Places of Faith: A Road Trip across America's Religious Landscape
Roger Finke; Christopher P. Scheitle
Oxford University Press, 2012
264 pp., 35.99
"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, bashful, and, at times, feels a bit contrived, but he is a helpful guide and interviewer. More significantly, he pauses to reflect on what it personally means for him, a nonbeliever, to be present in doing field work on Christians. Here, for example, he is describing his attendance at a mass in Dali:
Not knowing how to sing hymns, I hummed the melody. At the altar, against the background of four big Chinese characters proclaiming God Is Love, a middle-aged priest and two young acolytes were immersed in an ancient ceremony. "For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him," the priest intoned. I felt a little self-conscious about my presence in the church, a nonbeliever here to observer the behavior of the believers. I knew the passage the priest was reading and hoped they did not think the betrayer was me.
In this and other episodes, Liao allows the reader to see him in the process of entering a foreign space, navigating alien practices, reflecting uncomfortably on what he is hearing and what it might mean for him as one who is not a member of the fold. The travelogue form of the book makes this kind of reflection not only possible but welcome. In watching him move between different kinds of Christian community, the reader easily sympathizes with his very human response not only to the changing conditions but also to the passionate conviction of the people whom he witnesses and respects but with whom he does not share core beliefs.
Scheitle and Finke, by contrast, share almost nothing about themselves and are problematically silent about their own religious beliefs. They are, to borrow a phrase from the novelist Robert Musil, "men without qualities." While useful in research directed at academic peers, this dearth of personal detail detracts from the interest of their narrative (road trips demand intriguing travel-mates) and leaves important questions about their project unaddressed. In particular, what does it mean for them to participate in religious services in which they do not believe in the deity being worshipped or theology being espoused? In their descriptions of the practices of the various Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities that they visit, they do not interject, as Liao, to describe private reservations, confusions, disagreements. Their silence on this count, moreover, leaves hollow the book's claim that it is "about experiencing and discovering America's local religious communities and traditions." Each chapter of the book contains a subsection called "the religious experience." And certainly these sections provide detailed records of the stages of worship at various venues. But the book is far too reticent regarding what it feels like to participate in a worship service in which something or someone is worshipped, especially when one does not know what do or finds the spiritual experience of one's neighbor strange, ridiculous, or unattainable.
Knowing more about the authors, for example, would help us to know what to do with this moment noted during their visit to First Tabernacle Church of God and Christ in Memphis: "Pastor Cole called on all the men of the church, even the visitors, to go to the back of the church for prayer." There is no further comment on what took place during the prayer session, though this scene strikes me as exactly the kind of moment where we would benefit from hearing the authors describe their experience, as presumably they are included in the call to "even the visitors." Are Scheitle and Finke Christians? Did they pray? If not, then what were they doing in the midst of the prayer? I dwell on this point because the book's beginning and ending suggest that its project is repeatable—that is, that their quest can be undertaken by the reader in his or her locality. Both Liao's and Scheitle and Finke's books offer rich descriptions of the hospitality of religious communities; however, Liao Yiwu's book provides the more apt commentary on the complexity of the experience that would follow if one took up Scheitle and Finke's charge.
Despite these defects, Places of Faith remains an informative book, gathering a remarkable amount of information within a few short, approachable chapters. The chapters are then subdivided into sections—the religious history, the religious landscape, the religious experience, and so on—that encourage the reader to think comparatively about religious groups and their practices. This book will be particularly useful for those who are looking for a primer on the religious composition of the United States. It seems to me, for example, a likely candidate for the future syllabi of introductory courses on the sociology of religion or American religious life.
In Memphis, Scheitle and Finke visit an African American Christian church; in Houston, Joel Osteen's megachurch; in Colorado Springs, parachurch organizations; in San Francisco, Buddhist temples; in Salt Lake City, a local Mormon church; in central Nebraska, various Protestant and Catholic churches; in Detroit, an Islamic Community Center; and, in Brooklyn, three Jewish congregations. The book's conclusion returns the authors to State College, Pennsylvania, where Finke is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Penn State and Scheitle, now on the faculty at Saint John's, was formerly a doctoral candidate and researcher.
One thing that is immediately apparent about the itinerary is that the authors have focused on places where there is a particularly high concentration of the congregational type or religious group they seek to show. This feature is likely to turn away more seasoned observers of religion in the United States, as these are places and communities that have already been well documented (they are also for the most part in major cities that receive considerable media attention and tourist traffic). This approach may leave the reader with the impression that America's religious landscape is best discovered through enclaves—whether it's Mormons congregating in suburbs of Salt Lake City or Jews of various traditions living among kosher shops and services in Brooklyn.
The religious landscape is painted with a broad brush in this book, and each of the elements seems to be exactly where we'd expect to find it.
Scheitle and Finke's book, then, would have benefited from the inclusion of examples of religious communities that defy our familiar generalizations. They include "views from the road" between the chapters seemingly to offer such moments, but these sections are largely predictable and unfortunately kitschy (there's a section on religiously themed graffiti and road signs, for example). The book would profit from looking in an unexpected place for its religious communities—such as a Jewish synagogue in the Bible Belt. I wondered, as I read, what the road trip would have been like if the authors had, for instance, visited Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina—the second oldest synagogue building in the United States and oldest in continuous use. Charleston, to my knowledge, is not commonly recognized as a crucial city for American Judaism, and yet Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was one of the major (perhaps the first) conduits for the transmission of Reform Judaism from Germany. To speak of such a community effectively, however, would require discussion of the wider religious character of Charleston, which is also home to a number of historically significant and largely white downtown churches and to a number of historically important African American churches, including Gullah congregations. In other words, to discuss the history and continuing life of a Jewish congregation in such a city would require that one situate it within a complex local habitat.
I cite the example of Charleston not to criticize its exclusion from Places of Faith but to point out an alternative approach to the subject matter that would have better shown diversity within a local space. Here, again, God Is Red offers a salient example. Liao opens the first chapter by describing a lunch with Ze Yu, a Buddhist monk who resembles "one of those smiley, big-bellied Buddhist statues," at a Muslim halal restaurant in the southern city of Dali. Following the meal, Ze Yu leads the author on a religious tour of the city:
But concentrated here were worshippers of many gods and deities. The indigenous Bai people venerated thousands of them in their temples …. [Ze] showed us Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples and Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Less conspicuous, he said, were practitioners of Baha'I and Falun Gong, who used their homes, as did those Christians who refused to recognize government-sanctioned churches.
This tour helps the reader to appreciate the complexity of the religious background of Liao's search for Christianity in China, a complexity that is then mirrored in his interviewees' accounts of trying various spiritual paths before joining Christian communities.
The vision of Dali is also striking here because it offers a vision of a cityscape abundant with religious spaces. Yet the cityscape has not always been as it is now: Laio's interviews help him, in turn, to describe the cityscape of the early 20th century, in which Christian communities were still more visible. Other chapters describe, for example, the search for forgotten, defaced cemeteries that house the remains of foreign missionaries. His chronicle, moreover, reveals the continuing question of visibility for Chinese Christian communities. What this means for Liao is that he must gather a network of contacts to help him to maneuver the cityscape, finding religious communities not only in expected places—such as an old chapel and buildings with signs outside—but also in places that only members could lead him to—such as in an inconspicuous house in the midst of a suburban village. Liao's narratives of his treks through cities and villages add much interest to his book, but, even more important, they help the reader to see the spatial complexity of the religious communities of modern China, whether they are attempting to reclaim lands seized in the Cultural Revolution or are essaying whether to participate in the public churches (usually state-sponsored) or in more secretive congregations.
"What's your road, man?" Kerouac's question from the greatest of all American road-trip narratives offers the right note on which to end. Places of Faith and God Is Red plot their courses through two divergent roads, and they are likely to please different audiences. Yet the books are joined in the common belief that the study of religious communities is facilitated through immersion, even intimacy. If Liao's book is more successful, it is exactly because he admits that so much is at stake for those who worship—and that, in turn, being the guest of such a community prompts a panoply of emotions, including perplexity, apprehension, admiration, and joy.
Richard Gibson is assistant professor of English at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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