Monday, June 29, 2009

The Crisis of Islamic Civilization

Like everyone else, I am far more interested in the development and workings of Islam since the morning of 9/11 but frustrated in my efforts to achieve a larger, more comprehensive grasp of the past and future of the Muslim world. As part of that effort, today I discovered the work of Ali A. Allawi.

This morning I read a short article from Allawi in The Chronicle Review (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education). In "Islamic Civilization in Peril," Allawi introduces his "insiders" understanding of the crisis facing Islamic peoples across the world.

Allawi, a senior visiting fellow at Princeton University, has just been named one of the first two Gebran G. Tueni human-rights fellows at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. I believe these thoughts are tantalizing pieces from his fuller work, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, was published by Yale University Press in March, which came out in March of this year.

Allawi writes:
The crisis in Islamic civilization arises in part from the fact that Muslims have been unable to chart their own path into contemporary life. Islam as a religion — or even as a remnant of a civilization — has never fully surrendered to the demands of a desacralized world. Those who rule over Muslims may behave atrociously, continuing a venerable tradition of misrule, violence, and corruption that has long plagued the Muslim world, but tantalizing thoughts of "what might be" still reverberate among the masses — and even among some of the elite.

Islam's encounter with the West and the ascendant forces of modernity have made deep inroads into the outer world of Islam and, equally important, into the minds of Muslims. Some may deny it and fight numerous rear-guard actions, but this reality cannot be effaced until Muslims confront another harsh fact: All civilizations have an inner and outer aspect, an inner world of beliefs, ideas, and values that inform the outer aspects of institutions, laws, government, and culture. But the inner dimensions of Islam no longer have the significance or power to shape the outer world in which most Muslims live. Most Muslims — knowingly or not — have lost sight of the centrality of sacredness to their historic civilization. The Muslim world has effectively become desacralized, and that has changed how Muslims think, believe, and behave. Islam's outer expressions — laws, institutions, governing structures, economic and cultural principles — have been in constant retreat.

The insatiable pursuit of ever-rising standards of living, coupled with an almost fetishistic belief in science and technology, is a nearly universal condition. The West has accepted secularization as an inevitable consequence of increasing wealth and power. That same recipe is now being offered to Muslims. Liberal reformers in the Muslim world, and their allies beyond, are in effect calling for a Christianization of Islam: concede the public arena to secularism and acknowledge that the break between Islam's sacred interior world and the profane external world is definitive and legitimate. The reformers, advocates of Muslim liberal democracy, are at least honest in that they forthrightly call for the wholesale adoption of the institutions and processes of modernity. But their vision of Islamic civilization is empty — a vague spirituality wafting over a society with a shallow cultural distinctiveness, one that has effectively merged with the dominant order.

The radical Islamists, on the other hand, and even the rank and file of so-called "rationalist" Muslims who insist that Islam has all the elements of Western-style humanism already embedded in it, suffer from a different conceit — namely that a happy compromise can be fashioned between Islam and modernity simply by running modern ideas through the filter of the Shariah: What is acceptable will be embraced, and what is not will be rejected. That approach, which has been entertained for more than a century, has produced neither material progress nor the foundations of a revivified Islamic civilization. The fundamental conundrum facing both rationalists and radicals is that the forces of modernity are the product of a different and ascendant civilizational order. Those forces can be internalized successfully only if they are refashioned, and then transcended, in a uniquely Islamic framework.

Such a framework must be rooted explicitly in the Islamic virtues of justice, moderation, the respectful accommodation of other cultures and religions, and the rejection of oppression and gross inequalities. Those immutable principles are spelled out in the Koran. They are milestones for the believers' pathways to God. They should guide an ethical rereading of the Shariah that will not only revitalize Islam's outer world, but also bring Islam closer to providing a new, constructive, and potentially appealing response to the growing problems facing humanity — including environmental degradation, the coarsening of public life, economic inequity among nations and peoples, and overconsumption. The Shariah has traditionally been pitted against modern practices and values, with the implication that it should give way to the prevailing ethos. Or the Shariah has been seen in entirely static terms, a blueprint for reviving some golden age of Islam. The latter is the approach of fundamentalist Muslims.

But an Islam reimagined along the lines sketched above can go beyond the travesty that is "Islamic banking" and produce institutions and enterprises that emphasize risk-sharing and cooperative finance. It can push for technological innovations that focus on conservation. In the hard sciences, Islam can privilege research that seeks to reveal the unseen substructures that underlie the physical world — what the great theoretical physicist David Bohm called the "implicate order," which has not been investigated with the necessary energy because it counters the prevailing methods of scientific inquiry. Islam can open up entirely new vistas to find unity and wholeness in the natural world.

Muslims cannot simply partake of the technological fruits of modern civilization while simultaneously rejecting or questioning its premises. That makes them nothing more than inert consumers of the effort and creativity of others — even if they continue to smugly assert the superiority of their spiritual ways. That is the ultimate fallacy of the Islamists. Alternatively, Muslims might choose to package the products of Western civilization in ways that are culturally or politically acceptable to their own societies. They can even participate in the dominant civilizational order and risk fatally undermining whatever remains of Muslims' basic identity and autonomy. That appears to be the path of the Gulf states, which have exuberantly embraced a frantic hypermodernity that is scantily garbed in Islamic idioms. This path also appeals to the Westernized professional classes who view their Islam as little more than a cultural ornament.

To see more of Allawi's analysis, check out his new book. I found a preview available through Google Books online --

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Historian Questions America's Voluntary Tradition

Thanks to Religion in American History blog, I caught an interesting interview with Historian Johann N. Neem on the relationship between religion and the emergence of democratic ideals of the American Republic.

Are joining and volunteering a "natural outgrowth" of the American Revolution?

According to Neem, "Freedom of association is in a sense the embodiment of a failure of a certain kind of revolutionary hope."

And church leaders were part of the process of discouraging orienting with the interests of the state.

Naeem says, "Increasingly church
leaders said less we need an alliance with the state, in fact that is a handicap. What we need is to convert people and then mobilize those people.

"Some of the most mobilized Americans in the 1820s and 1830s were Evangelicals coming out of these churches."

For more, add Neem's new book Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts to your summer reading list.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Seminar Course in Berkeley - Catalyzing Creative Leadership

The summer is in full gear for me between conferences, writing, interviews, family vacation, and preparation for a summer course to be held at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.

City of BerkeleyView of San Francisco Bay from Berkeley. Image via Wikipedia

If you are interested in auditing a stimulating class or looking for a fun way to earn credit for a seminary degree, join us in August in the Bay Area --

Catalyzing Creative Leadership for the Emerging Church

Gerardo Marti, PhD
Date and Time: August 3-7, 2009; 8:30 am -12:30 pm
Units: Audit ($330.00)
2 Continuing Education Units ($355.00)
1.5 semester hours (general--$636.00; current PLTS/PSR student--$523.00)

Description: This course explores the relationships between culture and the emerging church and the implications of these relationships for effective spiritual leadership.

Color: Fiber FestivalImage by >>>WonderMike<<< via Flickr

In addition to references to church history and biblical scriptures, the course continually connects societal arrangements with contemporary innovation and experimentation in congregational beliefs and practices.

By incorporating scholarship rooted in a sociological perspective, the course also looks more generally to the ongoing changes and negotiations that the Christian Church always makes in relation to the broader world.

syllabus instructor bio

Registration is at the PSR site.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson Icon of Pop Dies

Within minutes, the news of Michael Jackson's rush to the hospital and abrupt death at age 50 was heard around the world. Brian Williams lead of the evening news was to have been the passing of Farrah Fawcett (also today) which was suddenly trumped by the death of the King of Pop.

Michael JacksonMichael Jackson via

Hour-long specials have already aired. MTV is replaying Jackson's music videos. Youtube is lighting up with the moonwalk to recapture the magic of the wunderkind of dance. Expect a steady stream of long commentaries on the striking talent and career of Michael Jackson. Hear quotes from music celebrities old and new about the legend. Wait for the new revelations about the reclusive eccentric that will resurrect the myths surrounding the man and spin new theories of his oft bizarre behavior. On the heels of his own life will be speculation about his children's future.

Two things I wish to add.

Watch the beginning of the video Thriller and find a statement from Michael Jackson - a religious statement.

"Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult. Michael Jackson"

He left his Jehovah's Witness faith behind for the most part, but discussion of his religious orientation will show up at least briefly. Let's see what kind of memorial service will be performed.

Did Michael Jackson leave any instructions about his passing? What might we learn about his religious convictions?

And another thing. Michael Jackson is being remembered as a Black entertainer. This will be interesting to see how this plays out in emerging pop history. Specifically, it seems that Jackson was the first Black person to have a video played on the then-new MTV network. Michael Jackson, breaking free from the Motown label with his brothers to go to Epic, developed a solo career that expanded beyond racially constricted circles. His scarcrow in The Wiz with Diana Ross and Nipsey Russell was an African American counterpart to the original MGM Wizard of Oz film, but his breakout televised performance of Billie Jean on Motown's 25th Anniversary where he first performed the Moonwalk moved him beyond being an entertainer only for Black audiences. The music found in both Off the Wall and Thriller topped all music charts and played across the radio spectrum.

Socially, he publicly expanded beyond Black social networks. He was showed prominently hanging out with Brooke Shields (white icon), befriending Elizabeth Taylor (white icon), and eventually marrying Lisa Marie Presley (daughter of ultimate white icon). His Sgt. Pepper-looking red military jacket alluded back to the Beatles (yet another white icon).

Yes, Michael Jackson was Black. But his career was fully mainstream. Jackson avoided politics as far as I can tell (can someone correct me on this?), so he has not been associated with initiatives to further Black causes, Black rights, or Black issues.

In the end, watch for race and religion in our newest, and perhaps most comprehensive, public discussion of Michael Jackson in the coming days.

Experience Billy Graham - Man, Method, Message

A meeting on the campus of the Billy Graham Association led me directly to a tour of the Billy Graham Library, the most central, up front facility on campus. The "library" is actually a "museum" that guides visitors through an immersive experience of Billy (everyone on campus calls him Billy) from his birth through today.

Billy Graham Library and GroundsImage via Wikipedia

The Billy Graham Library is located on Billy Graham Parkway, a multi-lane thoroughfare just a few miles from Billy's boyhood home and a few minutes from the Charlotte Douglas airport. It's about a 30 minute drive from anywhere in Charlotte.

The campus is primed for visitors. A large parking lot (with tour busses leading senior citizens, many of whom have been "blessed" by Billy's ministry), smooth landscaped lawns, a brick house which you later find is Billy's parent's original house moved from its original site, and a prominent "barn" with an unmistakable cross for an entrance.

To the right of the barn, Ruth Graham, Billy's famous wife, counselor, and companion, is buried. Billy will be beside her when he passes.

Entering the barn is an open area with a tall ceiling. Styled on a diary theme, the building houses a large cafe for simple meals, a bookstore area in the center, and an animatronic talking cow. Food, store, and cow help pass the time if there is a large crowd for going into the museum.

Hand your ticket to the attendant and be seated for the first short film.

The museum is patterned on a series of documentary presentations -- short films of testimonials, Billy's life and ministry, and historical events often placed in a re-created context. Vistors sit in the 1949 Los Angeles Revival tent where Billy's ministry achieved mass attention. The Graham family room is featured. A graffitied Berlin Wall introduces Billy's ministry to Russia and Eastern Europe . A radio station, tv studio, and movie theater provide focal points for the Billy Graham's Association involvement in creating media.

Billy Graham's love paradeImage by austrini via Flickr

All along the way, there is a mix of biography and gospel message. How Billy was converted; his first understanding of the gospel. How Ruth was raised in China; how Ruth's missionary parents lived the gospel. How Billy traveled the world; how Billy preached the gospel. It's person and gospel, a singular exposition Billy connecting people to God through Jesus.

Artifacts are dispersed later in the tour. Billy's preaching Bible (a large print, letherbound New Testament). Billy's combat boots when visiting troops. Letters from presidents Nixon and Bush. A poem written by Bono in his own hand as a gift to Billy. The symbol of knighthood bestowed on Billy by Queen Elizabeth and his acceptance speech. A leather case for carrying cases. Another of Billy's bibles. Books of Billy's crudely translated using carbon paper and typewriter in foreign language. The Congressional medal of honor. Yet another of Billy's bibles.

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 31: Evangelist Billy Graha...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Soon, Billy's life and history mingle together. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of Russia. The opening of China. The assination of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights movement. The national mourning after 9/11. Billy mingles with presidents, prime ministers, other prominent world leaders.

Visually, the man grows older. Orally, the message is the same.

A world congress of church leaders introduces an expansive mission of spreading the gospel. Evangelists sharing Billy's passion exist all over the world, even if they are isolated with little contact with other ministers. Their connection to Billy and seeing other leaders encourages them to see themselves as part of a broader movement.

More artifacts. More honors. More cards and letters. A "presentation" brings the experience full circle. Men and women talk about their experience of God's love. They reveal their experience of forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation. They had troubles, heartache, pain -- and God healed it.

The final film is Billy Graham preaching the gospel. Ordinary people of all ages and all colors are responding from crowds. Billy says to come down, to respond to the call of Christ now, to pray a prayer and connect to God. Visitors are given a card to fill in. To exit the room, everyone exits through a row of lighted crosses. Every person's life must go through the cross.

The Billy Graham Library is an attempt to assemble the life and ministry of Billy Graham himself, a routinization of his persona and ethos. By promoting revival and personalizing it at the end, the library asserts that the legacy of Billy is not his achievements or his experiences but his message.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Look for Post on the Billy Graham Library Soon...

Quick post: I've been away at camp, but stay tuned for my write-up of a visit to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte last week. Fascinating...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Smartphone Spirituality - Terrible? or The New Normal?

A Twin Cities newspaper reports on the use of social networking and new technology by congregations -- not just Christian ones -- who appear to advocate a "shallow consumerism" for religion.

An article by Jeff Strickler from the Star Tribune features a now-familiar article about the incorporation of technology and the targeting of younger attenders among congregations. It seems that some of the fastest-growing congregations in Minnesota -- suburban, mostly evangelical Christian megachurches -- embraced marketing from the start. Their success has caused more-traditional congregations with dwindling memberships to take notice.

The article begins with one congregation --

This church, called Substance (they tend to have radical names,) is one of the most-successful in the Twin Cities, drawing several hundred worshippers each Sunday. They reach out to young people by cutting back on the ritual of traditional churches. There's also a rock band and multi-media.

Nice commentary on the church's name -- I guess "Substance" could be considered a radical name if you take the substance being referred to in a more ambiguous way...

Anyhow, the key to the article is how it's not just Christian churches getting into the act. The article quotes Rabbi Hayim Herring who stressed in a seminar to "fellow clergy that they should spend an hour a day on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter" and that "blogging should be considered mandatory." Rabbi Herring also recommends using video clips from YouTube in the service.

Central Presbyterian Church, AustinImage by David A G Wilson via Flickr

"They used to look at me as if I'd just said a four-letter word," said Herring, the former senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park and now the executive director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal). But in its seven years, the organization has seen more converts to what many call one of the dirtiest words in religion: marketing.

According to the article, it's younger people's "reliance" on electronic social networks that leaves religious leaders "no choice." As Rabbi Herring states, "If you're not out there, there's no chance of your message being heard."

Even Hindus are becoming technologically astute. Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, urged his religious organizations to use "smart-phones with BlackBerry, iPhone and Symbian." While they were at it, he suggested, they should check out Flickr, Habbo, hi5, Skyrock, Tagged, Bebo, Netlog, MyHeritage, Odnoklassniki, Sonico and VKontakte.

Overall, the article stirs up controversy by echoing reactions from alarmists concerend about "salesmanship tools" and "commercialism." It's the marketplace of religion (so they say), and quotes Greg Smith, a research fellow for the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, who says, "Whether they like it or not, religions are being forced to compete for members."

Sacred Heart Church - Notre DameImage by timjeby via Flickr

The article then goes for the jugular - it's a religions "market" because congregations need to sustain streams of financial contributions to their ministry.

Bottom line: follow the money --

More than just bragging rights are at stake. Maintaining membership is critical for church finances, especially at a time of economic distress when contributions are dropping and endowment funds have taken a beating in the stock market. If belt-tightening members drop less money in the collection plate, the congregation needs to pack more people into the pews to make up the difference.

In my view, pointing to money as a core dynamic is just too crass. Religious leaders are sincerely wrestling with attempts to meet and minister to people about the things they really care about - bringing them into a closer relationship to the divine. And yet there is a struggle to define the role for new technology.

Rev. John Mayer who is executive director of City Vision, a Minneapolis organization that tracks religious demographics, said it well, saying,

"People see it as too worldly or gimmicky for the church to be marketing itself," he said. "But most of the same people who say it is sacrilegious also expect their church to have a website, a listing in the phone book or an ad in the phone book. To me, this is marketing."

In fact, he said, one of religion's classic icons could be considered a marketing tool: the church steeple.

"Yes, it's there for artistic reasons and to symbolize pointing to God," he said. "But it's also like a big sign to people saying: 'We are here. Come and check us out.'"

Steeples as marketing tool. Nice point.

The Rev. Scott Anderson at Eagle Brook Church, also tempers the discussion by saying that tailoring the delivery of the message to its intended audience is nothing new.

"We have to reach people through the culture we find ourselves in," he said. "If we want people to hear our message, we have to get them through the doors first."

What's even more interesting are the range of comments on the story. One comment from SMBowner3 writes,

"A church is a business and a religion is a brand, so they are smart to use technology to market themselves and their brand. You can learn about God in a bible - churches and religions are 'value add' services."

Old church’s sanctuary/Chorraum der alten KircheImage via Wikipedia

Another from kevinstirtz writes,

"The leaders who are moving (dragging?) their churches (and synagogues) into the 21st century by using social media tools and other technology are just plain smart. It's called meeting your customers where they are and it works. I applaud these pastors, ministers and rabbis who are simply trying harder to meet the needs of their people."

The whole article is interesting to me.

Looks like it will be awhile before the image of "traditional church" gets shifted far enough for these developments to not be considered so outlandish.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Interdisciplinarity at the Religion and American Culture Conference

Quick post: Over at the Religion and American History blog, you can find more discussion about the Religion and American Culture conference from last week.  

I added my own first thoughts on how the conference addressed the effort by scholars to cross between academic disciplines.  What are the possibilities for a productive interchange between disciplines that study American religion?  The question turns out to be more significant than I anticipated.  

One challenge for any conference on interdisciplinarity involves highlighting scholars who have made outstanding advancements in their own discipline --

To be an outstanding scholar very often means confounding the prevailing wisdom of a particular field. When professional boundaries are breached, scholars are forced to address issues and concerns often taken for granted by their own colleagues. Further, when these scholars achieve notoriety, they are caught up in debates (often defending their work) arguing and addressing issues within their own discipline. So when these scholars give 15 minute presentations catching people up to “the state of the discipline,” they end of talking about issues that lie at the very center of their own fields.

There's much more, along with several comments.  Read the full post at the Religion and American History blog.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Complexities of Race, Complications of Interdisciplinary Research, and Coordinating Sensitivities: Religion and American Culture Conference

By the time the session on “Race, Ethnicity, and Religious Pluralism” rolled around, my laptop had completely died. But I made a few notes on this last substantive session, a session that was both interesting and varied, with perspectives that were not readily connected to each other but important nonetheless.

Indy across the RiverImage by joanieofarc via Flickr

Rudy Busto from the department of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (hey Rudy, you can thank me later for spelling it out) made a strong case that the terms “race,” “ethnicity,” and “religious pluralism” are commonly thought of as analytically similar (if not synonymous with one another).

Then, he quickly showed what scholars of race/ethnicity readily understand -- that any notion of interchangeability among these terms is not only ludicrous but also (and more importantly for my own perspective) not useful for drawing out critical dynamics that need explaining -- not just assuming -- in our work.

One of the more important differences in these terms is how “race” emphasizes power relationships while “ethnicity” tones down the discussion toward differences in background, lifestyle, etc. From my own perspective, the use of "ethnicity" draws on alternative theoretical perspectives and can point out other conflicts and ironies that exist in relation to discussions of religion.

For me, what Busto shows is how analytic concepts are powerful, yet constraining, for highlighting aspects of the human experience. Bringing these perspectives into productive tension is required.

Cover of Cover via Amazon

Helen Rose Ebaugh, sociologist from the University of Houston, spent time describing the rise of a stream of scholarship she helped to pioneer, an area referred to as “Religion and the New Immigrants” (her book is connected here).

In talking about the process of a new research arena emerging, Ebaugh demonstrates the importance of scholars working with large funding sources to organize research initiatives drawing attention to particular phenomena. In her experience, interdisciplinarity strengthens broad scale research.

But she also showed how potentially powerful coordination of results can fall flat. Funding sources “move on” with other priorities, and scholars get pressured to publish their own papers in various venues – a quicker “pay off” in academic rewards in comparison with the effort and the burden of waiting on people with disparate perspectives from various fields to put things together.

In short, while it’s exciting to stimulate new, interdisciplinary knowledge, it’s disappointing when the results are short-circuited due to pressures inherent to the academy.

David Wills, from the department of history at Amherst College, spoke about the issues of race and pluralism from the standpoint that combines a sociological approach that appreciates the dynamics of contemporary phenomena with historical approaches that put together longer strains of historical sensitivities.

Underlying Wills remarks is an answer to the question of whether sociology and history can be brought into a productive partnership. Well, yes, of course it can; his own teaching and research does this all the time.

Jokingly referring to himself as the last speaker of the last panel, it was an appropriate ending for the thematic sessions.

19th Century Evangelicals, Religious "Nones," and Anybody Can Talk about Religion: Religion and American Culture Conference

On Saturday afternoon, the conversation began with reflections on American Religion as it relates to Politics, Secularization, and the Public Square...

Cover of Cover via Amazon

Daniel Walker Howe, from the department of history at UCLA and Oxford University (and recent Pulitzer prize winning writer of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States) provided a historical overview of the reversals among Evangelicals and the way in which they are related to the Republican party.

Howe reminded the group that Evangelicalism was a dominant, organized, and transformative influence in American society in the early 19th century.

Yes, Higher criticism and the intellectual winning over of Darwinism in the early 20th Century effectively split American Protestantism between those that accommodated these approaches and those that rejected them. But until that time, Evangelicals affiliated with the state, supported strong government to provide education and strong structure and tariff protection as well as temperance legislation against liquor.

For Howe, the repeal of prohibition in the early 20th Century turned Evangelicals against the state. That’s when Evangelicalism became “conservative.”

Mark Silk from the department of religion at Trinity College came out strongly against interdisciplinarity, yet spent much of his time talking about the religious narrative of “religious nones.” He speculates that the research that found a doubling of the proportion of “nones” in American society gained so much attention because it runs counter to our new understanding of the post-9/11 world which has raised the level of religious awareness and discourse to extremely high levels.

Indianapolis City MarketIndianapolis City Market nicolernorman Flickr

At the end of our conversation this survey research there remained an outstanding question: What is the meaning of religions “nones”?

Answer: Hmmm, well... there's a great deal of ambiguity. Silk says there is much more research desperately needed to tease out the implications of this emergent, yet unclear, category of analysis.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, a very interesting and very articulate professor from the University at Buffalo Law School, spoke persuasively about the difficulty of being a “scholar” of religion.

“It’s not that there is no religion in the academy,” she said, “but that it is everywhere, and that we have no control of how religion is discussed.”

As a legal scholar, she consistently finds that the fact she has a religious studies degree doesn’t matter, it does not lend any particular weight to her opinions. All Americans talk about religion. Anybody can talk about religion. The most important aspect of this for scholars is that it is difficult to help the general public appreciate that there is need for a level of expertise to talk about religion today.

She asserts that it’s not that the study of religion is not important to people, but rather that the study of religion requires training.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Humility, Aesthetics, and the Failure of Connecting American Historians to Sociology - Religion and American Culture Conference

Dear readers -- a gentle reminder that these brief snippets from last week’s American and Religious Culture Conference in Indianapolis are not summaries as much as my own brief notes of interesting and useful comments from a very, very full agenda. Philip, I hope the panelists's written remarks will be made available to us soon!

Union Station

Image via Wikipedia

Courtney Bender, sociologist from the department of religion at Columbia University, launched into a further discussion of interdisciplinarity. She articulated that disciplinarity is a good thing, yet because academic fields are so heterogeneous (so many debates within, so much theoretical depth to discover), we must understand the unique challenges of working across disciplines.

We live in a world that works fast and we are pressured to do things very quickly. But interdisciplinary work requires us to slow down, take time to make connections, and take on a very different “discipline” of doing two different things. To become interdisciplinary, we must master a different way of waking up in the morning and learn to habitually ask different questions, routinely approaching reality with a different set of lenses.

Interdisciplinarity should also make us humble and modest. (Nervous laughter from these academics.) Although scholars who work across disciplines at first seem heroic as those brave people who bridge the gap and have interesting insights because they boldly move between areas, it is more true that once you get in these conversations you find how much you really don’t know. You quickly find out other people know so much more than you do!

Even when we find ourselves among scholars who think of us as quite different because of the broadness of our engagement, we must recognize that interdisciplinary scholars are often forced to “cherry-pick” arguments from other disciplines. Although we may come to know some things here and there, we should be warned that this does not make us arbiters or brokers between disciplines.

The downtown Indianapolis canal

Image via Wikipedia

Carol B. Duncan from the department of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University works between sociology and cultural studies and has interacted with scholarship from America, UK, France, and the Caribbean. Her own work exists at the intersection of Diaspora studies, Popular culture, and studies of Black Church culture.

Overall, Duncan emphasized the importance of engagement with narrative structure and content -- including actively drawing on insights from artists, writers, and visual cultures.

Duncan described her exposure to novelist Zora Neal Thurston and is now able to incorporate humanistic insights utilizing aesthetic sensibilities. Such appreciation not only sophisticates and enlivens her thinking but also counters the routine approach to human beings she sees in social scientists who view human beings as ahistorical, individual agents.

Finally, David Hall from the Harvard Divinity School revealed that social historians with sociological views exist in Britain, but not in the United States.

Curiously, once American historians start down the path of meaning and uncovering meaning, their work is not connected to sociological concepts but rather anthropology and literary studies. Why is that? Hall speculates that perhaps sociology got set aside in the “cultural turn” but still finds it odd since Continental and British historians certainly engage sociology.

I may add my own speculation as to the failure of American religious historians to more fully draw on sociological insights. Stay tuned...

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Religious Repertoires, Institutional Rewards, and Epistemological Divisons - Religion and American Culture Conference

Still enjoying Downtown Indianapolis, in particular walking by the river last night and having dinner and conversation with friends. As the conference continues today, I want to catch you up to the sociologists who spoke in the late afternoon...

By the river... where we sat downImage by Serge Melki via Flickr

Penny Edgell, a marvelous sociologist from the University of Minnesota, spoke about the need to understand religion in a manner that does not constrain us to describing “religion” as a whole, and challenged us to find conceptual ways that accommodate a broader, more flexible, and ultimately more useful manner of discussing the great diversity of religious dynamics in the world.

In particular, Edgell talked about the importance of articulating “religious repertoires.” This involves actively recognizing how we human beings carry out moral projects which lend power to a moral vision to do what is right, ultimately that enable us to follow through on moral imperatives.

In short, rather than talking about capital R "Religion," she emphasizes talking about religious repertoires as fields of practice that include ways of categorizing the world as well as embodied religious practices. By bringing in the word “moral,” she stresses our discovering the embodied, ritualized sense of how we are to act in the world.

Jerry Park, sociologist at Baylor University, shifted focus to describe the difficulty all of us find in connecting seemingly related ideas from different fields.

He illustrated his point with an example from Asian American religion; in his case it was the difference between published work about Asian American religion from a seminary professor and work from a researcher rooted in sociological methodology. While the two researchers appeared to be looking at the same "thing," they actually paid attention to very different dynamics, considered different types of "data" as appropriate, carried different assumptions, and formulated very different conjectures, explanations, and speculations. Park expresses confidence in the possibility to connecting these two realms of question and response.

However, he ultimately suggests that institutional reward structures among academics tend to keep researchers (their work, their dialogue, their relationships) separate. Scholars are pressured to do their work in particular ways, publish in particular venues, and appease particular biases in order to achieve legitimacy (and steady employment) in our disciplines.

Bridge over the White RiverImage by joanieofarc via Flickr

Rhys Williams, a sociologist becoming the new department chair at Loyola University Chicago, shifted the conversation about interdisciplinarity again.

Williams asserts that the "gap" within sociology is greater than the "gap" between sociology and other disciplines. In particular, he articulates that the differences between quantitative and qualitative sociologists are based in different epistemological orientations.

The quantitative/qualitative division does not create epistemological division; rather, the division is symptomatic of significant differences in assumptions among scholars: how do people behave? What we can actually learn about human beings? How do we best to express our new knowledge? This realist/interpretive difference constitutes a fundamental, intra-disciplinary gap.

For Williams, disciplinary lines are good. Rather than deterring knowledge, they indeed enhance and accelerate knowledge. I think he means disciplines achieve their cumulative insights by continuing a set of conversations over a shared set of questions over a long time.

Such rooted knowledge (which takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to master) is to be preferred over poor scholarship that often occurs when academics try to work outside their discipline. By implication, this means not only that scholars should clarify and strengthen the grounds of their own inquiry but also exercise great caution before straying into other fields, especially without sensitivity to different sets of concerns, debates, and perspectives inherent to all disciplines.

Grand Narratives and Imaginary Beings - Religion and American Culture Conference

Yes, the laptop battery died, but the conference did continue. A few notes from a conversation among historians...

John Corrigan, Department of Religious Studies, Florida State University, gave a wonderful reflection on “Grand Narrative,” asking is it still useful to utilize Grand Narratives in religious history? His answer is “yes,” although it is a qualified yes with a discussion of what might constitute for him an ideal approach.

The Funerary-Religious Complex of Sultan Qaytb...

Image by mitopencourseware via Flickr

With a mix of boldness and caution, historians can focus on discrete events while making humans alive, although they come to life as individuals who are embedded within groups (rather than autonomous beings confined to psychodynamic mechanisms) and layered in multiple contextualizations of cultural, ideological, and structural currents (rather than monistic conceptions of deterministic social forces).

Corrigan even described this way of writing history as being like “burying people alive” which I take as articulating the real behavior of people while layering the multiple structural conditions that enable and constraint their behavior regardless of their level of awareness to such conditions.

It's also a history that can generalize -- even posit “cause and effect” relationships -- and incorporate an engaged observation of human behavior at the ground level.

Dennis Dickerson, Department of History, Vanderbilt University, spoke at some length about the failure of historians to develop and explore broader issues. He not only agrees with Corrigan that Grand Narratives remain useful and important but also insists that monographs are required for many arenas of study simply because of the need for more in-depth analysis.

Monographs provide more data and context. More importantly, monographs allow the narrative room to engage broader issues that can draw a broader circle of corporate inquiry.

Human Beings

Image by remuz [Jack The Ripper] via Flickr

Robert Orsi, Department of Religious Studies, Northwestern University remains provocative in talking this afternoon about reconceptualizing historical engagement with religious experience.

Historians need to refuse to subordinate “gods, saints, ghosts, Jesus, etc.," to social categories that dismiss such entities as epiphenomena of other, "more real" forces. Instead, he argues that historians need to accept these as generative sources of activity that have historical life and agency on their own.

Orsi called these "imaginary beings,” but in the most complementary sense of the word as real beings who are socially consequential. Historians should not sidestep the reality of these presences but rather show how these presences become real and consequential in personal experience and in the making of history.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Multiple Perspectives on Studying Religion - Religion and American Culture Conference

For as long as the battery on my laptop holds a charge, a view from the Religion and American Culture Conference in Downtown Indianapolis...

Outside of Circle Centre, by Nordstrom

Image via Wikipedia

This gathering of about eighty scholars at the Circle Centre of Indianapolis includes a mix of ages and disciplinary training – four groups of 20, seated in tiers and “in the round,” with a center table of the conversation starters at the center. This conference is intended to be more interactive, and everyone can see each other.

This morning, the discussion concerns the variety of groups and subgroups involved in the study of American religion. What keep us separated? How can we interdisciplinarity?

From Indianapolis, I offer here a few highlights from the conference.

Historian Jon Butler of Yale University begins the conversation by discussing a review how historians usually do their “work” of history by focusing on particular denominational lines (e.g., focus on Puritan, Mormon, or Jewish history). Not only do they tend to focus on “internal” dynamics of particular religious histories, but most of these histories tend to be uncritical in their approach.

:Image:Religious syms.png bitmap traced (and h...

Image via Wikipedia

Several people here are bothered with Butler’s seeming dismissal of denominational history; he clarified saying he didn’t mean that denominational history was “bad” history, but rather that it wasn’t “American” history. Butler wants a more comprehensive look at religion in America. There's a big difference between a reciting of facts and successions and articulating dynamics to would help anyone wanting to understand how religious things “happen” in the world over time.

Sociologist Jay Demerath, of University of Massachusetts, Amherst is next and muses on the difficulties of being a sociologist of religion. Both inside and outside of sociology, he finds it difficult to express to people exactly what he does.

Inside, many in sociology have great suspicion about “studying” religion as a significant social phenomenon. And people outside the discipline seem to be bored, offended, or enthusiastic (in an almost unpredictable manner) that a sociologist neither advances nor assaults religion but rather tries to understand and explain.

Overall, Demarath appears to imply that sociology makes distinctive contributions through its methods and theories, and making those contributions should be a sociologist’s first priority without being overly concerned with connections to other disciplines.

Paula Kane from the Department of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh, seems to be concerned with the future of scholarship in the production of useful and important knowledge about religion.

She makes an interesting case based on the video game “guitar hero” (look it up if you don’t know what this is) in saying that the media-oriented fantasy of being a rock star allows for entertainment and involvement that has little to do with actual music (being able to play notes) or involvement of meaning (being able to compose and interpret lyrics). Similarly, the value of studying religion is needed moreso than simply consuming religion (even when done in a highly academic way).

The ability to produce meaningful knowledge is what needs to be our priority. What is needed is an attempt to deal with broader questions and issues. For Kane, this means the need to resurrect past theoretical riches (particularly critical theory) and not be overly caught up in academic trends of the day.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Religion and Culture Conference in Indianapolis

I'm just getting ready to leave tomorrow morning for a major conference, the first of a projected bi-annual event hosted by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The center publishes a leading journal, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation (which is among the highest-ranked academic journals in the nation), and active at working the various "lines" of dialogue and inquiry at the intersection of religion and culture.

Anyhow, what makes a conference like this so great is that it brings together important people and conversations at various places from various disciplines. In case you don't already know this, academics spend an enormous amount of time all by themselves. Even in a big university, a scholar may be the only person who cares about their particular subject for miles around. So conferences become important for relationships and mutual engagement.

For this conference, people are coming from departments of history, sociology, religious studies, and political science, as well as from various teaching backgrounds, including divinity schools, law schools, schools of government, and schools of public policy. In addition, I anticipate this conference to be a bit more "cozy" (in comparison with the thousands at the major annual disciplinary conferences), so I hope to get a chance to make a few new friends while catching up with a few "old" ones.

The schedule is below - gives you a taste of what's up. All of these people have published interesting, important work in American religion. Worth looking up a few names.

Thursday, June 4

3:00-7:00 p.m. Registration

6:00-7:30 p.m. Reception, Severin Ballroom

Friday, June 5

 How did we get here? A discussion of disciplinary lines, how we in American religious studies are divided into groups and subgroups, the forces that keep us separated or encourage interdisciplinarity, the role of funding in all of this.

Welcome: Philip Goff, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Department of Religious Studies, IUPUI

Host: Stephen Stein, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University-Bloomington
Panel: Jon Butler, American Studies, History, and Religious Studies, Yale University; Jay Demerath, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Paula Kane, Department of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh

City of IndianapolisImage via Wikipedia

 Competing and complementary approaches in American religious history. How seriously do historians take religion, or religious studies scholars take history? Whence goeth monographs? The rise of ethnography. What about grand narratives?

Host: Peter Thuesen, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Department of Religious Studies, IUPUI
Panel: John Corrigan, Department of Religious Studies, Florida State University; Dennis Dickerson, Department of History, Vanderbilt University; Robert Orsi, Department of Religious Studies, Northwestern University

 Competing and complementary approaches in social scientific studies of religion in America. Are the important divisions less those between social scientists and humanists and instead those that divide social scientists into quantitative and qualitative? What role do non-sociological social sciences play in the larger picture?

Host: Arthur E. Farnsley II, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, IUPUI
Panel: Penny Edgell, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota; Rhys Williams, Department of Sociology, University of Cincinnati; Jerry Park, Department of Sociology, Baylor University

Saturday, June 6

 Explaining Religion in America: What can we learn from each other? What can those working in the humanities learn from social scientists, and vice-versa? How do we view one another? What do we consider the other to be doing right and wrong?

Host: Brian Steensland, Department of Sociology, Indiana University-Bloomington
Panel: Courtney Bender, Department of Religion, Columbia University; Carol B. Duncan, Department of Religion and Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University; David Hall, Harvard Divinity School

 Politics, Secularization, and the Public Square

Host: Sheila Suess Kennedy, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, IUPUI
Panel: Daniel Walker Howe, Department of History, UCLA and Oxford University; Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, University at Buffalo Law School; and Mark Silk, Department of Religion, Trinity College

 Race, Ethnicity, and Religious Pluralism

Host: Edward Curtis IV, Department of Religious Studies, IUPUI
Panel: Helen Rose Ebaugh, Department of Sociology, University of Houston; Rudy Busto, Department of Religious Studies, UCSB; David Wills, Department of History, Amherst College

 Where do we go from here?

Host: Sylvester Johnson, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University-Bloomington
Panel: James Lewis, Louisville Institute, Louisville Theological Seminary; Amanda Porterfield, Florida State University

6:00-7:00 Reception

7:00-8:30 Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture hosted dinner, Severin Ballroom
Guest speaker: Daniel Walker Howe, 2008 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Sunday, June 7

Go Home!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Reviews Hollywood Faith

It's been about eight months since my book Hollywood Faithhas been out, and that means the academic reviews are only just beginning to appear.  

Today I am grateful to professor Kathleen Jenkins, sociologist at The College of William and Mary, whose articulate review of my book is available in this month's Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  Jenkins authored her own fascinating book Awesome Families: The Promise of Healing Relationships in the International Churches of Christ.  

Here are snippets from her review. 

Book Review of Hollywood Faith
From Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion June 2009 

Hollywood Faith is an engaging ethnography that makes multiple contributions to the sociology of contemporary U.S. religion. 

Oasis is the epitome of what scholars have recently named "new paradigm" churches, especially in its creative use of contemporary culture. 

Drawing from current studies in work and occupations, Marti locates the majority of Oasis members as creative workers whose occupations leave their employment contingent and often exploitative. 

Members are offered a new purpose and fresh identity; through worship and church relationships, individuals come to believe that they are not alone as they engage in self promotion. Instead, personal fame takes a back seat to a common Christian moral purpose. 

We feel the power of collective worship, music especially, as rejuvenating ritual. 

Hollywood provocative in suggesting how contemporary religious organizations might help members negotiate and manage uncertain and exploitative labor markets. 

Additionally, the chapters on Hollywood and evangelicalism will certainly be of importance to anyone interested in media and religion. 

Finally, the careful attention to congregational dynamics and how they support a multiracial congregation make this a valuable addition to literature on religion, race, and ethnicity.
-- Kathleen E. Jenkins, The College of William and Mary