Tag Archives: favorite scholarship

jonestown_story

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.

 

Gender and the American Religious Historian, Part II

This nun image is for Amy Koehlinger, though others may enjoy it as well.

This is my humble attempt to document those scholars who use gender as a category of analysis in American religious history. The first four on my list were the scholars whose work has most deeply influenced my own. The rest of my list includes scholarship I love as well as scholarship that I need to know (and you do too!). My current goal is to list 31 scholars for the 31 days of NWHM. Let’s see if I can do it!

So, the list continues on:

5. Catherine Brekus, the editor of The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past and author of Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845, is one of the strongest voices about the inclusion of women in American religious history. Her introductory piece to The Religious History of American Women pulls no punches. She writes:

More than thirty years after the rise of women’s history alongside the feminist movement, it is still difficult to ‘find’ women in many books and articles about American religious history…[M]any seem to assume that women’s stories are peripheral to their research topics, whether Puritan theology or church and state. They do not seem hostile to women’s history as much as they are dismissive of it, treating it as a separate topic that they can safely ignore. Since ‘women’s historians’ are devoted to writing women’s history, those who simply identify themselves as ‘American religious historians’ can focus on topics that seem more important to them (1).

Brekus makes it clear that American religious history needs to attend to gender and her contributors showcase how studying the lives of women change the tenor, strategies and narration of American religious history. I reread her introductory essay, whenever I need a kick in the pants to do good gender analysis as a method to improve my scholarship. Women’s history is not just the purview of women’s historians.

6. Evelyn Higginbotham is the author of Righteous Discontent:The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church: 1880-1920 (1993).  While I am not the most familiar with her work, I should be. Harvard University Press describes this ground-breaking and award-winning work:

In her account, we see how the efforts of women enabled the church to build schools, provide food and clothing to the poor, and offer a host of social welfare services. And we observe the challenges of black women to patriarchal theology. Class, race, and gender dynamics continually interact in Higginbotham’s nuanced history. She depicts the cooperation, tension, and negotiation that characterized the relationship between men and women church leaders as well as the interaction of southern black and northern white women’s groups.

Righteous Discontent finally assigns women their rightful place in the story of political and social activism in the black church. It is central to an understanding of African American social and cultural life and a critical chapter in the history of religion in America.

7. Amy Koehlinger, a contributor to The Religious History of American Women, the author of The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s (2007), and one of my mentors, helped me wrestle with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as well as informed my approach to 1920s Klan femininity and masculinity. Amy’s work on Catholic nuns and their struggles in the Civil Rights movement analyzes race and gender in tandem and demonstrates how nuns negotiated their new roles during the advent of Vatican II. Her new project, titled Rosaries and Rope Burns, explores importance of boxing for Catholic men as well as examines how the sport influenced performances of masculinity. This isn’t first time she’s tackled masculinity. Her essay, “Let Us Live for Those Who Love Us’: Faith, Family, and the Contours of Manhood among the Knights of Columbus in Late Nineteenth-Century Connecticut” in the Journal of Social History, takes to task Mark Carnes’s work on fraternities in the Victorian era for focusing solely on Protestant men’s attempts to move away from domesticity. The Knights of Columbus, on the other hand, imagined their fraternal work as an extension of their family life.

8. Lynn Neal is the author of Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction (2006) and a co-conspirator when it comes to all things religious intolerance. Romancing God explores the relationships of evangelical fiction to evangelical romance novels, and Lynn takes seriously the piety and devotional reading of these Christian women. Rather than disparage the romance novel, she explores the complicated relationships evangelical women have with the books that they read and how this genre influenced their practices of Christianity. (I’ve blogged about Lynn and Amy’s work long ago.)

8. Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, author of New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era (2009), and contributor to The Religious History of American Women. Kathy also blogs at  with outr much beloved crew at Religion in American History. Her work employs case studies of Catholic women to demonstrate how debates over Catholic identity during the Progressive era were also negotiations of gender roles. She has written deftly about the place of women religious in Catholic infrastructure.

9. Anthea Butler, who I follow at Religion Dispatches, is the author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (2007). Butler’s work engaged me as soon as she cataloged the fashion of the women of COGIC and discussed the ways in which fashion cleared up the problem of sanctified women’s bodies. Here’s what I said about her book at the Journal of Southern Religion:

Moreover, fashionable dress might present a gender-confused body. For members, “the Spirit could not move into a body that was ‘confused’ about its gender identity,” which meant that women policed the clothing of other women to guarantee one could become sanctified (79). Additionally, dress was the preferred method of controlling men’s sexual behavior. By dressing modestly, COGIC women differentiated themselves from prostitutes and appeared “respectable” (80-81). For Butler, dress is also the signal for changes within the denomination. Restrictions of dress emphasized the importance of self-sanctification, and the embrace of more fashionable attire signaled the engagement of church mothers with the larger world. To become civically engaged, these women had to retire plain dress and be “a smartly dressed, well-coiffed and well versed church mother with a vocabulary steeped in scripture yet attuned to the social realities on earth, rather than heaven” (136). The evolution of the Women’s Department from 1911 to the 1960s could be traced sartorially. Their dress signaled their spiritual concerns, and their clothing shifted from a material artifact representing inner purity to smart clothing that symbolized a concern with the larger world. For Butler, by the 1970s, clothing had been stripped of much of its religious meaning, and well-dressed women were no longer engaged, but submissive to the commands of male leadership.

Her careful attention to the sartorial and the complexity of gender performance for COGIC women makes this one of my beloved examples of Pamela Klassen’s assertion that the history of religion is a history of clothing.

10. Bret Carroll‘s article on the mediumship of John Shoebridge Williams is one my favorite academic articles, which is not a title I pass around lightly. Carroll uses the diaries of Williams to show how the medium faced conflicting norms of masculinity in Spiritualism but also larger 19th century American culture. Williams had a peculiar dilemma, in that he believed he was growing breasts because his daughter, Eliza, possessed him. I recently taught this article in my gender seminar, and my students were a bit flabbergasted. Yet, the complexity of masculinity, femininity and the problem of androgyny appear in this well-written and humorous article about one male medium’s struggle with his gender performance. Feel free to rush to JSTOR for your reading pleasure.

Note: The University of North Carolina press is not influencing my choices with any monetary gains. They just rock when it comes to gender scholarship in American religious history.

[Cross posted at Religion in American History on 3/18]

 

Gender and the American Religious Historian, Part I

Spiritualists looking properly detached from this world.

As mentioned in my post last week, I want to highlight the scholars who take gender and women seriously in American Religious History for National Women’s History Month. Below, I have provided my first four scholars, and these are the folks that I find most pivotal when I think about the power of gender history to inform and change American religious history. As one might tell, I have favorite pieces of scholarship from each, and each has a large body of scholarship to draw from. The ones I highlight are the ones that influence me most deeply as a scholar.

Here are they are:
1. Ann Braude, of course, is at the top of my list. Her works include Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America (2001)Sisters and Saints: Women and Religion in America and several edited collections, notably Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: The Women Who Changed American Religion. Her essay, “Women’s History is American Religious History” (1997) is required reading. In this piece, she argues that women’s history is central to the narratives of American religions, and that common descriptors like secularization refer to men’s roles and decreasing presence in churches rather than abandonment wholesale of Christianity. For Braude, religious history looks different from the perspective of women, and this needs to be accounted for in our tellings and retellings of American religious history. Again, I wonder how many have taken seriously her call of the gendered nature of our categories of American religious historiography.

2. Pamela Klassen‘s work on religion and maternity is one of my currently most assigned pieces in my gender classes. While I don’t assign the whole of Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America (2001), I do assign her  “Sacred Maternities and Post-Biomedical Bodies” from Signs. Klassen’s analysis of home birth tackles one of the most problematic areas for feminist theory, pregnancy. Her article presents the ways in which home birthing women describe their bodies and what is “natural” as well as what is supernatural about birth. Her explorations of what is at stake in the natural clearly shows how pregnancy is socially constructed and biological. Just because we assume biology doesn’t mean it is. Klassen deftly showcases how the biological becomes paramount in the case of pregnancy, but home birthing women graft social and religious meaning on their bodies as well. They might be “postbiomedical bodies” but they are social bodies as well.

3. Marie Griffith‘s work on Women’s Aglow also appears quite frequently in my classes in American religious history and gender. Much like with Klassen, I don’t assign the whole of God’s Daughters:Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (1997). Instead, my students read “Submissive Wives, Wounded Daughters, and Female Soldiers…” from David Hall’s edited collection, Lived Religion in America. This haunting piece on the power of submission to God in the lives of women often troubles my students. That discomfort allows for good analysis and equally compelling discussion. I am also deeply in love with Born Again Bodies (2004), which emphasizes the importance/significance of bodies and food in American religious history. Griffith’s assertion of the danger of slimness in religious circles to emphasize certain white, female bodies and the corruptedness of differing bodies stayed with me long after I finished this work. The centrality of bodies to theology also made me rethink my own approach to white, male bodies in my own work. Griffith has just been named the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

4. Robert Orsi‘s “ ‘He Keeps Me Going’: Women’s Devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus…” in Religion in American History: A Reader is another constant in my classes. This article is a portion of  Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (1999), which is my favorite book, hands down, by Orsi. Every time I read this article, I find some new layer of complexity from the lovely interweaving of immigrant history, the Catholic Church’s position on women in newsletters, and the material relationships of the women to St. Jude. He writes, “Women…created and imagined themselves, manipulating and altering the available grammar of gender” (349). Moreover, Orsi poignantly notes, “Women believed that they became agents in a new way with Jude’s help” (349).  Women believed in agency, but Orsi seems less convinced. This line proved particularly fruitful to my students this semester as they struggled with the question of agency and the desire to see agency even if there is none. Belief in agency startled them and me, and we wondered how St. Jude operates. We pondered what does the attachment to the patron saint of lost causes really mean for women, for Catholicism, and for our class.

A fittingly handsome St. Jude with kind eyes.

 

Stay tuned for the next parts! Now, cross posted at Religion in American history.