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Posts Tagged ‘space’

CFP: Boston College Biennial Conference on the History of Religion, April 1-2, 2016

Boston College Biennial Conference on the History of Religion, April 1-2, 2016

Reminder: Proposals (panels or individual papers) are due in just under two weeks!

The official deadline for submission is November 15.

What the Map of Urban Religious Histories Shows Us

Earlier today Paul Putz wrote a post about an interactive bibliography that he and I created of books that study American religion in the context of cities. Paul explained our motivation for the project and how we created it. I’d like to offer a few observations about what I think we can learn from the map.

First, and utterly unsurprisingly, the map basically aligns with the urban population of the United States. So New York, Chicago and Boston, followed closely by New Orleans, Washington, Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are the most written about cities.

The implication of this, second, is that cities fall into two groups: cities that have been written a lot about, and cities that have only been written about once. (And, of course, cities that have never been written about.) For those seven cities, it is possible to get a rich comparative perspective on different groups and different periods. For other cities, you are much more likely to get a one or at most two studies. We have quite a lot of work on religion in biggest cities, less work on religion in smaller cities.

Third, urban religious history has been written predominantly as the history of Catholics, Jews, and African Americans. A rough count shows at least 44 books specifically about Catholics, at least 25 about Jews, and at least 26 books about African Americans, out of our current total of 178. This says something about how the field thinks about (or, at any rate, thought about) religion and cities. That is to say, that urban religion and ethnically or racially marked religion were considered to be linked, while unmarked (read, white Protestant) religion was thought of as transcending specific places. This is probably an overstatement. But then again, many of the exceptions to this rule are about Southern white religion, which can again be read as a kind of ethnic marker.

Fourth, the vast majority of these books are about a single denomination or group. There are well know exceptions that deal with multiple groups, such as Gerald Gamm’s Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, and it is certainly possible that I am not familiar with works that deal with multiple religious groups in a single city. (We also don’t include the chapters in American Congregations on the map.) But this strikes me as mostly a missed opportunity to study the religious congregations as participants in an ecology of religion, as modeled by sociologists Nancy Eisland in A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb and Penny Edgell in Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life.

Fifth, there is reason to hope that recent endeavors in the digital history of religion, specifically mapping projects, will take up richer models of religion in urban space. A leading example is the Houses of Worship project at the University of Minnesota, created by Jeanne Halgren Kilde—who has also been writing quite a bit about space and religion—and a team of researchers. The Houses of Worship project (map here) includes "information on over 250 congregations and over 500 sites related to religious and ethnic groups who settled in several neighborhoods in the Twin Cities" from 1849 to 1924. Chris Cantwell and Daniel Greene have put together an online exhibit/essay on Catholics, Jews, and Protestants in Chicago, titled "Faith in the City: Religion and Urban Life in Chicago, 1870-1920." There was a panel on just this topic at ASCH this January, featuring Marie Basile McDaniel’s GIS work on colonial Philadelphia, Judith Weisenfeld’s study of Father Divine and utopic space in Harlem, Kilde’s Houses of Worship Project, and my own work on mapping. All of these projects were rethinking the way in which urban religious history is conceived, and I think they were all interested in how different groups related to one another. This is a topic for another post, but there is an enormous amount of (potentially) spatial data about religion that historians have long known about but haven’t known what to do with. More on that another time.

Final observation: the very first book that Paul put in our spreadsheet was Wallace Best’s Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952, which is also my all time favorite book on this list, though Orsi’s Madonna of 115th Street, Johnson’s Shopkeeper’s Millennium, and Bendroth’s Fundamentalists in the City are pretty high up there too.

Update: Edited to remove superfluous comic.

Everlasting Gospel Mission Clovers

Emily Suzanne Clark

“… God’s world will never pass away
God’s world will never pass away, hallelujah
Well it makes no difference what the people say
God’s world will never pass away, oh no
He’s gone but he’s coming back again
Yes, he’s gone but he’s coming back again
Well it makes no different what the people say
God’s world will never pass away!”

This is part of Sister Gertrude Morgan’s song “God’s World Will Never Pass away” recorded in April 1971 in the Prayer Room. The Prayer Room was the front room of a shotgun house in the Lower Ninth Ward at the corner of North Dorgenois and Flood Street where Morgan lived and conducted small services. Very few people attended these services, and the services themselves followed no particular order. Morgan would sing, preach, paint, and exhort. Her message was a didactic one. I’ve posted here before about her unique apocalyptic message, which understood New Orleans as sinful and as the template for Revelation’s New Jerusalem. She was both the “bride of Christ” referenced in Revelation, and additionally, she would play the role of John the Revelator.

The Prayer Room in her house at North Dorgenois was filled with her artwork. She painted the room all white, from the ceiling to the floor. And this matched her wardrobe. After God told her she was to be the bride of Christ, she wore only white – a visual reminder of her bridal status. The inside of her home was white with pops of color from her paintings, and according to those who knew her, bright four-leaf clovers covered her yard.

Morgan named her home the Everlasting Gospel Mission House. It was her home where she slept, ate, and died. It was her church where she preached. It was her studio where God instructed her to paint and sing. The lines between “sacred” space and “profane” space were blurred, both for her and for those who knew her and remember her. In 2008, I interviewed a few people who knew Morgan, and I saw what remained of the Everlasting Gospel Mission House. Morgan died in 1980, and her Everlasting Gospel Mission House became another’s house until 2005. Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters pushed the house off its old foundation and into the building next door. It was demolished a few weeks before I took this photograph. What the floodwaters could not destroy where the four-leaf clovers that grew in her yard. And for some, it was the clovers that mattered. 

Following Katrina, current Preservation Hall owner and Preservation Hall Jazz Band director Ben Jaffe was debating if he should leave his hometown or stay. His parents opened Preservation Hall and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band back in the early 1960s. His family also supported Morgan, buying her groceries and helping sell her art. Hanging in his home is a photograph of him in the Prayer Room, sitting on his father’s lap while Morgan sang and played her tambourine. Jaffe continued his parent’s work and was on the road when Katrina struck. 

One a particularly trying day after the floodwaters receded, Jaffe aimlessly began driving and found himself in the L9. He started looking for Morgan’s old house. It had been about fifteen years since he had last been there. As he drove around the destroyed neighborhood, he stopped in front of a house, not sure if it was the old site of the Everlasting Gospel Mission House. “I knew there was only one way to really know whether or not that was her house,” he told me in late 2008. “So I bent over and picked, just closed my eyes and picked something, and I knew immediately it was a four-leaf clover. And it was.” He sat there for the next few hours trig to decide his next move. It was this experience at her house that convinced him to stay and help rebuild the city. He considers the site of her old house to be a “holy place.” He even brought The Edge from U2 out to the site and showed him the Everlasting Gospel Mission House clovers, which, Jaffe told me, The Edge described to him as “a symbol of the gold at the end of the rainbow.”

But they are not technically clovers. Back in 2008, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a story about how four-leaf clovers were spreading throughout the L9. The clovers originated at the corner of North Dorgenois and Flood Street, and though a horticulturist proved that the “clovers” were actually ferns, it didn’t matter to Jaffe. In fact, a good friend of his told me that the horticulturist was just plain wrong. For them, the clovers were further revelation from Morgan. The clovers were a sign to remain in New Orleans.

And yes, I picked a couple of the clovers and still have them.

Lost Landscapes of American Religious History

Chris Cantwell

The Institutional Church and Social Settlement?

All history is public history insofar as the past leaves so many visible traces upon the landscape. But this is especially true of American religious history. Who can tell the history of rural New England, for example, without considering the meetinghouses that sat so prominently on the town square; or the urban history of American Catholicism without envisioning the church steeples that fought with smokestacks for prominence on a city skyline; or the rise of conservative evangelicalism without showing the megachurches that occupy the strip malls of suburbia. The architectural history of American religion often reveals a great deal about religion’s enduring presence.

But the built environment of American religion is also a history of occlusion and erasure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which religion is both embedded and obscured in today’s built environment of late. Currently I’m in the final stages of curating a digital exhibit on Chicago’s religious history for the Newberry Library that aims to put religious history in place. Literally. Titled Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity in the Era of the World’s Fair, the exhibit will situate hundreds of digitized primary sources alongside a collection of commissioned essays on a map of Chicago in order to provide the public with an understanding of the remarkable diversity of the city’s religious past. (Think of Google Maps with church histories–and many of the authors are contributors to this fine blog!)  In doing so, we hope to take advantage of an interface with which many people are familiar in order to introduce critical notions about the role of space in religious history. The map, for example, allows us to visually display the overlap between ethnic parishes and ethnic neighborhoods, or the religious boundaries of Chicago’s black belt. But in georeferencing these hundreds of sources onto a contemporary map I’ve learned a great deal as well.

By far the biggest lesson is the way in which digital projects about the past can reveal unexpected insights into the workings of power in the present. I initially thought georeferencing the sources would be quick and easy. Turn of the century of Chicagoans were obsessed about place and the material we selected all had detailed information about the addresses and intersections where everything happened. But translating this material from the 1890s into 2014 geocoordinates proved far more difficult than I imagined.

Blackwell Memorial AME Zion

On one level the process revealed the role of sheer coincidence in the preservation of religion’s built environment. For example, famed Unitarian Jenkin Lloyd Jones‘ All Souls Church is no more. But the gorgeous stone edifice the congregation built remains because Blackwell Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church bought the building sometime in the twentieth century. Similarly, the Shiloh Healing House that resided in faith healer John Alexander Dowie’s utopian community of Zion, Illinois remains, but only because it is now the headquarters of the Zion Chamber of Commerce. (A particularly delicious irony, since Dowie thought God’s powers of healing would populate the town, whereas the Chamber of Commerce now sees the town’s business climate as the salvation for urban decline.)

Holy Family c. 1920
Holy Family c. 2000

But even more pervasive, and more revealing, is the ways in which today’s built environment reveals the enduring privilege of race and class upon the built environment. This is most easily seen by the fact that most of the sites of Chicago’s religious history that still exist are those that remain in the hands of their founders. Holy Family Church, for example, has remained at the intersection of Roosevelt and May Streets for nearly a hundred and fifty years. The congregation has survived several fires and a neighborhood that has turned  over repeatedly because it has had the resources to sustain itself. Many storefront churches and evangelical rescue missions, however, are gone.

Yet the ways in which power and privilege manifest themselves in the urban landscape go even deeper than the presence or absence of buildings. It also occurs in the seemingly innocuous act of assigning geocoordinates. Data is supposed to be the great leveler. We’re all ones and zeroes to the computer. But the level of precision one can get in assigning coordinates is deeply inflected by race, class, and gender. For example, Chicago Sinai Congregation’s 1890 temple no longer exists. But the fact that the neighborhood it was located in remains relatively stable means that translating its 1893 address into 2014 coordinates is relatively easy–even if that space is now luxury condos. But to try and locate the coordinates of most of the city’s black churches has been one of the saddest research tasks I’ve undertaken. The intersections, streets, and alleyways that once pulsated with the rhythms of black Chicago are in many instances gone. And not just the buildings. Streets have been removed, intersections torn up, and alleys completely abandoned. Assigning these sites geocoordinates has involved a lot of estimated guesses, and in many instances I’ve been forced to simply place a church in the middle of the street because the data does not suggest which corner it was on. It’s like witnessing the traumas of the twentieth century in longitude and latitude.

In 1896 a young A.M.E. minister by the name of Reverdy Ransom took a pastorate on Chicago’s south side. By 1900 he had opened the Institutional Church and Social Settlement at 3852 Dearborn St., one of the first institutional churches to minister to African Americans in the country. Ransom would go on to become bishop of the AME church and a leader of the Social Gospel. Like Sinai Congregation, the building that once housed the settlement is now gone. But unlike Sinai, I cannot say with certainty where exactly on Dearborn the church once stood. How many other landscape of American religious history are now gone? And what kind of projects can we envision that can either save or recreate them?

Joint Space Operations


On 17 July 1975, the crews of the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz docked in space initiating the first manned space flight conducted jointly by the United States and Soviet Union. The primary purpose of the mission, the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, was to test the compatibility of rendezvous and docking systems for American and Soviet spacecraft and to open the way for international space rescue as well as future joint manned flights. It also symbolized a policy of détente that the two superpowers were pursuing at the time and marked the end of the Space Race between the two nations that began in 1957.


Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy exits the Quest airlock for a session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as work continues on the International Space Station.

Thirty eight years later, with the International Space Station (ISS), the US and other nations are still working together and conducting joint space missions. On 9 July 2013, two expedition astronauts, from NASA and the European Space Agency, wrapped up a successful 6-hour, 7-minute spacewalk, completing the first of two July excursions to prepare the ISS for a new Russian module and perform additional installations. The spacewalk was the 170th in support of station assembly and maintenance, totaling 1,073 hours, 50 minutes. To read more about the joint NASA spacewalk, click here.

Anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint, Flight Engineers Luca Parmitano participates in a spacewalk as work continues on the International Space Station

Anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint, Flight Engineers Luca Parmitano participates in a spacewalk as work continues on the International Space Station

However, despite vast improvements in technology and training, these professionals make such endeavors look routine – but they are anything but routine. This was apparent when U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy and Italy’s Luca Parmitano were less than an hour into a planned six-hour outing on 16 July 2013, when Parmitano reported what seemed to be water inside his helmet. NASA called off the spacewalk. See http://www.nasa.gov/content/tuesday-spacewalk-ended-early/ for more on this event.


My First but Hopefully Not My Last RAAC Conference

Emily Suzanne Clark

Shortly before the 2011 biennial Conference on Religion in American Culture hosted by the IUPUI, I read the published proceedings from the 2009 conference. I then wished Indiana was closer to Florida and waited for the 2011 conference proceedings to be posted. This year, a small contingent of #religinoles made the drive from Tallahassee to Indianapolis for the 2013 conference. It was a fantastic weekend full of good conversations. The in-the-round setup and small attendance gives the conference an intimate feel – almost like a conference panel meets a graduate seminar table. And, just as in 2011, I can’t wait for the proceeding to be published in order to go back and think more on weekend’s topics. Conference wrap-ups have been popular on the blog lately, so I’ll try to keep my reflections short and focused on a couple ideas.

One question that has simmered in my brain since Manuel Vasquez’s More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion is how to discuss the interplay between materiality and culture. This came up a couple of times during the weekend. Kicking off the Space and Place panel, John Corrigan suggested that our work needs to negotiate the material, the metaphysical, and the cultural when it comes to discussing space and religion. Particularly since the ethnographic turn, there have been many good monographs that explore the creation of sacred space through ritual practice. However, theorizing on how to answer Corrigan’s call for taking account of cultural, metaphysical, and material space largely remains undone. The panel and audience had some difficulty on providing a definition for sacred space. Ed Linenthal cited David Chidester’s definition of sacred space as that which can become defiled space. Tracy Leavelle referred to the “pull of place” found in Native American religions. I thought of Linenthal and Chidester’s identification of sacred space as contested space in American Sacred Space. I hope the discussion and interest in space were signs that future projects will continue to theorize sacred space. The work of William Cronon (Changes in the Land) and Chip Callahan (Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Mines) both point to how the materiality of space can provide scholars of American religion with another source of evidence for our work. Space, in part, shapes religion, but materialism alone cannot explain religion. In both cases, religion is contingent upon the local context, but the material reality of physical space framing the religious lives of their subjects also matters.

Materiality came into the conversation again the following day during the panel on the Bible in American Life. Sylvester Johnson’s comments highlighted how the text is never just the text. The form, function, and dispersion of a Gideon Bible are quite different from a Scofield Reference Bible. Additionally, since the Bible was/is often seen as an authoritative text (though the how/why/for who question is complicated), Johnson reminded us how scripture was often tied to regime. Johnson focused his remarks on scripturalization, the process of how texts become scripture, and then how those scriptures are used (the latter often depending on the beliefs and practices with which one approaches the scripture). Scripturalization is never a neutral practice and has often been violent. Johnson also encouraged more work on other American scriptures, such as Mary Baker Eddy’s Health and Science with Key to the Scriptures and the Book of Mormon. This also brought to my mind Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories, how communities remember and record their own history and practice, and how the act of writing one’s “sacred” history is often a religious and political act. Johnson gave a shout-out to Vincent Wimbush’s recent book, White Men’s Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery. And like Corrigan’s call for bringing together the material, the metaphysical, and the cultural in our work, the Bible in American Life panel sharpened my attention to how certain texts and scriptures sit at the same theoretical intersection of culture, material, and metaphysical.

The final panel on the future of American religion was a fantastic yet sobering look at the future of religion in America and the study of it. When the proceedings are published, the comments of Katie Lofton, Nancy Ammerman, John McGreevy, and David Yoo will be read and reread by many. I know I will.

 For another conference wrap-up see my fellow religinole Charlie McCrary’s post on the Junto blog. Also, check out the conference tweets (#raac2013) storified by fellow bloggers and tweeters Cara Burnidge and Chris Cantwell.

Place, Space, and Movement in Historical Research

Trevor Burrows

I want to use my post today to ask an admittedly broad and open question of this blog’s readers and contributors.  The journal Religion has posted an intriguing preview of a forthcoming issue on the theme of “urban Christianities.”  In the introduction, “Urban Christianities: Place-Making in Late Modernity,” James Bielo points to Robert Orsi’s seminal collection on urban religion, Gods of the City, as a jumping-off point for the issue, wherein six authors will consider the theme as presented in a variety of locales ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Lagos, Nigeria.  Considering some of the recent posts here that have touched on questions of space, place, and movement – I’m thinking especially of the wonderful posts around Michael Pasquier’s edited collection, Gods of the Mississippi – the issue promises to be of interest to many RiAH readers.

Based on their descriptions, most of the articles appear to deal with more contemporary subjects.  There is nothing wrong or even surprising about this, of course, but it did get me wondering about specifically historical studies that deal especially well and creatively with similar themes.  A number of the essays in Orsi’s aforementioned collection also considered more recent or contemporary subjects (with several notable exceptions, including Orsi’s own contributions and Diane Winston’s work on the Salvation Army).  Over the last several days, I’ve been chewing on a pretty basic question: which historians, or what texts, have dealt productively with these themes in explicitly historical scholarship?  (I should admit that I’m thinking about this with somewhat selfish intent as I am considering how my own research, which deals with matters of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue/collaboration in primarily urban settings, might benefit from more attention to these types of questions.)

A few came to mind with some immediacy.  John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries provides one of the most concrete examples of how religious affiliations and impulses mix with geography, space, and a myriad of cultural factors to create effective borders and boundaries.  In McGreevy’s example, the lines that demarcated Catholic parishes and neighborhoods merged with ethnic, racial, and cultural interests, a combination that guided American Catholicism’s encounter with questions of race and civil rights throughout the twentieth-century.  What I like about Parish Boundaries is its accessibility and narrative, for although questions of space and boundaries are at the heart of the text, these themes are worked right into the telling of the story itself.  It makes for a rich and rewarding read that can be approached on many different levels.

Another immediate candidate, one that is distinctly rural rather than urban, is Richard Callahan’s Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields.  Callahan’s text examines the role that religion played as a mediator in the lives of twentieth-century Kentucky families, as the region shifted from a subsistence-based economy to a wage-based economy rooted in coal mining.  Callahan suggests that the early worldview of Kentuckians was grounded in, among other things, a spiritualized reading of the landscape that informed their understanding of work, farming, family life, and responsibility; as the region experienced radical changes in its economic base, Kentucky’s workers carried their religiously-inspired worldview forward and used their beliefs to adapt to their new circumstances.  Callahan uses a lived religion framework to great effect in his work and places Kentucky as a landscape front-and-center.  (Is there an absolute connection between “lived religion” and considerations of space/place in effective scholarship?)

A final text that I’ll include here is Wallace Best’s Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952.  Among its many accomplishments, Best’s work uses twentieth-century black Chicago and the Great Migration to consider the distinctly urban pulse of modern black religious communities.  Chicago’s urban religious landscape is almost its own character here as Best considers its influence on the shape and content of religious practice for both incoming migrants and pre-established churches.  As much a cultural and social history as an institutional one, Best provides yet another model for considering questions of place and space, as well as movement and migration, in historical research.

But I’d really like to hear about some of your favorite texts that deal thoughtfully with questions of place, space, and movement, especially in matters of religion, where these questions provide more than a backdrop or geographical setting and become a meaningful part of the research and story itself.  Who has worked with such themes especially well?  What methodological or theoretical problems arise in attempting to engage these themes in historical terms?  If these themes are gaining more attention in current scholarship – which they clearly are – what are some of the risks or difficulties of such research?  How have you explored or incorporated these and related questions into your own work?

Four Questions with Sarah Pike

Randall Stephens

This post marks the first in a series of short interviews with religious studies scholars and religious historians who work on American topics. I hope to conduct these interviews with senior, junior, and mid-career scholars from the states and abroad. (Suggestions are always welcome!)

This inaugural interview is with Sarah Pike, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies, California State University, Chico.  Her innovative work will be familiar to many of our readers.  Pike has studied the relationship between religion and ethnicity, identity, and cultural expression.  Along with a variety of articles and book chapters, she is the author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and The Search for Community (University of California Press, 2001) and New Age and Neopagan Religions in America (Columbia University Press, 2004).

Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?

Sarah Pike:
When I entered graduate school, I intended to study Tibetan Buddhism, but within my first year of course work, I became increasingly interested in studying religion in my own “backyard.” I began to notice that the landscapes around me were full of stories about American religious life. In particular, I wondered about the mysterious classes offered by a little occult shop in my new hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. As it turned out, the world I found there was not unique to Bloomington, and the interests expressed at the shop were reflected across the nation. So I wanted to find out how the worlds of Witchcraft and magic fit into the broader story of American religion.

At the same time, issues concerning ritual and sacred space were compelling and powerful to me, especially after I discovered the field of women’s history during the 1980s as a Master’s student in religious studies. Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987) came out the year I entered graduate school and Joan Wallach Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History was published the following year. The field of women’s/gender studies was generating a lot of excitement and it sparked my interest in exploring the relationships between gender, ritual, Witchcraft and magic. No scholarly studies had been done at that time on contemporary Witchcraft and few scholars of American religion were taking the Neopagan movement and its antecedents seriously. What different stories might be told about American religiosity from the vantage point of marginalized traditions that venerated goddesses, created altars and shrines in the woods or their backyards, and were often led by priestesses?

Stephens: What do you think is different about the field now compared to when you completed your graduate work?

The religious history of America is as likely to be told from the coast of Northern California as from the Puritan communities of New England. We are more attentive to marginalized discourses and experiences, the construction of magic as a category, and how to understand popular practices and lived religion. In a chapter I wrote recently on “Wicca in the News” about changing representations of Witches in American news media since the 1960s (Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media, 2012), I argue that reporters today rarely depict Witches as evil or satanic, even though stereotypes from the 1960s and 1970s of sexy young female Witches or cuddly cookie-baking elderly Witches-next-door still remain. In the past 25 years since I entered my first occult shop and started asking questions, the boundaries between categories like religion and magic and the differences between “folk,” “popular,” and “institutional” religion are treated with more nuance. And scholars of American religions are more likely to take traditions like Wicca seriously than they did when I was a graduate student, because Neopaganism has become firmly established across North America and formally recognized in government branches and institutions such as the military and prisons.

Stephens: How do you think theory should inform the study of American religion?

Pike: Theory can change our angle of reflection; it can help identify blind spots and lead us down unfamiliar paths that we might not otherwise have taken. I try to put theory into conversation with the people and places I study to see what will emerge. But my starting point is not the theoretical; it is always someone’s story or a ritual I observed or read about. In order to reflect on the meaning and significance of that story or ritual, I draw on theory promiscuously and don’t hesitate to cross disciplinary boundaries: Who will help me to think through the problems I encountered on the ground during a ritual, or in a historical text? What theoretical discipline might address a particular question from a perspective that will illuminate or problematize issues I have not attended to? Theory is most effectively drawn into conversation with the subjects of our research when it challenges our habitual ways of seeing and understanding those we study. Since the focus of much of my research has been on ritual and sacred space, I am most interested in theorizing about bodies and relationships within particular spaces, so Michel Foucault’s work on heterotopias in his essay “Of Other Spaces” (1967) and Judith Butler’s recent writings on the Occupy movement (2011) in which she draws on Hannah Arendt’s notion of a “space of appearance” have helped me to think about the dynamics of spaces that are constructed in opposition to the broader society.

Stephens: What project(s) are you working on now?

An Earth Day “Survival Walk,” 1970. From LIFE magazine.

Pike: My work has been based on the assumption that studying demonized people and seemingly strange practices will shed light on central issues of Americans’ religious lives and histories. I am currently working on two projects, both focused on the experiences and practices of “youth,” an often-ignored population of religious Americans. Although other marginalized populations are now getting their due, teenagers and young adults continue to be largely ignored in courses and scholarship on American religions. While historians of childhood often include adolescents and young adults in their work as an afterthought, little research has been done about their religious and spiritual lives. On the other hand, most scholarship on “youth” has been within a Marxist or cultural studies framework that downplays the role of religion.

The first project is about “internal revolutions”: how young people become involved with environmental activism during their teenage years, which often takes place through experiences of nature as a sacred presence and through music subcultures shaped by religious movements like Neopaganism, Krishna Consciousness and varieties of Islam. Experiences of nature as sacred during childhood, and especially adolescence are central to young environmental activists’ developing spiritual identities and political commitments. Young people frequently convert to activism in their teenage years. So, I am tracing the various factors that shape such conversions, including religious influences in youth music subcultures and ritualized environmental protests.

The second project is about the lineage of twenty-first century spiritual festivals, an interest that dates back to my first book on Neopagan Festivals, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves (2001). Contemporary American music and art festivals that also serve as spiritual destinations are clearly not new. Art festivals like Burning Man and music festivals like Earthdance, Faerieworlds, and Coachella share much with nineteenth-century “holy fairs”: camp meetings, spiritualist conventions, lyceums, and Chautauquas, many of which attracted mainly young men and women. Contemporary gatherings did not simply emerge as a response to recent social and cultural shifts (because of the “Nones” for example), but have long histories. In this project I am exploring a set of tensions at festivals between the spiritual and the secular, sustainability and consumption, techniques of the body and inner transformation, the temporary and the permanent, nostalgia for the past and the thrust towards a new age.

First U. S. Manned Space Flight

May 5th, 1961 CDR Alan Shepard Jr. mans first U. S. space flight           Fifty-one years ago, the United States launched its first manned spacecraft, Freedom 7.  The flight, which lasted almost fifteen-and-a-half minutes, marked a monumental step towards the U. S. space program’s goal of placing a man on the moon.  In this, [...]

Space Shuttle Challenger

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the Space Shutter Challenger diaster and this is actually I date I always remember as it is also my brother’s birthday (he turned 3 in 1986, you can do the math on what he is turning tomorrow). So anyway, here is President Reagan’s address on the Challanger. He was actually supposed to be giving the State of the Union, but it was postponed due to this tragedy. I like how he included the schoolchildren watching it in his speech. I didn’t watch it in 1986 (at least I don’t remember and honestly I would have been kindergarden so probably wasn’t), but I do remember watching it on the anniversary when I was in third grade and it must have been hard on those teachers trying to explain what went wrong.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together….
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

Apollo 12 Moon Landing

November 19th, 1969 Navy astronauts become 3rd and 4th men to walk on the moon. “The impact of man in space and man on the Moon has been felt in almost all segments of our society.  The astronauts are in every sense explorers who have broadened the limits of mankind’s environment . . .”         On [...]

Disputing Sacred Space in America

Kelly Baker

The newest issue of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief is now available (with a library subscription). For those of unfamiliar with this journal, it is an excellent, interdisciplinary journal that provides cutting edge scholarship on the materiality of religion. Every time the table of contents arrives in my inbox, I stop whatever I am doing to see what the issue holds. The July issue is no different, and it contains a conversation about sacred space in America with Erika Doss, Anthea Butler, Jacob Kinnard, and Edward Linenthal. From outdoor space at the U.S. Air Force Academy for Wiccans and Druids to worship to a disappearing cross in the Mojave to “the shadow of ground zero” to the Enola Gay, ordinary spaces become sacred, contested, desecrated, and defiled.

Doss argues that public debates are both “sweeping–indicative of widespread interests in claiming public spaces and places as an extension of personal values and beliefs–and presentist–driven by the inconstant and fluctuating aims and concerns of particular publics at particular historical moments” (270). What becomes sacred space and who claims its sacrality emerge as crucial components of public debate. The contributors note how questions of space, and whether it is sacred or not, become markers of deep religious intolerance in contemporary America. Contestations over sacred space become contestations over the place of religion in public life, and certain religions garner more legitimacy, cultural capital.

Butler writes about how a cross in a desert emerges in discourse as both a religious and a secular symbol, and the space it inhabits, thus, becomes significant and ambiguous. Its absence even more so. Kinnard emphasizes that the debate over Park51 becomes an”easy synecdoche” to understanding the place of Islam in the nation (275), and the all of America becomes a “ground zero” with any mosque nation-wide, a violation. Linenthal ponders the ease at which sites of mass murder become sacred to Americans and how space becomes sacred, if it can be defiled. Space can emerge as separate from the ordinary because of the “power of events on the land (279). For Linenthal, the Enola Gay, an object and a space that housed and dropped an atomic bomb, functioned both to sacralize and the desecrate, and it could not be easily managed. This space was wrought, like the other examples in this issue, with questions of legitimacy, illegitimacy, redemption, terror, and narrative authority. Who makes a space sacred and what are the costs? The confrontations over sacred space, then, provide a way to understand the place of religion in public discourse and its material presence.

[Cross-posted at kellyjbaker.com]

Space, Symbol, Dreams & Death in the Artist’s Studio

Continuing this series of posts on the artist’s studio with the most speculative one yet. A few themes are explored here; my favourite is the relationship between the painter’s creativity and dreams, a strand of my research.

The Mental Studio

“The studio is no more than a container, a kind of equipment, a room in which to paint or sculpt, a necessary space. In its isolation the artist watches a painting or sculpture, adjusts it, instinctively responsive to pigments, colours and materials, resolving their conflicts, bringing them together. In this way the studio is also an arena in which controlled yet instinctive and unpremeditated discovery unfolds. It is both a space apart and an essential arena for action.” [1]

The studio is also a space for thought as well as action: a place in which the mental processes of the artist can be sensed, especially if it is a studio taken over by another artist. However, usually, it is the haunt of one artist who has the opportunity to turn the space into anything he or she wants. It could be treated as a sleek, efficient machine with every component in its place; it could be a dirty, dishevelled eyesore with pots and implements left in chaos; it could be a threadbare, almost minimalistic space; it could be a studio that spills over into a voluminous library full of books and sculpture. The ways in which a studio can appear are infinite…

Studio Space and the Mind.

img669 We shall consider symbol later, but let’s remain with space, especially as related to metaphor. We might like think of the studio as the the brain of the artist. In this lithograph of M.C. Escher (1935) , we see the artist and his studio captured in a glass globe held by a hand, a juxtaposition that immediately invites associations between the operations of the hand and the eye, as the globe is an optical instrument. Both hand and eye are directed by the brain, and retaining the studio as brain simile, with Escher the impression is created of simultaneously looking into his brain whilst being physically separate from it. More adventurously, we could read Escher’s hand –eye coordination governed in terms of where his identity is in space. In the twentieth- century, scientific ideas might have influenced the way artists showed themselves in their studio. picasso_The_Studio_1927-1928_For example, Picasso did a series of images of the artist’s studio in which the painter and their model are treated in a very abstract way, as we shall see later on. It’s tempting to say that Picasso’s studio is in Einsteinian space rather than Cartesian space, with its mind/body dichotomy. As an example, compare Poussin’s Louvre Self-Portrait done in the age of Descartes to Picasso’s spatially fragmented studio.

Studio and Dreams.

img335 Connecting this metaphor of studio-as-brain with symbol, we could think of the objects within representations of the artist’s studio as thoughts, impressions or dreams, not yet realised in some kind of gestalt or ordered pattern, as in a composition. Once we start to think about this, it doesn’t seem so strange because the studio may be a place, not only of painting-making but also a place of fantasy and dreams. In a remarkable representation of his studio, the 19th century English painter of fantasy, John “Fairy” Fitzgerald, shows himself asleep in front of his easel. He is deep in a dream, probably hastened by artificial stimulants! His magical and artistic dream is cloudily presented as the artist – out of his body- painting a woman in white at an imaginary easel. Back in the real world, creatures from the artist’s dreams crouch around his sleeping form. One creature, painting at an easel that Fitzge0801velarald has abandoned, admires his alterations with the affected pose of a proud artist, thus connecting the real painting to the dreamed painting, whilst at the same time confusing them.[2] In this striking image, the association between dreams, hidden in the artist’s mind, and the reality of the studio is mediated via the easel. Usually, an easel at which an artist sits or stands, can be seen in some corner of the studio.  One of the most famous easels is the large one in Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), which the artist stands beside. Velasquez has stepped back from his easel and his paint brush seems to be suspended mid way between himself and the canvas. Usually when an artist shows themselves at a distance from the canvas they are working on, (e.g. Rembrandt’s Boston Self-Portrait), it indicates the meditation and thought that accompanies mechanical execution. In Velasquez’s case, we are not certain whether he has stepped back to add a final touch to0804vela the work, or whether he has even begun it and is pondering on how he should start.[3] Returning to the studio and the life of the mind, we might try an experiment in which the canvas functions as a “screen” onto which the artist’s thoughts are projected: the initial marks of paint that Velasquez is about to make – or has made – on his canvas could be seen as the equivalent of painting’s dream thoughts metamorphosed, or ‘translated’ into visual images within the representational system exposed in Las Meninas.  There are problems with assuming that painting in its unformed and embryonic state mimics the operation of dreams which can’t be gone into here. However, Fitzgerald’s studio image suggests that the easel in the studio could be regarded as a studio prop that crosses over into the world of dreams, and the private space of the artist’s mind.

Symbolic Death and Literal Death in the Studio.  

9782253138082FS Fitzgerald’s painting shows the process of creativity in the studio, but in the nineteenth-century such glimpses into the private domain of the artist were forbidden. The best illustration of the mystique of the studio is told in a short story by Balzac: Le Chef-d’oeuvre (The Unknown Masterpiece), published in 1831. This story concerns an artist, Frenhofer, who is working on his masterpiece in his studio, safe from prying eyes. However, two other painters persuade Frenhofer to open up his studio and show the work that he is creating. Eager to see the work, and fully expecting to see a great painting, Frenhofer’s companions are utterly dismayed at the unveiled master work. Instead of a classically conceived figure, or at least a realistic image, their eyes fall upon a shapeless mass of colours and swirling lines. While this tale certainly deals with themes of creativity, representation and the mysterious space of the artist’s studio, it also concerns the relationship between painting and death, which from the renaissance onwards is symbolised by a skull in the studio. One of the other painters says, in an unguarded moment, that there is nothing on the canvas; the stricken Frenhofer commits suicide shortly afterwards. As Oskar Batschmann says, in order to paint, in order to create, img666Frenhofer needs to be isolated in the studio, susceptible to illusions, dreams and visions, such as we saw in Fitzgerald’s phantasmagoria.[4] However, once a public enters into the studio and utters uncomprehending remarks, that illusion is completely shattered. Opening up the studio to the eyes of others results in the paralysis of the artist followed by death.  Whilst living isolated in the studio, death present in props such as skull, is suspended, neutralized by the artist’s creative illusion. Opening up the studio door makes that symbolic death real. In some cases there is evidence to suggest that some artists of this era considered death as part of their studio. In 1872, the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin painted a Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle. The link between the art of painting and death is made explicit here: the artist holds palette and brush while staring out at the spectator; death seems to play the part of skeletal “muse” as the violin was a symbol of inspiration in the romantic period. Another work, a drawing by Louis Corinth (1922) has the artist, with shrunken body and bulbous head, holding a pen whilst mocked by a skull. The symbol of vanitas and anatomy, has transmogrified into the presence of death itself, a necessary part of the artist’s studio in the romantic period. Nineteenth-century art contains either cases of real artistic death (Gros, Haydon, von Rayski), death-in-the-studio mediated through art (von Rakski, Manet). img668 In a grisly drawing by Ferdinand van Rayski, we see the artist hung from his own easel in a studio that resembles a prison. These telling lines are written by a poet: “On the highway of true art// Life on earth is all too short// Seeds of death within him sprout/ All too soon the light is out.” The poet is represented by a portrait with a knife stuck in an eye, the whole of which- according to Batschmann- implies the legitimation of the artist by his own death.[5]


The Studio and the Pursuit of the Perfect Motif.

img664 Perhaps the ultimate message of Balzac’s story of the tragic artist Frenhofer is that art can only really live as an idea, which is lost when it is realized, given form and substance in the studio: a kind of death of the idea. This had occurred to Picasso since he had done a set of 13 illustrations to Balzac’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu in 1927, although he produced more in later years. And as Picasso said in an interview of 1935, the theme of Balzac’s story was the destruction of the motif, something which he considered part of his own painting practice. “In my case, a picture is a sum of destructions” and he went on to connect what Hans Belting calls the “metamorphosis of a picture” with discovering the path “followed by the brain in materializing a dream.” [6] This seems close to the examples in the studio suggested earlier in which the studio functions as a space for producing dreams, whose essence cannot be captured perfectly by the material canvas, the screen of representation. Picasso was aware that this pursuit of the perfect motif held implications for the struggle between abstraction and figurative art, present in the formative stages of modern art in the twentieth-century.  However, Picasso had no sympathy for the purveyors of abstract art which is why he shows an artist drawing abstract configurations on an easel whilst watched by a female model. The loops, whorls, and curlicues are Picasso’s way of representing what Balzac called “colours confusedly piled up and contained within a mass of bizarre lines lines which form a wall of painting.” The-Artist-in-His-Studio-Giclee Picasso is not trying to abstract the motif found in nature, but is mercilessly sending up the that style of art that seeks to find meaning in the inchoate or unrepresentable, although abstract expressionism was some time away. But Picasso may have another aim in mind here. For Picasso, representation is about “keeping the idea alive in the work”, and the process of “continual self-destruction” prevents the death of the idea. Indeed, as Hans Belting theorizes, the whole of Picasso’s oeuvre, or body of work, from his blue period up to such abstract representations of the studio as shown here “is to cover up an invisible masterpiece that can only exist as an idea”, or in the context explored here, as a symbol of the unattainable work of art in the studio.[7]

[1] John Milner, “Locating the Studio” in The Artist’s Studio, 65.

[2] For a discussion of this see Jeremy Maas and others, Victorian Fairy Painting, ex. cat., London, 1998, 114.

[3] See Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, trans. John Goodman, Cambridge Mass., London: MIT Press. 427.

[4] Oskar Bätschmann,The Artist in the Modern World: The Conflict Between Market and Self-Expression, 1997, 100.

[5] Bätschmann,The Artist in the Modern World, 100.

[6] See the discussion in Hans Belting, The Invisible Masterpiece, 206-7.

[7] The Invisible Masterpiece, 268.