Frequencies and the Aesthetics of Spirituality

 

Theologians. They don’t know nothing. About my soul

-Wilco

Frequencies, the collaborative genealogy of spirituality curated by Katherine Lofton and John Modern, has become quite a brand across the religion blogosphere. The folks at the Immanent Frame have been posting a series of reflections on the project and its 100 entries ranging from chicken sandwiches to iPhones to my own adviser writing about LSD. The posts themselves are remarkable and the reviews have been excellent as well. I especially appreciated the bitchy essay from Martin Kavka and the musical musings of Jason Bivins.

The most striking thing about Frequencies in my eyes is its beauty. There are moments of wonderful prose, yes, but the collection is striking to gawk at on the screen. More than that, Frequencies has its own aesthetic. So, I have one question for Frequencies, a question I don’t see anyone asking:

What if Frequencies looked like this

…or this

…or even this?

What happens if we take the same text, the same objects in the collection, and reframe them? What if Finbarr Curtis’s essay on his father and the American Dream appeared surrounded by patriotic kitsch instead of smooth lines and a beautiful piece of art? What if Patton Dodd’s thoughts about evangelical Eugene Peterson looked like they were posted by a Sunday School teacher and Gary Laderman’s history of LSD looked like a Deadhead blog? Would we still see these objects a spirituality? How would the meaning of these texts shift in a different aesthetic? How much of the spirituality resonating through Frequencies is in its aesthetics? It just looks like spirituality–doesn’t it?

Compare Frequencies, the genealogy of spirituality, with the American Academy of Religion’s website. The AAR is the institutional hub for the study of “religion”–that thing that spirituality is so often not–and its website stands in stark contrast to Frequencies. So much news and so many menus. You have to scroll down a page with the colors of doctor’s office wallpaper. Or, to go to a paragon of institutional religion, look at the Vatican. A brown background? A giant picture of the Pope in the center around which myriad links to various departments and documents circle. Look at Christianity Today. So much stuff. So many pictures. It’s just so complicated. Now go back to Frequencies. There are no resonances with those other sites. They are on a different aesthetic wavelength. Frequencies has no institutional news, no leaders, no sidebars and frames. It is clean and sleek. It is spirituality–right?

Now, look at Apple. The iPad sits in front of you like the hamburger in a Hardee’s commercial.  The menu across the top is full of one word options and there’s not much to scroll down to. It’s all right there in black, white and gray. It’s clean and sleek. Now I understand why the image of a cup of coffee illustrating Adam Frank’s “science” entry fits so well as the wallpaper on my iPad. There are resonances between Apple and Frequencies–they share an aesthetic wavelength.

Art plays a big role in Frequencies, illustrating many of the entries. The artistic resonances emerge when we look Frequencies alongside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. MoMa is clean with big pictures and simple menus of black and white. The menu items are verbs: visit, explore, learn, support, shop. Frequencies asks you to seek. There are resonances.

I keep wondering about the musical resonances of Frequencies. It’s metaphors invoke sound–frequencies, tune in, wavelengths. Yet it is a startlingly silent website. What is the soundtrack for Frequencies?

I started this post with a Wilco lyric. Check out the cover to that album on the right. A Ghost is Born could be the soundtrack to Frequencies (listen to “Handshake Drugs” while you read  Luís León’s “cannabis club” entry). The cover fits right in with the artwork and feel of Frequencies. A simple egg. White on white with grays and black, while Jeff Tweedy doubly negates theologians. Again, resonances. We could look to other bands for other resonances. Who else might offer the audio for Frequencies words and images? Maybe Arcade Fire? How about Bon Iver? It might be a stretch, but how about Lana Del Rey? Who do you think of? Resonances?

Apple, an art museum, and indie rock, what does this all point too? What is this aesthetic wavelength we’ve tuned into? What do all these resonances mean? (All due respect to John Corrigan’s “meaninglessness”.) I think they point to two things. First, these resonances point to the cultural location of Frequencies within the American middle brow–that space of public radio, iPads, indie rock, the Atlantic, and SXSW. Some of its contents such as automatic writing or This American Life come from and appeal to middle brow America. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of the site and the inclusion of these objects alongside others like Eugene Peterson or Chick-Fila lift these “lower” objects up as spiritual and middle brow. Putting “Eugene Peterson” into the format of a poorly constructed webpage with Jesus fishes down the side highlights the ways Frequencies engenders spirituality in the mundane. Eugene Peterson is spirituality in sleek design next to LSD and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Put him in Comic Sans Serif font next to a Zondervan NIV Bible and a set of Precious Moments figurines and he’s just evangelical.

This leads to the second point. When Frequencies claims to be a genealogy of spirituality it also admits to being part of the spirituality family–a family located within middle brow culture. To me the project is less of a Foucaultian genealogy and more of an Ancestry.com genealogy. It is the grandchildren and great grandchildren tracing out their lineage. There are resonances across the middle brow cultural spectrum, from high end consumer electronics to MoMA to indie rock, because they too are all children in this great family of spirituality. They all share similar cultural DNA that we could trace out historically if we tried. Frequencies is not just a catalog of culturally middle brow spirituality, it is a child of  culturally middle brow spirituality.

For me, Frequencies is the Portlandia of spirituality. Like the incredible hipster sketch comedy show, Frequencies smartly digests, analyzes, and catalogs hipster culture and in the process produces some of  best pieces of hipster culture. It slides back and forth from critiquing the culture and situating itself within the culture. Likewise, Frequencies is more than a genealogy of spirituality, it is a prime example of spirituality, down to the aesthetics of the flickering pixels on the screen. It just looks like spirituality.

Food and Spirituality in the South: Chick-fil-A and Bessinger Bros. BBQ

Maurice's Gourmet BBQ

A couple delicious articles crossed my plate just before the Christmas weekend and I didn’t want the connections between them to sneak by. Over at the wonderfully put together museum of religion and spirituality with a hipster aftertaste, Frequencies, Darren “DEG” Grem has written a piece that dives into the spirituality of the Chick-fil-A sandwich. Meanwhile, in the [web]pages of New York Times Magazine I came across a piece from Jack Hitt on the barbecue feud that has torn apart the Bessinger  family of South Carolina in the past two decades. I have spent my whole life in the South. I’ve spent the past four years in Atlanta, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a white Styrofoam cup of Chik-fil-A lemonande, and before that I spent six years in different parts of the mustard based barbecue region of South Carolina. Reading Grem and Hitt reminded me of the ways food in the South partakes of the sacred, the political, and the domestic. Not that it doesn’t do these things in other places, but in the South I can speak from the privileged place of an insider with experience.

That spirituality in the marketplace, or in the chicken sandwich, is both real and illusory at the same time–that it is always already revealing and obscuring–is Grem’s strongest point. He writes:

We can’t take Chick-fil-A’s claims about its sandwich at face value because we lose something in the process. We lose the connection between spirituality and the people who make up the marketplace and the networks and chains that support contemporary capitalism. But we also can’t just dismiss these claims about the spirituality of work, of goods, of companies, of people—or stop with investigative exposés of how it has or has not filtered down to the bottom or up to the top of the corporate triangle. That doesn’t really dive into the messy endeavor to explain spirituality in the marketplace, either as a complicated and layered phenomenon or as an organized but diverse and divided movement.

Indeed, spirituality is messy. It is material. It is juicy and topped with pickles. And sometimes it  pays for bowl games. Grem challenges those trying to trace the role of spirituality in the market and the market in spirituality to go further than simply following the money, or the prayers, or the products. Where that leads I’m not completely sure and Grem doesn’t completely reveal but I think the Lowcountry of South Carolina offers us up a case study.

Jack Hitt’s article on the Bessinger brothers various chains of mustard sauced barbecue in the Lowcountry of South Carolina is worth a full read and, for me, served as a reminder of the shock I experienced when I first encountered yellow barbecue. Having grown up in North Carolina my tongue was trained on vinegar and I could never accept the Gospel of the mustard seed. Then in college I gave up pork altogether and so I took my place on the sidelines of the great barbecue debate–though I don’t think that dry stuff  from down in Alabama ever stood a chance.

Hitt’s article focuses on the fallout between the four Bessinger brothers, each of whom are in the BBQ business, in the wake of Maruice Bessinger’s decision to raise the confederate battle flag over each of his Maurice’s BBQ restaurants. This was Bessinger’s response to the decision by the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag from the roof of the capitol building. (It has since been moved to a gilded pole in on the capitol grounds, a spot more visible than it ever was way up on the roof.) Maurice’s older brother Melvin, who owns Melvin’s BBQ in Charleston, avoided politics and has seen his fortunes improve as his brother’s neoconfederate ideology continues to hinder his business. In some ways the whole story is a Cain and Able narrative but everyone has the meat in their offering.

What jumped out to me in the article and why it connected to Grem’s piece was the following:

Maybe 200 people turned out at the post-rally barbecue at Maurice’s bottling plant. He had set up a giant shed to seat 500, so the gathering looked like a failure. The machines were walled off by pallets of Maurice’s boxes, each stamped with the word ”Kosher.” Maurice, a lay preacher, began the long afternoon of speeches.

”This is our only hope,” Maurice explained, pointing to the giant Confederate flag behind him. ”As the government gets more and more tyrannical, they will hand over more power to a world government. And then the Antichrist will just come in and say, ‘Thank you very much.”’

Maurice is comfortable weaving religion with barbecue: there is a weekly Bible-study session at each of his pits. Later on, in the privacy of his office, he let slip a secret of his sauce. ”The recipe,” he said, ”is in the Bible.”

”Does it start with Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?” I joked. Maurice’s eyes flared, as if I had correctly guessed that his middle name was Rumpelstiltskin, and he refused to discuss it further.

”You can just say that my Carolina Gold is a heavenly sauce,” he said. ”I believe that after the rapture there will be a big barbecue, and I hope the Lord will let me cook.”

Hitt was tantalizingly close to getting at the spirituality of the barbecue. But he made the mistake about which Grem warns. He got flippant. He thought he could see through the Bible study to what was “really going on.” And Bessinger clammed up. Neoconfederate ideology, conservative Protestantism, pork infused apocalypticism, and the faith of a mustard seed; how do these add up? I really want to know. The mess that Grem prods us towards has been quickly yanked back from Hitt. The connections between the spiritual and the material, and even the political, are there. But what are they?

What does the sacred taste like? Who brings the potato salad to Jesus’s mustard based glory? What makes those chicken sandwiches so God blessed delicious? (And DEG, you forgot about he biscuits.) To find these answers we must resist the urge to make jokes. We must remain humble and quite. We must listen. Then maybe we’ll find out what it will be like when Christ returns to bless the righteous and smite the tomato and the vinegar based.

Oh, and if you are looking for barbecue in South Carolina, I recommend Shealy’s in Batesburg-Leesville. If you can’t find it just ask anyone you meet west of Columbia.

[Cross-posted at Religion in American History]

[Image via Flickr user natecardozo Creative Commons licensed]