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A Mixtape on Theory & ‘Religion’ Dedicated to American Historians: Side A

Michael J. Altman

Last month, at the Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, I was hanging out with RiAH blogger Heath Carter and friend of the blog Tim Gloege when Heath leaned over the table and said to me, “So, Mike, tell me what historians don’t understand about ‘religion.’”

“Yea,” said Tim. “You should write a blog post on that. 10 books of theory that every historian should read.”

Little did I know that Heath’s question, posed to me the night of our arrival to Indianapolis, would be one of the major themes of the conference. The next morning opened with a panel on “what is religion?” and the second day saw more poking and prodding around how historians and religious studies scholars should think about the category religion. By the end of the conference I found myself defending genealogical critiques of categories like “religion” or “Hinduism.”

(Side note: That I’m typing this blog post on my laptop is proof enough that I still find use in the so-called “genealogical turn” and have not, indeed, taken a sledgehammer to my computer as recommended.)

So, I’m going to follow Tim’s advice. I offer this mixtape of theoretical essays and books to all my American historian friends who want to think about the category “religion” a little deeper, with a little more nuance, and with a little more theory. Like all mixtapes, this one carries with it my own tastes and is offered with affection in hopes that a track or two will inspire you to listen deeper in the artist’s catalog.

The first half of the mixtape is below and I’ll bring you the second half in August. Also, feel free to make more recommendations in the comments section. 

Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998) and Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1982)

A good mixtape starts off hot and so I’m going to pair Smith’s now classic essay with his now classic book. “Religion, Religions, Religious” can be found in Mark C. Taylor’s Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Smith traces various definitions of “religion” beginning with the Latin root *leig and moving all the way through anthropologist Melford E. Spiro. Imagining Religion consists of a series of essays  wherein Smith tries to reposition the study of religion away from the essentialist approach that dominated the field. As opposed to the study of “the sacred” as popularized by Mircea Eliade, Smith argues that the study of religion must be historical and anthropological. The real genius of the book is Smith’s mastery of a variety of examples ranging from early Judaism to cargo cults to Jonestown.

Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (2005)

This book is the Father John Misty of this mixtape. Some people think it’s original and interesting while others find it far too pleased with itself. You may have heard of this one, historians. You may even have read one of the reviews from Bob Orsi or Leigh Schmidt. But don’t judge a book by the fact that no one you know liked it. Masuzawa is not offering a history of the study of religion but a genealogy of “world religions” discourse. The book shows how (mostly) European scholars folded Christian supremacy and primacy into the pluralist discourse of world religions. The next step that no one has taken is to show how this world religions discourse flourished in the United States on the one hand and how it became an organizing principle in the study of American religion on the other.

David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion (1996)

This is the part where the mixtape adds in some international flavor. Think of this as that world music track that gets thrown in. Like the world music track on a mixtape, this book provides some much needed comparison for American historians. If we want to think about how “religion” has been constructed in America, why not pay attention to how it was constructed elsewhere. Chidester unpacks the role of colonial officials, native informants, and missionaries in the construction of “religion” in colonial South Africa. It is a wonderful example of how a scholar can pay attention to the political, social, colonial, economic, and cultural forces that fabricate religion. If you’ve read Tisa Wenger’s We Have a Religion, this makes a very interesting comparison.

William Arnal and Russell T. McCutcheon, The Sacred is the Profane (2012)

Not including my colleague Russell McCutcheon on this mixtape would be like leaving the Descendents of that mixtape I gave my wife in college. It wouldn’t be right.  While most people would expect me to include McCutcheon’s earlier Manufacturing Religion (the equivalent to ‘Milo Goes to College’), I actually prefer his later work from the past few years (sort of like Everything Sucks’ and ‘Cool to Be You’). In this collection of essays written over a few years, Arnal and McCutcheon tackle theoretical issues such as the constant “what’s the definition of religion?” question, the politics and economics of religious studies, and “the secular.” In some ways, it’s the twenty-first century analog to Imagining Religion. 

Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993)

Let’s end this side of the tape with an oldie but a goodie. Talal Asad’s set of essays in this book brought a Foucaultian (yea, I said it) interest in power, knowledge, and discourse to the study of religion. Like other books on this mixtape, it moves between a number of different examples, times, and places. But the book is held together by Asad’s argument that “religion” is a category constructed by the West to make sense of non-Western people. Furthermore, Asad deftly analyzes how “religion” has arisen as modern concept. Come for the slobberknocker takedown of Clifford Geertz and stay for the smart take on Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. 

Well, that’s side A. Check back here next month to see what’s on the B-side. Also, tell me what I missed or why I picked terrible books or why you hate mixtapes in the comments.

Black Religion and Black Power

Matthew J. Cressler

When most people (and many scholars) think of American religion and struggles for social justice, they tend to think first of the southern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.  And to a certain extent  they would be right to do so.  There is no question that the fight against segregation in the Jim Crow South represented a high point of religious activism in American history – and many of my fellow bloggers here have contributed to our understanding of this moment. (Religious labor radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s represented another high point that our bloggers have been attentive to.)

Today though, I want to turn our attention to another historical moment, one chronologically proximate but often imagined to be antithetical to the civil rights movement – namely, Black Power.  Black Power has typically been conceived as northern (and western) whereas civil rights was southern, violent while civil rights was nonviolent, and secular in contrast to the inherent religiousness of civil rights.  When Stokely Carmichael first spoke the words “Black Power!” in 1966 (which, as an aside, he did in rural Mississippi not in the urban north) he gave voice to a growing shift in the predominant ideologies and strategies of the black freedom struggles, even if the component parts of Black Power (black nationalism, community control, self-defense) were not new.
Later that same year two black college students in Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.  According to Robert L. Allen’s classic Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969), the Black Panther Party Platform represented the “first concrete attempt to spell out the meaning of black power,” proposing a sweeping program that ranged from demands for employment and education to broader issues of freedom and self-determination.

Journalists were quick to contrast what they took to be the irrational rage of urban youth shouting “Black Power!” with caricatures of a more palatable southern Christian nonviolence – needless to say, neither of these characterizations approximated the reality of either.  The first generation of post-civil rights scholarship reproduced this juxtaposition between secular anger and religious love, black violence and Christian nonviolence.  Even as more recent scholars have challenged many of the classic binaries separating Black Power from civil rights, the secular/religious divide usually persists since it serves as a convenient category for marking the elusive shift from one style of social justice struggle to another.  (The convenience of this argument depends on presuppositions about the inherent peacefulness of “real” or “proper” religion that are built into the modern study of religion itself, but that is a conversation for another time.)

Convenience notwithstanding, Black Power was actually taken up by a number of black religious communities almost immediately after its first iteration.  On July 31, 1966, not long after Carmichael’s famous statement, the National Committee of Negro Churchmen published their own statement expressing deep disturbance over the manufactured controversy surrounding “Black power” and what they called the media’s “historic distortions of important human realities.”  They argued that “what we see shining through the variety of rhetoric is not anything new but the same old problem of power and race which has faced our beloved country since 1619.”  They identified the hypocrisy of “the assumption that white people are justified in getting what they want through the use of power, but that Negro Americans must, either by nature or by circumstance, make their appeal only through conscience.”  Two years later this same committee, now named the National Committee of Black Churchmen, officially affirmed emergent Black Theology as a “theology of black liberation.”

Even the Black Panthers – often presented as the paradigmatic foil for (the popular, sanitized version of) the Christian nonviolence of Martin Luther King – met in churches and collaborated with religious people and communities from the get-go.  When the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party was founded in 1968 Chicago, some of their first actions involved occupying Catholic churches in support of black Catholics struggling for control over the religious institutions in their neighborhoods.  Understanding the simple but critical point that Black Power influenced and was influenced by religious communities (just as the southern civil rights movement influenced and was influenced by nonreligious women and men) is one small step toward a much more nuanced understanding of religion and struggles for social justice throughout American history.

Yosemite National Park

Deep in the Sierra Nevada, California’s snow-capped mountains, is a special hidden treasure – not gold or silver, but America’s most spectacular hidden valley.

It is called Yosemite and it is the center of one of our most popular national parks.

Yosemite Valley is seven miles long and in some places less than half a mile wide.  Towering on both sides of the winding Merced River are sheer granite walls more than 2,000 feet high.  Ribbon-like waterfalls cascade down the sides.   To the north, Half Dome Mountain presents its flat, scarred face.   (The other half of Half Dome cracked off and slid down into the valley thousands of years ago.)

Stretching out from the famous valley Yosemite National Park takes in 1,200 square miles of soaring mountains.   Mariposa Grove, in the south, is the home of giant sequoia trees.  Some of them measure 34 feet through the middle and are 275 feet high.  

In the northwest are the Tuolumne Meadows, cold Alpine meadows which fill with flowers in summer.  Through the years the park has revealed the beauty of the Sierra Nevada to millions of visitors.

The first white men to see Yosemite Valley were probably U.S. soldiers who arrived in 1851.

They were searching for Indians who were raiding nearby  mining camps.  There were 22 Indian villages in Yosemite at that time.

Google Donates to Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park was the centre of the Allied code-breaking effort during the Second World War, and its widely believed to have shortened the war by a couple of years (thanks to giving insight into what Hitler was doing, an especially valuable set of information because Hitler’s strange decisions were hard to predict).

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National Park Service rule would allow tribes gathering rights in national parks

It is reported that the National Park Service has proposed a new rule that would allow American Indian tribes to remove plants and minerals from national parks for traditional uses.

The document, dated March 25, was stamped “confidential.” It states that NPS intends to authorize agreements with federally recognized Indian tribes to allow plants or minerals to be used for traditional purposes. The agreements would allow the continuation of cultural traditions on ancestral lands that are now part of the NPS estate. The rule would also provide opportunities for tribal youth, the agency and the public to learn about tribal traditions without compromising park values or management, it said.

NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson confirmed that the agency is developing a new rule to address tribal use of park resources. He said the draft rule has changed since March and may continue to change as it is reviewed. The public will have 60 days to comment on the rule once it is published in the Federal Register.

Olson said the rule follows several consultation meetings with tribal leaders in past years, but that the proposal is in its early stages and has not been reviewed by the Interior Department or the White House.

“It began with [NPS Director] Jon [Jarvis] talking with tribal folks and making a commitment to listen and see if there can’t be a compromise reached.”

But the proposal has riled Park Service employees who maintain the agency is violating its founding 1916 Organic Act in the name of political correctness, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Ruch said the agency’s proposal raises an emotional issue, but that overturning the current rule should require the consent of Congress, which has expressly allowed tribal plant gathering in at least eight park units.

Sunday, in the Park

Paul Harvey

You wouldn’t think it was the 4th of July in the showdown between the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church at some Memorial Day remembrances at Arlington National Cemetery. You can’t make this stuff up, even when you just so happen to have a historical analysis of the 2nd Ku Klux Klan’s white Christian nationalism on its way out soon. My co-conspirator Kelly Baker looks at this bizarre confrontation here, in an op-ed piece for History News Network.

Some other pieces catching attention lately in our Sunday roundup:

I just finished reading Jennifer Burns’s book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, a completely fascinating biography and analysis of the impact of Rand’s works as a historic “gateway drug to the right.” The religious metaphors quickly come to mind when looking at how the aggressively proselytizing atheist worked to control her own cult of personality, how heretics from her “Collective” were shunned and exiled, how “The Collective” was sardonically named but eerily apt as a descriptor, and how her novelistic heroes operated as godlike mythical heroes and heroines.

Unlike Hobbits or children residing in Hogwarts, Rand’s heroes have proven impossible to transfer to movies or television mini-series, the genius of the market having rejected at the box office movie adaptations of her agitprop novels. Peter Travers writes of this most recent screen adaption of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s monumental 1,168-page, 1957 novel gets the low-budget, no-talent treatment and sits there flapping on screen like a bludgeoned seal. Our local (Colorado) AM agitprop specialist Mike Rosen, of 850 AM radio out of Denver, hosted a special screening and wrote a series of god-awful editorials for the Denver Post attemtping to flog the film. Rosen provided post-screening commentary together with Michael “heck of a job” Brown, lately of FEMA and Katrina fame, and host of the nightly show on same said “blowtorch” of Colorado radio. The rapture is sounding better by the moment.
Author Jennifer Burns also covers how much William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, and others of that pioneering conservative generation hated Rand, and how she returned the favor. Rand also apparently didn’t think much of that noted collectivist sympathizer Friedrich Hayek, but then there was almost no one else that she did like. Hayek didn’t really have a problem philosophically, for example, with national health insurance, which of course put him in the same camp with the slaves rather than the individualists, in Rand’s eyes. All of this has come back in the news now thanks to the Rand-inspired politics of Paul Ryan, a development discussed further over at Mark Silk’s Spiritual Politics blog.
(A side note unrelated to this blog but just interesting to read about in this book anyway: In the late 60s/early 70s, Rand opposed the Vietnam War, which further angered many conservatives, while she celebrated in Kennedy-esque language the Apollo space program, which pissed off libertarians who already had sort of broken from her. As for her temper, let’s just say that good thing Twitter wasn’t around then).

Speaking of money uber alles and the cash nexus, my friend Lerone Martin has a very popular “Open Letter to Creflo Dollar,” concerning Dollar’s defense of Bishop Eddie Long, here.

In other news:

John Schmalzbauer has an outstandingly interesting review of Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt in the new Evangelical Studies Bulletin. No link for it, but click on the ESB link for quick and very inexpensive addition to the mailing list of this very informative newsletter. The link also gives you access to a number of back issues from 2007-2010, with lengthy and very substantive reviews of important recent works by Barry Hankins, Thomas Kidd, and many others.

In “Roots of Bachmann’s Ambition Began at Home,” the New York Times goes over some of the same material that the Rolling Stone did in Menckenian excess (except not as funny as Mencken), about the origins of Michele Bachmann’s political career in Minnesota, only without the hypervenilation. Of her appearances speaking in church basements early in her career, one attendee remembers, “It felt like we were in a tent, like a revival,” Ms. Cecconi said. “It was obvious Michele was the star.”

While Huntsman and Romney split families and compete for the same donor base, Bachmann is competing equally with Romney and trouncing the relatively unknown Huntsman in Iowa. The two candidates Romney and Huntsman have Tea Party trouble alike, while Huntsman moves away from Romney’s position on his faith and his politics articulated in 2008; Matt Bowman explores Huntsman’s new generational Mormonism here for New Republic. See also Russell Fox’s response to Bowman’s piece here — Fox feels that it is not a generational difference between the business Mormonism of Romney and the more renegade style of Huntsman, but rather that “Huntsman doesn’t take his Mormonism quite as seriously as pioneer-stock Romney does.” Both pieces are well worth reading.

Noah’s Ark, the Theme Park: Tomorrow Never Knows

Paul Harvey

Only the sly wit of Randall or the acerbity of Matt Sutton could do justice to this story: Noah’s Ark, the Theme Park.

Kentucky, it appears, has “promised generious tax incentives to a group of entrepreneurs who plan to construct a full-size replica of Noah’s ark, load it with animals and actors, and make it the centerpiece of a Bible-based tourist attraction called Ark Encounter.” Like I said, Randall will have to write another chapter of his new book The Annointed: America’s Evangelical Experts, which already features one chapter on the creationist museum just 45 miles away from the proposed Ark theme park in Kentucky, to explain this new story to us.

The developers of Ark Encounter, who have incorporated as a profit-making company, say they expect to spend $150 million, employ 900 people and attract 1.6 million visitors from around the world in the first year. With the Creation Museum only 45 miles away, they envision a Christian tourism corridor that would draw busloads from churches and Christian schools for two- and three-day visits.
The bulk of the story focuses on the relationship of the theme park to a series of tax incentives given to its part-owner, Answers in Genesis. Tea-Partiers: where are you now? Here is your Exhibit A of government subsidies run amok. Evidently, though, they are too busy bitching about an 11-second video of a cross with some ants crawling on it, intended to depict the sufferings of AIDS victims, that was part of a larger installation up at the National Portrait Gallery — I say “was” because it’s been taken down. Check your empathy at the door. Oh, never mind, don’t even go through the door, since the firestorm of criticism about the exhibition came from those who had not seen it (those who had seen it registered virtually no complaints). Thanks, Speaker Boehner, for focusing on the big issues of the day. Read/hear more about this story, including a slide show of some of the pieces in this installation, here.
But back to the Ark Park. One thing about the park will be cool: it will explain how Noah dealt with issues of “waste management” on the boat. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time wondering about that very issue.
The park is facing some “rough waters” around issues of separation of church and state, as reported here. The secular/scientific libertarians are all over the story here. Most amusingly of all, though, the Los Angeles Times story, intending to hyperlink its reference to the group Answers in Genesis, instead provides a link to Genesis, the Phil Collins musical group. Come to think of it, Genesis actually did a pretty credible version of the Beatles’ song “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Like the Beatles sang, “it is believing. It is believing.” Of course, they also sang “I am the walrus, coo-coo-coo-choo.” Were walruses on the ark?