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.

the cuts, the rents, and the wounds: religion in everyday life

Kelly Baker  

 I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here
Johnny Cash, “Hurt”

What might surprise is that the run-ins pierce and balm in so many ways. The neighborhood does this to some bodies and not others, I guess. But if you have a body that feels like the skin does not hold things in or keep them out, if you are made partly of memories of cuts and sutures, it might do this to you.–Julie Bryne (emphasis mine).

Nights ago in a rush of class preparation, I finished Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day (originally published in 1980, the year I was born) for Hinduism unit of my Gender in Global Religions course. The book is as starkly beautiful as it is wrenching. The prose matches the blunt social realism. Desai writes about adult siblings in Old Delhi both before and after the partition of India into India and Pakistan. Unflinchingly, she details the wounds of childhood that each siblings carry with them, which haunt as well as taunt them as they grow old and gray. The wounds remain, even in the lightness of forgiveness, and Desai creates ambivalent characters who the reader can admire in a moment and despise the next. In her study of family life, Desai communicates the miscommunications, the snubs, the love, and the pain of the ordinary. She documents the ways in which gender, class, and religion mark the siblings differently and set them in opposition.


The headstrong, and sometimes cruel Bimla, sacrifices herself upon the altar of family, even as she dreams of something more than marriage and domesticity. Her dreamer of a brother, Raja, pines to be a hero or a poet as he abandons his family in the pursuit of higher status and position. And the youngest, Tara, imagines that she will be a mother, and a mother she becomes as well as the wife of a civil servant. Yet she is not the ideal, and she wants more for her daughters than traditional domestic roles. The novel springs forward and back to show how the characters were formed by early experiences, some traumatic and others mundane, and Desai conjures the joy as well as the pain and disappointment of family. The yearning of childhood dreams thwarted by realities of adulthood. But, the wounds she catalogs carefully and lovingly. The siblings harm often without intention, and the pain lingers. Tara feels guilt at running away while Bim was attacked by bees, and she imagines it as a prime accounting of her character, her lack of heroism. Tara carries this wound, until finally, her courage rushes forth from her in confession and apology. Bim shakes off the apology and anguish by pointing out that something that so defined Tara did not even exist firmly in her own memory.


In Desai’s characterization of Bim, the sense of frustration is palpable. Bim wanted more than nursing her sick family members, and she achieves a career as a teacher. Yet, she remains in the painful home of her youth, haunted by dead parents, a dead aunt, and memories of youth. Even in a world she made bend to her will, her wounds are starkly present for reader’s view. Desai writes:

Bim could see as well as by the clear light of day that she felt only love and yearning for them all, and if there were hurts, these gashes and wounds in her side that bled, then it was only because her love was imperfect and did not encompass them thoroughly enough, and because it had flaws and inadequacies and did not extend to all equally….All these would have to be mended, these rents and tears, she would have to mend and make her net whole so that it would suffice her in her passage through the ocean….These were great rents torn in the net that the knife of love had made. Stains of blood that the arrow of love had left. Stains that darkened the light that afternoon. She laid her hands across her eyes again (165-166, emphasis mine).


While reflecting on how to discuss Desai and wounding with my students, a colleague passed along a link to freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, curated by the fabulous Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern. The project seeks to find out what happens when one asks artists, writers, and academics to describe, inscribe, and define spirituality. I like many others have eagerly waited to the launch of this genealogy, and Julie Bryne’s “Saint February” is a piece, an invocation really, which should not be missed. Byrne’s personal experience of  an inexplicable illness, a wound, serves as her place to mediate both her physicality and spirituality. “Saint February” is a spiritual meandering from the neighborhood and personal interaction to a sore throat to Catholicism and the sensory to past trauma to the academy. We wander with Byrne as she evokes the complexity of everyday life, the place of memory, and importantly, the purported place of the scholar. Her wounded body, her throat, is blessed by Saint Blaise alongside medical treatment as an art more than a science. She writes:

So, as you see, were it not for St. Blaise, I would not be here to tell you this story. I would not have returned to my classes that semester, would not be chewing over the meaning of spirituality for an online collection, would not be remembering waiting in lines, would not be walking home from Tony’s in Bed-Stuy with good broth for a sore throat.


The blessing matters, and the existence of blessing complicates Byrne’s position as a scholar. She continues:

But wait … this is no way to end the story. Don’t mess with people, people in the guild, my guild, my people. Don’t mess with my head. Leave out suggesting that St. Blaise was actually involved. Leave out hinting that without St. Blaise I would be dead. It was doctors who operated and sewed me whole. If St. Blaise supposedly saved my life, then why didn’t all those blessings years earlier work? If I am having a fit of wanting to thank a saint, I can do it on my own time. Would I say this stuff in the classroom? Do I really believe … ? (Emphasis mine).


Her queries, her positioning, conjures again the difficulty of religious studies, the ephemeral, the ineffable, and the (un)believable. How do we manage the rents, the cuts, and the wounds? How do we explain to our peers and our students not only the embeddness of religion in history and culture but also its deep embeddness in human bodies and lives? We make our bodies, Byrne notes. She alludes to the longer chains of history too. Our bodies bear memories and cuts of a longer history too. We can walk around the religious, but how do particular traditions, rituals, beliefs become parts of these bodies? Do I really believe is complicated by scars and sutures rather than explained away. By including St. Blaise in her invocation, Byrne highlights the complex place of religion in one individual’s life and documents strongly that belief is always about bodies. While Bim’s love wrenches her both emotionally and physically, Bryne’s throat causes the queries of belief. Emotion to body. Body to belief. Belief back to body. Memories remain.


Johnny Cash sings, “I hurt myself today,” in a gravelly voice, and his invocation of pain lingers. His video for his Nine Inch Nails cover of “Hurt” includes images of a crucified Christ with images of younger Cash, the empty museum dedicated to him, and his aged body. This song places me dramatically in a chain of memory: a young widow, a funeral for her husband in which this song echoed and lingered, an altar call, my grandmother’s stacks of haphazard CDs with Cash and Merle Haggard among them, clouds of cigarette smoke, and her t-shirt with Cash on the front. The pain it invokes. My body cannot hear the song without a rush of something ineffable and uncomfortable, a rent to the gut and the mind. A reminiscing I don’t want to make. Cash’s hurt becomes my own, and I cannot shake it from my skin, my own body. It lingers. It doesn’t bounce off.


And yet, I listen, and I think. I ponder how our wanderings, bodily, spiritual, religious, emotional, make us the scholars, the people, who we are. Chains of memory and history bind us clearly; they are inescapable. As scholars of religions, we *walk* around religions that bump and shuffle us all the time. What about those that Julie notes “don’t bounce off”? And what would our scholarship look/sound like if we invoke/evoke our positions, our chains, our memories? Would it truly be more art than science? Or would it be more honest and haunting? Would we have to admit Cash’s hurt, Bim’s tortured love, and Julie’s sutures?



Happy birthday, Twitterstorians!

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, and remember to rock out!

Katrina Gulliver (@katrinagulliver), the founder of #twitterstorians, marked the second anniversary of the group today. And I wanted to pass along birthday wishes too. I am exceptionally late to the Twitter party, even later to twitterstorians, since I only joined Twitter a mere (couple of) months ago. My social media runs more Facebook, but I was intrigued at using twitter as a way to more publicly connect with other scholars as well as drum up attention for Gospel According to the Klan. Putting my bad habits of self-promotion aside, Twitter is a fascinating venue to connect with not only fellow American religious historians but also other cultural, American, and public historians too. Post a question, get a tweeted reply. I get quick analyses of news stories as well as fellow twitterstorians sending me links to my current research interests.

Just last week Stetson Kennedy, the famed Klan unmasker and Civil Rights activist, died. How did I hear about during my weekend? Not on the news, not even on Facebook (until a little later), but rather through a fellow twitterstorian. Chris Cantwell (@cdc29) tweeted it to me. While I was hesitant about the prospect of microblogging, I am slowly incorporating Twitter as scholarly praxis. I can’t wait to see how I feel on twitterstorians’ birthday next year


Exorcising America’s Demons: Reflections on Possession and Class

Run away, it's a ghost!

This summer, I decided to test out some of my new research interests in the paranormal, monsters, horror, and religion on my poor-unsuspecting-can’t-I-just-graduate-already? students. We read Joseph Laycock’s “The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty: The Exorcist in the Context of Secularization” to discuss how an artifact of popular culture emerged as folk religion/piety. Laycock smartly uses the reaction to the film by movie-goers, the press, and religious movements and individuals to problematize narratives of secularization. He poses the question: Why there is a supernatural turn at the supposed height of secularization theory? What follows then is a profile of Blatty, the reception of the film, and discussions about the American practice of exorcism. Laycock documents the “very conscious fear of demons and the supernatural” (5) that emerges as well as the increasing interest/belief in the paranormal.

Much like other works on religion and horror, Laycock attempts to get to the root of cultural fear and the fervent belief in the paranormal. Why do Americans purport belief in ghosts, demons, and other supernatural agents? What does our research look like if we apply Robert Orsi’s “abundant empiricism” to this supernaturalism? Or apply Orsi’s critique of religion-as-belief to the studies of the paranormal? How are Americans enacting, embodying, and engaging the paranormal?

While the students were reading about The Exorcist, I was reading sociologist Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (2001). Though this book is now a decade old, the interest in exorcism might not be as obvious, but lurks still in American culture.  Cuneo’s fascinating book examines the origins of American exorcisms in the 1970s and the increase in popularity of the practice after the release of The Exorcist. He interviews Catholic exorcists, Protestant deliverance ministries, and lay exorcists, and he attends deliverance services in which demons of lust, procrastination, and pride are expelled. Moreover, Cuneo aptly assesses the romanticization of the priest/exorcist as hero in both the religious and popular imagination. In film and pulpy fiction, priests save the day by taxing their bodies and souls in attempts to rid people of demons. The masculine hero might even sacrifice himself to save a poor demon possessed girl. While I was reading I pondered the fascination with demons, the unsatisfying nature of Cuneo’s (among others) “the devil made me do it” defense. American Exorcism was at its best in the heady descriptions of deliverance services and in the interviews with practicing exorcists. The cacophony of possessed souls screaming curses and moaning, the physicality of possession with (high) arching bodies and contortion, and the often calm assurance of those who battled with demons make for a rich tale of what deliverance and exorcism *feel* like. The fluidity of possessed and deliverer becomes apparent too: sometimes one must deliver others from demons, and sometimes one must be delivered. The possessed gnash, moan, and writhe on the floor, and then, get up and calmly deliver others. The change-up signals the fluidity of roles as well as a clear understanding possession is not a static state of being.

Creepy, creepy.

For me, Cuneo as interlocutor proved to be an interesting commentary on ethnographic practice and the relationship one has with subjects. Clearly, some of Cuneo’s conversants wanted him to be delivered/exorcised too. Observation was not enough for them; they craved his participation as legitimacy of their action. To participate would signal the reality of possession, and his refusal unnerved some. In his descriptions of the services and his role as observer, it is clear the complexity of the scholar’s position. The question that Cuneo doesn’t answer purposefully is the question of authenticity: Are demons “real”? Do demonic forces exist? Cuneo admits that this question is the one he encounters the most, and it is a strategic move to not answer the question of whether possession or demons are *real* but rather to report the reality of demons for the possessed, the deliverance ministries, and the exorcists. Rather than debunk the presence of supernatural, this interlocutor attempts to document this extraordinary religious expression. These are clearly “abundant events”; social networks and relationships abound. Exorcism is surely real.

A larger question lingers: Why do demons become popular and present in a period of wealth and so-called secularization in the U.S.? Cuneo wonders about the presence of demons in suburbia and the practice of deliverance and exorcism among middle class white Protestants and Catholics. Much of the book is an attempt to showcase how mainstream this supernaturalism is by emphasizing who expels demons and who wants to be exorcised/delivered.  Cuneo describes polo shirts, khakis, twin sets, understated jewelry, good purses and loafers that leader and members of these ministries wear. Their hair is coiffed and maintained. They are generally polite, when not demon possessed. They work at banks and in schools. They are white collar and firmly middle class.

At first, I nodded accordingly as any good reader should, but as I continued to read I wondered how class status becomes configured as a legitimator of religious experience. Are demons less real when the working class reports them? Is skepticism acceptable when the lower classes, the impoverished, report the supernatural? Why does class status authenticate demons (or not)? This seems to reflect earlier trends in religious studies scholarship, deprivation theories and familiar class stereotypes attached to religious adherence, that Sean McCloud aptly documents in Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religions & Religious Studies (2007), which I blogged on long, long ago. McCloud notes, “Those who wield less social, cultural, and economic power usually also have less control over how they are represented. Historically, working-class and minority groups and individuals have been imagined in ways that satisfied the desires and fantasies of dominant classes” (21).  Religious movements of these groups, then, faced derision, skepticism, and critique both because of class status but also because of the class sentiments/stereotypes of the scholars discussing them. While reading American Exorcism, it became clear that there was something at stake in showcasing the mainstream nature of exorcism/deliverance and its deep atttachments to the American middle class. Documenting the middle class presence in exorcism functions to legitimate its presence and practice. Of course, the question of authenticity doesn’t matter because (white) middle class Americans are involved. Favored class status authenticates, and thus exorcism is real because of its class status.

Cross-posted at Religion in American History Blog

Gospel on the Radio!

Tonight (August 19th), I will be on the Dr. Howard Gluss radio show discussing the modern Ku Klux Klan, extremism, and the forthcoming Gospel According to the Klan. And the illustrious Paul Harvey, blogmeister of the Religion in American History blog, will follow suit in the second segment of the show discussing religion, politics, and Christian dominionism.

Live streaming is available at KFNX1100AM. My segment is at 8 pm PST and Paul is on at 8:30 pm PST.