:30-10:30 — The Science and Spirit of Race in Twentieth-Century American Protestantism

This panel, featuring Arlene Sanchez-Walsh (Azusa Pacific), Blaine Hamilton (graduate student at Rice), and a response by Anthea Butler (U Penn), perfectly fired all my intellectual curiosity in all the right ways. Panelist Irene Stroud was scheduled to attend, but fell ill and didn’t make it to New Orleans. Our loss turned into a kind of gain when there was an additional 20 minutes for conversation–something that is often in extremely short supply with the tightly scheduled AHA sessions.

First, Anthea proclaimed that the ASCH had it out for her. “Another early morning session?” she exclaimed as she strode in with her coffee. Everyone in the audience echoed her disapproval. It was *early* and some of us, ahem, had been out pretty late enjoying the city.

Next, Blain Hamilton gave a very fine paper comparing the racial disparity between revivals led by pentecostal pioneers William J. Seymour and Charles F. Parham. Parham, a white former Methodist with holiness credentials, helped lead the early revival of the spirit in Kansas and Texas. Seymour, on the other hand, was a black student of Parham’s who led the more famous Los Angeles revival on Azusa street. The contrast between the two figures is not simply one of race. Close attention to their ministry is an entry-point on issues of segregation, “respectability,” and racial differences in early Pentecostalism.

Hamilton focused on the media reception and representation of the two revivals. In Houston, for example, police were used to protect the upstanding propriety of the emerging revival and its white fairly middle-class members. In Los Angeles, the police were called in and physically restrained over-excited participants. Moreover, in LA the racial elements were a primary emphasis for the media, which scandalized readers with accounts of interracial touching and sexualized narratives about Seymour and other males preying on vulnerable white females.

Next, Arlene Sanchez-Walsh gave a very interesting paper that sketched the racial components of the Assemblies of God home mission on the American-Mexican borderlands in Texas under the direction of A.A. Allen in the 1930s and 1940s. Early efforts focused on the battle with Catholicism. Nativism in the form of papal fear-mongering became a reason to focus missions on Mexican-Americans living on the border. Most were American citizens, but Allen thought of them almost like spies, capable of carrying his anti-papacy message deep into Mexico. Sanchez-Walsh notes that the emphasis on anti-Catholicism shifted as global events presented Communism as a significant threat. In that climate, the message shifted from anti-Catholicism to anti-Communism but continued to paint the threat in religious ways. The godless philosophy was, for Allen, a religious threat (and not merely a threat to religion).

Moreover, the entire home mission to Mexico carried vast connections to zionism, as Allen came to believe in Mexicans as the famed lost 12th tribe. The racism encoded within this perspective is particularly evident, Sanchez-Walsh says, in the language used to describe the mission movement such as the use of dark and light. Check out, as a rare AV example, this video of Gene Martin from Allen’s missionary team:

Anthea Butler responded, and, in her usual way, charmed the panelists as she gave pointed critiques of their work:

For Hamilton, she warned, absence of evidence of segregation in Parham’s Houston revival is troublesome evidence. Not only were there substantial differences in press coverage (LA had many more presses and there was some racial diversity to them), but the difference in location and time may have significantly shifted the kind of coverage the movement received. Furthermore, the very issue of “respectability” is fraught with danger for historians. Reading too much into that word and its significance may tempt us to racialize what was really about class or other issues.

Similarly, Butler said of Sanchez-Walsh’s paper that there was a strongly gendered element to this missionary work that was not yet sufficiently explained. Nearly all the missionaries to Mexico were men. How did that affect things? Moreover, the language of racism may be a partial red herring because this is at the end of the day about numbers, right? It’s a competition for souls and souls in the biggest numbers that can be gotten. Is race distracting us from these other gendered and theological concerns?

On both papers, Butler was raising a serious point, the one to which this post’s title refers, namely the focus of Pentecostal studies on race as the essential feature of analysis. Since class, having been dismissed by Wacker et al., is no longer a primary element of study about pentecostals, we have turned to race to explain these movements. Why is that? What is the effect? If we focus too much on race, the panel seemed to buzz, we can easily miss the bigger stories that our work belongs to. We lose the ability to say big things, and that’s a huge loss. (For Sanchez-Walsh that’s the globalism of the shift in message? For Hamilton it’s the larger geographical comparison of pentecostalism in LA and Houston.)

To a degree it is the insularity of a focused area of study, but this doesn’t excuse the ways in which it limits our vision. As an audience member it was clear that for both panelists  one alternative avenue to race is geography. Houston isn’t Los Angeles, but that difference is much more than race. It’s about the difference between two places, their cultural history, their urban development, and so on. When the issue emerged in the Q&A for Sanchez-Walsh that kind of shift meant looking at the differences in church planting (she used the example of the nearly exclusively rural/suburban Four Square church). For Hamilton it meant looking at the connections between ministry and railroads in Houston. For me, it was clear that geographical analysis still has a huge amount to offer to religious studies. (And echoes my concerns from Day 1 that there is not really much of a digital religious studies to compare with digital history.)

If you missed the panel and want more, you can read it in the American Society for Church History’s live blog, which covered this panel extensively. You’ll have to scroll quite a bit to find the panel, but it is worth it if this material is up your alley.

Tomorrow I should be able to post my roundup on the whole conference. See you then.


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]

Oh, Lefebvre

13 Dec

There won’t be any posts tomorrow or this weekend. Expect me back on Tuesday!

I’m dashing for the finish line right now, so I will keep this brief.

Cover of "The Production of Space"

Cover of The Production of Space

For how many spatial theory nerds is Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space literally the bane of your existence? I mean, I spend hours looking at the same sentence and making seemingly no progress whatsoever in understanding what the man meant.

I will forever be returning to this text, until I understand its every word in my soul.

Here’s the core, Lefebvre’s conceptual triad:

  1. Spatial Practice, which embraces production and reproduction, and the particular locations and spatial sets characteristic of each social formation. Spatial practice ensures continuity and some degree of cohesion. In terms of social space, and of each member of a given society’s relationship to that space, this cohesion implies a guaranteed level of competence and a specific level of performance.
  2. Representations of space ,which are tied to the relations of production and to the ‘order’ which those relations impose, and hence to knowledge, to signs, to codes, and to ‘frontal’ relations.
  3. Representational spaces, embodying complex symbolism, sometimes coded, sometimes not, linked to the clandestine or underground side of social life, as also to art (Which may come eventually to be defined less as a code of space than as a code of representational spaces).

If you like you can borrow my mantra! Space is a tool not a category.