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by John Wilson


"The Latest Religious and Culture Studies Theory"

Continuing a conversation about Holy Hills in the Ozarks.

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There are many times when simply carrying on a conversation seems impossible—whether the subject is race, or the war in Iraq, or the propriety of tipping at Starbucks; whether the setting is a seminar room or the family dining table or the blogosphere. A couple of volleys are exchanged and the parties return to business as usual.

Last week I responded to a blog by the scholar Matthew Avery Sutton, who had posted a response to Frederica Mathewes–Green's recent piece in Books & Culture, "Holy Hegemony!" The subject was Aaron K. Ketchell's book Holy Hills of the Ozarks: Religion and Tourism in Branson, Missouri, which Mathewes–Green had discussed at length in her piece on Branson. Sutton described Mathewes–Green's piece as "ridiculous" and accused her of systematically, willfully misrepresenting Ketchell's book. He described Ketchell's book as "brilliant," a "careful, balanced, and sophisticated analysis of Branson that incorporates the latest religious and culture studies theory." My response took up those charges, and now Sutton has replied.

So what has been accomplished so far? Not much, I'm sorry to say. But it may be worthwhile to persist. Yes, Sutton is busy and I am busy. On the other hand, the two of us (along with Frederica Mathewes–Green) are among the very few people in the world who have read—or will read—Ketchell's book. And most of you who are following this exchange have read Mathewes–Green's essay–review. It seems that we shouldn't squander the opportunity for conversation.

The tone of Sutton's rejoinder is genial (humor is always welcome, though a little forced jocularity goes a long way). He's suggesting, if I am reading him correctly, that there's nothing personal in our disagreement, a sentiment I share. Neither of us, for instance, has called the other a "jackal," as the Chinese head of the Communist Party in Tibet recently referred to the Dalai Lama. I appreciate that, and I wish I could say that Sutton's rejoinder cleared up some of the confusion sown by his first piece.

Alas, with the exception of a couple of grudging concessions, no. And so I will try, one more time, to do that—and then try to move the conversation—if it can be so called—forward.

First, then, confusion. Sutton writes in his rejoinder: "Unlike Mathewes–Green and Wilson, I hoped to keep this discussion in the realm of ideas, not personal religious commitments." What? This comes from a writer who began by referring gratuitously to Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, then described Frederica Mathewes–Green as "a popular writer and veteran on the evangelical lecture circuit." How is this more "in the realm of ideas" than what Mathewes–Green wrote? Can't Sutton be bothered to remember his own words? And it appears that, even though I already quoted last week what Mathewes–Green actually said in this context, I'm going to have to do it again, because Sutton continues to misrepresent her. Here is what she wrote:

Ketchell explains that he began studying Branson because his thesis advisor specialized in Marian apparitions, and the topic of folk religion drew his interest. (Of his own background, he says that his family "has for many generations been staunchly Catholic.") As he thought about a past visit to the Ozarks, "I recalled that in that region one could not find statues of Mary or paintings of St. Sebastian skewered with arrows, yet its religious attractions were comparable mixtures of sacred and secular." (I am stumped as to how a statue of Mary is a "mixture of sacred and secular"; I can only guess that Ketchell considers art intrinsically secular because it partakes of the material world.)

Please note: Contrary to Sutton's account, Mathewes–Green does not say that Ketchell is Catholic; she quotes, parenthetically, what he said himself about his family background. Nor does she suggest that this background accounts for his conceptual muddles, any more than it accounts for his mangling of the English language.

There is more to be said in this vein, but let's move ahead to the conclusion of Sutton's rejoinder:

In sum, what Wilson has ignored in his blog is the point of my criticism of Mathewes–Green's review. He can take his shots at me, as Mathewes–Green took her shots at Ketchell, but these have nothing to do with the fact that Mathewes–Green, in her effort to position Holy Hills as on the wrong side of the culture wars, completely missed Ketchell's argument. Holy Hills is an important book that, mixed metaphors aside, makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on American religion.

OK. The whiny rhetoric—"taking shots"!—doesn't exactly invite further engagement, but I think this conclusion nevertheless points the way forward. What appears to be an impasse may not be the end–point after all.

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