Review– Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

My review of Jeff Wilson’s wonderful recent book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South is now online at the journal Sociology of Religion. Here’s a taste:

Deciding where to look is often the most important decision a researcher makes. Jeff Wilson’s choice to look for Buddhism in Richmond, Virginia, instead of Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, is the jumping off point for a series of important discoveries about pluralism, hybridity, and region in American religious communities. In Dixie Dharma, Wilson draws on nearly a decade of ethnographic research at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond to challenge our current scholarly assumptions about Buddhism in America and religion in the South. Through nuanced description and precise theoretical tools, Wilson examines a community of Buddhists working to form a community in the middle of an evangelically Protestant red state.

Read the full-text at Sociology of Religion

Remembering When the Klan Tried to March Through Town: Kelly J. Baker’s ‘Gospel According to the Klan’

 In this photo shot October 1987 in Jackson County, Ohio. Farmer William Donta holds an M1 Carbine, he had a KKK ralley, and a cross burning on his private property in Jackson County, Ohio.(Photo/Paul M. Walsh)

I was in fourth grade when the Klan tried to march through town. At that time I was living in my Dad’s small hometown in southeastern Georgia. I don’t remember how I heard but I remember hearing that a group called the KKK wanted to parade through town. Everyone seemed very worked up about it. As a white boy growing up in the South I knew something about race at that time. Mostly I knew that it signaled some sort of difference but what the difference meant and how it played out, that I was still figuring out. When the Klan wanted to march through that small town I got the feeling that it just embarrassed everyone. There was definitely a racialized social structure to the town–not that I knew what to call it or had a full sense of it. My Mom, Dad, brother and I were staying with my Dad’s parents helping out taking care of my aging and sick grandfather. I remember him getting all worked up over me playing with a black kid from the gravel road at the back of the neighborhood. I remember that while the white kids would go inside each other’s houses and play, my black friend and I stuck to playing on the gravel road. So, like I said, when the Klan wanted to march it embarrassed everyone. It was like that family member at Thanksgiving who has a little too much red wine and begins saying out loud all of the judgments everyone else had kept to themselves. The Klan was just being mean.

This memory cropped up as I read through Kelly J. Baker’s great new analysis of the Klu Klux Klan of the 1920s, Gospel According to the Klan. The Klan I remember trying to march through a small town in Georgia (I don’t remember if they actually did it or whether the town stopped them) is far removed from the Klan of the 1920s. During the second revival of the Klan that Baker outlines the “Invisible Empire” was not an embarrassment, except maybe to the writers of the Christian Century. Rather, they were a group of white Protestants defending America against the perceived threats of Catholicism, immigration, and inferior races.

The strength of Baker’s book is her analysis of Klan periodicals. She is at her best when she delves into the ways the Klan represented itself to itself. That is, when these periodicals outline the ideal Klansman or Klanswoman to their readers. From their use of the cross and other Christian symbols to their goal of reuniting the disparate strands of Protestantism, the 1920s Klan was a deeply Protestant cultural phenomenon. While most people see the Klan as a group of racists and then work backwards from there to their religion, Baker starts with their Protestant nationalism and works forward. Thus, rather than seeing racism draped in religion, Baker reveals religion whose logical ends are racist, exclusionary, and hateful. The Klan emerged as a force of Protestant nationalism that united Protestant Christianity with Americanism. The “100% Americanism” that emerged stood as call for men and women to defend their country from invasive forces.

I wonder, though, how the 1920s Klan and its defense of Protestant America connects to the other movement among conservative Protestants in the 1920s, Fundamentalism. Baker notes that the KKK drew on members from the Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians. These are the same folks that were fighting over evolution and biblical criticism. The Scottish common sense philosophy underlying Fundamentalism seems to be at the bottom of Klan theology as well. The defense of American morality read as pure Protestantism ties these two movements together. Baker stresses that the Klan must not be marginalized in our narratives of American religious history and I totally agree. What better way to put them into a central part of the narrative than place them alongside Fundamentalism during the period? The book would make an interesting read alongside George Marsden’s classic Fundamentalism and American Culture, for any of you planning seminar syllabi.

That said, Baker’s book is an extremely important work. Her analyses of gender, nationalism, and material culture are strong and useful for anyone looking for a model. Furthermore, her use of the periodical literature and analysis of  representation and rhetoric offers me a model for my own work with representations of Hindus and Protestants in my sources. The chapters hold their own as individual readings and can be put to use in a number of undergraduate courses while the book as a whole ought to be a part of any seminar on race or nationalism and religion.

Just take the dust jacket off if you read it on an airplane–I discovered that the hard way.

[Image via Wikimedia. In this photo shot October 1987 in Jackson County, Ohio. Farmer William Donta holds an M1 Carbine, he had a KKK ralley, and a cross burning on his private property in Jackson County, Ohio.(Photo/Paul M. Walsh)]

Review: American Veda by Philip Goldberg

While I was traveling over the last few days, Religion Dispatches published a review I wrote of Philp Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. Here’s a bit of it:

A Methodist church near my house advertises for “Gentle Yoga Classes” on one of those church signs usually reserved for witty and redemptive one-liners like “Jesus: Your Get Out of Hell Free Card.” Meanwhile, a local pizza place lists a “Kosmic Karma” pie on its menu. Indian spiritual language has crept into American vernacular culture. But where did it come from? Is there some connection between karmic pizza and yoga in church?

In American Veda, Philip Goldberg tells the story of a new American tradition, derived from both the practices of yoga, and the philosophy of Vedanta. He names this “Vedanta-yoga,” as distinguished from other aspects of Hindu religious culture (such as the worship of multi-limbed deities) that might be less meaningful for Americans.

For Goldberg, it all adds up to the slow “Vedicization” of American spirituality. By this he means that Americans have become more comfortable with a view of the world ultimately found in the ancient literature of India—the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. First, there is the idea that the self and the ground of Being (or the Divine, God, Brahman, Consciousness, etc.) are one. The full realization of this truth leads to liberation and the cessation of suffering. Second, there are a number of paths toward this realization and no single path works for everyone. Third, it follows then that, at bottom, all religious and spiritual traditions, while looking different, share the same goal of divine realization. Vedanta-Yoga is thus a monist, pluralist, and perennialist tradition of American spirituality built from Indian religious sources.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

Tenured Radical: Deep Cleaning, And Other Cosmic Issues: A Review of “Clutter Busting”

The Tenured Radical has a review up of Brooks Palmer’s book Clutter Busting:  Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back. Here’s a bit of it:

Palmer’s central argument is this: culture producers tell us that we are what we own, and many of us are persuaded that having consumer goods and things of great monetary value makes us happy.  Some of us acquire these things on the street, unable to pass an item that looks useful without stuffing it in the car.   Whatever we acquire, whether it is the magazines that we subscribe to in order to better ourselves, the multiple cats we can’t bear not to bring home from the shelter, or the makeup we buy to look pretty, we become briefly exhilarated as we possess the object, then depressed when we realize that, like all the similar objects our home is filled with, it hasn’t solved anything at all.  The objects then more or less taunt us, and fill our houses in such a way that they overwhelm us.  Worse, they become objects of sentiment, holding feelings that we are unwilling to let go.

Like all successful self-help people, Palmer tells stories about people who, under his guidance, have recovered from this cycle.  Usually the process of recovery involves identifying what role objects of various kinds play in your life, how you are failing to value yourself by allowing them this power, and what they actually have to do with either real people you refuse to let go of or feelings of your own that are undermining you but which you hold dear.  Disabling one’s self by clinging to unwanted objects and people (yes, people, pets and services are clutter too under the right circumstances) is a problem for psychotherapy, but it is also something that is amenable to action.

The power of the commodity in modern society immediately jumped out to me in this review. Self-help books like Palmer’s and TV shows like Clean House are built around helping people manage the power of things. I’m not sure how, yet, but the commodity and the power of the commodity has to be tied up with the idea of the autonomous subject/self. Does the commodity work in the formation of the self–what Foucault called a “technology of the self?” Or does the subject empower the commodity–the object? Not sure.

Oh, and yes, there are all sorts of sacred and religious themes in TR’s review, in the book itself, and in the entire self-help market.