AAR Redux: Roundups, NY Times Story, Twitter Fail, and Butchering the Elephant #sblaar

The American Academy of Religion’s annual shindig is over and with Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and a fridge full of leftovers it’s back to work. I won’t do a full recap, but I will say that my favorite two panels were both “author meets critics” style. One on Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption and another on John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I got nonspecific Protestantism on the brain; or as someone on the Fessenden panel described it, “nefarious Protestant hegemony.”

Over at Religion in American History, Karen Johnson posts about the feast of great panels at this year’s meeting. Meanwhile, Matt Sheedy thinks through the experience of conferencing.

And if you haven’t seen Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article on the AAR’s decision to shun the Hyatt over it’s labor dispute with hotel staff be sure to check it out. It’s been blowing up my Facebooks over the weekend. Apparently it blew up Craig Martin’s too, as he posted a response to the story that argued the newspaper article misrepresented and exoticized the AAR.

I tweeted Oppenheimer a link to the Martin post and he responded:

That seems fair enough.

Speaking of Twitter, I think it’s time for the AAR to step up its game when it comes to organizing the use of social media at the annual meeting. The tweets were all over the place, under different hashtags, and with no idea which panel they were reacting too. The #sblaar hasghtag was a mess. And this was with only a relatively small number of attendees tweeting. Without going back and sifting through the tweets (and was anyone even archiving them?), all I remember seeing were tweets from religious studies folks I already knew about panels I was already in (mostly related to secularism, American religion, or pop culture) or biblical studies types. (BTW, those NT and OT folks are much harsher on each other via tweet than us Americanists. We’re downright cuddly.)

The AAR needs to include a “Social Media” info box in all of the pre-conference and conference books they send out that lays out the hashtag (that includes the date, e.g. #aar13) and recommends how to identify the panel (e.g. #A14507). And someone needs to archive these. Ever the social scientist who knows how to code his data, Jonathan VanAntwerpen offered great examples of how AAR tweets should look next year:

Reflecting on the conference as a whole, though, I think the use of Twitter, split mostly between Americanists and SBL-ers, and Martin’s critique of the Oppenheimer piece are examples of a larger theme I noticed throughout the weekend. The AAR is a fractured society. We have folks arguing for a liberal political theology while other folks analyze Protestant hegemony in American culture. Even on the same panels I continually see a divide between papers that are rigorously critical and those that are, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “woo woo.”

Often in introduction to religious studies courses the instructor will trot out the well worn story of the blind men touching the elephant. We all describe different parts of this big religion elephant. The story can be an apology for a big tent approach to theory and method or a lesson in perennialism. But that story doesn’t really capture the state of the field and the AAR right now. We are not all blind men feeling the religion elephant. There are some of those blind men out there, grasping after this thing called religion as if it was the elephant in the room and finding different aspects of this giant unknowable beast. But there are also others standing in a corner yelling “There is no damn elephant!” And then there still others who can see the elephant and are standing over it with knives in hand ready to butcher the pachyderm, hoping to dissect and parse its organs in order to discover how it ever came be in the first place.

The challenge for the AAR in the next 10 years is to find places for all three of these folks and maintain some sort of institutional identity that can hold them. Can it provide a space for the blind men to debate the nature of the elephant? Can it offer a podium and megaphone for those who want to deny the elephant of religion and claim the animals of ideology or culture as their species of study? Can it sharpen the tools and provide the laboratory for the dissection–after all an elephant requires a lot of space? We shall see. But in the next year, let’s just get a better hashtag.

WaPo Column Ignores History, Colonialism, and the Problem of Religion

Savage Systems

The Washington Posts’ foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius has written a remarkably simplistic column based on the findings of the Pew Research Center. Here’s how it starts:

God had a good convention: The Almighty’s name was mentioned (albeit at the last minute) in the platform at the Democratic National Convention. And He was invoked no less than 12 times in the Republican platform, in case He is keeping score.

But the real news is that God is having a strong millennium, according to some fascinating poll results from the Pew Research Center. The data show that even as the developing world is getting more modern, it is also getting more religious, with especially sharp gains for both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa.

As Eion O’Mahony tweeted: “The use of the phrase “God is having a strong millennium” should be indication enough to stop reading.” Exactly. Ignatius assumes that if Christians and Muslims are gaining numbers then religion is growing. As Per Smith pointed out, Ignatius equates religion with the Abrahamic traditions. This gets particularly problematic in his discussion of what’s going on in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa is seeing one of the great religious booms in history, according to data in an April 2010 Pew study that drew on more than 25,000 interviews in 19 countries. The study found that, since 1900, the Muslim population has increased 20-fold, to 234 million. The growth of Christianity there has been even more spectacular, growing 70-fold to 470 million. People are passionate about their religion, either way, with nine in 10 saying it is very important in their lives.

Apparently there was no religion in Africa before Islam and Christianity showed up. I wonder why Christianity has grown so much in Africa since 1900? I wonder how it got there to begin with? Maybe the long history of European colonialism has something to do with it. Maybe this isn’t “a religious boom” but the results of a much earlier mercantile boom in which Christian Europe carved Sub-Saharan Africa into a RISK board.

Ignatius offers no explanation for this religious boom but it seems irresponsible and simplistic to ignore the role colonialism has played in shaping religious identity in Africa. Claiming that the rise of Christianity is a religious boom relegates all African religious practice before Christianity to some category outside of religion. It rehearses a history in which Africa is characterized by the absence of religion prior to European contact.

I don’t want to knock Ignatius around too much, but his column should serve as a reminder that the problems of defining and measuring religion are often ignored in the press. Now, I’ll leave it to David Chidester to make the final point about the relationship between the absence of religion and colonialism:

The discovery of that absence developed layers of strategic value in European encounters with others. Although the denial of religion carried a significance that varied according to he specific context in which it was issued, the assertion that people lacked a religion signified, in general terms, an intervention in local frontier conflicts over land, trade, labor, and political autonomy.

- David Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 14

[HT Kelly Baker for the link via Facebook]

James Freeman Clarke and the Post-Protestant Metaphysical Roots of Comparative Religion in America

Ten Great Religions

I came across this on page 1 of James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions (1871):

[The present work] is an attempt to compare the great religions of the world with each other. When completed, this comparison ought to show what each is, what it contains, wherein it resembles the others, wherein it differs from the others; its origin and development, its place in universal history; its positive and negative qualities, its truths and errors, and its influence, past, present, or future, on the welfare of mankind. For everything becomes more clear by comparison. We can never understand the nature of a phenomenon when we contemplate it by itself, as well as when we look at it in its relations to the phenomena of the same kind.

It is remarkable to me that I have rarely seen James Freeman Clarke mentioned in histories of comparative religion or religious studies. He gets three mentions in Eric Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History. Tomoko Masuzawa gives him two pages in her book The Invention of World Religions. But both Sharpe and Masuzawa put the American Clarke into a story that is mostly about European approaches to comparative religion. Clarke’s place as a Unitarian minister and his location within the history of liberal religion in America is neglected. Within American religious history, Clarke comes up in discussions of mysticism and Asian religions. Leigh Eric Schmidt highlights Clarke’s interest in universal mystical experience in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese briefly analyzes Clarke’s representation of Hindu religions in Ten Great Religions in her book A Republic of Mind and Spirit.  There are two Clarkes, the comparativist who imagines a universal religion based in Christianity and a metaphysical interested in the mystical East, depending on the history you are telling.

I am sympathetic with the story of Clarke as a metaphysical. I am approaching him in the same vein as Albanese. I have the benefit of a narrower project than hers that will allow me to really dig into Clarke’s representation of “Brahmanism.” Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is another story to tell about Clarke and other 19th century liberal (post)Protestants interested in world religions that unites the comparativist narrative with the metaphysical one. In the rush to throw off the bonds of comparative theology–indeed any kind of theology–I think the academic study of religion in America may have misplaced its history. Perhaps we owe more to Clarke than we do to Max Mueller.


Should we compare American Atheism and American Christianity?: An Impromptu Twitter Discussion

The following conversation emerged on Twitter between myself and Per D. Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Check out Per’s great stuff over at irritually. Per specializes in studying irreligion and so I sent him a link to a CNN article and, well, click on the storify link and you can see what ensued.

[View the story "Atheism, Humanism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Mainline" on Storify]

The question I’m left with is this: Is there a force within American society/culture that is shaping atheists and Christians in similar ways such that evangelicals look like New Atheists and old school humanists look like the mainline? What could it be? How could we find it? Is it the market? Politics? What?

What do yall think?

Transcendentalists and the Smoke Monster of Religion

I’ve made it to the Transcendentalists! The chapter on Unitarian and evangelical ideas about Hinduism is done and passed along to The Adviser. Now, I’m changing gears. The chapters I’ve written so far were exercises in uncovering. Only a couple previous studies had looked at the materials and so my basic work was to dig up representations and descriptions of Hinduism in sources and relate them to the larger context of American culture during the period. For example, only a couple of people have written about Rammohun Roy’s impact in the West and only Carl T. Jackson has really considered how he impacted America. So I had a lot of space to dive deep into the sources and make my arguments about the significance of Rammohun Roy for the history Hinduism in America and the history of American religious cultures.

But now I’m writing about Transcendentalists. There are a lot of books about Transcendentalists. I’ve also caught up with the narrative. Most histories of religion in America argue that the Transcendentalists were the first Americans to show interest in Asian religions–Arthur Christy’s The Orient in American Transcendentalism (1932) did the most to cement that claim. So, there’s a lot of secondary literature on Asian religions, and especially Hinduism, in Transcendentalist thought. That’s the list of call numbers I took with me to the library this week on the left. Now my challenge shifts. It’s not about digging up stuff no one’s found, it’s about finding a new angle on the stuff we already know about. I find this much harder and  much less exciting.

The question of how American’s construct the category “religion” has emerged as a consistent theme in the early chapters of this project and I think it might be my way to cut a path through the underbrush of the Transcendentalist rainforest. Most of the research on Asian religions and Transcendentalism take “religion” for granted. (BTW, there’s a whole discussion of when we should or should not take this term for granted in our writing. But that’s a whole different post.)  There are these religions in Asia and these folks in America “discover” these religions and somehow these religions influences their thinking and writing. But why did Thoreau or Emerson or Alcott recognize the Bhagavad Gita or the Laws of Menu as religious? I think John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, which I’ve started but not yet finished, will be helpful on this point. Secularism makes “religion” as a category possible. It sets the horizons for a “religion” that is a chosen, believed, and, most importantly, can be categorized, be borrowed from, and influence people. All talk of Asian religions “influencing” the Transcendentalists gives agency to religion. Religion does stuff. It’s a virus. Or maybe a smoke monster. The clearest expression of this is Lydia Maria Child’s Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive AgesCompare Child’s title with Hannah Adams’ A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Religion progresses for Child. It has movement. Adams’ certainly has a progressive view of religion in her dictionary, as I argue in my chapter about it. But that movement, that agency, is more pronounced by 1855 when Child writes. This thing, religion, that was invented in the 18th century has gotten more power, more agency–maybe?

So the challenge for me–my way toward a fresh take on Transcendentalism and Hinduism–is to trace the invention of religion as this viral, smoke monstery, agent through Transcendentalist encounters with Hindu religious culture. Now, let’s just hope no one in the stack of books beside me has done that already.

How to write a book about “X in American Religious History”

It’s not as hard to write a book in American religious history as you might think. Feel free to use this handy template.

Introduction- X has been important throughout American religious history.

Chapter 1. What the Puritans said about X

Chapter 2. What Jonathan Edwards (and maybe George Whitefield) said about X

Chapter 3. How X was shaped by the early Republic and the Second Great Awakening

Chapter 4. The Victorian X

Chapter 5. X in the Civil War

Chapter 6. Reforming X in the Progressive Era

Chapter 7. How X took on shifting meanings in pre-WWII America

Chapter 8. How the 1960s radically changed X, but not for everyone

Chapter 9. A new multifaceted X in the 21st century

Conclusion- See, I told you X was important.

Is there a difference between ideology and religion?

The U.S. Intellectual History blog has an interesting guest post from Corey Washington on “After Ideology.” Here’s a bit:

There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles. Nevertheless, the fact that people reason so badly about politics is striking given that people are intelligent and believe strongly that it is important for their political beliefs to be true. Religion may also be innate and non-rational, but if people are rational enough to give up God-oriented religion because there is not sufficient evidence, why do they not give up ideologies as well?

When I ask this question, the responses are quite similar to what you hear when you discuss atheism with a religious person. Atheists/agnostics cannot imagine how you could act ethically, or more broadly make sense of the world, without an ideology. That is, ideology seems to give many atheists/agnostics a value system just as religion does for believers. I believe ideologies also provide people with a community of like-minded friends, as do religious beliefs, and people are loath to alienate themselves from their friends. But if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies and communities if they are based on beliefs one has very little reason to think are true?

Those two sentences I bolded struck me. Of course ideology functions like religion! Washington is right on the money with this. But so was Emile Durkheim. Religion and ideology, as sketched by Washington here, both form what Durkheim called “moral communities” in his Elemental forms of Religious Life. What Washington doesn’t outline in his post, thought I suspect it is to be worked through in his book, is the relationship between ideology and religion. Too often religion becomes subsumed under ideology. Thus, socially constructed notions of the sacred are reduced down economics or psychology or what have you. Instead, religion and ideology should be placed alongside one another as products of cultural and social imagination and construction. For example, nationalism (and here I’m following my recent reading of Benedict Anderson) as an ideology has the incredible power to motivate men to die. Anderson begins his discussion of nationalism with a comparison to religion. They both share this same power–a power that will motivate humans to lay down their lives. To go back to Durkheim, we can call this socio-culturally produced power ‘the sacred.’ Questions then follow. How is the sacred produced in cultures and societies? What is sacred in an ideology or religion? How dies it function?How do humans move between or occupy overlapping sacralities (i.e. a communist nationalist Christian)?

However one approaches the question of ideology and religion and whether one wants to use the term ‘sacred’ or not, the goal should be to  avoid reducing the phenomenon down to a single ’cause’ and instead to uncover their messy cultural production and practice.

My Outside Area Exam List: “Media Studies and Religion”

This is the third of four posts which include my various exam lists for my preliminary exams. This exam is in my “outside area” of Media studies. There’s some great theory on here as well as a lot of  stuff dealing with ethnography and representation. It is a little light on the religion side but that’s the point of the “outside” in the title, I guess. The anthropological emphasis of the exam really pushes it into a true “outside area” for a historian like me. As before, if you’re interested in conversation about something you see here, let me know.

Michael J. Altman

Outside Area Exam- Media Studies

I. Theory

Adorno, Theodor W, and M. Horkheimer. 1977. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as mass deception.” Pp. 350-383 in Mass Communication and Society, edited by James Curran, Michael Gurevitch, and Janet Woollacott. London: Edward Arnold.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1991. “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology.” Pp. 191-210 in Recapturing Anthropology, edited by Richard G. Fox. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1980. “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion of the Social in the Masses.” Pp. 137-148 in The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture, edited by Kathleen Woodward. Madison: Coda Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature / Re Bourdieu ; Edited and Introduced by Randal Johnson. edited by Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press.

Fairclough, Norman. 1995. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language / an Fairclough. London: Longman.

Fowler, Roger. 1991. Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press. London: Routledge.

Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1980. “Encoding / Decoding.” Pp. 128-138 in Culture, Media, Language, edited by Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis. London: Hutchinson.

McQuail, Denis. 2010. McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory. Sixth Edition. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Spitulnik, Debra. 1993. “Anthropology and Mass Media.” Annual Review of Anthropology 293-315.

Spitulnik, Debra. 1999. “Media.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9:148-151.

II. Discourse

Bakhtin, M. M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. edited by Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and, The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books.

Richardson, John E. 2007. Analysing Newspapers: An Approach from Critical Discourse Analysis. Basingstoke [England]: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wodak, Ruth. 1999. The Discursive Construction of National Identity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Woods, Nicola. 2006. Describing Discourse: A Practical Guide to Discourse Analysis. London: Hodder Arnold.

III. Representation

Karp, Ivan, and Steven Lavine, eds. 1991. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display / Ed by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lutz, Catherine, and Jane Lou Collins. 1993. Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacCannell, Dean. 1992. Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers. London: Routledge.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 2008. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Tomlinson, John. 1991. Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. London: Pinter Publishers.

IV. Religion

Hoover, Stewart M. 2006. Religion in the Media Age. London: Routledge.

Richardson, John E. 2004. (Mis)representing Islam: The Racism and Rhetoric of British Broadsheet Newspapers. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub.

Rothenbuhler, Eric W. 1998. Ritual Communication: From Everyday Conversation to Mediated Ceremony. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Rothenbuhler, Eric W, and Mihai Coman, eds. 2005. Media Anthropology. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage.

Silk, Mark. 1995. Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Walton, Jonathan L. 2009. Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. New York: New York University Press.

V. Ethnogprahy / Anthropology

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2005. Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Couldry, Nick. 2007. Media Consumption and Public Engagement: Beyond the Presumption of Attention. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dornfeld, Barry. 1998. Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Hannerz, Ulf. 2004. Foreign News: Exploring the World of Foreign Correspondents. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kosnick, Kira. 2007. Migrant Media: Turkish Broadcasting and Multicultural Politics In Berlin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mankekar, Purnima. 1999. Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

Peterson, Mark. 2003. Anthropology and Mass Communication : Media and Myth in the New Millenium. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Radway, Janice. 1974. “Interpretive Communities and Variable Literacies.” Daedalus 113:49-73.

Radway, Janice. 1988. “Reception Study: Ethnographyand the problem of disperesed audiences and nomadic subjects.” Cultural Studies 2:359-376.

Spitulnik, Debra. 1993. “Anthropology and Mass Media.” Annual Review of Anthropology 293-315.

Spitulnik, Debra. “Thick Context, Deep Epistemology: A Meditiation on Wide-Angle Lenses on Media, Knowledge Production, and the Concept of Culture.” in Theorising Media and Practice, edited by B. Brauchler and J. Postill. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Spitulnik, Debra. 1998. “Mediated Modernities: Encounters with the Electronic in Zambia.” Visual Anthropology Review 14:63-84.

Spitulnik, Debra. 2002. “Mobile Machines and Fluid Audiences: Rethinking Reception through Zambian Radio Culture.” in Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain, edited by Faye Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tacchi, Jo. 1998. “Radio Texture: Between Self and Others.” Pp. 25-45 in Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, edited by Daniel Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

VI. Post-Print Media

Baron, Naomi S. 2008. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Morley, David. 1980. The Nationwide Audience: Structure and Decoding. London: British Film Institute.

Tolson, Andrew. 2006. Media Talk: Spoken Discourse on TV and Radio. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

My “Theory and Method In the Study of Religion” Exam List

Over the next couple of days I’m going to be posting the various exam lists I’ve been working through and will continue to work through until my preliminary exams in November. If anyone out there is also studying for exams or just likes these books and wants to chat, talk, exchange outlines, or whatever let me know.

Theory and Method Exam List

Michael J. Altman

Religion / Society / Culture

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bataille, Georges. 1992. Theory of Religion. New York ;Cambridge MA: Zone Books ;;Distributed by MIT Press.

Chidester, David. 1996. Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Forbes, Bruce David, and Jeffrey H Mahan, eds. 2005. Religion and Popular Culture in America. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1999. Religion and Culture. edited by Jeremy R. Carrette. New York: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund. 1964. The Future of an Illusion. Rev. Anchor Books ed. Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Books.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

King, Richard. 1999. Orientalism and Religion : Postcolonial theory, India and ‘the mystic East’. London ;;New York: Routledge.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCutcheon, Russell T. 2001. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

McGrane, Bernard. 1992. Beyond Anthropology : Society and the Other. Columbia U.P.

Mizruchi, Susan. 2001. Religion and Cultural Studies. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Orsi, Robert A. 2005. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Preus, James. 1996. Explaining religion : criticism and theory from Bodin to Freud. Atlanta Ga.: Scholars Press.

Smith, Jonathan. 1982. Imagining Religion : from Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago (Ill.) London: the University of Chicago press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1978. Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions. Leiden: Brill.

Taylor, Mark C, ed. 1998. Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tweed, Thomas. 2006. Crossing and Dwelling : a theory of religion. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tweed, Thomas A, ed. 1997. Retelling U.S. Religious History. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Weber, Max. 2001. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.

Weber, Max. 1964. The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

What theories and theorists guide your work?

The Religion in American History Blog has a discussion question on their Facebook page about theories that guide scholars work.  Kelly Baker asked, “How do you all approach American Religious History? What methods, theories or theorists guide your work?”

I posted an answer there but I thought I’d copy it here as well. What about you? What are your guiding lights for your work, religious studies or otherwise?

Here are the three strands I try to pull together in my approach to American religious history:

1) Emile  Durkheim: Those who know where I am and who I’m working with ought not be surprised here. The category of “the sacred,” for me, offers a chance to look at a whole host of things previously left unconsidered in American religious history. Burning Man, sports, and all the other usual examples are just the start. Recent work on Oprah points the way to more and more places we can reconsider “American Sacred History.”

2) Thomas A.Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling:  I really like Tweed’s focus on positionality and his focus on the movement and motion of religions. I think it adds a dynamism to our study that has been lost in an under-theorized notion of culture and snapshot approach to religions.

3) Foucault, Said, and post-colonial theory generally:
In thinking about religions in American history I’m always wanting to find ways to rigorously account for power. In my current diss. research on representations of Hinduism in America I’m realizing more and more the ways “religion” as a category functioned in the deployment, maintenance and organization of power. I think religious historians are often wary of reducing religions down to “just power” without thinking about the ways religions function to channel power, resist power, and basically move it around and (dis?)organize it.

So, that’s my triparte answer. Wow, Kelly, really good question. I’ve never thought it through like this. Helpful.


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