BETWEEN TEXTS AND MATERIAL THINGS: Using First-Hand Experience to Interpret Material Culture in Teaching Religion

By Savastano, Peter | Transformations, Fall/Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

BETWEEN TEXTS AND MATERIAL THINGS: Using First-Hand Experience to Interpret Material Culture in Teaching Religion


Savastano, Peter, Transformations


Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.

ROBERT A. ORSI. PRINCETON AND OXFORD: PRINCETON UP, 2005.

The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism.

ERNESTO DE MARTINO. TRANSLATED AND ANNOTATED BY DOROTHY LOUISE ZINN. LONDON: FREE ASSOCIATION BOOKS, 2005.

At a time in US history when authoritarianism and the policing of religious orthodoxy seem to be on the rise, it is pedagogically vital to get students to see that religion is much more than official creeds, doctrines, and dogmas. Toward that end, in my teaching, I draw on material culture within the context of ethnographic research. I use religious artifacts and household objects to help students understand how people express and enact their religious beliefs through material culture.

In Material Christianity, Religion and Popular Culture in America, Colleen McDannell writes that "material culture speciahsts derive meanings from objects themselves by paying attention to the form, distribution, function and changing character of the objects and their environments" (2).1 According to McDannell, there are four categories of material culture: artifacts, landscapes, architecture, and art (2). In two of my courses-"The Anthropology of Religion" and "Religion, Sexuality and Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective"-I draw on these categories while also conveying to students that such categories are comphcated when considered within the contexts of ritual and procession.2

The two books under review here-Robert Orsi's Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them and The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism by Ernesto DeMartino-illustrate the importance of material culture in making concrete and tactile the seemingly invisible spiritual world western religion purports to reveal through theological claims. Orsi is an historian of American religion and, in particular, Italian American Roman Catholicism. He demonstrates his own subjectivity in ethnographic research and emphasizes the importance of material culture in the study of religion. De Martino conducted his research in the late 1950s, before the postmodern turn in the social sciences and in religious studies. Each of these authors demonstrates the "lived" dimensions of religion. Spiritual and emotional aspects of people's religious lives take on tangible form through sacred artifacts in individual or collective ritual contexts.

In intermediate and upper-level courses, I assign a final ethnographic research project in which students include an analysis of material culture. Students choose between a religious tradition and a "devotional" or "spiritual" practice as the topic of their research.3 They conduct at least two months of participation-observation in a community that embodies their chosen tradition or practice. In addition, they research scholarly sources on the subject. Finally, they give a twenty-minute oral presentation and write a ten-page paper-a mini ethnography. There are stipulations for the ethnographic project. Students cannot conduct research in their own religious tradition or a devotional or spiritual practice with which they are familiar, nor can they explore gender and sexuality from a perspective that merely underscores the western worldview with its binary gender categories and fixed notions of sexual orientation. Since most of the students in the course are of Christian background-predominandy Roman Catholic, and also some Protestants-the second stipulation is that a Catholic student cannot study a Protestant form of Christianity, and a Protestant student cannot study Catholicism.

While Seton Hall University is ethnically and culturally diverse, it is not very religiously diverse. My students have an opportunity, therefore, (through this project) to cross religious and cultural boundaries and to enter into a "foreign land." I seek to facilitate what in a traditional anthropological setting is called "culture shock. …

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