Religion 804: Culture and Lived Religion

In this week’s readings Jason C. Bivins and Grant Wacker examine lived religion and demonstrate the multiplicity of religious expression in the twentieth century United States. In Spirits Rejoice!, Bivins describes the religiosity of jazz beginning in the 1940s, largely covering the experiences and expressions of musicians after the 1960s. Wacker, in Heaven Below, examines the early pentecostal movement, with emphasis on the founding generation from 1900 to 1925. Putting these works in conversation is a complicated project as there is little overlap in subject matter and time period. In terms of approach, however, there is considerable space for discussion.

Bivins’s work envisions Jazz music in a “complex entanglement with ‘religion’” [Bivins 12]. He suggests that “as a form of human cultural communication that can be ‘heard’ meaningfully within its contexts, histories, and according to the self-understandings of those involved in the music,” jazz may be read as a religio-musical practice and ritual [Bivins 18]. This interpretation incorporates notions of lived religion and a form of religiosity that is communicated in spaces that are not commonly recognized as religious. Like Robert Orsi and Diane Winston, Bivins seeks to expand our notion of sacred space and expression. Bivins describes this in a number of ways, using ‘lived religion,’ ‘experienced religion,’ and ‘inbetweenness of religion’ alternatively [Bivins  272]. Bivins suggests that the jazz musicians described in the book utilized music as an expression of their faith. The form of this expression drew from many religious traditions, and like the jazz music they performed, Bivins describes them as expressive, playful, non-traditional, fluid, and improvisational.

These actors are positioned in terms of difference, operating at the edges of religious traditions and blending them. Bivins suggests that they subverted power and authority through this syncretic blending of faith and instrument, through the rejection of traditional religious expression/spaces for unique forms of sacrality and religiosity. Despite the emphasis on music, Bivins work is a cultural history with oral histories and biography serving as the basis for his examination. The notion of a “usable past”, as we saw recently in Kathleen Cummings’ New Women of the Old Faith, appeared in the work as well. The work is densely packed, despite this it would be strengthened if Bivins had incorporated less musical metaphor and placed more nuanced analysis on the subject of race. From what religious traditions are musicians borrowing and why? What about audience members? How might we evaluate their experience of religiosity?

These critiques aside, Bivins’s emphasis on sensory experience and “embodied spirituality”  were meaningful to my interests [Bivins 154].  These discussions encouraged me to think about nineteenth and early twentieth century religious expression within the deaf community, particularly those behaviors and activities that stand on the edges of religious practice. His continued effort to move away from a “privileging of the textual,” was also instructive [Bivins 7].

Notions of sound and religious expression take another form in Wacker’s examination of early pentecostals. Wacker imposes a rigid interpretive framework to his study of radical evangelicals. Each chapter allows Wacker to meditate on particular features of pentecostal belief and practices, with each considered in the context of “productive tension” between primitivism and pragmatism [Wacker 10-11]. Wacker presents this work as rooted in an ‘insider’s perspective.’ This positioning provides a better vantage for the examination of the “hum and buzz of implication,’ the multitudinous whispers of everyday life that other studies have tended to overlook” [Wacker 9]. This closeness, however, may account for a hesitancy that exists throughout that cautions him against critique. Race factors prominently in the early history of pentecostalism and the subject deserves greater consideration in Wacker’s work. Similarly, gender (despite appearing across the text) is only critically engaged in a single chapter on Women. It seems that in an effort to frame and describe pentecostalism, Wacker leaves little space for these subjects.

Still, Wacker is successful in unpacking pentecostalism in a nuanced way. He is careful to develop a sense of worldview for early pentecostals. Frequently positioned as outsiders, and set apart from other evangelicals for incorporating practices like speaking in tongues, adherents were “heaven-minded,” placing primacy on biblical authority [Wacker 19]. The bible was read literally and “articulated carefully and defended vigorously.” [Wacker 76]. Testimony was an important way that pentecostals established and reinforced identity, it was also a space where believers described supernatural experience that afforded them some authority [Wacker 86]. Placed alongside Kruse, Sutton and Worthen, Wacker’s careful analysis highlights the ideological and theological differences between these evangelicals and the ones described in those works. In particular, while Wacker does highlight a shift after World War II, he suggests that “pentecostal or pentecostal-like teachings and practices overflowed their historical boundaries in the radical evangelical tradition and penetrated the Roman Catholic Church and some of the older Protestant denominations, especially the Protestant Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church in America,” and that pentecostalism experienced significant growth outside of the United States during this period [Wacker 8]. Given that Wacker reserves later chapters for a discussion about how radical evangelicals engaged with the larger community, it is, at times, difficult to envision these believers as members of a larger social system, or to unpack how these beliefs are set apart from other faiths.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *