Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sacred Folly Coming in March

Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max Harris (Cornell University Press), is scheduled for publication in March of this year. Previously I have written on the significance of the concept of sacred follow for the church:
This book will update and correct remarks Harris has made previously about the Feast of Fools in his book Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (University of Texas Press, 2003). As I have argued previously in my masters thesis on Burning Man, and in several posts on this blog, western evangelicalism would do well to reflect on the importance of festival and play in connection with ecclesiology and worship and how the historical Feast of Fools, properly understood in its historical and ecclesiological contexts in the past, might be recontextualized in certain subcultural contexts for the present.
The publisher's website describes the book as follows:

For centuries, the Feast of Fools has been condemned and occasionally celebrated as a disorderly, even transgressive Christian festival, in which reveling clergy elected a burlesque Lord of Misrule, presided over the divine office wearing animal masks or women’s clothes, sang obscene songs, swung censers that gave off foul-smelling smoke, played dice at the altar, and otherwise parodied the liturgy of the church. Afterward, they would take to the streets, howling, issuing mock indulgences, hurling manure at bystanders, and staging scurrilous plays. The problem with this popular account—intriguing as it may be— is that it is wrong.

In Sacred Folly Max Harris rewrites the history of the Feast of Fools, showing that it developed in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (1 January)—serving as a dignified alternative to rowdy secular New Year festivities. The intent of the feast was not mockery but thanksgiving for the incarnation of Christ. Prescribed role reversals, in which the lower clergy presided over divine office, recalled Mary’s joyous affirmation that God “has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble.” The “fools” represented those chosen by God for their lowly status.

The feast, never widespread, was largely confined to cathedrals and collegiate churches in northern France. In the fifteenth century, high-ranking clergy who relied on rumor rather than firsthand knowledge attacked and eventually suppressed the feast. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians repeatedly misread records of the feast; their erroneous accounts formed a shaky foundation for subsequent understanding of the medieval ritual. By returning to the primary documents, Harris reconstructs a Feast of Fools that is all the more remarkable for being sanctified rather than sacrilegious.


"Sacred Folly is a major achievement; it is a book that we have needed, and Max Harris is preeminently the person to have written it. It reads gracefully, and the author is an attractive presence throughout."—David Bevington, Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities, University of Chicago

"In this bracingly revisionist book, Max Harris overturns long-held assumptions about the nature and functions of the Feast of Fools. Denounced by fifteenth-century French theologians as a wanton and ungodly rite, the Feast of Fools was in reality, as Harris shows, a reverential, not a rowdy, holiday. With incisive analysis and meticulous scholarship, Sacred Folly sets the record straight. In doing so, it unearths the fascinating history of one of the most misunderstood liturgical festivities."—Claire Sponsler, University of Iowa

"Max Harris has written an important and necessary book, offering for the first time an accurate history of a subject that has been persistently and consistently misrepresented in scholarship. No other book has even remotely approached the thorough revision of the history of the Feast of Fools successfully undertaken here. Harris takes on the daunting tasks of sorting accurate from biased interpretation, tracing the passing down of error from scholar to scholar, and identifying the deliberate introduction and transmission of misinformation. Harris not only demolishes an inaccurate history but also constructs a new and durable one to replace it."—Pamela Sheingorn, Bernard M. Baruch College and Graduate Center, CUNY

"The modern history of medieval ritual has long been a history of misinformation and misunderstanding. This engaging book is a crucial intervention that should recalibrate the methods for studying early liturgy, drama, and popular culture; it also suggests the need for a reevaluation of larger historical narratives. By gathering, disentangling, and contextualizing primary and secondary sources produced over two millennia, Max Harris proves that the Feast of Fools was a legitimate liturgical celebration shaped by specific historical developments in the twelfth century and in certain areas of northern France. In so doing, he not only reconstructs the circumstances in which clergy conceptualized, crafted, performed, and defended a particular festive liturgy; he also exposes the ways that changing notions of propriety distorted secondhand accounts of it, leading to its suppression in the fifteenth century and the metastasizing of these erroneous reports down to the present day. This is an exemplary work of scholarship: careful but wide-ranging, lucid, and humane."—Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

About the Author

Max Harris is Executive Director Emeritus of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has also taught at Yale University and the University of Virginia. He is the author of four previous books, including Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance and Aztecs, Moors, and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Patheos: An Evangelical Graduates from the Mormon Institute Program

There was a recent post at Patheos that is worth reading titled "An Evangelical Graduates from the Mormon Institute Program." Here's the introduction:

After four years of attendance and participation, David recently graduated from an LDS Institute of Religion. The odd thing is: David's not Mormon, never has been, and may never be. He is, in fact, a committed Evangelical, and a PhD student in Molecular Biology. Ben Spackman, one of his Institute teachers, asked him about his inter-religious experience.

(Note: Within the Mormon context, "Institute" refers to church-sponsored religious instruction for students attending colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions. For more details, see this entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.)

The piece can be read here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An Interview with the Authors of "Paranormal America"

Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, written by Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph D. Baker (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

A visit to most bookstores, particularly large chain bookstores, will reveal a large collection of books that explore various facets of the paranormal. These phenomena and experiences are found throughout popular culture, and are frequently depicted in popular television programs and films. Recently, three scholars conducted sociological research that looked at those involved in the paranormal as a part of American religious culture.

In the interview that follows Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. Baker discuss their research findings as compiled in their book Paranormal America. Bader and Mencken are Associate Professors of Sociology at Baylor University, and Baker is Assistant Professor of Sociology at East Tennessee State University.

John W. Morehead: Thank you for your fine book, and for your willingness to discuss the results of your research. As you know, the paranormal has a marginalizing effect among those who give it any kind of credibility, even as a research topic. How did you come to develop an interest in the sociology of the paranormal, and why were you willing to engage the subject matter perhaps at the risk of your academic credibility?

Christopher Bader: I have long been interested in the paranormal as a sociological phenomenon as I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and was always fascinated with Bigfoot.

It is risky for scientists of many fields to take the paranormal seriously. However, we cannot claim to be especially brave. As sociologists we are interested in the behaviors of people, rather than the reality (or lack thereof) of a given phenomenon. So long as people believe in something and act upon that belief we are interested as sociologists. In other words, we are not really studying Bigfoot, ghosts and UFOs, rather we are studying people who believe in such things. We do not come down on either side of the fence with regard to the reality of paranormal phenomena, since doing so is irrelevant to our work. Certainly we have received our share of giggles and jokes as the result of our research, but the nature of our perspective protects our credibility.

John W. Morehead: Is it possible that academics might make more room in the near future for the possibility of studying the paranormal from the perspectives of sociology of religion and religious studies as a legitimate subject matter?

Christopher Bader: The answer depends upon what you mean by “legitimate subject matter.” The academic community has been slow to consider the paranormal seriously. As you noted in your previous question, academics are very fearful of their reputations and the paranormal is a ridiculed subject. I do not think you can expect to see academics seriously considering the potential reality of paranormal experiences in the near future.

However, I do believe that you will see increased interested in the paranormal as a cultural phenomenon, since belief in paranormal subjects is clearly growing in the United States. Just as academics, particularly social scientists, seriously study the effects of religion on other beliefs and behaviors, I believe you will see the paranormal receive increasing attention in the same manner—particularly within the sociology of religion.

John W. Morehead:
How do you define the paranormal, and how are the various phenomena which comprise it differentiated from those in mainstream religions?

Joseph D. Baker: Defining the paranormal was one of the most difficult tasks in conducting this research. In some ways most of us already “know” what is considered paranormal because of implicit definitions employed in popular culture; however, on many issues the line is unclear. Ultimately we settled upon using a definition that draws on both science and religion as social institutions. If a particular belief (or by implication experience) is promoted by an organized, established religious tradition, then we considered it religious rather than paranormal. If the issue in question in not accepted by established religious traditions, then we utilized the stance of institutional science as a second cultural signifier. In our study, issues that are not accepted by either established religious traditions or institutional science were considered paranormal. It is important to note that these distinctions are cultural rather than intrinsic to the issues in question. For instance, what is the difference between a religious, angelic experience and certain types of alien encounter experiences? Most importantly, the attributed source of the experience and whether it is legitimated by the agents of an established religious tradition. Since these definitions are culturally constituted rather than inherent to the topics, what is considered “paranormal” may change over time or between cultural contexts. We addressed this briefly by looking at beliefs and experiences that are considered “religious,” but border on the cultural boundaries of the paranormal. Guardian angel experiences and belief in supernatural evil are examples.

John W. Morehead: What percentage of Americans believe in some form of the paranormal, and how do people come to accept these beliefs? More specifically, you mention Travis Hirschi's ideas about deviance in relation to the conventional order. Can you also touch on his ideas about bonding to conventional society, and how those interested in the paranormal are more willing to engage in unconventional beliefs?

F. Carson Mencken: Two thirds of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. We argue in our book that two factors drive paranormal belief and research: enlightenment and discovery. In terms of sociological theories, we use Hirschi's social control approach in conjunction with Stark and Bainbridge’s work on religious compensators to explain how discovery and enlightenment would lead the disconnected to unconventional beliefs. Those who have strong bonds to society (people in power, high status careers, structural positions of authority and responsibility) are highly conventional in their lifestyles. It is an expected (i.e. normative) pattern. One aspect of living a conventional lifestyle to is believe and practice conventional beliefs/rituals (i.e. Christianity, Judaism in the United States). When someone who is expected to live a conventional lifestyle strays from expected (i.e. normative) behavior patterns, they risk sanctions (as Nancy Reagan did with her use of astrology in the White House). Those who are less connected to society, which may represent the poor, uneducated on one end, and the hyper-educated, non-conformist types on the other end, do not risk the same sanctions by pursuing alternative belief systems.

But this in and of itself is not enough to spur people to the paranormal. There has to be a reason why people will seek alternative belief systems. One theory which applies to those of lower socioeconomic status is religious compensators. Since conventional religiosity is for and run by highly conventional people and provides many empirical rewards for this group, those from lower socioeconomic status groups will not gain many spiritual or conventional rewards from participating in conventional religion. Alternative beliefs systems can be empowering. The discovery of something spiritually unique (an unknown secret to the universe) that the rest of society does not have gives those from excluded groups a sense of purpose, a status as someone important.

Moreover, all humans are seeking enlightenment and discovery. New information helps us to reduce risk in our lives, and to make better informed decisions. Many paranormal practices (psychics, mediums, communication with the dead, astrology, etc.) are about giving people an insight into their future. Those groups not bound to conventional religious systems are freer to explore these alternative systems in order to gain information that may help them improve their lives.

Those who are hyper-educated, or cultural elites, may condemn conventional norms of behavior as too bourgeosie. Most cultural elites are early adapters. They tend to be the first to accept new ideas (e.g. evolution), new social norms (e.g. racial integration, inter-racial marriage, same sex couples), etc. The cultural elites are also the practitioners of new religious movements (NRMs). Their wide range of knowledge and experiences make them less threatened by unconventional ideas and practices. Moreover, their curious nature makes them drawn to discovery and enlightenment. This group is more likely to explore alternative ideas of reality (existence of UFOs, the possibility that another intelligent life form has mastered long-distance space travel, ESP, telekinesis, etc.). Their journey of discovery and enlightenment is not so much motivated by personal salvation (i.e., What does the future hold for me? ), as much as by the attempt to improve the human condition.

As with those from lower socioeconomic groups, the cultural elites are not as wed to conventional society. The risks involved with their exploration of alternative belief systems are not great, compared to someone who highly integrated into conventional society (such as a college president).

John W. Morehead: Your research indicates that certain religious groups, such as Protestant evangelicals, are resistant to the paranormal. I must be an anomaly in this in that I come from a conservative Protestant background but still have an interest in the paranormal both as an academic subject matter and in the possibilities for the phenomena. Why is this religious group resistant to the paranormal?

Joseph D. Baker: The connection between organized religion and the paranormal is complicated and multi-faceted. Certain types of religious groups—those that are more exclusive in their outlook (i.e. as possessing the “one true” path to Truth)—tend to oppose paranormal beliefs. Accordingly, adherents of traditions such as evangelical Protestants hold relatively few of these beliefs. In some instances, members of such groups may even believe in the reality of paranormal topics, but attribute their existence to the work of Satan. Meanwhile, those who are decidedly irreligious are not likely to hold paranormal beliefs either, because they reject super-empirical views (or at least those beyond institution science) in general. So who then, religiously speaking, is most likely to believe in paranormal topics and be involved in paranormal subcultures? Those who are members of moderately “strict” religious groups and who express moderate levels of religious belief and practice. In other words, a member of a liberal Protestant congregation who attends religious services once a month is more likely to be interested in the paranormal than either a conservative Protestant who attends multiple services a week or an atheist who is not affiliated with a religious tradition and never attends services. The short answer to these complicated issues is that moderate religious involvement in a mainline religious tradition indicates a potential openness to the ideas of the paranormal, whereas intense religious involvement with a stricter religious tradition closes one off to the paranormal because these individuals have put all their “spiritual eggs in one basket.” The connections between religiosity and the paranormal could best be though of as “curvilinear.”

John W. Morehead: Were there any stereotypes about the paranormal that you had overturned as a result of your research?

Christopher Bader: We believe that our book conclusively overturns several stereotypes about the paranormal. One stereotype about paranormal believers and experiencers is that they are of below average education, suggesting that the paranormal is the province of people who are not sufficiently educated to “know better.” In fact, we find that education has little effect on most paranormal beliefs. In other words, people of higher levels of education are no more or less likely to believe in UFOs, Bigfoot, Atlantis and many other phenomenon as are those who never graduated high school. There are some exceptions. For example, people who never graduated high school are somewhat more likely to believe in ghosts and astrology, but in general the stereotype does not hold. There is also no evidence that income has a strong effect on most paranormal beliefs; paranormal beliefs are not limited to the suffering or downtrodden.

John W. Morehead: Is it appropriate to think of the paranormal as a fringe phenomenon at present, and what do the future prospects look like for its popularity?

F. Carson Mencken: With two-thirds of the American population holding at least one paranormal belief, the paranormal is not fringe. In fact, in many ways it is quite normal. However, the paranormal is not an organized social movement. It poses no threat to conventional religious beliefs. There church of the paranormal is not going to supplant Christianity. In order for the paranormal to become a fringe movement, it must become better organized into a movement, with unified beliefs, rituals, etc. Currently, it has none of these. Here is what we can confidently say about the future of the paranormal in the United States. First, there are significant demographic trends among believers and practitioners of the paranormal. We document these trends throughout every chapter of our book. Second, the population of the United States is dynamic. Over the next thirty years we will see major shifts in the racial/ethnic and age compositions of the nation. The groups that are going to grow over the next 30 years are the groups that are currently the most likely to believe and practice the paranormal. Based on these two conclusions, we expect the percentage of the population who believes in the paranormal to grow. However, what is left to be determined is how the shift in the racial/ethnic and age compositions will affect the nature of social bonding. It may be that as these paranormal believing groups become larger in numbers they may also become more conventional in their social bonds, and hence their beliefs/practices. Only time will tell.

John W. Morehead: Gentlemen, thank you for your thoughts on this subject matter, and for your research that I hope you and others will build upon.

An Astrotheology of Extraterrestrial Life

A recent article in the had the title "Earth must prepare for close encounter with aliens, say scientists". The article goes on not to detail elements from the cultural fringe, but to describe a publication on the subject from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. This interesting publication addresses the subject of extraterrestrial life from a variety of perspectives, including religion. In considering the implications of extraterrestrial life for theology, the paper includes a contribution by Ted Peters with the following abstract:
This paper asks about the future of religion: (i) Will confirmation of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) cause terrestrial religion to collapse? ‘No’ is the answer based upon a summary of the ‘Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey’. Then the paper examines four specific challenges to traditional doctrinal belief likely to be raised at the detection of ETI: (ii) What is the scope of God’s creation? (iii) What can we expect regarding the moral character of ETI? (iv) Is one earthly incarnation in Jesus Christ enough for the entire cosmos, or should we expect multiple incarnations on multiple planets? (v) Will contact with more advanced ETI diminish human dignity? More than probable contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence will expand the Bible’s vision so that all of creation—including the 13.7 billion year history of the universe replete with all of God’s creatures—will be seen as the gift of a loving and gracious God.
There are several interesting facets to this paper, including Peters's survey of representatives from various religious traditions who state that they would not be upset by the discovery of extraterrestrial life, but they believe their tradition would be threatened. Beyond this, Peters's paper brings together several strands of thought to formulate an "astrotheology" that takes us beyond the reactions against this found many times in evangelicalism, at least in the countercult in response to the UFO phenomenon.

Peters's paper can be read here, and an MP3 of his presentation can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Peter Berger on Interreligious Dialogue

From the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs website:

Dialogue Between Religious Traditions in an Age of Relativity

February 16, 2011 | 04:00PM

Berkley Center third floor conference room, 3307 M Street, NW

»rsvp required

Globalization has dramatically increased communication across religious traditions, raising complex questions about the relative validity of their very different truth claims. Peter Berger of Boston University will address new patterns of dialogue among religious traditions and their wider cultural and political implications in today's world. A reception will follow.

Peter Berger is one of the foremost scholars in the field of sociology of religion. He is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology and Theology and served previously as the founding director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University. He has also taught at University of North Carolina, Hartford Theological Seminary, Rutgers, and the New School for Social Research. His work has focused on sociological theory, sociology of religion, and issues at the intersection of theology and social science. His recent works include Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Reaffirmation of Christianity (2004), Religious America, Secular Europe (with Grace Davie and Effie Fokas, 2008), and In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions without Becoming a Fanatic (with Anton Zijderveld, 2009). Berger earned his BA from Wagner College and his MA and PhD from the New School for Social Research.

Monday, January 10, 2011

From Political to Religious Finger Pointing in Tucson

The nonstop news cycle continues to grind on with its coverage of the Tucson shooting tragedy. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for various individuals to begin pointing fingers of blame and assuming an understanding of influences if not causation.

While the rhetoric continues in terms of blaming political ideologies, a new wrinkle was added today as reported by The New York Daily News. They have obtained photographs from the accused shooter's backyard, including what the media is describing as an "occult shrine or altar". It is visible in the photograph accompanying this post where an artificial skull (possibly a Halloween decoration), some decayed fruit, and candles are visible alongside a bag of potting soil. What can we determine from this? Not much. The potting soil indicates an interest in gardening, and the candles an interest in a light source (with a measure of ambiance), while the artificial skull may reflect an interest in decorating from the recent Halloween holiday. We surely cannot ascribe this to our stereotypes of "evil occultists" usually formed by horror films and television, and my hope is that few in the media will pick up on this in continuing media coverage of the crime. But with the prevalence of alleged "occult experts" out there, it may have a little more life left in it. Here's to also hoping that some might gain a more academically informed awareness of Western esotericism.

Update: For good Pagan perspectives on this see Star Foster's "Tragedy in AZ: Candles and Oranges Do Not an Occultist Make", and Peg Aloi's "Why must the occult be seen as evil?".