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Places of Faith: A Road Trip across America's Religious Landscape
Christopher P. Scheitle
Oxford University Press, 2012
264 pp., $33.95
"What's Your Road, Man?"
By a happy accident, shortly after a copy of Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke's Places of Faith fell in my hands, I received Books & Culture's 2011 Book of the Year, God Is Red, by Liao Yiwu. I thus read the two books simultaneously and was struck by how similar the two projects were and yet how distinct the results. Both books are studies of religious communities through the enabling vehicle of the travelogue: Finke and Scheitle describe a road trip across the United States in search of its "religious landscape," visiting churches, temples, synagogues, and an Islamic community center as they drive coast to coast; Liao chronicles his rambles through villages in southern China and jaunts around the cities of Dali, Chengdu, and Beijing in order to learn "how Christianity survived and flourished in Communist China." By adopting the travelogue form, moreover, each book aims to do more than recount religious history or document changing trends in religiosity. Scheitle and Finke, both established sociologists, well summarize the projects of both books when they write of their "hope that our stories, pictures, and experiences give life to lifeless statistics and bring far-removed historical accounts into closer view." In other words, both books attempt to portray the life of religious communities with immediacy and vitality through personal accounts and encounters rather than large-scale survey data or government reports (the sort of stuff that Finke, for example, normally studies in his role as director of the Association of Religion Data Archives).
Both books have their merits, but Liao's is by far the more effective in employing the travelogue in the service of documenting the lives, practices, and histories of religious communities. The key difference between the texts on this line is Liao's ability to present himself as a character in his account without detracting from his stories of the various Christian communities that he encounters. This character is naïve, ...