From "Folk Religion" to the "Search for Meaning": Teaching Folklore outside the Discipline

Article excerpt

In the mid-1980s, while working on a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania where I combined both Folklore and Folklife and Religious Studies, Folklore Department chair Kenneth S. Goldstein asked me to create an undergraduate course with the title, "Introduction to Folk Religion". I envisioned a course with many objectives: I wanted the students to become sensitive to the public and private expressions of religion, including religious experience; I desired them to be aware of the vitality of the study of belief and belief systems; and I sought to sensitize them to the individual negotiations of religion apparent even within powerful religious institutions. The summary of this offering, as I now list it in the course guide of Cabrini College, the Roman Catholic liberal arts college in the suburbs of Philadelphia where I currently teach, reads as follows:

This course will introduce the study of religion through the exploration of the search for meaning among religious people, with the emphasis placed on Christian "folk" religion in Europe and America. Among the topics to be discussed are the Holy Shroud of Turin, stigmata, incorruptibility of holy persons, relics of the saints, demonic possession, healing miracles, magic, divination, historical witchcraft and contemporary Goddess Religion, as well as apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

While a folklorist may not be surprised by this subject matter, it has been my experience that this is not a typical course in a department of religious studies or theology, whether in a secular or religious context. In fact, I find myself in the position of being possibly the only folklorist teaching in a department of religious studies in a Catholic college or university in the United States.

The roots of the study of folk religion in European ethnology grew out of the concerns of the German Lutheran minister Paul Drews to instruct or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, support young pastors as they encountered the personal understandings and interpretations of religion by their congregants (Yoder 1990: 67; Primiano 1997: 711-712). I share Drews's interest in the religion of the people, and certainly find it necessary to clarify points of student misunderstanding concerning Christian tradition. I, however, am careful not to use this course as a corrective of what is wrong with the students' beliefs, but as an encouragement for them to appreciate the variety and creativity of people's religion.

My original "Introduction to Folk Religion" course complemented a graduate level offering on "Folk Religion" by my mentor, Don Yoder, who created the first course in America on Folk Religion at the University of Pennsylvannia in 1957 while he was a member of the Department of Religious Thought, as it was then called. I offered the introductory course several times at Penn as a College of General Studies class open to undergraduates and adult education students; I taught it again at the undergraduate and graduate level as a visiting professor of folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland; and I am currently teaching a version of it at my current post at Cabrini College, where it is now entitled: "The Search For Meaning". In fact, when I arrived at Cabrini in the fall of 1993, I took that title from my former colleague, Margaret Reher, to name my course on "religion as it is lived ... as human beings encounter, understand, interpret, and practice it" (Primiano 1995: 44).

I owe a special debt to the father of American folklife studies, Don Yoder, as many North American folklorists do, not only for influencing me to study religion as it is lived and expressed, but for showing me a way to teach people's religion which made the subject matter vital. Like Jean Simard at Laval University, Yoder dedicated his career to the study of religious folklife. Simard gave particular attention to Roman Catholics and their religious beliefs and practices; Yoder, while quite catholic in his interests and teaching, concentrated his work on Pennsylvania as a religious landscape and Protestant expressive region. …