by John Wilson

"The Latest Religious and Culture Studies Theory"

Continuing a conversation about Holy Hills in the Ozarks.

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If you read Mathewes–Green's piece, with its extensive quotations from Ketchell, you are probably wondering what on earth Sutton meant when he said, in his initial response, "That Mathews–Green read this book through the lens of the culture wars tells us a whole lot more about her than it does about Ketchell's brilliant, engaging book." Isn't it clear that Ketchell himself repeatedly casts Branson in precisely such terms? And if you actually read Holy Hills of the Ozarks, that impression would be confirmed.

So is Sutton simply obtuse, or disingenuous? No. Here is the context of his judgment, at least as I understand it. Ketchell's book is representative of a broad trend in the study of American religion, and in particular the study of conservative Protestant believers—fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals. A growing number of scholars have produced what might be called ethnographic studies of such believers, seeking to understand how they construct their shared social world. Susan Friend Harding's The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics and Mitchell Stevens' Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (which considers both religious and nonreligious homeschooling advocates) are two examples among many, and within this broad trend there are many subdivisions (emphasis on "material culture," for instance). But what links most of these books is an effort to understand.

Understand what? Well, in part the trend reflects the collapse of secularization theory (which still has its defenders, yes) and the simplistic understanding of "modernity" that went with it. So many of these studies seek to understand how various religious groups that were supposed to wither away are in fact negotiating the challenges of modernity. And for many—though by no means all—of the scholars working in this vein, the ideal is a kind of sympathetic detachment from the object of research, a studied "neutrality." But this ideal is in tension with another influential trend in the study of religion and in the academy today more broadly, encouraging "committed" scholarship. (If we do carry the conversation on, this would be one subject to pursue. Another would be Ketchell's almost complete failure to live up to his claim in the introduction—repeated elsewhere—that his study "broaches the many ways that tourists have utilized Branson's ontological fables and accompanying ideological constructs to conceivably refashion their nonvacation lives.")

I think—and I may be wrong—when Sutton says "Mathewes–Green, in her effort to position Holy Hills as on the wrong side of the culture wars, completely missed Ketchell's argument," he means that Ketchell isn't taking either "side" in the culture war. Rather, Ketchell's book should be seen as offering insight into how the evolution of Branson reflects the complex negotiations with modernity carried on by conservative American Protestants. And in fact, despite its huge flaws, which go much deeper than Sutton has acknowledged, I think that Ketchell's book does shed light on this subject. I also think that throughout the book there's a tension between his stance as a "neutral" observer and his desire to reassure the reader that of course he realizes how benighted the outlook of these people is in many respects—a tension that Mathewes–Green identified, though not precisely in those terms.

One last point. Ketchell is in some ways far more sympathetic to Branson than I would be. Such places give me the creeps, though I have some good friends who've been to Branson and loved it. But Ketchell makes my skin crawl too. Let me conclude by quoting one of my favorite passages from Mathewes–Green's essay–review:

Granted, Branson is thoroughly pro–family; a random stack of brochures tout a high proportion of family acts, such as the Gatlin Brothers, the Lennon Sisters, the Osmonds, the Hughes Brothers, the Presleys, the Duttons , the Brett Family, the Haygoods, and the Branson Brothers (I'm not sure if the "Brothers" are some or all of the eight young people on the cover, representing a variety of genders and races). But there's nothing ominous in this. Branson is full of family acts because it's where acts settle to raise their families. In Ketchell's determination to see "conventional gender roles," he misses seeing the hardworking women in these and other shows. He insists instead that Branson promotes "a value structure that cherishes the procreative impulse, sanctions male authority, locates femaleness within the realm of childbearing and nurture, and stamps these dictates with a divine imprimatur that bestows them with a sense of naturalness rather than social construction." Yet I was unable to find any reference to childbearing, or even to gender roles, in Branson. Ketchell notes that Mormons fit in well because Branson "prizes extended families, heralds procreative inclinations, and values temperance." Later he states that "the unbridled acquisition of offspring in Branson is not solely limited to biological breeding. Some musical families have augmented their ranks through the channels of KidSave International," a Christian nonprofit that assists adoptions from Russia and Central Asia. Somehow it sounds like a bad thing.


John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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