Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The New Frontier of Lived Religion: Authenticity and Media

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Stephanie Brehm

Over twenty-five years ago, the fields of Church history and religious studies experienced a theoretical shifting towards the project of lived religion.  That project took scholars to places rarely before considered legitimate – outside of pews, out of churches, and into the everyday lives of people “on the ground.”  Lived religion, as described in David Hall’s anthology, focuses on the material, “on-the-ground” aspects of religion in everyday life and deals with questions of religious “authenticity.”[1]  Part of the lived religion project legitimized areas of religious life previously under-studied; religious expressions, practices, and rituals previously deemed unworthy of study.  Those same questions of authenticity and legitimacy are now emerging in the area of religion and digital media.

To further the project of lived religion, we must consider the ways in which people live their lives through mediated experiences.  That is, the ways people are living lives today through digital media and social networked-presences.  According to religion scholar Greg Price Grieve, digital media has become one of the most important avenues for people to practice, articulate, and discuss their faith, but scholars have been preoccupied with “scripture and the printed word,” and have delegitimized contemporary religious life by saying that the digital world is not real or authentic enough to be considered true religion.[2] By ignoring smartphones and apps we obscure the ways in which many people today pray the rosary, read the bible, or text with preachers.[3]  Just because some scholars consider media new, novel, or a fad does not give us reason to ignore it.

Of course, many scholars of religion and church history are doing this work well.  Some of this work began with material culture projects, such as David Morgan and Colleen McDannell’s works.  These mediated religious artifacts, such as purity rings (Heather Hendershot’s Shaking the World for Jesus), Jimmy Buffett concerts (Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy’s God In The Details), and Tupperware (David Chidester’s Authentic Fakes) encourage scholars to look in unlikely places for the lived experiences of everyday life.  Scholars such as S. Brent Plate, Diane Winston, and Lynn Schofield Clark, among others, argue that television and film construct people’s lived religious experiences. The growth of digital media has led scholars like Heidi Campbell and Rachel Wagner to study Internet memes, cellphone apps, and virtual reality.  These scholars excel at engaging with questions of mediated religious experience. Even so, we need more scholarship on this new frontier of lived religion, and especially more historical works like those of Jane Iwamura, Tona Hangen, Jonathan Walton, and Judith Weisenfeld (to name a few).

The authentic religious practice and expression created in the digital age cannot be understood without historical contextual analysis and the comparative historical approach that scholars of church history bring to the table.  Productive work creating media lineages across mediums could present new perspectives on contemporary figures.  In my own work, I braid together lineages of Catholic media figures, Catholic comedians, and Catholic news anchors to develop a fuller contextualization of Stephen Colbert, a political and religious satirist, comedian, and late night host.  Because of the topics I study, I am confronted with people’s assumptions about what constitutes religion and Church history.  William James said it most succinctly, religion “signifies always a serious state of mind,” and even many of today’s scholars hold James’ characterization as presupposed fact, using James to argue that media and popular culture are not serious enough.[4]  However, just because it is on television, on YouTube, or on smartphones, does that mean we can judge it as “less-than-authentic” and “not-real” religion?  No, because everyday life is lived in media-filled worlds whether we engage media in our work or not.

Scholars, especially those in my own niche of American Religious History, need to pay more attention to media; we need to see it as complementary, supplementary, and constitutive of religion.  Looking at media is not a sub-interest for those technologically-attuned scholars or those who teach online courses or MOOCs.  The media realm is intricately tied to authentic religious experiences in everyday life and asking questions with that in mind will only make our work more engaging, relevant, and connected to religion “on-the-ground.”  Marshall McLuhan’s adage applies here: the only thing the fish does not see is the water.  In the contemporary landscape, humans swim in a pool of media, and scholars would be remiss in forgetting to look at the water all around us.

Stephanie Brehm is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Northwestern University. She studies religion, media, and popular culture in contemporary American life. Her work focuses on religion and humor, combining methodologies from ethnography, history, cultural studies, and media studies.  Before coming to Northwestern, Stephanie graduated with a B.A. from Florida State University and an M.A. from Miami University of Ohio.


[1]David D. Hall, Lived Religion in America: Toward A History of Practice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[2]Gregory Price Grieve, “Religion,” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012), 104.

[3] For more on digital media, apps, and smartphones, see Rachel Wagner, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012); Rachel Wagner, “You Are What You Install: Religious Authenticity and Identity in Mobile Apps,” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012), 199–206.

[4] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 1902), 37-38.

*Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Beggars as Choosers: Christian Canon and Selective Reading

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Brandon W. Hawk

One of the distinctive features of the Bible is that it is not a single text but a collection: as many others have remarked, it is more like a library than a book. Of course, the contents of this library have been debated from early Christianity onward, and remain fluid for some believers. Famously, various Christians have accepted, rejected, and doubted the Apocalypse (Revelation) of John throughout history; it was hotly contested in early church councils, the Nestorian churches reject it, Martin Luther expressed doubts about it, and John Calvin refused to write a commentary on it. Many of the world’s Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Church of the East—accept the set of books designated “deuterocanonical” (“of the second canon”), which are summarily rejected by most evangelicals.

Decisions about rejecting certain books generally boil down to a community’s shared doctrinal beliefs, giving way to practices of selective reading. Each community accepts certain books while rejecting others, and each community holds to a set of reasons for those decisions. Historically, communities also tend to have fluid systems, viewing works on a spectrum as canonical, useful, and rejected.[1] Notions of reading are crucial in all of this—anxieties about what is read, tensions within the canon, and how to interpret.

While certain ambivalence toward non-canonical materials (often perceived as competing with the Bible) is understandable, Christians have a tendency to hold even parts of Scripture at arm’s length. For example, Wulfila (c.311-83), a Gothic missionary, supposedly exercised caution with presenting certain books of the Bible to his followers. In his Historia ecclesiastica, the contemporary historian Philostorgius (368-c.439) relates that Wulfila “translated all of the Scriptures into [the Gothic] language, except for the book of Kings, since these contain the history of the wars and the nation was warlike and needed its aggressiveness curbed rather than kindled.”[2] Wulfila was not the only one concerned about misreadings, and views like his create a nuanced perspective on how to present biblical narratives to the uneducated.

In the late tenth century, Ælfric of Eynsham had similar misgivings about lay people reading the stories of patriarchs. Expressing anxieties about how medieval people might find the appeal of polygamy in the Pentateuch, he gave the following account in his Old English Preface to Genesis:

I once knew that a certain priest, who was my teacher at the time, had the book of Genesis, and he could understand Latin in part. Then he said about the patriarch Jacob that he had four wives: two sisters and their two handmaids. He spoke very truly, but he did not know (nor did I yet) how much difference there is between the old law and the new.[3]

He continues by explaining that things are radically different “now, after the coming of Christ”—so much so that it throws the Law of Moses into question. This is just one example of Ælfric’s more general anxieties about the difficulties of reading Genesis, but it is a telling representative.

The concerns expressed by Wulfila and Ælfric characterize tensions inherent in reading the whole Bible in light of Christian typological interpretations, which persist from early Christianity up to the present. This is true in considering even just the Pentateuch, which is a mini-canon on its own at the same time that it poses certain difficulties for Christian readers. After all, the stories of Genesis and Exodus work well within a typological framework, with many events read as foreshadowing Christological redemption and a universal exodus from sin. Yet, on the other hand, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are harder to incorporate, with many aspects of these books (especially their detailed laws) relegated to the “old covenant.” This is Ælfric’s point exactly: these parts of the Bible are no longer applicable.

All of these notions point toward the usefulness of selective reading. For contemporary Christians, there is not much use of apocrypha outside of the biblical canon, although such uses flourished in the medieval period. For evangelicals, the deuterocanonical books are rarely useful, except for establishing the historical backdrop of early Christianity. But what about books within the universally accepted canon? I would hazard a guess that most contemporary Christians have a hard time remembering the last time they heard a sermon on Leviticus. In this, we can trace a long history of selective reading that demonstrates the nuances of tensions, anxieties, and interpretations embedded in approaching the Bible.

Brandon W. Hawk is currently a Teaching Post-Doc and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; in fall 2015, he will start as Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Rhode Island College. His research interests encompass the afterlives of texts (particularly Christian works), including circulation, translations, adaptations, and re-presentations in various cultures and media. He may be contacted via email at brandonwhawk [at], or found on Twitter @b_hawk.


[1] See François Bovon, “Canonical, Rejected, and Useful Books,” in his New Testament and Christian Apocrypha: Collected Studies II, ed. Glenn E. Snyder (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

[2] Historia ecclesiastica, II.5; see Philostorgius: Church History, trans. Philip R. Amidon (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 21.

[3] My translation; for a full translation and references to editions of the Old English, see “Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis: A Translation,”

*Image: Damaged pages from a medieval bible (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, pages 431-32). Available via Creative Commons License at e-codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland.

Ted Cruz, the Gay Jihad, and Origins Narratives

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

Ted Cruz announced his bid for the GOP nomination at Liberty University, the well-known conservative evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. This was just the beginning of his work to prove his conservative bona fides in his attempt to lock up the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Last week, Cruz spoke at a forum in Iowa put on by a homeschooling group. When the topic of religious liberty came up, Cruz spoke of

the jihad that is being waged right now in Indiana and Arkansas going after people of faith who respect the biblical teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

While one’s first instinct may be to link to this chart (below) that helpfully provides the numerous examples of “marriage” in the Bible that are not simply between one man and one woman, that does not help us analyze Cruz’s rhetoric here. Cruz continued by saying that people need to be brought together under “the religious liberty values that built this country.”

Both quotes from Cruz evince his penchant for origins stories as authoritative. In the first instance, marriage is defined by how God designed it at the creation of the world. This narrative presents a union between one man (Adam) and one woman (Eve) not only as the intended form of union but also as natural and divinely-ordained. This story is further presented as unified: “people of faith who respect the biblical teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” There is no room in Cruz’s narrative for other examples of marriage in the Bible (say, between a man and multiple wives, a man and his concubines, a soldier and a prisoner of war, or a rapist and his victim). It is those outsiders that have twisted the truth and are clamoring for a multiform understanding of marriage.

In the second instance, Cruz references an origin story about the founding of this country. This time the story is one that presents the “founding fathers” as champions of “religious liberty values.” One can, of course, push back against this narrative by pointing, for instance, to the Salem with trials, to the repeal of the Maryland Toleration Act, or to laws preventing Catholics from holding political office. But again, Cruz’s narrative necessitates that any contradictory data be ignored. And, as before, by presenting what he is calling “religious liberty values” as being a part of the fabric of this nation since its founding, these values are endowed with authority because they represent a pristine origin.

Russell McCutcheon wrote about the role that origin stories play in creating authenticity and authority for a group in Religion and the Domestication of Dissent.

These rhetorics of uniform origins and timeless principles, of pure intentions versus degraded expressions, and of pristine insides versus ambiguous outsides…are eminently useful to virtually any group engaging in the necessary sleight of hand we call social formation.

Cruz has set up the origins of marriage and the origins of the United States as “site(s) of ultimate meaning” (McCutcheon, 13). It is those who do not respect the biblical teaching on marriage that have muddied the waters and strayed from truth.

We can see in the New Testament book of Acts a parallel to Cruz’s rhetoric here. Acts is telling the origins story of the Church and in doing so presents this time as a golden age of Christianity. It was a time when “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2.44). Conflicts in Acts are rare and easily resolved. The most obvious example of this comes in the discussion of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The question of Gentile entrance requirements into this group of believers arises because some are teaching that circumcision is necessary for salvation (15.1). Paul and Barnabas have “no small dissension” with those teaching this (15.2). As a result a meeting is called of the apostles and elders to discuss the matter. The assembly seems to listen well to everyone who speaks (15.12) and James is allowed to make a unilateral decision (15.19). This unilateral decision, though, is also unanimous: “Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided . . .” (15.22). A letter was drafted that stated that they did not support those teaching the necessity of circumcision and that imposed “no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (15.28-29). And with that the problem was resolved. This contrasts quite remarkably from what most scholars think is Paul’s own account of this meeting in Galatians.

Paul speaks of a meeting with “those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)” (Gal 2.6 – Paul was subtweeting long before Twitter). He then speaks of being given “the right hand of fellowship” (2.9) and says that “they asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (2.10). It does not take a particularly close reading of the texts to see that Acts and Paul tell this story quite differently. Acts stresses Paul’s closeness to and unity with the Jerusalem Church while Paul stresses his independence.

We see from this one example, then, that Cruz’s technique is nothing new among those claiming that their version of Christianity is original, unified, and true. Many of us who are engaged in the academic study of religion long ago gave up on the quest for origins and instead turned our attention to how claims of origins and true beginnings are used as a means to provide legitimacy and authority to those making these claims. Both the author of the book of Acts and Ted Cruz are using origins stories in this manner. Presenting their version of events and their teachings as since the beginning and untainted, they hope to legitimate themselves and delegitimate their opponents. This is often a successful tactic. We can see that even in the way I have constructed my analysis of Cruz here. I have pointed to a different origin of marriage, namely, one that is more multiform and less palatable. I also pointed to examples from colonial America where religious liberty was expressly not upheld and was intentionally repressed. In a way, then, I too have appealed to origins, albeit in a somewhat different manner, as a way to provide my own argument with more legitimacy and authority.

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

*Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Thinking about Religion and Education with the Category of Conversion (Part II)

Friday, April 10th, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts by Leslie Ribovich. You can read the first post here.

Thomas Nast, “Our common schools as they are and as they may be” (1870)

Leslie Ribovich

What are the drawbacks of thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion?

(1) Thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion might lead us to sloppily call everything religion without investigating the particulars. My approach to studying public education and religion since World War II is to investigate what the people I study mean by “secular” and “religion” in government spaces—schools and boards of education—spaces that by the early 1960s were legally supposed to be “secular” by the Supreme Court’s definition. However, my sources do not always tell me explicitly what they think is religious and secular. As a scholar of the Study of Religion, I find myself wanting to find some framework or narrative by which to understand the educational processes I describe. There are some excellent models for this—including sociologist Thomas DeGloma’s new book Seeing the Light: The Social Logic of Personal Discovery. However, I sometimes find myself making claims that are too broad, or reek of the desire to make everything about religion, losing attention to nuance and change over time. If we say that education and conversion have some things in common, we risk the potential argument: education is conversion; therefore, education is religious; therefore religion exists in public schools. While the gist of this crude framing of the argument might have some truth to it, the historical particulars of the educational and religious context of the place being studied are crucial. For instance, in New York City, the history of fighting crime is deeply tied to the Social Gospel and other Progressive Era reforms. When schools became increasingly responsible for fighting crime after World War II, administrators drew on approaches previously employed within a context of Protestant reform. Many educators and psychologists operated within a tradition of social welfare that has often been influenced by particular Euro-Protestant motivations. Thus, when describing the practices and ideas evident in curricula, student productions, or educational research, scholars of religion might find many similarities to the conversion context, but we need not say education is conversion. Claiming that the goal of U.S. public education has always been to make Protestants might paint the strokes too broadly, missing the particular dynamics of subject formation in different historical and geographical contexts. Fessenden teaches us a historical claim: that public education in the nineteenth century aimed to transform difference into Euro-Protestant uniformity. However, she also provides an example of looking for how public education was Protestant that we might ask in different times and places.

(2) Thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion might make us adopt the view that all conversions produce inauthentic experiences, taking away the experiences of converts and students. Especially because I have framed conversion in this context in terms of people trying to convert other people, we could get the idea that all conversions lead to inauthentic religion. By naming something “conversion,” we would implicitly define the religion surrounding it as “bad,” as Robert Orsi has said scholars sometimes do when they describe “spirituality” as freer than the institutional confines of “religion.” It might be the case that colonial powers and privileged educators teaching those with fewer resources express power differentials and violence in their attempts to transform others. However, this does not mean that the religious or educational experiences of anyone involved are less worthy of sustained engagement. Instead, we can describe the aims, interpretations, and processes of education to bring out the nuanced encounters of violence, power, and agency in historical context, not shying away from their realities, but also not assuming a morally superior position.

(3) Thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion might influence us to think that there are clearly defined bad and good motivations for education, and that as educators ourselves, we have good motivations. As scholars and teachers, we participate in the process of education. When studying education, especially in relation to colonial or imperial conversion narratives, it can be easy to mock the creators of standards-based education or route memorization. The Protestant-ness of Horace Mann’s public education can overwhelm us. Yet, we participate in such education. Feminists and critical theorists such as Paulo Freire and bell hooks have explored critical pedagogies of engaging students from a deep understanding of the personal, social, and ideological subject positions students and teachers hold. Calls to critical pedagogies require great introspection and reflection on our own teaching, as does studying education. In the religious conversion metaphor, we educators are the missionaries. This does not mean we necessarily have to stop what we do, that what we are doing is good or bad. But the carefulness required in studying religion and education is also required in teaching. In teaching attentively, we might find ourselves transforming, as we might in studying religion and education—a subject so intimately connected to our daily work.

In these ways, the scholarship on and framework of conversion can help us ask nuanced questions about educational acquisition and experiences, but historical and theoretical precision and specificity remains of the utmost importance. One underlying implication of thinking about education in relation to conversion is that, as an academic field, religion and education goes far beyond the important, but not necessarily all encompassing, question of whether religion belongs in public schools. The questions might instead be: where do particular historically situated iterations of religion appear in public schools, such as a Euro-Protestantism with a civilizing impulse? Where is there complementarity between educational and religious practices? Where and how do transformations take place, and how might we responsibly describe them?

Thanks to Michael Graziano and Andrew Walker-Cornetta for their extremely helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

Leslie Ribovich is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the history of moral education, racial desegregation, and religion in New York City public high schools from the 1950s-1980.

*Image credit: Library of Congress

Thinking about Religion and Education with the Category of Conversion (Part I)

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

Thomas Nast, “Our common schools as they are and as they may be” (1870)

Leslie Ribovich

In 1950s New York City, educators, psychologists, law enforcement, and sociologists wanted to transform public school students from one way of being and behaving in the world to another through education. They especially sought out students who had violated legal or social norms, urging students to go from breaking laws to abiding them, from displaying anger at parents to accepting their parents’ limitations, from cutting school to attending. In various educational settings ranging from public high schools to state training camps, students found meaning and exhibited behavior that reflected some aspects of adults’ aims for their transformation, but rarely, if ever, neatly. Attempts at educational transformation continue. In contemporary educational spaces, charter schools aim to teach students grit, the common core aims to cultivate critical thinkers, and character education aims for students to recognize certain values as universal.

In response to my work on religion, juvenile delinquency, and moral education in New York City public high schools in the 1950s, I have recently been asked on multiple occasions whether conversion is an apt religious metaphor for the educational encounters I describe. Reflecting on the question, I have come to think that the scholarly conversation around conversion can be helpful in studying religion and education, if employed carefully and specifically. Particularly, it reminds us that scholars of religion have navigated and debated power, agency, and religious change in the context of conversion, particularly Christian conversions in the Americas and beyond. They have nuanced interpretations to offer those of us studying education.

I have been encouraged to consider: how might the framework and study of religious conversion help us think anew about religion, morality, and education in the United States—public or otherwise? Conversion has no singular meaning, and some scholars find religious change or transformation more useful categories of analysis. For the purpose of this post, definitions and boundaries are relatively fluid—my goal is to explore the various ways that scholars have understood when someone wants someone else to take on their religion, and, also, although I do not explore it as thoroughly as I could here, when someone takes on a new religion without such prompting.

In this way, I am not explicitly interested in whether public schools teaching Bible reading lessons now are trying to convert students to Christianity or whether teaching Ashtanga yoga in public schools represents an attempt to convert students to Hinduism. Rather, I wonder about the historical and theoretical analogues between Euro-Christian attempts to convert and civilize peoples throughout the world to be moral, Christian citizens, usually within a colonial or imperial context, and our Euro-Protestant descended public school system with its goals of teaching moral values. To explore this query, I offer observations on how studying religion and education in relation to the study and framework of religious conversion may help us rethink the way we study religion and education, as well as some possible drawbacks to the approach.

How does the study and framework of religious conversion help us rethink religion and education?

(1) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us orient education within a power dynamic relating to the state and the legacy of colonizing Christianity. Conversion narratives in U.S. religion historiography often begin with Europeans aiming to convert indigenous and slave populations to Christianity. These narratives help situate education in a history of civilizing and racializing peoples. As Albert Raboteau, Curtis Evans, Charles Long, and others have suggested, European and Euro-American Christians identified the religious practices of people of African descent as primitive and not the “true” religion of Christ. In this way, religious conversion and the definition of religion was intimately tied to racialization from the European and Euro-American perspective. Yet within this context, many people of African descent converted for their own reasons, shifting and creating their own codes of moral belonging. In this way, the colonial context also brings out complicated questions of agency, power, and change. In an example specifically about Christian imperialism and education, Susan K. Harris has suggested that Americans who invaded the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century employed education in order to redeem Filipinos. Harris shows how Filipinos were characterized as being childish, immature, and primitive in textbooks for Filipino children. Conditioned by a particular set of power dynamics inherited from colonial and imperial histories, public education in the United States has long had the goal of creating good Christian citizens.

(2) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us understand that children may never totally accept, totally learn, totally resist, nor totally become as the teacher plans. Again, Raboteau, as well as Paul Christopher Johnson and others have written about how resistance and total conversion are not the only two models. Neither, as Inga Clendinnen has suggested, is syncretism the best solution, because it assumes that there are two complete, stable, whole traditions that somehow meld. Raboteau has suggested that we might think about religious change as complementarity: elements of religious traditions may look and feel alike to practitioners. Within education, aspects of what students bring with them to school may resonate with aspects of what the teacher presents, complementing, yet changing, students’ worldviews. However, students will not all learn in the same way, as teachers will not all teach in the same way. Furthermore, even if students express negative attitudes toward school, do poorly on exams, or question the teacher, they may internalize aspects of the curricula and the school day. In this way, finding student voices is paramount in the study of religion and education, as difficult as that may be at times. The study of conversion also helps us better approach finding student voices because, especially in the colonial era, there are fewer sources from the people whom Europeans tried to convert. Scholars studying children historically in the context of schools can recognize that adults’ constructions of curricula are valuable, but students did not necessarily soak up curricula. We can look for students’ productions and presentations: yearbooks, newspapers, assignments, photographs, and artwork. There is a worry, however, that even when students’ voices appear, adults mediate them.  Assignments are always mediated—there is a teacher curating the response and assessing the answer. There are also countless other mediations—parents, local school boards, the state, the federal government, if a correctional school, the department of corrections. Even with such mediations in mind, scholars of conversion in the colonial period have shown us that we can persevere in finding sources and ways to talk about sources that teach us about the experiences of those converting, as we can with students.

(3) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us focus on what education aims to change about students—what they are being converted from and to. In Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, Tracy Fessenden describes how literature of the American Renaissance framing “conversion as deliverance from fractiousness and spiritual narrowness into an expansive space of freedom maps the religious experience of evangelical Protestants onto the secular goals of American democracy.” (98) She goes further to describe how the literature parallels Thomas Nast’s 1870 cartoon “Our Common Schools as They Are and as They Might Be,” which visually argues that students from different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds attending school particular to their background, such as “Jewish Schools” or “Catholic Schools,” embodied “sectarian bitterness,” whereas, when students from different backgrounds attended the common school, they had strength in unity. Fessenden argues that this cartoon represents the assimilative force of the common school not just ethnically and racially, but also religiously into the Euro-Protestant secular. Fessenden calls the similar process in the literature and cartoon “Conversion to Democracy.” In the cartoon, the students are converted from their distinct ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds into the common school’s Euro-Protestant uniformity. Many of the educators I study also aim to change students from their distinct home environments, represented by communities perceived to be unstable and poor and families perceived to create “broken homes.” Public education was supposed to teach students new models for group relationships through particular values. Understanding what education aims to change students from and to can help scholars better articulate the specific processes of formation, construction, and transformation at hand.

(4) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us think of ritual and practice as intimately connected to intellectual ideas. The field of religion and education largely comprises prescriptive work on religious education and analysis of schools, religion, and law. While both threads offer immense resources to the study, they think about the transfer of knowledge in terms of ideas more than in terms of bodily ritual and practice. When we think of religious conversion, however, and of course the degree to which this is the case depends upon conversion to which religion and denomination when and how, practice and ritual are often crucial. In fact, the practice and ritual often reimagines the convert as a child, going through a rite of passage—such as baptism or First Communion—he or she might have gone through earlier in life if born into the tradition. Similarly in education, ritual practices are everywhere: sitting in desks, taking tests, graduating in a cap and gown. In schools for delinquent youth in the 1950s in New York City, students also participated in therapy sessions and outdoor games to transform themselves. By studying such moments—who coordinates them, who participates, their goals, the experiences of participants—we might begin to understand how education happens, just as we begin to understand how conversion happens. Ritual practice can also help us think about those conversions where there is not one party trying to convert or educate another. For instance, in born again experiences, the ritual and experience of conversion might not be because someone is trying to make someone convert—although of course it might. Similarly, in educational contexts, students might learn materials on their own or have an epiphany experience quite separate from the curricula. Nevertheless, even in such experiences, the idea of education is palpable in the spheres the person who has a moment of transformation travels, just as the idea of being born again may circulate in American culture.

Leslie Ribovich is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the history of moral education, racial desegregation, and religion in New York City public high schools from the 1950s-1980.

*Image credit: Library of Congress

Shaping Religious Experience at the Museum of the Bible

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Meredith Ross

My first course in my Master’s program in Library and Information Science was taught by a specialist in museum studies. He’d worked extensively with curators to create online exhibits for various museums over the years, and he told us that, in his experience, museum curators dislike nothing so much as they dislike online exhibits. Curators, he explained, are constructors of narratives and experiences. The materiality of the museum allows them to reveal information, direct our attention, and lead us through exhibits in exactly the manner that supports the predetermined narrative. Online exhibits, in contrast, are chaos. Visitors can click links, hop around, double back, start from the end, or get bored and navigate to another site halfway through. The digital exhibit allows them to eschew the narrative of the curator for a narrative of their own; or they may experience no narrative at all. Curators, my professor explained, did not like to see narrative – or their ability to shape it – imperiled.

A mock-up of the Museum’s planned “Impact” floor, an interactive space allowing patrons to consider the impact of the Bible upon themselves and the world at large (Photo credit: C&G Partners).

His insight has been on my mind recently as Steve Green, President of Hobby Lobby, breaks ground for his Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Foremost in the mind of Green and his associates is reassuring the press and the public that the Museum will not exist as a tool of evangelism. Rather, they posit, it will present an educational opportunity that will be “highly engaging for people of all ages, all cultural backgrounds, all faiths, no faiths,” according to the Museum’s President Carey Summers.  One of the means of creating and maintaining this engagement for people of “all faiths, no faiths,” is a sort of audio walking tour for the 21st century – a “virtual tour” conducted via handheld devices. The devices are programmable, this NPR story explains, with “five different religious viewpoints” from which visitors can choose.

This raises more questions than it answers. Which five “viewpoints” will be represented, and how were they selected? Whose input is being sought in the creation of these tours, and are they insiders or outsiders of the traditions they are programming? What is revealed through the use of the word “viewpoints” rather than “beliefs” or “faiths”? While I contacted the Museum through their website with some of these questions, I have yet to hear back (expect a follow-up post if I do!).

The question that interests me most – as someone with feet in both the religious studies and information studies worlds – is one of narrative construction. Curators, as my professor argued, have always been constructers of grand narratives. But the curators at the Museum of the Bible are doing something more than simply constructing a narrative to guide patrons through their material presentation of Steve Green’s collection. Through religiously specific virtual tours, they offer a considerably more ambiguous type of narrative, one which renders the curator a direct mediator of religious experience: explaining what an individual believer should or should not make of the religious material they encounter as a specific type of individual believer. If the Museum of the Bible is truly a Protestant project, it is an odd one: an iPad telling me exactly how to encounter the Bible as a [insert one and only one of five religious viewpoints here] is hardly what one would call sola scriptura.

Scholars are thus far split on the intent and potential impact of the Museum of the Bible, and where it exists on the continuum between personal and scholarly project. It’s too early to tell how the Museum, slated to open in 2017, will serve various evangelistic, political, or scholarly purposes. But, if the planned virtual tours are any indication, the Museum will be far from the religiously “neutral” ideal Green seems bent on achieving (or at least presenting). Rather, the Museum will provide a highly specific commentary on religious identity – narrating for its patrons who they are and how that identity should shape their experiences. I hope to be in line opening week. I’d like to find out what the people behind the Museum think of me, and, more importantly, what they think I should think about the Bible.

Meredith Ross is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, also from Florida State. Her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at or on Twitter @Memo_Ross.

“Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?”: On Religiosity and Morality from Paul to Phil Robertson

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Jenny Collins-Elliott

Detective Martin Hart: I mean, can you imagine if people didn’t believe, what things they’d get up to?
Detective Rustin Cohle: Exact same thing they do now. Just out in the open.
Detective Martin Hart: Bullshit. It’d be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.
Detective Rustin Cohle: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

In the third episode of the first season of HBO’s gritty detective drama, True Detective, the protagonists Hart and Cohle have this exchange while observing a rural Louisiana tent revival. Detective Hart, while not joining in the service, nevertheless provides a defense for the worshippers when Detective Cohle, a newly arrived outsider from Texas with a nihilistic bent, wonders aloud what the average IQ of the group is. Det. Hart points to the enjoyment that belonging to a community brings and that this religiosity serves a common good, in part because it keeps people honest and law-abiding. The heart of this particular exchange centers around the relationship between morality and religiously-bound ethics—without religious obligations, would people merely behave immorally, and if so, what does this say about people who would behave in such a way? Can human decency exist without “the expectation of divine reward” (or divine punishment)?

This conversation from True Detective came to mind as I read about Duck Dynasty’s patriarch, Phil Robertson’s, recent comments at a Vero Beach (Florida) Prayer Breakfast. During his speech, Robertson says in a mocking tone that we’ve just “dreamed up” the problem of having a conscious, that “there’s no right; there’s no wrong. There’s no good; there’s no evil.” This leads him to describe a hypothetical situation in which an atheist family is forced to confront the ramifications of their morally-relative worldview:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’ Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

Atheism, for Robertson, is inherently moral and judgment free. Thus, by subscribing to an atheist worldview, you cannot expect anyone to behave morally, as there is no morality without the specter of sin (or the “problem of sin” as Robertson says just before this anecdote). Moreover, you cannot judge anyone for their behavior because there is no moral code against which to judge.

The Friendly Atheist blog published two response pieces to Robertson’s speech. In one by Hemant Mehta, Mehta mirrors Detective Hart’s sentiment: “I guess the only thing keeping Robertson from raping, shooting, and beheading other people is his fear of God and interpretation of biblical morality… in which case, I’m glad he believes.” The second post, by Terry Firma, suggests that Robertson doesn’t know any atheists, and thus simply “makes up” information about how he imagines atheists behave. Firma then turns the issue of moral judgment and behavior back on Robertson. First, he links to another Patheos post about incarceration rates among religious populations, and second, Firma cites—without any specific references—“people of faith” who behave immorally and criminally “either despite their professed religious creed or because they’re actually inspired by it.”

Between Robertson’s comments and the responses to them, the issue of morality apart from religion begins to become more complex. Added to this issue are claims and speculation of a clanish sort, with both sides digging into their othering. Each side is put into the position of defending their own worldview while challenging the hypocrisy of the other. This is, of course, not a new argument and neither are the types of accusations made by each side.

Paul, for example, confronts the question of lawlessness and immorality should people reject the Law (Torah) in his Letter to the Romans. According to Paul’s teachings, Gentile Christians were not expected, nor even to be encouraged, to follow the Law of the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, Paul taught in Romans that followers of Jesus were freed from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. Readers can see in Paul’s letters the ways in which he sought to address the questions that resulted from these teachings, namely, without the Law and with the freedom from the power of sin granted by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, won’t everyone simply behave immorally? In Romans 12:1-15:13, Paul answers this question in essentially two ways. First, that Christians are expected to present themselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1)[1] and to love one another, as this love is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10; 12:9-21). Second, they are also expected to submit themselves to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12). These two points function as Paul’s defense that a Law-less gospel would not lead to lawlessness, either with respect to fulfilling the commandments of God or with respect to civil authorities. Paul urges Christians to be proactive in demonstrating to their non-Christian neighbors that they are quiet, mind their own business, work hard, and are not dependant on anyone else (1 Thessalonians 4:11). In a 2011 post on The Friendly Atheist blog, similar advice is given to atheists in the conclusion of an article discussing public distrust of atheists. The author suggests that atheists do good works in the community and that they inform people that they are atheists. While Paul wanted Christians to demonstrate to their neighbors and critics that they could be law-abiding without the Law, Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist wants to “show people that we can be good without god.”

In addition to the broader point that Robertson is making about the connection between religiosity and morality, the subject of Robertson’s anecdote is also telling. He could have opted for a milder story, perhaps one better fitting a prayer breakfast. Instead, Robertson chose a brutal story, one meant to evoke horror and disgust rather than mild nods of agreement. Furthermore, his chosen imagery is meant to demonstrate the worst of what one would have to accept in a world without “right or wrong,” and thus Robertson drew from the deep well of taboo associated with human bodily defilement, particularly sexual defilement and dismemberment. I was reminded of Minucius Felix’s Octavius, a second or third century CE text in defense of Christianity. The author presents and then refutes pagan criticisms of Christians, including accusations of incestuous orgies, murdering infants, cannibalism, worshipping the genitals of their priests, and worshipping the genitals of their parents. Earlier, in 111/112 CE, Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bythinia-Pontus, wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking about the proper way to question, try, and punish Christians if they were breaking any laws. Seemingly to Pliny’s surprise, when he inquired about what Christians were actually doing, as opposed to what they had been accused of doing, he discovered nothing of interest. They met, took oaths—not to commit crimes, but rather to do the opposite—and had a meal together, not of babies but of an ordinary sort (Pliny the Younger, Letter 10.96.7). When faced with gratuitous rumors, Pliny questioned Christians and observed their practices only to discover that these rumors of eating unnatural foods and vowing to commit crimes were just that—rumors.

Ironically, then, Phil Robertson’s imagery was rooted in the same vein as the vile rumors about early Christians propagated by non-Christians. His speech was intended to shock his like-minded audience into fearing the worst about an ill-defined group of Others for the purposes of keeping these groups divided across a chasm of distrust and suspicion. As Hemant Mehta suggests, as Paul advised, and as Pliny discovered, the daily routines and moral codes of our neighbors—however alien they may seem to us—are often far more mundane and familiar than our grossest fears and most pernicious rumors would lead us to believe.

[1] Bart Ehrman reads this as a replacement of the cultic acts of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, thus suggesting that he, Paul, is not rejecting the Law so much as espousing a new way of fulfilling the spirit of the Law.

*Images courtesy HBO and Duck Commander.

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.

Facing Our Demons: What Does Satan Have to Do With Equal Rights?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Emily S. Johnson

A church in Knoxville, Tennessee sparked controversy this week when it posted this message on its outdoor sign: “Remember, Satan was the first to demand equal rights.”

One resident told local news station WBIR that the message was clearly “meant to offend a particular community – the LGBT community.” It seems equally likely that the sign was conceived as a response to ongoing national conversations about race – sparked by the violent deaths of several young black men and carried on through the mobilization of protests across the country insisting vocally that Black Lives Matter.

Pastor Tony Greene says that his message was misunderstood, and that he didn’t mean to offend anyone. “Our sign referencing Satan demanding his equal rights to ascend into the heavens and be God was simply ‘I’ and all about that individual,” he told local ABC affiliate WATE, “It was not a statement against any one group in particular, you know, what about the rights of the unborn babies, the rights of children, the rights of everyone?”

This response is telling. It closely mirrors the language that Christian conservatives have been using since at least the 1960s to simultaneously discredit and reappropriate the rights claims of groups on the political left. In 1976, Anita Bryant became one of the first visible leaders of a national backlash against gay-rights legislation, first in her local Miami-Dade county and then nationally. “The devil is walking around like a lion, ready to devour our children,” she warned in her 1976 book Raising God’s Children. Lumping contemporary feminists together with gay-rights advocates, she continued: “he tempts their mothers to take their eyes off the protection of their children and place them instead on the idols of personal liberation, self-indulgence, so-called ‘human rights,’ or ‘do your own thing.’”

Then, as now, the message is this: it is selfish to demand rights for yourself or for your community. The only acceptable activism is activism on behalf of the family, or on behalf of “everyone.” Asked to paraphrase the message he intended to send with the controversial church sign, Pastor Greene responded: “Be careful when you demand your equal rights that you don’t hurt others around you. You’ve got to consider everyone around you.”

This reasoning worked for Anita Bryant, and it arguably works even better in the context of the modern myth that we live in a “post-racial” society. According to this idea, which is present in many conversations about race, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s solved systemic racial inequality. There may be individual racists, and there may be isolated incidents of racial violence, but these are easy to identify and to deal with – on an individual level. Systemic racism is over, and demanding additional rights is selfish, even harmful to the community at large. This is one of the mythologies that Black Lives Matter protests seek to dismantle.

Commentators and commenters across the internet have framed this story as an example of religion gone wrong, or as a comical illustration a particularly Southern cocktail of stupidity, bigotry, and old-time religion. (The original Reddit post that drew attention to the story is titled: “Sometimes It’s Embarrassing to Live in the South.”) An article on Patheos’ Atheist Channel eloquently sums up many of the reactions to the sign: “If you can oppose equal rights because of your religion, you are a lesser person because of your faith.”

But this sign isn’t only about bad religion, and it certainly isn’t about a uniquely Southern problem. Pastor Greene’s defense of his message reflects a much more pervasive trend in reactions to civil rights claims, from across the political spectrum.

Several recent articles have called out well-meaning white activists for co-opting the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and attempting to replace it with the insistence that “All Lives Matter.” From Julia Craven at the Huffington Post: “Telling us that all lives matter is redundant. We know that already.” Black Lives Matter is a necessary assertion precisely because all lives do not really matter in the same ways. Another article articulated a similar critique, powerfully punctuated with the mantra: “Dear white protestors, this is NOT about you.”

This can be hard to hear. It can be difficult to understand what systemic privilege looks like if it’s the water that you swim in. It can even feel like you are being told that you don’t matter, that your problems don’t matter. And this is how many white Americans hear these protests: as demands for special rights from individuals with individual problems. As divisive, unnecessary, and even detrimental incursions into our national political discourse.

“My heart breaks in the dividedness of this country,” Pastor Greene told reporters. And our hearts should be breaking. But the country will not be less divided if we stop talking about race, or gender, or sexual equality. It is a privilege to have been able to feel like the country was not divided before these conversations started, and that is a privilege that we can do better without.

It is easy, comfortable, and safe to laugh at the Knoxville Baptist Tabernacle’s sign. Its fiery language and apparent illogic make it funny at the same time that it is offensive. But we would be wrong to dismiss it as nothing more than a literal sign of religion badly practiced. We are better served by understanding what it expresses about the ways that privilege and inequality really operate.

One of the myths of the post-racial society is that racists (and sexists and homophobes) are easy to spot. We can identify a racist chant on a fraternity bus and punish the perpetrators. We can laugh at a ridiculous church sign and be on our way. But if we are to really dismantle systems of inequality, we must do more than that. We must use these visible moments as opportunities to uncover the more pervasive, ostensibly innocuous assumptions that undergird inequality and protect privilege. We must seek to understand how racism, sexism, and homophobia are perpetuated by people who are certain that they are not racists, or sexists, or homophobes. We must be willing to understand that we can’t just scoff at this church sign and be on our way. Even in its absurdity, it tells us much too much about ourselves.

Emily S. Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate at Yale University, including a dissertation entitled “Authors, Activists, Apostles: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.” Her work focuses on gender, politics, and popular culture in recent American religious history.

Gender in Christianity: Immutable or Fluid?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

The Baptist General Convention of Texas has recently announced their position that one’s gender assignment is “immutable.” In a statement the group said that while “some people today are expressing a desire to identify themselves with the gender which differs from their biological gender”and some “are seeking to function in the broader society as if they are members of the gender that differs from their biological gender” they believe that “in creation God made male and female as biological gender assignment.”

This position is not new among conservative Christian groups in this country, but its foundation in the Genesis creation story should be further examined. I wrote late last year of the possibility of reading Thecla, a prominent legendary Christian woman from antiquity, as transgender. While Thecla is both feminized and masculinized in the Acts of Thecla, Thecla also self-presents as masculine (“I will cut my hair off and I shall follow you wherever you go”[25]) and thus appears to serve as an example of the fluidity of gender and gender presentation in early Christian understanding.

Gospel of Thomas 114 is another text that is frequently cited in discussions of early Christian views of gender.

Simon peter said to them, “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, being similar to you.”(But I say to you), “Every woman, if she makes herself male, will enter the kingdom of heaven.”[1]

This text seems to be an example of an ancient understanding of gender that placed it on a continuum (as opposed to a binary) along which people could move. Here masculinity is at the top and that to which all strive. As such, Jesus will help move Mary up the continuum to make her male. The text’s patriarchy notwithstanding, it is difficult to read this saying attributed to Jesus in a way that does not hold that at least some early Christians understood gender in a much less dichotomized way than do many today.[2]  Some have also read Galatians 3.28, which says that there is no longer male and female,”as a breaking down of this traditional dichotomy and “as a divine endorsement of those who are neither or both.”

The justification in question, though, reaches back to the creation story in Genesis. More specifically, it relies on the second creation story, found in Genesis 2, which states that God made male and then made female from a rib of the male. This contrasts with the creation story in Genesis 1, however, which states that “God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”[3] A more literal translation, though, would be that “God created the man/the human being (ha-adam) in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Some early Jewish commentators read this first creation story as meaning that what God first created in his image was an androgyne. This androgyne was then divided into male and female later. Here is how Genesis Rabbah interprets this:

AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN, etc. (1.26). . . . Rabbi Jeremiah b. Leazer said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, He created him an hermaphrodite, for it is said, Male and female created He them and called their name Adam (Gen. 5.2). Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: When the Lord created Adam He created him double- faced, then He split him and made him of two backs, one back on this side and one back on the other side.[4]

According to this interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis, it is not only possible to read gender assignment as fluid, but that the image of God is most fully captured in an androgyne. It is certainly possible to argue that even under such an interpretation God’s splitting of the androgyne into male and female served to solidify this traditional gender dichotomy.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore that at least some early Christians did not understand gender as adhering strictly to the male/female binary. We also see in the statement by the Baptist General Convention of Texas what we have long seen in Christianity, namely, Christians attempting to understand gender and God’s role in it. Moreover, just as larger social constructions of gender appear to have influenced how some early Christians viewed gender, so too our society’s increased acceptance of those who are transgender and those who are intersex has problematized a traditional binary understanding of gender that many Christians hold, prompting some to rethink their understanding of gender and prompting others to figure out how to reinforce their earlier understandings with particular hermeneutical strategies.

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.


[1] GosThom 114. Translation from Uwe-Karsten Plisch, The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008), 243.

[2] For more see Caroline Vander Stichele and Todd Penner Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse (London, T & T Clark, 2009).

[3] Translation from the NRSV.

[4] Genesis Rabbah 8.1, as translated in H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah (London: The Soncino Press, 1961), 54.

Image: By Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, Claire L. Lyons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Buffered Self and Movie Buffs

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Jeffrey Wheatley

The Academy Awards took place this past Sunday, so I thought a post on movie-going would be appropriate. Plenty of religious studies and American religious history books have engaged religion and cinema in one way or another (Judith Weisenfeld’s stellar Hollywood Be Thy Name comes to mind), but, despite a once tepid response to what I thought would be a compelling lecture (I now know better), I want to use movie-going in this post to take a tour through some of my side research interests and to think rather suggestively about the metaphysics of secularism, about the theoretical and methodological openings and foreclosures implicated in recent work on secularism, and about Frank O’Hara.

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues that one of the central transformations of the past five-hundred years is a shift from the porous self to the buffered self. The porous self is open to transcendent external forces like demons, spirits, and witches. In our contemporary secular age, we have buffered selves, meaning that we are largely autonomous agents resistant to external forces. Movie-going, Taylor argues here and elsewhere, is an example of our disenchanted age’s nostalgia for enchantment:

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.[1]

Here Taylor is really talking about the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, in which non-physical, yet physically felt and affective, forces flow through the characters. But we might do better to think about the metaphysics of the movie-going experience rather than the stories. These genres, after all, have precedent in other mediums, but it is the film industry’s emphasis on medium itself that signals the particular cultural niche of movie-going in the United States and abroad. Movies have stories, characters, and tropes, but Hollywood presents itself as a particular type of enchanter. The industry runs on the promises and dazzlers of technological innovation, the visitations of the celebrities, and the theater’s experiential aspects.

On the one hand, we certainly can analyze “enchantment” as but one claim of Hollywood myth-making—and how could we be surprised? For instance, take the idea that early film audiences were terrorized by trains rushing toward the screen. Late nineteenth-century audiences losing it might be a compelling testament to the affective power of cinema in a theater, but, as at least one scholar has argued, the terrorized crowd is likely a myth developed decades later by journalists and the film industry.[2]

On the other hand, recent works that explore the metaphysics of secularism have opened up avenues of inquiry that take enchantment (or, to be more specific, the porous self) as an assumption rather than an exception relegated to the past. They do so while largely resisting, or at least sidelining, secularization narratives that proclaim the decline of religion. Consider John Modern’s exemplary Secularism in Antebellum America, which explores the flashes of nineteenth-century Americans’ recognition of the intimacies between the self and the world, especially as selves are made through and by machines. That is, Modern traces the ways in which the mutually reinforcing relationship between expanding and densifying technological networks and the individual will (Taylor’s buffered self) became evident and necessary to his historical actors.

From this perspective, movie-going—far from a backwards-pointing sign post in a disenchanted age—can be taken as efficacious enchantment, albeit of a very different sort than what Taylor meant. This is an enchantment openly reliant on technology’s capacity to present and distribute affective simulacrum. Accordingly, we have never been modern in the sense Taylor describes, but perhaps we have been un-modern (that is, desiring enchantment and enchantable in ways that defy our supposedly buffered selves) in different ways.

Allow me to provide one rather dramatic example by way of mid-twentieth-century American poet (New York poet, in truth) Frank O’Hara, whose poetry is full of ruminations on his Catholic childhood and his ecstatic devotion to movie-going. His love poem “To a Film Industry in Crisis” provides one useful example. The second stanza begins: “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love, / And give credit where it’s due . . . ” He does not give credit to his starched nurse, nor to the American Legion, nor to the Catholic Church, which is “at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment,” but “to you

glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope,

stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all

your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!

His paean begins with the technologies of the film industry. O’Hara goes on to also give credit to a number of actresses and actors; the last stanza addresses the celebrities and the technologies:

Long may you illumine space with your marvellous appearances, delays

and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you

as you rest after a long day under the kleig lights with your faces

in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night

but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent

you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

Far from a nostalgia for a pre-secular enchantment that can be merely approximated through the genres of cinema, O’Hara seeks to affirm through his poetry his enchantment with the medium (and its characters who illumine the space of the theater). In “Ave Maria,” he makes the theater a key site where work is done on the soul (not vice versa!):

Mothers of America

let your kids go to the movies!

get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to

it’s true that fresh air is good for the body

but what about the soul

that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images

That O’Hara, who was a self-described atheist but a Catholic when he was younger, sets up movie-going as a sort of substitute Catholicism seems clear by his vocabulary, which plays on associations with Catholic saintly visitations, especially in “To a Film Industry in Crisis.” O’Hara is flippant about Catholicism, but the persistent citations of Catholicism in his work, even if they are rather derogatory, might point us to a particular genealogy of enchantment that cannot be adequately captured by reference to a singular “secular age.”

In American Catholic Arts and Fictions Paul Giles makes the intriguing argument that many American Catholic artists, including O’Hara, display an aesthetics (often secularized) of Catholic culture through their work. Sketching the contours of a Catholic aesthetic in contrast to a Protestant/Enlightenment aesthetic that literary scholars have presumed to dominate American media, Giles emphasizes characteristics such as parody, ambivalence, the sacralization of the immanent, an analogical view of the world, and a greater openness to the passivity of the human—something akin to Taylor’s porous self. This aesthetic persists, Giles claims, even if the artists reject identifying with Catholicism.

For those interested in exploring secularism through this rather open framework, this might introduce a number of questions. If Modern’s work describes evangelical secularism, might we say that O’Hara’s poetic bonds between Catholicism and movie-going disclose a Catholic secularism? Is this type of categorization useful in the first place? And if so how might such a claim disrupt the persistent salience of a narrative of secularization conceptually and/or historically tied to Protestantism? Have we become too comfortable gesturing towards an amorphous Protestantism undergirding “secularism”? Derridean hauntology and projects that rely on the language of epistemics make these types of questions difficult to answer. But one of the things I find compelling about these approaches is that they open up the options of conceptual and organizational tropes available to the scholar. Very particular examples, such as movie-going as a cultural artifact, the Zong massacre,[3] the novel Moby-Dick (as in Modern’s case), or fitness trainer Shaun T (great for language play on the “buffered self”), for better or worse, can do a lot of work, they can capture quite a bit, which makes for (in instances not this blog post) compelling and provocative reads. The difficulty of discerning the temporal or spatial boundaries of epistemics—a discernment I desire in my more historical moods—seems to me both a constraint and an opportunity.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. You can contact him at or on Twitter @wheatleyjt.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 38.

[2] Martin Loiperdinger, “Lumière’s ‘Arrival of the Train’: Cinema’s Founding Myth,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 4, no. 1 (April 1, 2004): 89–118.

[3] In a work both incredibly tragic in its content and astonishing in its presentation, Ian Baucom, in order to explore the epistemes undergirding finance capital, emblematizes the slave-ship Zong and the massacre of Africans as the crew threw them overboard to collect insurance. See Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2005).

Image by Fernando de Sousa from Melbourne, Australia (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons