The Metaphysics of the Internet; or Can Lydia Maria Child’s Ghost Read My Comment?

I’m in the midst of the metaphysical chunk of my dissertation. In these two chapters I examine how American writers in the middle of the nineteenth century looked to India for sources to build religious alternatives to orthodox Protestantism. Thoreau, Emerson, Blavatzky, all the usual suspects are there.

Today I’m working on the writings of Lydia Maria Child. I was trying to track down a copy of her essay from The Atlantic “Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions” and I found it here. It was odd to read an article from 1870 as a 21st century webpage complete with sidebar ads. Scrolling down the page, I was surprised to find a comment on the article from 8 months ago. User hans_hassler decided he must correct Child’s argument that there is a resemblance between Buddhism and Catholicism. It is the only comment hans_hassler has made on The Atlantic website.

This is a fascinating situation. I’m not sure what to make of it.

I like what Per D. Smith tweeted about it:

https://twitter.com/PerDSmith/statuses/253509629303201793

Maybe we all need mediums on retainer. There is an odd spiritualist feel to all of this. When 19th century spiritualists channeled the dead there was a moment of chronological discord. The past and present overlapped at the table. As I sit at my desk and stare at hans_hassler reprimanding Lydia Maria Child I get a small inkling of that desire for spirits, for knowledge, and for the bridge between past and present.

And I can’t help but wonder if she can read it.

UPDATE- Yoni Appelbaum makes a great point:

The Invention of American Evangelicalism; or, Why Ed Blum is Mad

The following is a cross-post from Religion in American History. Check out the great comments on the original post.

(If you’re unsure what made Ed mad read this post.)
[Update: Ed says he's not mad anymore, just passionate. Also, read this post from Ed where he expands his thoughts on race and evangelicalism. His thoughts echo much of what's in this post.]

Evangelical history is a lot like this plaque from the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts. The plaque was affixed to the spacecrafts in order to communicate some basic information to any extraterrestrial life they might encounter as they zoomed toward Jupiter and beyond. The plaque is rife with information but the most obvious elements are the map of the solar system and the drawing of a man and woman. The plaque was meant to represent us (humans) to them (aliens). But more than that, the plaque also represents us to us. It shows what we thought was really important (hydrogen) and who we thought we were (that shapely white heterosexual couple with the man standing tall and waving while the woman extends her leg Angelina Jolie Oscars style). It represented us to ourselves.

This is the same dual work that much “evangelical history” does. On the one hand, the history of evangelicalism represents what evangelicalism is or has been to those not within the fold. It’s a project that says, “See, we have been at the heart of democracy and republicanism in America. Ours is the religion of freedom, liberty, choice, and reason.”  It’s also a project that represents itself to itself–that is, to evangelicals. Often these representations are meant to call today’s evangelical Christians to be a better sort of Christians by reminding them of what they once were. “Once we had the social passion of the great abolitionists and the depth of thought of Edwards. We can have that again.” I think it is this dual work of representation that creates the blindspots around race and gender that engendered Ed’s battle cry and Kelly Baker’s questions.

That said, I don’t think the problem is really about representation. It’s not that there aren’t enough African American, Latino/a American, or Asian American evangelicals in our indexes and lists. The problem is not representation but construction. Or, to put it as a question, why do we think there even is such a thing as evangelicalism? Or evangelicals? To be blunt, why do we care who is or isn’t an evangelical?

The term “evangelical” has a long history that I won’t get into and that I’m sure many readers of this blog know more about than I do. However, it seems that the term has been self-applied or imposed upon a variety of Protestants since the Reformation. It is a “native term” batted about by Protestants throughout their various squabbles with themselves and others. For some American Protestants at certain places and times “evangelical” signified “true.” Evangelical Christianity stood in contrast to infidel Christianity (be it liberal or deistic or what have you). Or conversely, to put myself in the shoes of the Unitarians I’ve been reading all week, “evangelical” Christianity is stiff mindless orthodoxy that lacks the refined reason and liberty of liberal Christianity. The question of who is or isn’t “evangelical” or what is or isn’t “evangelicalism” is a Protestant debate between Protestants and has become a historiographical question within American religious history insofar as American religious history is still under-girded by Protestant sensibilities and categories.

The real question for historians of American religion and especially historians of American evangelicalism is “what are the politics of the category evangelical?” Why do we want more African Americans in a list of evangelicals? Why do we want more women? Because it is a privileged category. It is also a constructed category. It is, to use my favorite Jon Butler phrase, an interpretive fiction. It is an invention, first within the minds of Protestants since the Reformation and then within the minds of historians from Robert Baird to the guys at Patheos. Rather than worry about who is or isn’t an evangelical or adding more diversity to the list, historians should be investigating the process of this invention. We should be tracing the politics of the term and what is at stake in various places and times when people take, leave, fight for, argue about, or compromise over what it means to be “evangelical.” We don’t need more or different histories of evangelicalism or evangelicals, we need a genealogy of the term. We need to trace the invention of American evangelicalism. We need to stop assuming that evangelicalism is something out there for us to track down in the archive or research field and label correctly. Instead, let’s pay attention to how various subjects imagine evangelicalism and the political, cultural, and social forces at work in those imaginings. Let’s find out what’s at stake when people get included or excluded from “evangelicalism.” I’d do it but I have this other thing I’m working on.

Let me be clear, I don’t think evangelical historians should stop doing what they are doing. The work of representing evangelical history to outsiders and other evangelicals is important and I’m glad there are wise and talented folks doing it. However, the ways these historian construct “evangelicals” is ripe for analysis by those investigating how “evangelicals” are invented. In this way “evangelical history” can be the source material for a genealogy of evangelicalism. For folks like Ed who are unsatisfied with our current constructions of “evangelical,” adding a bunch of new names to the list or changing the category will not solve the problem. For a while “Puritan” stood as the privileged category of religious history. Perhaps we’re now realizing that it’s been replaced by “evangelical.” (A process that itself is worth investigation). We have to deconstruct these categories and dig up the processes that have bestowed their privilege upon them, whether by historical subjects or historians. We can’t just change the plaque on the spacecraft. 

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]

NIMBY Mosques and the Taxonomies of Religion in America

Cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog

In case you missed it, there are plans to build a mosque in New York two blocks from the the site of World Trade Center attack.  The proposed mosque has ignited a variety of discourses about religion in American culture.  Opponents of the mosque have various reasons for their opposition but a recent ad from the National Republican Trust PAC offers the most obvious examples of the “us” and “them” language opponents are employing.

The ad was rejected by by CBS and NBC.  As Entertainment Weekly reports:

CBS and NBC have rejected an ad by the National Republican Trust PAC that seeks to rally viewers against a proposed mosque that would be built two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City. The one-minute spot (embedded below) begins with the words “the audacity of JIHAD” flashing on the screen followed shortly thereafter by the image of a plane flying into the World Trade Center; an accompanying voiceover declares that “to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.”

The national spot “didn’t meet our broadcast standards,” said a spokesperson for CBS, confirming the network’s decision not to run it. An NBC spokesperson also confirmed the decision to reject the spot, but did not offer an explanation why. Nonetheless, EW obtained a letter from NBC Universal advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley to the NRT PAC explaining that: “An ad questioning the wisdom of building a mosque at ground zero would meet our issues of public controversy advertising criteria. However, this ad which ambiguously defines ‘they’ as referenced in the spot, makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque. Consequently the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast.”

As I read it, the basic message of the ad is “If the mosque gets built then the terrorists win.”  Patrolling the borders of acceptable religion has been a mainstay of American culture: colonial Quakers, nineteenth century Catholics, twentieth century Communists, and now, twenty first century Muslims  What is remarkable about this ad is just how unremarkable it is in its rhetoric.  The same strategies always work.  Slap on a foreign label (“Jihad” or “Papist” or “Pinko”), add violence (terrorism, nuclear threat, licentious priests and nuns), predict the downfall of “American values” (read Anglo Protestantism) then stir until a nice foment of emotionalism forms.

Continue reading

William James and the Divorce Between Science and Religion

Cross Posted at Religion in American History

William James has always interested me because I’ve often wondered why his brand of knowledge production never took off.

Jonathan Rée has a great piece on William James that I found thanks to Ralph E. Luker.  As a whole, the article is a thoughtful review of James’ life and work, including his interest in religion and science.  Below is my favorite paragraph of the article but I suggest you read it in full.

James was not unsympathetic to religion, and on occasion he was prepared to call himself a Christian, though in a thoroughly secular and untheological sense. His abiding intellectual passion was a love of open-mindedness and a corresponding distrust of dogmatism and metaphysics. We should never forget, he said, that all our opinions – even our “most assured conclusions” – are “liable to modification in the course of future experience”. But he warned against allowing a distrust of dogmatic metaphysics to harden into a metaphysical dogma of its own, as seemed to be happening with some of the evangelising atheists of his day. He admired the evolutionary biologist T H Huxley and the mathematician C K Clifford, for example, but when they used the idea of “science” as a stick to beat religion with they were in danger of behaving like high priests of a new religion – “the religion of scientificism” – and defending it with the same intolerant zealotry as any old-style religious fanatic. Knowledge, for James, was not so much the pre-existing premise of human inquiry as a hoped-for future product, and science was more like a tissue of fortuitous insights than a monolith of solid fact. We would not have much chance of stumbling into truth if we let ourselves get too anxious about falling into error, and the first rule of an unillusioned epistemology should simply be: Relax! “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” James wrote: “in a world where we are certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness.”

I’ve always found James compelling as a figure in American history because he lived and worked at the edge of an era where science and religion still saw each other as friends and companions in knowledge.  James died in 1910, and by the 1920s and 30s “truth” would be split between “empirical science” and “religion.”  James is a figure that is worth revisiting and rethinking in the midst of many current cultural debates.  It’s worth at least considering his “pragmatic, pluralist, empiricist approach to truth – what some would call his humanism.”

Constructing Religion in the SC Governor’s Race

For me, religion will always be constructed in South Carolina.  As an undergraduate at the College of Charleston I became fascinated with the category or “religion” and began the long road toward a career studying it.  Now, I look back to the Palmetto state again and see the ways the current race for governor is reconstructing Christianity and religion.  Peter Hambly has written a great piece probing into the role Nikki Haley’s religious identity is playing in the race.  In the wake of being slurred a “raghead” by state senator Jake Knotts, Haley has pushed into a primary runoff that many believe she will win.

Haley is a second generation Indian-American whose parents are Sikh, who self-identifies as a Christian, grew up in South Carolina, and even picked up a Southern accent along the way.  It’s the tension between all of these layers of her identity that is beginning to draw curiosity and interest.  As Hambly notes, Haley attends both Methodist and Sikh services, especially with her parents and extended family.  This inter-religious practice is leaving some evangelicals in South Carolina uneasy:

Ray Popham, pastor of Oasis Church International in Aiken, said Haley’s religion is a “big topic” among his congregants, who have posted notes about her religion on Facebook and have lately approached      him for advice about the governor’s race.

“She claims to be a Christian but also attends a Sikh temple and was married in a Sikh ceremony, so a lot of people can’t figure how you can claim both,” Popham told CNN. “I think she needs to be straight      up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front.”

Tony Beam, the interim pastor of Mount Creek Baptist church in Greenville, hosts a radio show called “Christian Worldview Today.” He recently posed a question to his listeners: Is Nikki Haley being           honest about her faith?

Beam said several callers were not sure if Haley had completely abandoned her Sikh beliefs.

What immediately jumps out to me in the midst of this kerfuffle is that there are various understandings of what counts as religion and as Christianity flying around.  For most conservative evangelicals their religious identity centers around belief.  The belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is what makes one a Christian.  Yes, there are other things that make one an evangelical Christian but they tend to center around correct belief.  It’s all about orthodoxy.  But what about other religious cultures?  This focus on right belief–on an orthodox religion–doesn’t translate across cultures.  The Sikhism of Nikki Haley’s family is more about orthopraxy.  That is, it is about correct practice.  You do things because they are what you do.  To be Sikh is to do the things a Sikh does first and foremost.

Indian religions have sometimes struggled to adapt to an American religious landscape that emphasizes meaning and belief over ritual and practice.  As a white guy visiting Hindu temples in North Carolina I’ve often noticed how practitioners there felt the need to try and explain their religious practices to me, mostly through references to Christian symbols and meanings, when such explanations wouldn’t happen in India.

I really have no interest in deciding whether or not Haley is a good Methodist or a good Sikh, or whether she’s religious at all.  What these questions about Haley’s religiosity point out, however, is the ways our public definitions of religion are generally shallow and Christian at bottom.  They are about what one believes first, and what one does only matters insofar as it can be grounded in doctrine or explanation.  The problem with focusing on right belief is that you can never be sure.  It is impossible to really know what someone believes and so there are always anxieties and questions of authenticity.  That’s what lies behind much of this discussion of Haley’s religion.  Is she authentic?  I don’t know nor do I think that it is an important question.   I’m more interested in what gets lost in translation between Anglo-American Christian notions of orthodoxy and Indian forms of orthopraxy.

Edit–this post is now cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog

Burning Man, Green Acre, and Ritual in U.S. Religious History (Cross-Post))

This is a cross-post from the Religion in American History Blog.

This morning I came across an interview with Lee Gilmore at Religion Dispatches where she discusses her new bookTheater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press).  The full interview deserves a read, especially the story of how she came upon the books title, but what jumped out to me were the following portions:

This decadent ritualism, which can be both sincere and satirical, casts the festival as a semi-religious cultural happening. Furthermore, many participants describe Burning Man as a “spiritual” experience, but deny that it constitutes a new religious movement as such. Organizers too explicitly hope that the event will “produce positive spiritual change in the world,” even while they also stop short of characterizing the event as “religious.” My work sought to explore the tension between “spirituality” and “religion” in the narratives of Burning Man participants in order to better understand how religio-cultural systems operate and adapt.

The popular term “spiritual but not religious” only goes so far in describing an event like this. I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious “more,” while also showing us how these expressions are increasingly displaced outside the bounds of the dominant Western cultural concepts of “religion.” Burning Man is on the vanguard of contemporary religious movements that resist easy classification by favoring eclecticism and hybridity. Yet in articulating a clear ethos that places a core emphasis on building and supporting community—both inside and outside the confines of the week-long event—Burning Man manages to be individualistic and idiosyncratic without being solipsistic.

I haven’t read Gilmore’s book, though I’m really excited about it after reading the interview, but it did remind me of something I had just finished re-reading.  I’m in the midst of that wonderful summertime project known as “studying for comprehensive exams” and I just finished going back through Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Restless Souls: The Birth of American Spirituality.  In that book, Schmidt has a great chapter on the Green Acre community founded by Sarah Farmer in Eliot, Maine.  But when reading the chapter recently I was struck by what little material Schmidt gives on the ritual practice of the community  There are a few mentions of morning walks on the dewy grass and meditation and a great narrative of the history of the community and its participants but I never got a picture of what life was like on daily basis within the commnunity.  Perhaps that information just isn’t in the record and I don’t mean to take pot shots at an important book.  Rather, I merely want to speculate that the same ritual life represented by Burning Man has antecedents in Green Acre.  I bet Schmidt would grant that, as well.

But to push it further, as Lee makes the point above, certain rituals associated with the “spiritual not religious” challenge the notion of what counts as “religion” in American culture and, I would argue, push historians of religion to reconsider ritual as the central category for these post-non-Protestant forms of the sacred in America.  The point that belief has been central to narratives of American religious history is worn out, but I think that as we begin to reconsider and write the history of religion in America during the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st we may have shift our consideration to ritual.  Many people have done this and continue to do this.  But the challenge is not to simply adopt existing definitions of ritual and write them into our histories, but rather to use the diversity of sacred phenomenon in American history to reconsider the category of ritual and its relationship w/ things like belief, myth, identity, etc.

Look out for more on this when I get my hands on Lee’s book.