This course will offer an overview of Western modernity with special emphasis on the ways in which technologies have shaped, and been shaped by, human practices, value-systems, and imaginations. Our goal is to acquire an understanding of the principal currents that have shaped Western culture from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Though our primary focus is on technologies and their impact in the world, we will consider the historical and material conditions that provide the necessary context for the machines, systems, and technics in any given period. In doing so, this course introduces students to a range of issues revolving around the significance of technology—historical, philosophical, sociological, phenomenological, and ethical.
The language of spirit and/or spirituality is everywhere these days. The digital dematerialization of information is, for some, a “spiritualizing” phenomenon and offers, for true believers, the promise of immortality. For others, the future will soon conjure the “spirit” of pure markets and emotional efficiency. And for still others, the future of techno-modernity will be dark, indeed, if the “spirit” of individual conscience is not heeded immediately. As the brain becomes subject to neural mapping the desire to locate the source of our spiritual capacities intensifies among cognitive scientists even as evolutionary psychologists argue over such things as the religion gene. And finally, among a fast growing percentage of the United States population, “spiritual but not religious” now serves as a declaration of one’s religious orientation.
What does spirituality mean, exactly, in the examples mentioned above? What is significant about spirit- and/or spirituality-talk pervading American culture? Is there something new going on here? Or can spirituality be traced back through American history, even when it was not called that? This course answers in the affirmative, making a case for a history of spirituality in America.
Religion and the Beats
In the mid-1940s, before writing the obscenity-laden manifestos that would earn them fame, opprobrium, and the group label the “Beat Generation,” Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs had begun a collaborative project of literary and spiritual development, what they termed the “new vision.” This course will examine the history of this development within the context of the changing religious climate of post-World-War II America. It will use the example of the Beats to explore two different but intimately related phenomena—(1) the capacity of the imagination to create a religious world out of everyday experience and (2) the historical trends of postwar America that catalyzed this creativity. In addition to reading the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and other Beat voices, we will also examine numerous primary and secondary sources related to postwar America.
Cultural History of American Religion
This course introduces students to the cultural history of American religion from approximately 1492 to the present. Topics include the forms and effects of Protestantism from the Reformation to the recent revival of evangelicalism, traditions of religious practice (Native American, Judaism, Catholicism, African American, Occult), and issues that are essential for understanding the religious dimensions of American history. Issues to be discussed include immigration, imperialism, nativism, mass media, the impact of capitalism & technology, feminism, sexuality, and environmentalism. In addition to looking at liturgical forms of religion and surveying various religious movements and groups, we will explore 1) how cultural forms serve as vehicles of religious meaning; 2) how religious values are expressed and/or criticized in everyday social life; and 3) the interaction between religion and developments within the political, social, scientific, and philosophical spheres. The emphasis, then, is not so much on religious organizations in a formal sense, but rather on religion as a cultural phenomenon.
Media and the State of Evangelicalism
If there is a space between religion and culture in American history this seminar attempts to dwell within it. Specifically, it explores the emergence and transformations of the public sphere as intimately related to the emergence and transformations of Evangelical Christianity. We will begin with America’s first celebrity preacher, the English itinerant George Whitefield, whose criss-crossings of America and Europe in the mid-18th century helped fuel what has since become know as the Great Awakening. We will end with a discussion of T.D. Jakes, one of the most successful contemporary American evangelists whose media empire has perfected the techniques of cross-marketing religion and politics. In between we will discuss moments in which the desires, perspectives, and plans of Evangelicals have played determinative roles in the making of Americans, for better and for worse. We will examine the Evangelical character of those institutions and ideas responsible for overseeing this process of production—from general concepts of publicity, democracy, evidence, and individualism to more specific ones like expansion and apocalypticism to trade routes, mass media public schools, and the market economy.
Moby-Dick; or, the Study of Religion
This seminar explores issues of religion, representation, and power within Herman Melville’s scene of writing Moby-Dick (1851) and, inevitably, within our own. The argument undergirding this seminar is that the study of religion is, first and foremost, an act of creative scholarly interpretation. Students of religion must be attentive not only to the “text” and its historical context, but also their own interpretive apparatus—continually asking themselves how they are reading, why they are reading, and to what purpose they are reading. In addition to Moby-Dick, we will engage primary documents of history, philosophical, theological, and anthropological tracts, as well as works of literary and cultural theory.
This course surveys a variety of religious traditions and expressions of African Americans throughout the history of the United States. This course will examine African traditions, slave religion, the rise of independent Black Churches, abolitionism and slave revolts, Reconstruction and the thought of W.E.B. Dubois, gospel music and other forms of sonic piety, the Civil Rights Movement, liberation theology, and hip-hop. Each week we will locate religious expressions and traditions within their cultural context. Our exploration of African American religious expression will be both thematic and historical. We will chart the changes and continuities in African American religious traditions and analyze some of the major themes and concerns that have driven African American religious experiences.
Images of Civil Religion
The study of civil religion necessarily broaches questions concerning the relationship between religion and culture, the public nature of faith, and the magical qualities of political authority. Such questions have generated much discussion since Bellah’s 1968 article, “American Civil Religion,” in which he argued that there existed “certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.” Bellah’s article, however, focused on particular discourses celebrating civic faith rather than the interests being served by the promotion of any particular orientation. More importantly, Bellah’s emphasis on words rather than the images that gave these words their power and force was (arguably) short-sighted. With the advance of visual technologies since the mid-nineteenth century (stereoscopes, daguerreotypy, panoramas, cinema, television, digital reproduction, etc.) Americans have become increasingly inundated with images, pictures, and pixelated flashes. What roles, if any, have such visual technologies and their products played in the creation and maintenance of the perceptual attitudes, metaphysical opinions, and ethical motivations of the American populace? What kind of power do images wield? Is seeing always believing? To what degree is perception a religious act? A political act? Both?
This course will introduce students to the history of the study of “religion.” We will begin by looking at the theological, epistemological, and political conditions that made possible the emergence of religion as a category of critical scrutiny in the modern West. After reviewing such key issues as the Reformation principle of sola fides, the Carteisan cogito, and the distinction between natural and revealed religion we will survey the curious and contested history of second-order reflection upon religion. The second half of the course broaches more recent theoretical developments.
A course never taught but an exercise in sustained reflection . . .