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.

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?