Nov 30, 2011

Theology, the hidden dwarf

"It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called 'historical materialism' is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight."
-- Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

Next semester's classes

Proseminar: American Pentecostalism
(B.A. students)

To the casual observer, American pentecostalism may well appear to be the most bewildering of contemporary forms of Christianity. Whether it’s snake handlers or prosperity preachers, healing miracles preformed on television or the exorcism of demons on the radio, “speaking in tongues,” being “slain in the spirit,” or just extraordinarily exuberant prayer, American Pentecostalism seems completely foreign to the culture around it. Yet, it emerged from and exists in that context. American pentecostalism is deeply embedded in 20th century American history. Pushing past the apparent strangeness, this class will examine the pentecostal movement in the United States, looking at its cultural relationships, and its history, beliefs and practices, paying special attention to ways these illuminate America’s recent past.

This course is intended to introduce students to the history of American Pentecostalism, as well as giving them a working understanding of the practice of religious history and cultural studies.

Text: A course reader will be made available.

Nov 29, 2011

The medialization of pentecostals

The Los Angels Daily Times reports the birth
of American pentecostalism at Azusa Street.
One of the stranger things about American religion in the 20th century has to be how completely, totally medialized pentecostalism was. 

In some ways, there's no group more resistant to modern American culture. No group more intent on being separate, on being foreign. Especially in the early days, and with the groups that were holiness. This resistance persists too in the more polished versions, and in even the most recent developments of the movement. Yet, even at the most anti- and counter-cultural moments, pentecostalism is whole-heartedly mediated by media.

I've been doing some research, as I'll be teaching American Pentecostals next semester, and it's fascinating to see how pentecostals use media today. Miracles on YouTube, for example. And how it was in these early moments, like Azusa Street in the LA Times.

There're elements of medialization in all sorts of American religions, of course. One sees the sense of media, the mediation, even the self-conscious mediation, and the affects all across the religious landscape. Billy Graham's tamer suit, the mass weddings of the Unification Church, the telegenic Pope, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' current add campaign, & so on. Many have used media. Many have learned from media. Many have only been able to imagine themselves & present themselves & position themselves through modern media.

With pentecostals, though, it's so thorough. There's no part of it, no movement of it or way it has been experienced that hasn't been presented or represented in media.

Even from the beginning.

All three waves of pentecostalism's history have been represented by and through media. All work, fundamentally, as media spectacle. They make sense, specifically, in terms of the media of their day.

I wonder if it wouldn't even be possible to map the three so-called waves onto to the major developments in mass media in the 20th century. Maybe: the first outbreak with newspapers & radio, your basic mass media; charismatics with cable & 24-hour television; 3rd wave with social media & the internet.

It's a thought. 

Nov 22, 2011

"If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It's as if there's the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws, and the usual things happen and unusual things don't happen. And then there's this other level, where everything is really weird.

"On Nov. 22, in rained the night before ..."
-- Errol Morris, The Umbrella Man

'When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ
is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did'



My students find the fictional conversion narratives in Christian fiction unpersuasive. The word they use to describe it is "sudden." It happens too fast, like a slip over a line. It's not staged as a deduction or a conclusion, though there are arguments. The arguments happen, and then there's a gap. And then a moment where the need for arguments has evaporated. There's a knowledge in that moment -- the character "knows" -- but knowledge that's not at all like the knowledge of a conclusion.

The characters "just know," and, further, they know they know, though there's not really any clear articulation of how.

Generously, my students assume this is a failure of the fiction. That it's simply staged badly. It makes no sense to them that this is how it happens, so they attribute the implausibility to the badly written books. It must, they say, make more sense in real life, and if only the authors were better writers, the conversions would seem less sudden.

I don't know, though. It seems there is this moment of "slip" (that's not quite the right word for it, though). There is a suddenness to conversions, in how they're described by people who experience them. There's a moment when the arguments, however carefully constructed, however thoroughly labored over, don't matter anymore.

Maybe in one sense this makes it irrational, but it's not exactly experienced as a giving up of reason. More like, something about that which one was arguing oneself towards has changed, been vivified, and is no more like a reason than a butterfly. As inarticulate as that is. It's neither a reason nor a rejection of reason, but a realization.

It's a long silent moment, then "oh."

There can be a suddenness to the experience, which seems so implausible from the outside. Accounts of the experience of conversion -- Christian conversions, but others too -- often involve this moment of a sudden switch, a toggle. A moment of "and then I knew."

I'm finding it rather hard to explain.

Nov 19, 2011

Who reads Christian fiction?

Almost every time a cultural critic or an academic refers to readers of Christian fiction, the word "reader" could be replaced with the more pejorative phrase, "those people."

I sometimes have the urge, maybe a little facetiously, to ask, "didn't you read it too?"

Their interpretations, though, don't involve the self-reflexivity required to include their own readings in their theorizing about what happens when people read Christian fiction. Reading seems like it's conceived of as something only other people do.

Other people who are crazy, stupid and scary.

Nov 17, 2011

Straw man arguments defending straw man arguments

It happens like this: An atheist (or New Atheist) attacks the idea of God as implausible. Someone, a theist of some sort, typically a monotheist, counters that the idea of God being attacked is not, actually, the idea of God held by the theist, or indeed by the majority of the major world religions, and certainly not by the monotheistic ones. I.e., the God you say you don't believe, no one does.

I.e., you are attacking a straw God.

Then, almost invariably, the atheist counters the counter thus:
"the majority of believers believe in an 'anthropocentric, grey-bearded being.' They believe in heaven, hell, angels, demons, and all the other clap-trap that goes along with these bronze-age era beliefs."
But wait. Really? They do?

Nov 14, 2011

Reading as a kind of believing

Imagine if J.K. Rowling were to try to make an argument that Harry Potter existed. It would be very hard to convince anyone. Even if she had a lot of logic and history, and good arguments, even if she said it was revealed by God to be true and that many serious and smart people believed in Harry Potter, most of us would remain skeptical.

We wouldn't actually believe.

More, we probably wouldn't even actually engage with the idea. It's just so implausible, we wouldn't even weigh the arguments and consider the claim.

Imagine, on the other hand, that she didn't give us an argument, but a novel, a story, which started with an invitation to suspend disbelief. Imagine if she said, essentially, "you don't have to really believe in Harry Potter, just pretend." She might have started out, if she were going to do this, with the opening, "imagine ...."

Or she might have begun,
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense."
That's not an argument to believe something, but an invitation to suspend one's normal disbelief. The text isn't asking you to believe -- since, "of course" it's not true -- but to just not not-believe for a little while.

"That music was like nothing I'd ever heard before, a cross between Salvation Army and acid rock: tambourines, an electric guitar, drums, cymbals, and voices that careened from one note to the next as though the singers were being sawn in half. 'I shall not be ... I shall not be moved. I shall not be ... I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the wa-a-ter, oh ... I shall not be moved!' ...

"They knelt at the makeshift altar and started praying out loud, each a different prayer. J.L.'s voice rose above the others for a measure or so. 'Oh Lord, be with us now, and in thy mercy hold us and keep up, and O Dear God, bless this our little church, amen, and keep it for your own ...'

"Then another voice rose up to meet his, entered into fellowship with it, and fell away, each voice on a separate strand of meaning but weaving with the others into a kind of song, rising and falling, gathering and dispersing ....

"And underneath all the human voices was the incessant rattle of the serpent in the wooden box."

-- Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain.

Nov 10, 2011

Yeah. So, nevermind.

So I was wrong about Rick Perry. The guy is not going to "run the table," clearly. Run off the table, maybe.

I was wrong.

Nov 9, 2011

When Billy Graham met Woody Allen

Billy Graham was a pop culture figure from basically the beginning. In addition to all the other things he has been, there's this really fascinating parade of iconic, pop culture moments where Graham is paired with another famous person. They're often weird and, to me, feel counter intuitive. They're often also enlightening in how they stage the kinds of cultural alliances and divides that marked and made recent history.

E.g.:
Graham and Bette Paige.
Graham and Muhammed Ali.
Graham and William F. Buckley (where Graham says he believes in aliens).
Graham and William Randolph Hearst.
Graham skinny dipping with LBJ.
Graham in disguise at a love-in.
Graham and Nixon talking about Jews.

And so on.

For Graham's 93rd birthday, this week, someone dug up and passed along one of these moments: Graham being interviewed by Woody Allen.

Nov 8, 2011

Religion and the Marketplace conference report

Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Philip Goff, of Indiana University-Purdue Indiana, then issued the challenge of the conference: “What we are doing here,” Goff said, “is turning the table 90 degrees, and looking specifically at what scholars often off-handedly use as a metaphor.”

Starting the first panel of the day was R. Laurence Moore, of Cornell University, the author of one of the major works on the subject, Selling God: American Religion and the Marketplace of Culture. Moore examined the way economic standards and values are baptized by religion. Looking at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, Moore noted that prayer is understood as a market strategy, and “the measures of profit and loss remain the same.” Even Osteen’s megachurch itself, Moore argued, is a place both of prayer and commerce without, apparently, any sense of cognitive dissonance. Mark Valeri, of Union Presbyterian Seminar, continued with a look at the way Evangelicalism gave rise to American capitalism, making it possible in the eighteenth-century colonies. Valeri criticized Max Weber’s seminal theory, using more developed idea of markets, which points to the importance of the public sphere. It’s only with the emergence of a public sphere that capitalism is established, as Jürgen Habermas has demonstrated, Valeri argued, and the public sphere in early America was formed by the discourse of Evangelicals.

The full report on "Religion and the Marketplace in the US," is @ American Studies Heidelberg

Nov 3, 2011

Harold Camping is not sorry

Harold Camping says "when it comes to trying to recognize the truth of prophecy, we're finding that it is very very difficult," a point he, so far as I can find, never made in any of his extensive, definitive exegeses of prophecy, a qualification and a caution he never offered when people sent him money, sold everything, and staked their hope on the parousia Camping said was certain. Further, Camping notes, "Sometimes [God] gives us the truth and sometimes He gives us something that causes us to wait further upon Him."

This isn't just not an apology, it's a statement that, in a very real way, it's not even possible for Camping to have been wrong. He is, in a sense, hermetically sealed against error, since even when he was wrong, that too was from God. God gives truth, which Camping relays, and God gives lies, which Camping also relays. But they aren't lies, exactly, but a method of teaching God uses.

Read the rest of the essay @ Religion Dispatches.

Here the Devil

"... we improved each moment to get along as if we were fleeing for our lives .... We went down to the Stream but heard no man speak a word all the way for 3 miles but every one pressing forward in great haste and when we got to Middletown old meeting house there was a great Multitude it was said to be 3 or 4000 of people Assembled together.

"... my hearing him preach, gave me a heart wound ... my old Foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me ....

"Now when I went away I made great Resolutions that I would forsake every thing that was Sinfull ... And at once I felt a calm in my mind, and I had no desire to any thing that was sin as I thought; But here the Devil thought to Catch me on a false hope, for I began to think that I was converted, for I thought I felt a real Change in me."

-- Nathan Cole, Spiritual Travels

Nov 1, 2011

Demons & the function of the idea of demons in America

How strange is belief in demons today?

How obscure is this, in the America we live in?

Not very.

There are, roughly calculated, 150,173,800 American Christians who believe in demons*. That's 150 million-plus self-identified Christians in America, who, when asked by pollsters, said they agreed with the idea there were evil spirits, demons, etc., at work in the world in such a way that they could control or influence a person.

150 million plus is not, it feels necessary to point out, a small number.

That's slightly more than 48% of Americans**.

This, of course, is not even counting people who don't self identify as Christians but who also believe in demons. It's not like demons are unique to Christian theology, after all.

In short, lots and lots of Americans' experience of the world and explanation of the world includes reference to demons. Demons, for them, serve an explanatory function, sometimes, and are part of the furniture of the cosmos, one of the types of entities that inhabit the world.

So: not obscure.

So: while you may think it's strange, and maybe objectively it is strange, and while there may be really good arguments for why people shouldn't believe in demons, maybe shouldn't even be able to believe in demons, what with science today being what it is, people do. Lots of people.

It's actually quite, quite common.

It's also not something to be freaked out about. Not only is belief in demons not that rare, sociologically speaking, it isn't really as freaky as it's made out to be, and, really, the more you know about it, the less important it seems.