Embodying Identity for Bulletin for the Study of Religion

Over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, I write about my recent pedagogical experiments to conjure race, religion, class and gender by taking embodiment seriously. Here’s an excerpt:

This semester, however, I expanded the exercise to think about embodiment more largely, or how exactly we come to embody socially, historically and culturally crafted identities like gender but also race and class. What can we learn about social norms, cultural preferences or even religious devotion with attention to one body (mine)? How can we learn to interpret the terrain of physical bodies? What are the props, to conjure Erving Goffman, that bolster, and sometimes detract, from not only our “presentations of self” in daily life but also our presentations of social norms and our cultural habits? While Craig invokes Pierre Bourdieu, habitus and deviance in his excellent post on the radical act of painting one’s nails (if a dude, excuse me, a man), I evoke Sean McCloud (who employs Bourdieu on class) and R. Marie Griffith’s lovely discussions of historical and cultural work of bodies inDivine Hierarchies and Born Again Bodies respectively.

For discussions of embodiment, I made myself into the subject of academic inquiry (aren’t we already?), the object of the critical gaze of my students. Gender me, I said to my classes. Race me. Class me. And religion me, which is another post for a different day. The body, I explained encouragingly, is a political, social, cultural and religious map. It is physical, material and biological, but it is also the repository of desire, ideology, need, imagination.  It is an object, and it is an idea. The body is the archive of the physical, the social and the metaphysical. It is the site of me, you and us. What do I, this body, in front of all of you, embody? I ask them beseechingly. 

Continue reading here.

What to Read While I am Working…

This morning I am working my way through 1920s Klan fraternal manuals (aren’t you jealous?) for a current project, so I should not be blogging. Yet here I am. This must come from all the piled-up guilt about not blogging while teaching a 4-4 load.

Instead of blogging about fraternal rituals (you’re welcome), I’ll direct all of you to some quality reading this morning about how we write, what we write and how we look.

1. Ben Alpers at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog takes on the question of whom academic historians write for and discussions of accessibility. Here’s a preview:
I’m as much as a believer in broadly accessible history as Cronon or Potter. And, lord knows, I’m not in favor of boring history (though I think we can all think of great works of history that are boring). But the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.

Public interest in academic history is limited to a very small number of historians, generally writing on a small number of topics. And most popular works of history are written by authors who are not academic historians. The current New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction Best Seller List contains four works of history (broadly understood) among the top fifteen books, none of them written by an academic historian: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson at #7, Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dougard at #8, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand at #10, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot at #13. No works by academic historians appear further down the list, either.

2. Rachel Toor on whether book reviews are actually worth our time at The Chronicle.  Here’s a sample of Toor’s well-placed grouchiness:

If the current climate in publishing and academe requires that scholars be ambitious and accessible, that they write clearly (if not simply) for more than the 15 people in a sub-sub-subfield, then professors will have an opportunity to become engaged in American cultural, social, and political life in meaningful ways. The monograph and book-review sausage factories are not, I think, the best use of our collective cerebral resources. It’s better to write one good article than to review 20 books, and even better to write one good book.

3. Ed Blum’s curated a lovely series on the faces and places of Christ at the Religion in American History blog with posts from David MorganAnthony PinnArlene Sánchez Walsh and others. This curation paves the way for Ed and Paul Harvey’s new book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, available in September. Here’s a preview of the series from Ed:

Looks matter. They can mean the difference between life and death, freedom and incarceration. They can make millions, and they can ruin fortunes.

These were exactly the kinds of issues that drove Paul and I as we wrote about The Color of Christ: how people looked at Jesus, how they imagined him looking at them, and what role appearances of the sacred played in America’s long saga with race. At the end of our writing, we were in search of a cover image. How would one evoke the passions, problems, and perils of living with material depictions of the immaterial? 

“You are a radio star”

Tonight (3/9), I’ll be on the radio talking religion and women’s bodies on “Trailblazers”  with Howard Gluss. My segment starts at 7:30 pm PST (or in my time zone 10:30 EST). Feel free to listen as I try to make sense of the place of religion in the current contentious debates about contraception, abortion and reproductive rights. Live-streaming is available at http://www.1100kfnx.com/

This particularly apt as the end to my week, since my 300 level students have been watching George Ratliff’s documentary Hell House (2003). For those of you who don’t know what Hell Houses are, they are alternative haunted houses in which sins are enacted (embodied) as a method of evangelism. In the documentary, it becomes clear that women’s bodies are the battlegrounds for many Pentecostal discussions of sins, as women’s bodies continue to be in current public debates too. To see how my students reacted, check out our tweets under the hashtag #rest351

Here’s the trailer to Hell House:


What to pay attention to on your Thursday…

Before I even begin, I should say I know this poor blog has been stagnating. It has caused me great guilt and pain, but a series of not-so-fortunate events (I’ll discuss this in another post) have somewhat blocked my writing and more importantly taken up my time. Thus, I’m back.

So here are some things to pay attention to while I get back in the swing of blogging:

SPLC Chart of Hate Groups, 2010

1. Hate Groups are on the rise (again!) in the U.S. At the Huffington Post, Brian Levin walks us through the new Southern Poverty Law Center data for 2011. Here’s a sample:

The 2011 figures are the eleventh consecutive annual increase and the highest number since the SPLC began enumerating hate group totals in the 1980s. In 2000 there were just 602 of these groups nationally. While 2011 hate crime numbers are not yet tabulated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the agency counted 6,624 hate crimes in 2010 in the United States, an increase of only 26 from a 14 year low recorded the previous year. A 2010 analysis by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions found that from 1999-2009 white supremacist and anti-government domestic extremist plots were only surpassed by those undertaken by radical Salafist and al-Qaeda followers during the decade. 

The emphasis is all mine, folks. Interestingly enough, the number of Ku Klux Klan organizations declined while paramilitary and militia groups rose significantly. I want to look at the numbers myself, and I’ll blog about what this means for historians and religious studies scholars a bit later.

2. Historiann weighs in on Rush Limbaugh’s use of “slut” at a private citizen by suggesting he might be a dumba$$. I couldn’t agree more. (On a side note, if you are wondering how to define this term, Mother Jones provides a flowchart with kittens.)

3. At Time, Jessica Winter queries: “Are women people?” This provocative question is her entry point into the increasingly hostile debates over contraception, transvaginal ultrasounds, pregnancy and legislation surrounding all of this. Winter writes:

You see, like most women, I was born with the chromosome abnormality known as “XX,” a deviation of the normative “XY” pattern. Symptoms of XX, which affects slightly more than half of the American population, include breasts, ovaries, a uterus, a menstrual cycle, and the potential to bear and nurse children. Now, many would argue even today that the lack of a Y chromosome should not affect my ability to make informed choices about what health care options and lunchtime cat videos are right for me. But others have posited, with increasing volume and intensity, that XX is a disability, even a roadblock on the evolutionary highway. This debate has reached critical mass, and leaves me uncertain of my legal and moral status. Am I a person? An object? A ward of the state? A “prostitute”? (And if I’m the last of these, where do I drop off my W-2?)

4. Check out John Turner’s review of John Modern’s Secularism in Nineteenth Century America at Religion in American History.  Turner writes:

Modern has written an extended critique of Common Sense philosophy and historians who have embraced it in their analysis of the history of religion in the United States (chapter one contains an extended engagement with Mark Noll). Modern “contends that human agency was an remains an open question … For those living within a secular imaginary, decision about religion were often one’s own, yet the range of available choices had been patterned and shaped by circumstance. Institutions making their invisible demands. Media generating models of particular choices. Machines enabling you to interact with your decisions and those of others. A choice being made before it presents itself as such. Unseen somethings haunting the day.” Toward the end of his book, Modern uses Foucault’s “notion of subjectivization” “to call into question a dominant paradigm of American religious historiography that continues to operate according to the same epistemological and political principles that gave rise to the discipline in the mid-nineteenth century.”