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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.

 

Reading Roundup for RiAH

Here’s what I posted today at the Religion in American History blog:

Wednesday Round Up: Must Read Edition

While Paul is away, the blog will go on (and on) with a new series on religion and masculinity (see Charity’s first post here) and the long overdue return of the Gender and the American Religious Historian series. We have to keep all you readers busy, so y’all breathe a deep sigh of relief when Paul returns. Anyone, contributor or guest poster, who would like to submit posts to either the masculinity or the gender series, please send it along to kellyjbaker (at) gmail (dot) com. The more the merrier!

Happy Wednesday everybody! Here are some must-reads for the middle of the week.

First, the Center for the Study of Religion & American culture posted the proceedings from the second biennial conference. The proceedings from the 2009 meeting are also available. RiAH bloggers provided our thoughts on the conference (Elesha’s here and here, Janine’s here, Paul’s here and mine), and now, the excellent papers are available to all of you who missed the lively conference.

Second, check out our own John Fea‘s “Can the Study of History Heal the Culture Wars?” at Patheos. Here’s a snippet:
…I could not help but wonder if the thing that ails us most is not our failure to engage in activism, but our failure to understand and empathize with those with whom we might disagree. Perhaps our failure to bringing reconciliation and healing to our divided culture is, at its core, a failure of liberal learning, particularly as it relates to the study of history. Christians and secularists can team up in social justice projects, and Barack Obama can give stirring speeches about ending the Red State-Blue State divide, but until the American people develop the discipline of listening to one another, we will remain stalled in our attempts at reconciliation.

Third, Craig Martin interviews Manuel A. Vásquez about his More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford 2010), which I will be reviewing a bit later for the blog. Martin describes Vásquez’s project in these terms:

More than Belief is very much a “theory” book, as it provides a comprehensive introduction to modern and postmodern theories (feminist, anthropological, sociological, philosophical, psychological, neuroscientific, etc.) relevant to the study of that thing we call “religion.” Along the way Vásquez criticizes each theory considered, selects the best elements of each that he finds worth saving, and synthesizes the useful remainders into his own general theory of religion. What was astonishing to me about the book was the scope: Vásquez moves from the mind/body problem in Plato and Descartes to the rejection of dualism by Spinoza and Nietzsche, to the origins of phenomenology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to social constructionism in Foucault and Butler, to Deleuze and Haraway, to cognitive science of religion, and so forth (this list includes highlights from only the first half of the book—I wasn’t joking when I said “comprehensive”!). Vásquez ends up arriving at a naturalist but non-reductive materialist theory that emphasizes embodiment, practice, and global social networks.

And here’s Vásquez on the role of theory in the study of religion:

Today, I am far more skeptical that theory can solve all social problems. Although some of my Jesuit teachers were killed by the military during the Salvadoran civil war precisely because of their ideas, I am keenly aware that there is always a painful gap between theory and practice (even when theorizing is a form of practice). Moreover, I do not see the theorist as some sort of Sartrean emancipatory hero, always choosing freedom over bad faith. As Bourdieu tells us, being an authoritative theorist requires a habitus, a habitus that is formed by one’s privileged trajectory in the fields of knowledge production. Still, I do theory as a critical engagement with particular problems or impasses. I agree with Foucault that theory should be driven by a “limit-attitude,” a situated “permanent critique of ourselves.” It should grow out of “our impatience for liberty.” As such, theory should be a passionate endeavor “oriented toward the ‘contemporary limits of the necessary,’ that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” This normative stance, which implies that theory should be useful not just in academia, but, to the extent possible, to our being-in-the-world, is a corollary of a materialist epistemology that stresses immanent becoming.

For more the rest of Martin and Vásquez’s conversation, parts one and two are available.

Methods and Monsters, Oh My!:This Week’s Reading (June 13-17)

Why does Sesame Street seem to be dominated by monsters?

Alright, folks, this is my attempt at a semi-regular weekly post to let you know what I reading this week, and perhaps, to encourage some of you to read along with me.

I’ll provide a short lists of the articles and books that I am reading/analyzing from week to week to showcase what projects I’m working on as well as to point some good scholarship too.

This week’s list includes:

1. Finding Presence in Mormon History:An Interview with Susanna Morrill, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Robert Orsi, Dialogue, 44:2, Summer 2011. (Thanks to Christopher Jones of both Juvenile Instructor and Religion in American History for this link.)

Here’s a snippet:

Robert: Again here’s an example where the language fails us. What is happening at these meetings in 1836 where there is an abundance of visions that are shared by lots of people, and people are speaking in tongues and seeing the heavens open? Modern historiography just stops at this point; it cannot deal with such experiences historically or phenomenologically. And as you say early on in the book, it appears that the only two options in modern historiography are either debunking such moments, claiming that the person at the center of it all is a charlatan and everyone else are dupes, or else translating the events into the language of the social: that it’s a matter of poverty, of people being on the margins of society, etcetera. But that leaves the central experiences unexamined and thus absent from history.

Richard: I agree with you entirely. You don’t have to dismiss all those other things; but if you were to talk about them to the people themselves, they might nod but would think we missed the point. One trouble is we get caught up in our readers’ struggles. If we had absolutely neutral readers, we might be able to do it. You suggest at the end that, to write understanding history, the historians must have a certain sensibility, but so do readers. They have to be willing to go with the flow, and that’s sometimes hard for them to do.

2. Robert Orsi, “2+2=Five, or the Quest for Abundant Empiricism,” Spiritus, 6:1 (Spring 2006), 113-121. (This is available via Project Muse with subscription).  Here’s my favorite line:

The phrase “I am spiritual but not religious” unwittingly encodes this memory”: it means “my religion is interior, self-determined and determining, free of authority,” the opposite of that other thing, which in the history of the modern West means first “I am not like Catholics,” later “I do not belong to any church” (117).

3. Russell McCutcheon, “It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin”: On the Limits of the Humanistic Study of Religion and the Costs of Saving Others from Themselves,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74:3 (September 2006), 720-750.  (This is also available via subscription to Project Muse.) This article  provides much to ponder, but I find appeal in McCutcheon’s terms “no cost Other” and the “too Other” (733) in describing the how and the why of religious studies. He uses the work of Orsi and Paul Courtright to discuss the costs of humanistic presumptions in methodology and urges readers to understand what it might mean that we employ different methods for the “no cost” and the “too Other.”

4. Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (OUP: 2009). Here’s the description from Oxford:

Monsters. Real or imagined, literal or metaphorical, they have exerted a dread fascination on the human mind for many centuries. They attract and repel us, intrigue and terrify us, and in the process reveal something deeply important about the darker recesses of our collective psyche.
Stephen Asma’s On Monsters is a wide-ranging cultural and conceptual history of monsters–how they have evolved over time, what functions they have served for us, and what shapes they are likely to take in the future. Asma begins with a letter from Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. detailing an encounter in India with an “enormous beast–larger than an elephantthree ominous horns on its forehead.” From there the monsters come fast and furious–Behemoth and Leviathan, Gog and Magog, the leopard-bear-lion beast of Revelation, Satan and his demons, Grendel and Frankenstein, circus freaks and headless children, right up to the serial killers and terrorists of today and the post-human cyborgs of tomorrow. Monsters embody our deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities, Asma argues, but they also symbolize the mysterious and incoherent territory just beyond the safe enclosures of rational thought.

5. Material Religion’s July 2011 issue on key terms in Material Religion keeps sucking me back in, especially the articles on belief (Robert Orsi), Medium (Birgit Meyer), Thing (David Morgan), and Words (Brent Plate).

6. What I want to be reading is Adam Mansbach’s recently released Go the F**k to Sleep, a mash-up of adult humor and a child’s bedtime story. Perhaps, I’ll just listen to Samuel L. Jackson read it to me instead.

Of course, this is only a taste of my weekly reading, but I highly recommend all of these resources. From methods to monsters appears to be my weekly goal, and of course, the Klan is always lurking in my mind, too, especially as I get promotional materials ready for the forthcoming book.

Happy reading!

P.S. For those of you always made nervous by the Cookie Monster, this very monster contemplate his monsterhood (years ago) at McSweeney’s. He asks the essential question, “Is Me Really a Monster?”:

How can they be so callous? Me know there something wrong with me, but who in Sesame Street doesn’t suffer from mental disease or psychological disorder? They don’t call the vampire with math fetish monster, and me pretty sure he undead and drinks blood. No one calls Grover monster, despite frequent delusional episodes and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And the obnoxious red Grover—oh, what his name?—Elmo! Yes, Elmo live all day in imaginary world and no one call him monster. No, they think he cute. And Big Bird! Don’t get me started on Big Bird! He unnaturally gigantic talking canary! How is that not monster? Snuffleupagus not supposed to exist—woolly mammoths extinct. His very existence monstrous. Me least like monster. Me maybe have unhealthy obsession, but me no monster.

Gospel According to the Klan Cover

Just a quick note to say my forthcoming book now titled, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, now has a cover!

The book will be available in August, and I’ll link to it as soon as it is up. Please check out the lovely design from the equally lovely University Press of Kansas.

Just the right amount of creepy