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Material Culture and Embodiment in American Religion  

David Morgan

In recent years, the study of religion has undergone a useful materialization in the work of many scholars, who are not inclined to define it in terms of ideas, creeds, or doctrines alone, but want to understand what role sensation, emotion, objects, spaces, clothing, and food have played in religious practice. If the intellect and the will dominated the study of religion dedicated to theology and ethics, the materialization of religious studies has taken up the role of the body, expanding our understanding of it and dismantling our preconceptions, which were often notions inherited from religious traditions. As a result, the body has become a broad register or framework for gauging the social, aesthetic, and practical character of religion in everyday life. The interest in material culture as a primary feature of religion has unfolded in tandem with the new significance of the body and the broad materialization of religious studies.

Article

Memorialization and Religion in America  

Adam M. Ware

Monuments, memorials, and museums mark America’s landscape and define both the purpose of spaces and the actors who inhabit them. From the earliest colonial encounters to the new age of mass trauma, memory and its cultural accretions have conferred meaning and denied agency at the intersections of economics, politics, culture, and religious habit. Inasmuch as battlefield memorial sites and statues to fallen soldiers generate community identity through demands for consensus memories and prescribed reactions, national memorials also reflect the diversity, contestedness, and political derivation of those consensuses and those memories. Memorials form physical sites for cultural rupture and ritual redress. Memorialization ritualizes behaviors, standardizes emotional expressions, and regulates the terms on which Americans orient themselves relative to one another. Whether staging mock funerals for an English king or leaving flowers and notes at a site where forty-nine young people lost their lives, death forms a key experience responsible for memorial motivation, but celebrations of independence and victory also produce parades, festivals, and active memorial traditions. In the flows of past and present, life and death, preservation and change, and sanctity and secularism, memorial objects, processes, and behaviors mark and are marked by the historic developments in American religious and civil life.

Article

Online Media and Religion in America  

Adam Bajan and Heidi A. Campbell

New and emerging media has played a pivotal role in Christianity throughout history. In early times, the Christian message was disseminated directly from Jesus and his followers to growing numbers of worshippers in the ancient world. This unmediated form of Christianity, while effective as a method of proselytization due to its immediacy and intimacy, was limited by how far its early disciples could travel to spread the Gospel of Christ. As communication technology developed through a series of paradigm shifts spread over several centuries of human sociocultural development, Christianity capitalized on these shifts in a variety of ways. This fostered significant structural changes to the religion due to steadily increasing levels of technologically rooted mediation over time. In its most current form, Christianity is mediated through a variety of secular digital media with online capabilities. Media are utilized by increasing numbers of Christian churches throughout America due to their potential as platforms for efficient dissemination and ability to reach large numbers of worshippers with relative ease. As churches integrate secular digital media into their structures, a third space of interconnectivity emerges in which the boundaries between on and offline lived religious practice are bridged; blended; and at times, blurred, depending on the context and level of mediation. This third space that emerges is quantified as a digital religion in which Christianity becomes redefined as a cultural practice and site of collective and individual meaning making.

Article

Place and Spirituality in the Pacific Northwest  

Madeline Duntley

The challenges and benefits of the Pacific Northwest’s rugged but scenic terrain have received ample treatment in studies of religiosity in this region. The interplay of place and spirituality was first chronicled in detailed case studies of Christian missions and missionaries, rural and urban immigrants, and histories of the various Native American tribal groups of the Northwest Coast and Inland Empire. Currently, the focus is on trends unique to this region, such as interdenominational and interfaith ecumenicity in environmental and social justice campaigns, earth-based spiritual activism and conservation, emergent “nature spirituality,” the rise of religious non-affiliation (the so-called religious “nones”), and indigenous revitalization movements. Recent interest in cultural geography has produced several general works seeking to define the Pacific Northwest aesthetic and regional ethos, especially as depicted in the so-called “Northwest Schools” in art, architecture, and literature. Because the Cascade Mountain range bisects the Pacific Northwest into two radically different climate zones, literature on spirituality in the region often follows this natural topography and limits its locative lens to either the coastal zone (including the area stretching from Seattle to Southern Oregon) or the Inland Empire (the more arid zone east of the mountains from Spokane to Eastern Oregon). When the Pacific Northwest region is referred to more broadly as “Cascadia,” it includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, northernmost California and Canada’s British Columbia.

Article

Religion and the Body  

Robert Fuller

The relationship between religion and the body can be viewed from two very different perspectives. The first perspective emphasizes culture’s role in constructing human thought and behavior. This approach illuminates the diverse ways that religious traditions shape human attitudes toward the nature and meaning of their physical bodies. Scholars guided by this perspective have helped us better understand religion’s complicity in such otherwise mysterious phenomena as mandated celibacy, restrictive diets, circumcision, genital mutilation, self-flagellation, or the specification of particular forms of clothing. Newly emerging information about the biological body has given rise to a second approach to the body’s relationship to religion. Rather than exploring how religion influences attitudes toward our bodies, these new studies investigate how our biological bodies exert identifiable influences on our religious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Neural chemistry, emotions, sensory modalities, pain responses, mating strategies, sexual arousal systems, and genetic personality predispositions all influence the personal salience of religious beliefs or behavior. Attention to the biological body unravels many of the enigmas that formerly accompanied the study of such things as the appeal of apocalyptic beliefs, the frequent connection between religion and systems of healing, devotional piety aiming toward union with a beloved deity, the specific practices entailed in ascetic spirituality, or the mechanisms triggering ecstatic emotional states.

Article

Religious Ceremonies in American Public Life  

Joseph W. Williams

Throughout the history of the British colonies and the United States, Americans from different religious traditions have performed a wide variety of religious rituals in public spaces and forums. Many of these public ceremonies stood in the long tradition of civil religion in the United States, which combined national symbols with nonsectarian references to God, the Bible, and the like, and helped to unify a religiously diverse American populace. In addition to such expressions of religious nationalism, many Americans have not hesitated to perform religious rituals in the public square that reflected much more particularistic religious commitments and identities. A significant majority of these religious ceremonies in American public life demonstrated—even as they reinforced—the social and political dominance of Protestantism. Such was especially the case with the numerous revival meetings held in very public places that repeatedly attracted crowds by the thousands, and the seemingly ubiquitous Christmas and Easter celebrations in much of American society. At the same time, the ever-expanding religious diversity in the United States ensured a corresponding increase in the variety of religious performances that reached the wider public. Religious ceremonies in American public life functioned as important sites of religious cooperation, contestation, and protest; and served as key features of the various counterpublics that minority religious groups created as they challenged the status quo. The emergence of new mass communication technologies during the 20th century made it evermore difficult to draw sharp lines of distinction separating public and private expressions of religion. And despite the fact that an increasing number of Americans disaffiliated from established forms of religion after the turn of the 21st century, public expressions of religiosity showed few signs of abating. Religious Americans of all stripes continued to perform religious ceremonies in public spaces as a means to proselytize, agitate on behalf of specific causes, defend religious values that they perceived to be under threat, and raise awareness regarding the plight of marginalized groups.

Article

Religious Parades and Processions in America  

Rodger M. Payne

Processional performances, including parading activities and the ritual procession of holy objects and images, have long been a part of religious practice. Informed by a cultural prejudice that viewed such public forms of religious display as outdated survivals from archaic religious traditions, early scholarly analysis focused on questions of origin rather than interpretation. Only recently have scholars from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—including religious studies, history, anthropology, and sociology—begun to examine such behaviors as expressions of “lived religion” rather than expressions of a “pagan” past. Only with the rise of the phenomenological method in the mid-twentieth century, best represented in the work of Mircea Eliade and his disciples and critics, did the question of the space in which such activities took place develop as a category for investigation and analysis. Eliade’s concept of “sacred” and “profane space,” while significantly criticized in recent decades, raised important concerns regarding the way in which religions created, recognized, and moved through space as a category of human meaning. To Eliade’s contrast between the sacred and profane, recent scholars of American religion have added to their examination of space the oppositions of public and private, religious and secular, although understanding these terms (as well as sacred and profane) as dialectical rather than dichotomous. As public events that take place in religiously neutral space (the street), religious parades and processions raise questions about the phenomenological concept of the sacred center, or even the pilgrim’s goal of the “center out there,” because they represent a moving and ephemeral focus of sacred power. Participants may don special clothing, carry flags and banners, utilize sound (especially music), and transport sacred images and objects as they move from place to place. By visually, aurally, and spatially transgressing various boundaries, whether physical or symbolic, these ritual performances can “reterritorialize” social hierarchies and geographical identities. The “spatial turn” in religion combines insights drawn from cultural geography, the anthropology of space, and philosophical concepts in order to suggest new analytical and methodological approaches in the study of American religion generally, and religious parades and processions specifically.