Tag Archives: books

Power of Words

Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

This week, I have written something everyday: pitches, blog posts, drafts, and lists. I managed to finish an agonized column that I’ve been writing off and on for two months, and I should finish a review essay by early next week. I even sent off a pitch for a personal essay on tattoos, which is a topic that I tend to not be forthcoming. Last week, I finished a column and hit “publish” on two blog posts that had been hibernating in my Evernote files for at least nine months. There are more of those to come.

More importantly, I sat down with my files on my zombie manuscript this morning to strategically plan how to finish the damn thing. I’ve done more work than I thought I had (good), but there is still so much more to be done (not bad, exciting even). I feel like I am finally back in the writing groove after my slump this summer and early fall (also good).

Here’s the thing: I like writing. I actually enjoy it. Yes, it is often hard, but I am much happier with myself when I write. I feel productive. I process what’s happening in my life. I push all my torturous thoughts onto the page to get them out of my head. When they linger, they only do do damage. On my desk I keep a note that I wrote months ago. I keep trying to throw it away, but I can’t bring myself to. My frenetic scrawl reads, If I write them down, maybe I can let them go. It is my reminder to write out the thoughts, emotions, and things that trouble me. I follow, no more agony over what could have been. This is good advice that I often don’t take. Writing saves me from myself. Continue reading

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Genre Fiction Saved My Life

I gave up many things for graduate school, and popular fiction was one of them. Training to be a religious historian meant that reading became my job rather than my beloved hobby. I only had time to read the 30 plus books assigned for seminars each semester. I’ve never read so much in my life as I did then. History, theory, methods, and studies of gender and race crowded my book shelves and took over my dining room table. Reading for pleasure no longer fit neatly into my schedule. Instead, I trudged through the books that now defined my life. If I read anything beyond the assigned, I found it necessary to read things labeled serious or literary. At parties, faculty and students would chat about the author of the moment, that critical darling reviewed by NPR or the New York Times. I would nod at appropriate moments. Literary fiction was the only fiction appropriate for scholars in training. Most of what I liked to read was not deemed literary. Trade paperbacks seemed less than serious. Intriguingly, the Harry Potter books were allowed, so I could discuss them without tarnishing my serious image.

I abandoned the books that kept me company from childhood to fledgling adulthood. I loved romance, horror, and that whole genre now labeled young adult fiction. I followed the girls of Sweet Valley High through eating disorders, romantic entanglements, and social strivings. I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, even though I was ambivalent about other children. I devoured anything written by Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and L.J. Smith. I first gained awareness of reincarnation via Pike, and garbage disposals still scare me of Stine. I worked my way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s complicated world of hobbits, elves, humans, and dwarves, though it took many attempts. I read and reread Smith’s Forbidden Game and Dark Visions books. Their covers creased and fell apart. The pages were dog-eared and torn. These books materialized my rough-handed devotion. (I’m still hard on books.) Smith’s books were my favorites. The strength and angst of the female protagonists resonated with me. These were girls who seemed ordinary, but were anything but. They were flawed but heroic. In Smith’s book worlds, the supernatural creeped unexpectedly into our lives, and no one was ever the same.

More importantly, the universes of these young adult books made sense. You could figure out the heroes and the villains (mostly), though sometimes the villains would redeem themselves through profound sacrifice. For me, they were beautiful escapism. These books permitted me to step away from the constant shuffle of life as a divorced kid. My week parceled between my mom and dad. I moved back and forth between two families. Tuesday, Friday, and every other weekend was my dad’s time; the other days went to my mom. Different houses, different rooms, different family members, and different responsibilities. The trade paperbacks moved to and fro with me. I tucked them in my backpack, or purse, before school at one house and read them in the evenings at another. They offered escape from the fraught complexity of living in two places, but never quite feeling at home. I could dwell in realms of extra-sensory perception, vampires, witches, and killer teenagers to avoid the emotional work of being one person who was actually two daughters. Fiction gave me purchase in entertaining simplicity; it allowed me to remove myself from the painful work of being the remnant of a failed marriage.

It should be no surprise that horror emerged as my favorite genre. By my teenage years, I had a firm grasp on how terrible people could be to one another; horror confirmed my bias. Characters harmed and killed one another. They broke down from the weight of the world, and sometimes they escaped terrible situations. I always knew that the monsters were the least of our worries. It is no surprise that I transitioned to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Tami Hoag, and Patricia Cornwell. Thrillers, mysteries, and horror showcased the seedier side of humanity, and I couldn’t seem to get enough. The clear cut morality of these genres also appealed. It was easy to predict what would happen. Popular fiction soothed me as it entertained me. King remains one of my favorites because he knows that horror is about losing who you love. His books tell us something we don’t want to think about: the capacity to love opens us to the experience of horror. (There’s a reason I’m so fascinated with zombies.)

I lost something important, then, when I gave up reading familiar books for serious scholarly pursuit. I would occasionally consume a tale of horror when I couldn’t stand to read another academic monograph, but I always felt guilty and anxious. What if someone found out? When I submitted my dissertation to my advisor, my response was to read the Twilight series. This is not quite the celebration I imagined I would have. I routinely scoured the shelves of the local bookstores to find anything with a supernatural edge. I finally felt free to read whatever I wanted, so I binged on popular fiction. I flew through Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, which I read again and again. I picked up books by Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Cassandra Clare, Rachel Caine, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Holly Black, and Devon Monk.

I uncovered a swoony love for urban fantasy as I rediscovered my love of science fiction. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels and John Scalzi’s Old Man War series are my favorites for escapism. I found that I love some books as much for their particularities and their flaws as I do their triumphs. I like the smart-ass characters that Scalzi specializes in, and I wish I were an unrepentant badass like the mercenary Kate Daniels. When I read Scalzi’s Red Shirts and Seanan McGuire’s Indexing, I ponder tha narrative structure of our lives and our various attempts to make our own stories fit into limited molds. These books let me dream and imagine. They also help me think. I hunker down with books when I need time to process what’s happening in my own life. Books give me the space to breathe.

Yet, I read on my Kindle now, so I can’t see the wear of each book from every rereading. No more torn covers or dog-eared pages. My books no longer fall apart before my eyes. I do see the passages I highlighted that spoke to me, and I wonder what it was about each passage that caused me to mark it. The lines that seemed so important in one reading become less pressing in another. My transition out of academia could be narrated by the books I read and the books I refuse to read. I missed popular fiction. I needed it. Maybe we all do.

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Ghostly Matters

image_miniWe need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there–Avery Gordon

On a whim, I reread portions of Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination last week. I picked it up because I need convincing and cajoling. I needed someone to inspire me about research, scholarship, and revolutionary possibility. This is the book is one of a handful of books that inspires me about the academic craft; there are many, many more that make me dislike the academic craft as a whole. But, Gordon is enchanting as she conjures enchantment, haunting, and loss, both historical and personal. We are all haunted, and she demonstrates why this matters. She makes me imagine what scholarship could be like if only we let ourselves experiment more and worry less. She makes me feel that my scholarship can be valuable to our world by changing the way we look at people, things, systems, institutions, and culture. Her helping “hand” makes me want to ignore disciplinary boundaries and expectations. She provides a guide to writing in ways that conjure the past but also the historical present beyond linear narratives and obsession with dates. She inspires me to be a different scholar than the one I was trained to be.

To say that I love Ghostly Matters is too simple of an explanation; it feels like a trite attempt to describe my affection that doesn’t hint at the depth of my emotion. This book forever changed the way I view the responsibilities, ethics, and the craft of scholars, and Gordon’s encouragement leads me to think that scholarship can be something more than what we seem to limit ourselves to, if only we can take up her radical challenge. Maybe we could offer our helping hands to others to reimagine what we do and why we do it.

Gordon’s tangled path is littered by absence, seething and demanding attention. Absence of knowledge, history, and evidence unsettles and discomforts, but more importantly, points to structural inequalities, terrible histories, and the consequences of the capitalist system. Ghosts appear and reappear. They stalk us. We are haunted by those who suddenly become visible. They are unfinished business. Ghosts reminds us of past injustices and the need for future reckoning. History is haunted; we are haunted. Haunting becomes unavoidable; it tells us something important. Gordon writes that haunting is:

a paradigmatic way in which life is more complicated than those of us who study it have usually granted. Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither premodern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it. This confrontation requires (or produces) a fundamental change in the way we know and make knowledge, in our mode of production (7).

“[L]ife is more complicated than those of us who study it have usually granted” is a sentiment that haunts me. This statement recognizes the sheer complexity of what we call life as well as the desire to fit the messiness of life into neat narratives that cleave away that what makes it the most fascinating. Life is more complicated than we have granted it and, possibly, too complex for us to easily explain (away).  What Gordon makes clear is that the common phrase “life is complicated” is not a banal, throwaway explanation provided when we have no clear answers, rather she notes that this phrase is “the most important theoretical statement of our time” (3). We often underestimate the analytical work of such a statement, which involves both power relations of particular times and places and “complex personhood.” Gordon catalogs power:

Power can be invisible, it can be fantastic, it can be dull and routine. It can be obvious, it can reach you by the baton of the police, it can speak the language of your thoughts and desires. It can feel like remote control, it can exhilarate like liberation, it can travel through time, and it can drown you in the present. It is dense and superficial, it can cause bodily injury, and it can harm you without seeming ever to touch you. It is systematic and it is particularistic and it is often both at the same time. It causes dreams to live and dreams to die (3).

How we account for power in both “systematic” and “particularistic” becomes crucial to our renderings of life. Complex personhood is the other key component to Gordon’s focus on life is complicated, which attempts to understand the ambivalence of human agency. Humans are equally as messy as the thing we call life. Complex personhood “means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others” (4). More importantly,

Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward….Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning (4-5).

Complex personhood makes me hesitant as a scholar to proclaim that I can know exactly what the people I write about want, dream, desire, imagine, or claim. My claims, at best, can be provisional. I can guess, but I can’t know. It suggests that straightfoward is only a part of an explanation that cannot fully provide what we know about individuals or their lives. Subtle meanings abound, and they are more elusive.

Complex personhood reemphasizes both the tentativeness of what we can learn and write about another. They are opaque, even we think they are transparent. Transparency, the straightforward, is only one dimension to personhood, and we can never forget that.  Complex personhood forefronts narrative and imagination, institutions and power, labels and lack of labels, and knowledge and feeling. Gordon encourages respectful engagement with those we study and cautions against easy interpretations. Gordon’s discussion of complex personhood signals the ambiguity of people and life. Her approach feels tentative and ethical. It abandons the folly of certitude and reduction for the ambiguous and the absent. I love it. Ghostly Matters makes me want to be a better scholar and person, and there aren’t many books that accomplish this feat.

 

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Throwback Friday: “I have tried to recover a sense of humanity…”

Today, I introduce a new feature for this poor inactive blog (a valiant attempt to make it active) entitled “Throwback Friday.” And yes, I know everyone else does this on Thursday, but I’m a non-conformist. My goal is to repost previous posts from a variety of different blogs as method to archive my work at this particular blog, but also reintroduce things that I have previously written. This is especially necessary because I am terrible at cross-posting for reasons I don’t entirely understand. I will be posting new content. I promise. Cross my heart.  Hope to die. You get the point. This post on Jonestown and “evil” religion first appeared at Religion in American History on May 7, 2013.

“I have tried to recover a sense of humanity…” 

Last week, I wrote a post for The Christian Century‘s Then and Now, curated by Edward J. Blum, on the label “evil” religion. As some might suspect, this label is often applied to the movements and people that I study (the Ku Klux Klan, doomsday cults, and new religious movements) among many other groups. The label, to put it mildly, is a problem, and the post catalogs my unease with quick judgments about the nature of “evil” religious movements versus other “good” religious movements (those that make us comfortable rather than uneasy). I wrote:

When people label religion “evil,” they almost always include Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians (who are represented here in an image accompanying Blake’s article). The common assumption follows that these religious groups can be marked as evil because they are imbricated in violence, death and destruction. We can cluck our tongues sympathetically at the supposedly brainwashed people deluded into joining these movements, and we can rest easier at night by assuming that our religious commitments must be the safe kind.

Moreover, we can hold onto the vision of “healthy religion” that [John] Blake espouses. If only we were versed in these four signs, the argument goes, then maybe these tragedies wouldn’t happen.

If only it were this easy. Such an understanding of “evil” religion is predicated on a sense that religion is inherently “good.” Blake even writes that “religion is supposed to be a force of good,” as if claiming this aloud necessarily makes it so. 

Unsurprisingly, I am increasingly wary of labels like “good,” “healthy,” “authentic,” “bad,” “evil,” or “illegitimate” when they function as modifiers for religion. The normative bounds of how we wish the world is/was present themselves in such labels. Yet, what does that do for analysis? I have spent much of my career thinking about how assumptions about religion and religious people guide our narratives. Villainy, as I tell my students, might make a good story, but it does not provide analysis. To claim the “evilness” of some religions marks others as safe and good, and in both instances, it ignores the sheer ambiguity and ambivalence of that thing we call religion. We lose something with every normative claim.

More and more, I find myself returning to David Chidester’s Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown to think through his claim of religion as “being a human person in a human place” (xviii), even if that means engaging and analyzing revolutionary suicide and mass death. This book prompts us to think about how to make the incomprehensible (the mass suicide of 913 members of the Peoples Temple) into something comprehensible. How do we make sense of these tragic events? Can we avoid the urge to moralize, to label “good” and “evil,’ or to rely on easy narratives of villainy, destruction, and madness? Can we approach instances of violence and terror with empathy? How do we humanize victims and perpetrators? Or can we? (Or do we want to?)

Chidester writes, “I have tried to recover a sense of humanity of the people who died in Jonestown” (xvii-xviii). Rather than provide another caricature of Jim Jones or Jonestown, Salvation and Suicide provides a more complicated portrait of the lives and deaths of 913 people in the Guyana jungle. No easy labeling of “evil” or “good” appear in its pages. Instead, we are left with haunting images of corpses littering the ground without easy explanations as to why. His book, then, works against dehumanization of the Jonestown dead in media coverage, scholarship, and public perception. To do this, he relies upon Ninian Smart’s concept of “structured empathy,” which is empathy structured by categories like symbol, myth, classification, orientation, and ritual that allows engagement with the worldview of another (xiv). I find this concept compelling as I employed it in my work on the Klan, but it is also unsettling. What might it mean to engage Jonestown or the Klan empathetically? What do we gain by emphasizing the humanity of our historical actors? What kind of scholars are we if we ignore their humanity? This question, in particular, appears and reappears in every research project of mine. I can’t escape it, nor do I want to.

What this means is that Salvation and Suicide lingers with me. Maybe, it even haunts me. The book forces me to think carefully about the methods I use to study religious people. It warns me to be careful and considerate. It presents the perils of dehumanization. It gives me pause. It keeps me awake at night. It gives me hope about scholarship. Chidester writes:

Perhaps I have taken the method of “structured empathy” to the breaking point here. However, if I had to push this brief observation on method a step further, I would argue that the method of structured empathy is already a moral strategy. It requires the recognition of the irreducible humanity of others upon which any ethics of the interpretation of otherness must be based (xv).

To recognize the “irreducible humanity of others,” on the surface, appears not to be a radical claim, but it is. Chidester’s careful reconstruction of the worldview of Peoples Temple represents the allure and appeal of a utopian commune in Guyana, in which members could escape the dehumanizing forces of American life, capitalism and racism, and remake themselves. Chidester demonstrates how suicide became a choice of being human or becoming subhuman. In the end, the Jonestown dead emerge as both. In heartbreaking detail, he guides us through the last moments that result in mass suicide, a choice of humanity, and the resulting interpretations of the event that make the Peoples Temple subhuman again. Finding humanity is not always an uplifting journey or a tale of liberation. Sometimes, finding humanity means confronting violence, terror, and death. We can be left haunted rather than inspired.

 

Review Redux: Gospel According to the Klan

Available at booksellers everywhere, pretty much :)

Well, folks, believe it or not, Gospel According to the Klan has now been out for three months, and slowly, the book is getting some reviews mostly online and at some news outlets. They are mostly good, (and sometimes they are tough). Additionally, I am still getting used the prospect of people reading (and buying) my book. So, here’s what folks are saying:

Michael J. Altman, Remembering When the Klan Tried to March Through Town:

That said, Baker’s book is an extremely important work. Her analyses of gender, nationalism, and material culture are strong and useful for anyone looking for a model. Furthermore, her use of the periodical literature and analysis of  representation and rhetoric offers me a model for my own work with representations of Hindus and Protestants in my sources. The chapters hold their own as individual readings and can be put to use in a number of undergraduate courses while the book as a whole ought to be a part of any seminar on race or nationalism and religion.

Just take the dust jacket off if you read it on an airplane–I discovered that the hard way.

(I feel like that line should be attached to all promotional materials. I included an image of the cover as a quick reminder of why that might be the case.)

Ina Hughs, Two New Books Offer Peak Behind the Klan’s Sheets, Knoxville News Sentinel

From Baker’s perspective, the Klan has a convoluted and somewhat misunderstood past. She puts a lot of focus on the religious implications of its history and the role religion plays in nationalism.

Kevin Boyle, The Not-So-Invisible Empire, New York Times

At the end of the book, though, Baker steps back from her texts. Suddenly her analysis becomes more pointed. Yes, the Klan had a very short life. But it has to be understood, she contends, as of a piece with other moments of fevered religious nationalism, from the anti-Catholic riots of the antebellum era to modern anti-­Islam bigots. Indeed, earlier this year, Herman Cain declared that he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet. It’s tempting to see those moments as Pegram does the Klan: desperate, even pitiful attempts to stop the inevitable broadening of American society. But Baker seems closer to the mark when she says that there’s a dark strain of bigotry and exclusion running through the national experience. Sometimes it seems to weaken. And sometimes it spreads, as anyone who reads today’s papers knows, fed by our fears and our hatreds.

Kenny Paul Smith, A Brave New Book, Religion Nerd:

I have called Gospel According to the Klan a brave new book. This is so for two important reasons. Firstly, Baker has exposed something about American cultural history that many of us may not wish to see: namely, that both religion and mainstream society participate in the ugly, even violent, side of American nationalism….Secondly, Baker has also exposed something unpleasant about the rest of us, those who do not concur or sympathize with Terry Jones and feel repulsed by exclusionary religious nationalism (Christian or otherwise): namely, that we have a tendency towards forgetfulness, and towards imagining American history and the American mainstream in ways that reflect our own preferences.

Not too bad so far, I think. I’ll post other reviews and commentary as they become available. Please feel free to post or send any feedback on Gospel directly to me. I would love to hear what other readers think, feel, like, hate, etc. about the book.