Homo Narrans

Stories take flight (or some other nonsense).

This weekend, the New York Times published an editorial entitled, “The Art of Listening” by Henning Mankell. The author discusses his move to Africa as a method to “see” the world beyond his own European perspective, and the editorial reads a bit like a travelogue. Time seems slower. Stories are not linear. Listening becomes more important than the sheer drive from knowledge. The not-so-embedded critique of “Western” culture comes to the forefront. While I don’t entirely disagree with Mankell about the hegemony of Europe or America or the sped up version of contemporary tech culture, these romantic narratives make me a bit twitchy. The idealization, the romanticizing, of another place dissolves complexities and messy realities.

Mankell argues that “we” (I assume he means those of us in the first world or maybe just white folks of European descent or maybe he likes the royal “we”) have lost the ability to listen. “We” cannot abide silence, and we rush to fill it up with as many words as possible. “We” talk but don’t listen. Chatter, chatter, chatter.

Mankell offers this critique of “us” to present the lessons he has learned from 25 years in Africa and as a vehicle to promote African literature as the “new” literature for global consumption. He writes:

If we are capable of listening, we’re going to discover that many African narratives have completely different structures than we’re used to. I over-simplify, of course. Yet everybody knows that there is truth in what I’m saying: Western literature is normally linear; it proceeds from beginning to end without major digressions in space or time.

That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example. (Emphasis mine.)

African story telling offers something different: exuberance, circularity and conversations with the dead. The African context does offer something different and unique, but the sharp contrast appears because of a generalized vision of linear storytelling of a generalized West. Tidiness in narrative is as much about how we envision the function of stories as it is the actual story. Perhaps, the critique works better if it is about the conventions of storytelling not the stories. What are the differences in storytelling praxis? How do we train our narrators? What makes us narrate certain stories in certain ways? (If you can’t tell already, I have a thing about narration these days.)

The circuitous narrative that Mankell describes is one I recognize and embrace as a part of my white Southern upbringing. Stories moved forward and backward. They involved a few people or many. Context mattered. Lessons were learned or not. There was always reckoning with the dead, the broken, the lost or the tragic. Humor was key, even in the most inappropriate moments. Stories became a way to describe where we were, why we were there, who stayed, who had left us, why they had left us, what that meant for us, how we fit into a lineage or how we didn’t fit. These stories were sometimes linear, but they were most often convoluted and confusing even when they were supposed to bring clarity and give meaning. Sometimes they were blatantly false, but they were good stories. I emerged from a line of storytellers (as well as stoics who avoided certain stories), so I guess I am wholly unsurprised at my career choice. Part of being in this lineage was the ability that Mankell uplifts: listening. To make sense, to tell a better story, one had to embrace the previous story. To listen to the details, add flourish and performance, and to be aware that those gone are never really gone as historians attest.

So, all-in-all, I like Mankell’s description of humans as Homo narrans, storytelling persons, as opposed to Homo sapiens. He writes:

It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.

Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening.

“The song lifted her up high”: Jeff Sharlet on Faith and Faithlessness

Beefsteaks when I’m hungry

Something tall and cool when I’m dry

Give me greenbacks when the times are hard

Sweet heaven when I die–Blue Dogs, “Sweet Heaven When I Die”

While reading and re-reading Jeff Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between, a couple of songs replayed over and over in my head. His lovely and haunting collections of essays made my thinking musical. Perhaps, it is the beauty of his language, the lyrical quality of his descriptions, that direct me to hymns and pop songs (which is on my taste, not Sharlet’s). Perhaps, it is because his reflections on religion, trauma, belief, unbelief, practice and loss feel like poetry. I cannot read his book without music, so songs emerged as the beginnings of my analysis. Every time I started to review this book, the music came to me first. Music evoked spaces I once inhabited as well as spaces in which I currently reside. Thus, I cannot review his book without referring to the accompaniment of music. Hopefully, Sharlet will not mind since music appears in his work from Cornel West as “blues man” to a club named “the Church” to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Dock Boggs’ “Down South Blues” to the songs playing at Sweet Fanny Adams, the motel and bar. Maybe the music even puzzles him a bit too.

The first song starts playing as soon as I see the title, Sweet Heaven When I Die, which my brain somehow translates into “When I die, Hallelujah, by and by” from the Christian hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.” I misread his title every time I puzzle over the image on the cover. Somehow humming this tune seemed to fit with Sharlet’s explorations and excavations of the religious lives of Americans from his college sweetheart’s continual return to the Bible to make meaning to the martyrdom of an anarchist to militarization of Christian youth in BattleCry to worship with German evangelicals and the construction of purity. Sharlet, as Brent Plate puts it, catalogs “weird religion.” Sharlet’s approach both deeply personal and documentary showcases individuals trying to make sense of their lives, their traumas, as well as attempts to create meaning out of chaos. His interlocutors try to find justice, try to heal themselves and others and try to navigate expected and unexpected losses.

Sharlet gives us glimpses into American religions writ small, individuals navigating worlds of faith. He writes about Molly Knott Chilson, his college girlfriend, “Her liberalism became Christian, and her Christianity was gentle and yet thick with the blood of scripture: the darkest passages of the prophets to which she’s always been drawn…” (12). Or Cornel West: “His religion is that of the night side of scripture, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and a Christ story as awful as it is redeeming” (50). Or Chava Rosenburg’s writing about the Holocaust: “Beauty, not God, sustained her” (132). Vera Schnabel, his interpreter at the German Church of the Way, embraced both Jesus and America via music (and she also hums “I’ll Fly Away). Sharlet writes about her conversion:

The song lifted her up high, and up there in the sky she was an angel, just like her black brothers and sisters. She wasn’t an America, she wasn’t German, she was nothing: She disappeared into the clouds and came out the other side a believer (153).

Moreover, Sharlet catalogs the development of American fundamentalism from the perspective of not only Ron Luce, the founder of BattleCry, but also the young adults at his Honor Academy as they struggle with sin, sexuality and “secularism.” The specters of gender loom large in “She Said Yes,” as Honor Academy attendees confront limited gender norms as sexuality becomes the language for and of sin. Moreover, Sharlet does not shy away from issues that make religious people and scholars of religion nervous. He tries to figure out the “price tag” of religious movements without turning to discussions of charlatanism or inautheniticity. While following a New Age healer, he notes, “You get what you pay for” (198) without snark. Capitalism resides in religion and spirituality (just ask Darren Grem or Richard King).

The second, likely more trite, song is a pop song. Sharlet cajoles, “Pop is religion, a source of stories and a conduit for myths, the smoke and mirrors by which large groups of people get together and…get ‘vulnerable'” (225-226). I heard it on the radio (it stuck with me, haunted me, maybe). “If I Die Young” by the Band Perry reflects on loss, trauma and the “sharp knife of a short life” in a slightly off-kilter melody that reverberates. Sharlet also navigates loss, trauma and the lack of meaning (see also John Corrigan on meaninglessness). Many of the essays circle the trauma of every day life, unintended hurt and the loss of loved ones. In “Bad Moon Rising,” the memory of the author’s dead mother and uncle haunts while accompanied to the CCR song of the title. Cornel West discusses “death shudders,” despair and coming to terms with the “reality of death, ordinary life–waiting to die, living as you never will” (60). In the last essay of the collection, “Born, Again,” the life of Dock Boggs is juxtaposed with the loss of a friend’s infant and a meditation on “quitting.” Sharlet pens:

An input of energy results in motion. Simple math, nothing more than 2+2=4. Pages pile up and become books; babies grow up and become children.

The belief that either will necessarily prosper…that “things will work out,” is grotesque: tragic and comic at the same time, funny because it’s sad, sad because it’s funny, awful because it just might be true. Seen from a distance, through a telescope or at the far remove of “art,” a story or a painting or a poem or a song [or scholarship?], both the most mundane of expectations…are the painful spectacle, grievous mismatches of desire and power, of want and the ability to make it so (248-249).

All of Sharlet’s interlocutors, his conversants, his interviewees, seek to manage trauma. How do we manage when ordinary life is about wounds rather than hope? How do we make sense of hurt, trauma, death, quitting, capitalism, consumerism, spirituality, music, art, or religion? (Or do we?) What do we do in the grips of a “death shudder”? Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die flirts with old questions of suffering and meaning while suggesting that folks are just “trying to become human” but “not there yet” (259).

But this also proves useful to those of us who “write” religion as our scholarship. Sharlet’s work pushes me to think about how we write the lives of our contemporaries or those long dead. How do we write trauma? How are scholars making meaning out of the messiness of individual lives? Or should we embrace the meaningless as an analytic frame too? What happens when we pay attention to religion writ small? What kinds of stories do we gain? And what kind of stories do we lose? The work evokes, and songs become my analysis, which makes me wonder how art can be helpful in our interpretations (Jason Bivins and Julie Bryne likely have much more to say about this). Why does this book come to me in song?

[Cross-posted at Religion in American History]

Back in Black (or my long overdue blog manifesto)

I'm back! I'm back! But not in black!

As noted in a previous post, my semester (4 classes, job applications, student advisor-ing, conferencing, public talks, etc.) gobbled up all of my time (and I didn’t even post all the other things that require keeping a small human, some pets and a beleaguered partner alive). In other words, I have been BUSY! My semester is now wrapping up, and my grading is somewhat under control. Delayed writing beckons and pleads with me to just finish up. All of this means that I will be back to blogging as of NOW.

To tell you the truth, dear reader (there is at least one of you, right?), I miss blogging. Deeply. I crave this form of writing. During the semester, I would long for the time, the opportunity, to blog. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, since I have blogged at Religion in American History since 2007. Heck, I even self-identify as a blogger in a variety of venues.

The reason might surprise, though. I don’t blog because the internet needs my opinion on American religious history, gender, race, class or religion in all kinds of formats. I am definitely not seeking fame or fortune. (Is this even possible anymore?) Blogging has become part and parcel of my scholarly process. As I work through new ideas, new historiographies and new content areas, I blog to force my thinking into concrete form. It functions as a weirdly public venue of note-taking and analysis. Blogging provides a way for me to work through my research and teaching ideas in short and testable format. The concise and precise nature of blogging means that I have to wrangle with making sense of new projects as well as older ones in meaningful and understandable way for both fellow scholars and a general public. This form of writing lets me say something quickly and coherently as well as get timely feedback from others. Blogging removes some of the intellectual isolation of the academy and forces me to put words to my thoughts about our contemporary moment as well as historical ones. It is about my research but also about my particular view, expertise even, that empowers me to comment. I might be a voice speaking into the nothingness of the internet, but people (I am looking at you, Historiann!)  *do* occasionally read what I write.

Moreover, it allows me to experiment more and more with how I write and what style works best for both my subject matter but also for my analysis. This experimentation, then, shifts my scholarly praxis of arranging words on the page as well. Sometimes my blogging makes a topic more clear. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it illuminates interesting questions about methods of study or my evidence. Sometimes it documents that a topic can be exhausted in a post, which is helpful information to have. Blogging refines my scholarly endeavor. Moreover, the use of constant and continual writing makes me into a better writer. Through this format, I feel like my writing has become more my own and less something I was trained to do. It helped me find a much needed voice to finish my book, and now, I want to experiment more and more with my style. This is a confidence that I somehow lacked before. Blogging has made me more adventurous in both my style and content. How else could I write about steamy Mormon calendars, trauma in religious life or zombies? (Oh wait, I am writing about zombies for real.) It makes me bolder, and I am glad to be back to it.

Now, I am off to grading. But, readers, I have come bringing a gift. Rock out to AC/DC, and I’ll be back soon. I promise.


If you wonder where I’ve gone…

What do you know? I am wearing that very dress today.

It’s down the rabbit hole of piled up exams, books to be reviewed, reading responses, conference papers, public talks, and oh, job applications too! It’s that season (the busy one called Fall), friends, and I am polishing my CV and shining up my job letter. I am also consuming alarming amounts of caffeine to accomplish the mountain of tasks that seem to pile up at this time every year. All of this means my blogging is at a small hiatus. Not to worry, though, most of the applications are due in early October, so I’ll be back sooner than you can legitimately miss me.

Available now!

If you really miss me, the *book* is now available via  Amazon and other booksellers. For some strange reason, there’s a used copy for $85, but the brand-spanking new copy is $29. (Do the math!) I am happy to hear any thoughts, suggestions, queries, or questions about the book, so please feel free to send them along.