Civic Engagement and Civic Spaces

14 10 2010

This article was originally posted on the Religious Studies News website, October 2010

 

Religion in the City

One of my aims of teaching religion is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. It was with this in mind that I took my third-year undergraduate class, “Religion and the City,” to a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Toronto. For two hours, our guide and local expert, Anthony, a former crack-addict who had lived on the streets for eight years, gave my class a tour of the city, our city, from the perspective of a person experiencing homelessness.

“It was a lot quieter before the revitalization,” Anthony remarked as we walked through Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square (which some call the Times Square of Canada). We had just walked through the massive Eaton’s Centre when I turned to make sure that I had not lost any would-be shoppers to the call of the mall and observed several students reaching for their cameras to snap pictures of Canada’s busiest intersection. I was somewhat surprised by their desire to capture this moment — the students’ interaction with this space stood in sharp contrast to Anthony’s intimate knowledge of the site. This interlude raises important questions about the necessity of offering opportunities for civic engagement both inside and outside our classrooms.

This course offered students a chance to develop their own theory that could then be applied across historical and cultural realms. I specifically was interested in encouraging the students to look at the ways that religious and secular narratives described and constructed categories of the insider and outsider within civic spaces. I emphasized that we can understand meaning-making as deriving from both official and unofficial narratives. In doing so, I wanted them to understand that their lived experiences outside of the classroom could also serve as primary sources or “texts” available for scholarly examination (Morton, 2002: 41–42).

The course texts — biblical passages, novels, poetry, essays, documentary films, and a field trip — provided case studies with which we, as a class, could develop a theoretical approach to non-conventional sacred spaces in both ancient and contemporary worlds. In the first half of the course we read, among other texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which we used as the model for exploring specific questions related to ontological constructions of the self and community. In the second half of the course we read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (Knopf Doubleday, 1997), which is a modern retelling of the Gilgamesh narrative set in early twentieth century Toronto. Ondaatje’s poetic novel combines fiction and reality to tell the unofficial history of the working-class immigrants responsible for the construction of Toronto. More than once we joked that we were starting our own religion, “Ondaatje-ism,” which would have certainly dismayed the well-known Canadian fiction icon.

Although we did not start our own religion, we did develop our own theory. With a healthy dose of Foucault and Jonathan Z. Smith, we constructed a theory that we were confident applying to several case studies. I suggested to the students that in respect to the title of our course, “Religion and the City,” perhaps there is a religion of the city that could be identified in Ondaatje’s novel. The characters in the novel are forced to express their identity by investing in nonconventional spaces while opposing established authority structures. Our task then was to ask the same questions about, and to apply the same theory to, contemporary Toronto. More specifically, who is included and excluded in the physical construction and cognitive imaginings of Toronto in 2010? What sites become nonconventional sacred sites to those who define themselves as citizens non grata in opposition to the establishment?

These questions were addressed in a major assignment for the course. I instructed students to select their own spaces within the city of Toronto that they felt resembled spaces described above and to apply our theory to those sites. In order to help them, I offered my own example, the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter and Drop-in Centre, for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto.

 

Civic Engagement as Knowledge-Production

So it was on a chilly March morning I took my class to the shelter where they spoke first with Dion Oxford, the manager, who addressed the challenges of urban homelessness. He then turned the class over to the aforementioned Anthony, who runs walking tours of the city to provide community groups with insights into the ways in which individuals experiencing homelessness navigate Toronto’s downtown core.

The Religion in the Public Sphere (RPS) Initiative at the University of Toronto was established three years ago with the intent to provide a forum for interdisciplinary conversations among scholars, students, and community members concerning religion in public venues (politics, art, education, etc). Several RPS initiatives are directed primarily toward undergraduate students, including the student steering committee, an online blog forum, and the opportunity to take a service-learning course.

While not directly related to the RPS initiative, the goal of the “Religion and the City” course was to incorporate some of the core themes of research focusing on public manifestations of religion, and was made possible in conjunction with generous funding from the Jackman Humanities Foundation. The course was initially taught in 2008 by Pamela Klassen (director of the RPS Initiative) and graduate student Arlene MacDonald (who has since received her PhD from the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion). They passed on to me a format that emphasised ethnographic engagement within civic spaces.

Civic engagement as a pedagogical practice has been defined in numerous ways (Battistoni 2002; Boyer 1990; Ehrlich 1999; Tritelli 2003). At the most basic level it suggests a collaborative and reciprocal interaction between students and the community at large. Civic engagement promotes a framework of learning in which students are encouraged to understand themselves as agents or participants in their field of study and in relation to their object of study. Ideally it positions students to ask intelligent and meaningful questions about their own roles within their communities and social spheres of influence.

In employing this framework, I aspired to provide my students with nonconventional objects of study and to challenge them to include their own subjective experiences and epistemologies in their analyses of religion (Palmer 1998: 106). From the perspective of the “Religion and the City” course, a focus on civic engagement meant the production of knowledge in an environment that is not inaccessible but rather one in which the students could take personal ownership over both their topic and method of study.

In my view, the class trip to the Gateway provided students with an opportunity to learn within a framework of civic engagement. As we followed Anthony through the streets of Toronto, he paused frequently to shake hands in jovial camaraderie with men and women who are likewise a part of street culture. Anthony introduced the students to a space that many of them have occupied for years and offered a completely different perspective. At the city courthouse, where one of my students had served as an intern, Anthony told us about various fights in the basement holding cells. At Eaton’s Centre, where another student worked as a sales clerk, Anthony reported to us that he is often rudely asked to leave by mall security. Finally, in the park in front of the twenty-four-story apartment building in which I live, Anthony reminisced about the nights he had slept in the park as part of an all-night “sleep-out” designed to draw attention to affordable housing needs in Toronto. After Anthony left, I pointed to my building and admitted to my students that I do not know my neighbors’ names, and then asked my students the following: who is really at home in these spaces? (Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, 2008).

 

Expanding Boundaries in the City and in the Classroom

Teaching and studying at the University of Toronto provides a great venue for theorizing about and interacting with urban spaces. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was surprised to witness my students stop to take pictures during the trip. Upon closer reflection, I realized that because the city of Toronto is a so-called megacity with an ever-expanding metropolitan conglomeration of sizable suburban municipalities, the majority of my students reside in the suburbs and in a very real way were tourists in their own town.

While the students understood themselves as Torontonians, many of them later reported to me that this identity was one that they tentatively held because they felt uncertain about what the major issues and concerns were for the city. With this in mind, one of my goals in teaching this course is to provide a space where students can draw connections between their learning inside the classroom and their lived experiences outside of the university. As Parker Palmer suggests, the teacher’s role is one that allows students “to be introduced to a world that expands their personal boundaries and enlarges their sense of community” (120).

In an attempt to have the students expand personal boundaries and better understand the city, I encouraged them to select and analyze sites that would challenge them to view the city from an unfamiliar perspective. Furthermore, I told them that they would be evaluated not only on their critique but also on their selection of data. Following my lead, many of the students selected sites that are central to specific subcultures within the city (the Gay Village, Jewish or Muslim community organizations, domestic abuse care centers, the University’s Centre for Women and Trans People), whereas others chose to focus on what have traditionally been viewed as ethnic neighborhoods within Toronto (Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal) or neighborhoods that are notorious for violence and gang activity (Toronto’s Flemingdon Park and Regent Park).

In the end, I was surprised by the number of students who selected sites in which they were personally invested. In their papers, students reflected on and problematized their own interactions with their selected sites. Since the focus was on the way that spaces create narratives that include some while excluding others, the assignment provided an opportunity for students to challenge some of their own communities’ practices regarding the construction of boundaries and the implementation of authoritative systems.

I have left my definition of “civic engagement” intentionally broad. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion, I am sensitive to the reluctance of many of my colleagues to employ pedagogical practices that might be deemed ideological or values-driven. For example, in providing Anthony such a generous allocation of class time, one might assume that I am emphasizing my own personal (albeit fairly normative) commitments to reducing homelessness in Toronto. I have yet to resolve this concern, but I found it helpful to address the issue with the students in class as part of our discussion and reflection about the field trip. In doing so, I hope that I am attending to Jonathan Z. Smith’s instance that we must reveal to students the hard work that goes into our pedagogical and intellectual endeavors.

A lot of the research focusing on civic engagement promotes a classroom experience that compels students to be involved in political activities and social justice initiatives. There is a concern that university-educated individuals are becoming less involved in civic responsibilities (Putnam, 2000). In fact, there have been calls from student groups, community organizations, and university educators to integrate intellectual and practical venues for civic engagement (Zlotkowski and Williams, 2003). To date, service-learning initiatives are one of the primary ways through which this integration has been successfully accomplished (Devine, Favazza, and McLain, 2002). This initiative is a popular option for independent students with the means and aptitude for experiential learning. In order to truly meet the demands for a cohesive integration of the concerns of civic engagement, universities must move beyond one-off courses and begin to integrate these themes into the curriculum and learning objectives of more established courses.

In my experience it was optimal to use the resources already available to students in the course. They served as resident experts of Toronto and were able to identify objects of study within their own neighborhoods and communities. Assured that they were indeed already experts, and armed with a new method of looking at civic spaces from a different perspective, my students uncovered a city that was simultaneously less and more familiar to us all.

Syllabus – Religion and the City – King





Gospel Music Makes Me Feel Alright – How I Spent My Summer Vacation*

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, July 13, 2010

Matt Sutton who is a regular contributor to one of my favourite blogs, ‘The Religion in American History Blog’, has posted a series of reviews of his summer visits to archives across the US titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Although admittedly I’m not as studious as Sutton—my summer vacation time is occupied by trips to music festivals in Upstate NY, New England, and Central Canada—but as an anthropologist of North American religion, I find plenty of data, even while on vacation.

This past weekend, I attended the 50th anniversary of the Mariposa Folk Festival on the shores of Lake Couchiching in Orillia, Ontario. The Mariposa Folk Festival was originally established in 1961 as a Canadian equivalent to the Newport Folk Festival (Mitchell 2007: 80). Like the Newport festival, Mariposa was bedevilled by problems with crowd control throughout the late sixties and early seventies. The festival was at one time the biggest folk festival in North America and featured popular headliners such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Buffy St. Marie.

The big-name artists are certainly what draws the crowds (this is equally true today as it has been in the past), but the appeal of a folk festival is the smaller daytime stages that feature ‘workshops’. For the unfamiliar, the workshop usually features several musicians and is organised around a common theme, style of music or type of instrument (e.g. Songs of Protest, Bluegrass Tunes, Slide Guitar). The musicians take turns performing but the expectation is that the other panelists will join in and lend their own styles to each others’ songs.

The folk festival as secular/sacred space, pilgrimage site or Bakhtinian carnival is an easy identification to make, one that, being unfamiliar with the field of ethnomusicology, I’m not sure if someone has already analysed. Instead of opening that can of worms, though, I would prefer to focus my discussion on observations on an overtly religious musical medium re-explored in this secular setting.


Hippie dancing at Mariposa Gospel Music Session (2009)
My favourite kind of participant-observation! I’m in the red skirt and black top towards the front.


That Old Time Religion: Reinterpreted in the New Secular Times

Regular attendees at folk festivals know that the Sunday morning gospel hour is an essential component of the festival experience. At Mariposa this year, the gospel music showcase was hosted by Ken Whiteley, well-known among Canadian folk music fans as the patriarch of the Whiteley family, Canada’s folk dynasty. Whiteley regularly hosts the Sunday Morning Gospel Brunch at Toronto-based roots music club, Hugh’s Room (now that my two years of fieldwork is *finally* over, those in the Toronto area will probably find me there as a semi-regular attendee). This year’s workshop featured Whiteley’s band along with Canadian blues artist Matt Anderson and South African singer-songwriter Liziwe Mahashe.

Whiteley opened the session by singing an old spiritual, ‘It’s Another Day’s Journey (I’m so Glad)”, which he first learned at the Mariposa festival in 1979 from African American gospel singer, Bessie Jones. Anderson followed with another traditional piece. Both Whiteley and Anderson stuck with traditionally religious songs (Whitely also sang his own song: ‘Let My Life Be Prayer’ and Anderson performed crowd favourites ‘Consider the Lilies’, ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘People Get Ready’). Mahashe was the one who brought the themes into the more secular realm by contributing songs of liberation and political freedom from her native South Africa (‘My People, My People’ and ‘Soweto Blues’). For Mahashe, the gospel workshop created a space that was, for her and the audience receptive to a post-colonial critique.

Liziwe Mahashe and band, Sunday Morning Gospel Hour (2010)

I am often surprised at the popularity of the Sunday morning gospel sessions. The demographic of people who attend folk festival (both in Canada and the US) tend to be white, middle-class, left-leaning individuals between the ages of 45 and 70 (data on those who attend folk festivals in general is available here); they represent the same aging demographic who have in mass departed from organised religion over the past generation or so. In informal conversations I find that the majority of folk festival attendees are resistant, if not completely hostile, to religion, specifically Christianity (to the degree that in the last few years I have elected to tell people that I study anthropology, rather than religion, so as to avoid conversations about how the church/bible/clergy, etc are exclusive/controlling/obsessed with sex/money/power, etc). When religion does come up, most of the individuals with whom I have spoken would be classified as what Robert Fuller calls ‘the spiritual but not religious’ (Fuller 2001), or those whom Wade Clark Roof identifies as ‘Seeker Culture’ (Roof 1993). So while the message of the ‘Old Time Religion’ in terms of its social teachings and its theology has been swiftly rejected by most in attendance, the music itself continues to be celebrated by its mostly non-religious audience.

Audience picture taken during the sound check for Gospel Music Session (2010)

I asked Whiteley on Saturday afternoon why he thought that despite increased secularity and the decline in religious involvement, gospel music continues to appeal to people, particularly patrons at the festival. Whiteley explained to me that he thought that gospel music contains a message that is uplifting, something which appeals to a force that is beyond us and something with which anyone can connect, regardless of their background or beliefs.** Whiteley echoed this sentiment during the gospel workshop by pointing out that the session is intended to be inclusive: “atheists are more than welcome,” he explained, referencing the emcee’s introductory remarks about the strangeness of the gospel music workshop, since he is the only atheist on the Marisposa board of directors. Whiteley went on to declare that not only atheists but also people of all religious beliefs, from Gnostics to agnostics, are welcome.

The Sacred and the Profane: Remixed

The religious rhetoric at the Mariposa stage was light-hearted and friendly. At one point, Whiteley asked for an “amen” from the audience. Later he joked with one of the patrons about starting a revival (although, I wasn’t clear whether it was a folk music revival or a religious one; Mariposa has struggled financially in the past couple of years).
The appeal to inclusivity is of course not surprising for the hippie or folk subcultures that attend folk festivals. In 2005, American singer-songwriter Liz Carlisle wrote her dissertation for an ethnomusicology degree at Harvard on the folk festival subculture at a well-known American Festival, Falcon Ridge (which I also attended that year). Carlisle observed that the host introduced the gospel hour as not being about religion: “This morning’s service is not for any religion,” the emcee announced. “It’s for the spirit.” Later, he explained that “there is only one religion: it’s compassion.”

While not divorced from the theology behind most traditional gospel songs, the message of inclusiveness stands in contrast to some debates concerning authenticity within the contemporary gospel music community. Many traditionalists argue that the emergence of gospel music in the secular realm diverts from biblically based mandates that the sacred and the profane be separated (see Simpson: 18; see also Jackson 2004). They often appeal to epistle letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:14; James 3:12) to argue that the intrusion of secular into the sacred music is a sin (interestingly, similar arguments were made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about the integration of musical instruments into worship services at many gospel and holiness churches).*** The imposed separation of the sacred and the profane dictated by certain gospel music purists is not a position held by all. As Jerma A. Jackson (2004) argues the integration of gospel music into the public sphere served a political purpose through which the Black Church sought to cultivate an image of respectability in the eyes of white America.

Arguments about the place of the sacred in the profane (and vice-versa) are in part what keep scholars of religion employed. My own personal conversations with some members of the folk community suggest that the integration of religion, specifically traditional and exclusive brands of Christianity is not welcome and is deemed to be out of place at a folk festival, which I’ve posited resembles a secular pilgrimage site). But as I and Carlisle observe, the integration of an open, inclusive religiosity is welcome; one that is rooted in traditional Christian theologies but explicitly represents itself as having, along with its audience, transcended specifics of belief and practice.

Notes
* Note to my dissertation committee: I swear I am working on my dissertation, please remember that at my recent review meeting you said it would be healthy for me to take the weekends off.

** I would like to say a special thank you to Ken Whiteley for taking the time to speak with me and for permission to paraphrase our conversation here on The Religion Beat blog. This conversation was the highlight of the festival for me (along with watching Ian and Sylvia Tyson perform ‘Four Strong Winds’ together).

*** A really interesting discussion of this debate and its manifestation in gospel music is available in a sound recording from the 1975 Mariposa gospel session, also titled ‘That Old Time Religion.’ Sound recordings, photographs and other material related to the history of the Mariposa festival are available at the newly launched Mariposa permanent collection housed at York University’s Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections.

Sources:
Fuller, Robert. 2001. Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, Jerma A. 2004. Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Mitchell, Gillian. 2007. The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945 – 1980. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1993. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Simpson, Alphonso, Jr. “A Thin Line Between Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: The Secularization of Sacred Song in the African American Religious Culture.” International Journal of African American Studies 2(2): 1 – 24.





An iPhone Convert in More Ways than One

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, May 24, 2010

I’m a Blackberry girl. My closest friends and family can attest to the fact that my BB and I are rarely apart from each other. My partner has an iPhone, and I occasionally go over to the dark side. In all honesty, it has better (cooler) applications. To date my favourite iPhone app is the Ocarina (iPhone flute), or it was, until I discovered iChristian, a free application which “contains the minimum required information to become a Christian.”

The App leads the would-be believer through the standard evangelical message of salvation citing scriptural evidence of God’s love (John 3:16), human sinfulness (Romans 3:23 and 6:23) and the necessity of sacrificial atonement (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:8-9). The App concludes with the common image of Jesus standing at the door of the potential adherent’s heart (Revelation 3:20). Our tech-savvy convert is invited to receive Jesus and pray the Sinner’s Prayer (see previous link) through which she assumes the Christian identity as a ‘child of God’ (John 1:12). The newly minted Christian is then instructed to follow up on their commitment:
  • Tell someone else about your faith in Christ.
  • Spend time with God each day. It does not have to be a long period of time. Just develop the daily habit of praying to Him and reading His Word. Ask God to increase your faith and your understanding of the Bible.
  • Seek fellowship with other Christians. Develop a group of Christian friends to answer your questions and support you.
  • Find a local church where you can worship God.
Interestingly, the new believer is not directed to be baptised which is common in most online salvation templates (both those used by Christians to convert their friends, family and strangers and those, like the iChristian application, which guide the user through the process on her own).

Upon completion of the conversion process the believer “may register as a Christian” and have his or her name and email address listed on the website of the company that created the App.

Materiality and Transcendence

The use of the cell phone for religious activities has been documented by Inken Mädler (2008) whose work focuses on the way that cell phones represent for adolescents a means by which they generate and express identity. She examines the ways that the cell phones function as both a medium for religious symbols and a (lived) religious symbol itself. Mädler argues that the cell phone serves as a venue in which relationships might be created and ordered. Many of the teens in her study reported that they felt an intimate connection to their cell phone, and it served as a “symbol of the self” (18) and a storehouse of “sacred memories” of the individual’s biography (19). We develop, Mädler argues, in relation to physical items.

The use of the cell phone as a material location for Christian conversion is not all that surprising or even innovative (the Gideon’s have been leaving bibles in hotel rooms for over a century hoping that a would-be convert might lead himself—or, as they would have it, be led by God—through the conversion experience). For Protestant evangelicals, especially, the iChristian application complements their emphasis on solitary introspection, which stands in opposition to the preferences of other forms of Christianity emphasising community or clerical authoritarianism. With this in mind, I suggest that the iChristian phone application reflects a conflict between materiality and transcendence, which anthropologist of Christianity Webb Keane (2007) identifies as one of the core concerns of Protestantism. He points out that while Protestant conversion has paradoxically served as a model for enacting agency (a paradox since, theologically speaking, the agency should be God’s), it remains a human activity in which human practices enable self-transformation (see Keane 2007: 56; see also Keane 2002).

i[am]Christian

Both Keane and Mädler point to interiority as the primary concern of their subjects and examine the way that material objects become a location for a process involving self-generation and transformation to occur. The iPhone itself is an ideal venue for these themes, as Mädler’s research specifically suggests. Indeed, the very name of the iPhone, with the first-person personal pronoun at the beginning, lends itself to the process (I assume that this is not merely a coincidence but rather represents clever market research). The iChristian application continues this linguistic word play by registering the user on an international list of individuals who have likewise pursued salvation and may proudly declare (in 200 characters or less) that “I am a Christian” through the iChristian app. This pronouncement that transformation has occurred is an important part of the contemporary evangelical conversion process (see Stromberg 1993; note that the first directive for the new adherent is to share their faith/status with someone else).

In the ancient world this declaration, “I am a Christian” served to generate a new identity. As Judith Lieu (2002) explains the term ‘Christian’ itself is used infrequently and perhaps we could say anachronistically in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16). The term gains currency among would-be martyrs for whom explicitly stating, “I am a Christian” was the appropriate response to an interrogator in early Christian martyr literature. In fact, according to Lieu, “the label ‘Christian’ belonged pre-eminently to the martyrs,” who even in death emulate Jesus but less so to other Christians (2002: 221). Lieu explains that in this literature an understanding of those who die as Christians are not conceived of as victims but rather as agents through whom “a new way of understanding is created and maintained.” She goes on to argue that from the perspective of the text, “the determinative moment is not the death, however extended or graphic, nor even the preceding torture; rather it is the declaration Christiana sum (2002: 213). This performative spoken declaration is so powerful, according to Lieu, that for some well-known martyrs (e.g. Perpetua, Tertulian and Polycarp) the statement “I am a Christian” is represented as a self-conception in which ‘Christian’ surpasses and subverts ethnic, national, civic or familial identities (in the case of Perpetua, her father is so distraught at this new identity that he comes close to physically assaulting her and gouging out her eyes).

This emphasis on the performative statement as indicative of an inner transformation is one of the core characteristics of contemporary evangelicalism. From the perspective of the iChristian app, I was able to nonverbally transform my partner into a Christian by clicking a few hyperlinks, scrolling through the Sinner’s Prayer and sending his name to the app’s designer. Contemporary evangelicals, for the most part, do not have to worry about eye gouging as a result of the declaration but I may need to when my partner finds out that I also sent them his email address (the app promised, but did not deliver, a certificate indicating his new status).

References:

Keane, Webb (2002). “Sincerity, “Modernity,” and the Protestants.” Cultural Anthropology 17(1): 65-92.

Keane, Webb (2007). Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lieu, Judith (2002). Neither Greek nor Jew: Constructing Early Christianity. New York: T &T Clark.

Mädler, Inken (2008). “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In On Cell Phones. About the Materiality of Life-World as a Challenge for Religious Education.” Pp. 13-23 in Lived Religion: Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches: Essays in Honor of Hans-Günter Heimbrock. (eds). Heinz Streib, Astrid Dinter and Kerstin Söderblom. Leiden: Brill.

Stromberg, Peter G. (1993). Language and Self-transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.




Of Prayer Vigils and Police Barriers: Protest and Pilgrimage at the Olympics

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, March 24, 2010

The triumph of Canada’s hockey gold medals now a month old and the memories of the Olympics are starting to fade. Watching the Olympics unfold in our own country is an experience in and of itself. I must admit I’m not a sports fan. Even as a child I was usually on the sidelines and unusually drawn to what was happening in the bleachers, rather than the events on field. I like to think that it was my budding anthropologist in me that drew my focus to the spectators rather than the athletes, but I suspect it had more to do with poor hand-eye coordination than it did with future career aspirations. But my interest in the activities on the sidelines remains. And so I passed my time watching the nation watch the Olympics.

And there was certainly a lot to watch. Canada has hosted the Olympics twice previously. However, this time was different, not only because it was the first time Canada claimed a gold medal (fourteen, to be more specific) on its home turf, but also because it marks the first time that we experienced such prominent opposition to our role as hosts of the games. As everyone knows there were numerous protests both in the weeks leading up to the event and throughout the two-week period of the games. Identifying themselves as the Olympic Resistance Movement a conglomeration of indigenous groups, anti-poverty demonstrators and environmental activists joined forces to protest the 2010 Winter Games. The primary slogan of the movement was “no Olympics on stolen Native land,” a reference to continuing disputes concerning treaties and land ownership.

And so I watched and was reminded of my research.

“It sounds like you went on a pilgrimage of sorts,” I wrote to my long-time friend Chris Miller, the chaplain and coordinator of York University’s Student Christian Movement (SCM). Miller and two other student activists from York, along with one of the SCMs national staffers, traveled to Vancouver over Reading Week to meet up with the SCM group at the University of British Columbia and joined the Olympic Resistance Movement. We met up a week ago to talk about his experience.

“Yes, it was, I think, a pilgrimage. There were four of us that travelled together and we became in a way a pilgrim community. We stayed with old friends of mine and connected with her and her family. A lot of us went through hard emotional experiences.”

The Reason for the Pilgrimage: Historic and Contemporary Issues

For Miller, contemporary concerns about the Olympics need to be rooted in their historical context. “This is all from my personal perspective based on things I’ve seen and readings I’ve done. There’s kind of a dark shady-side of the Olympics that we don’t talk about. Baron de Coubertin, who is the French man that invented the Olympics—the modern Olympics, or resurrected them in 1896. He talked about them as a pedagogical tool for giving children something to aspire to in athletics but a second side of this pedagogy was to show the supremacy of Western Europeans over colonised populations (indigenous populations in places where there were Western colonisers). And to use athletics to show Western superiority and dominance. So there was a colonial and fascist root at the bottom of it.”

He went on to identify politically-charged Olympic venues, such as the 1936 so-called “Hitler Olympics” in Germany (where the torch relay was introduced) and the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics: “although not necessarily related to the Olympics being there, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo and ten years later the Sarajevo Olympic stadium is used as one of the largest morgues seen in the history of humanity after the genocides in the former Yugoslavia.”

More broadly speaking activists raised human rights issues concerning the influx of people to Vancouver and its repercussions. Along with vocalising concerns about potential human-trafficking and safety for sex-trade workers, members of the resistance movement were concerned about Vancouver’s homeless populations. “Wherever the Olympics go there is almost a class-cleanse. Not like an ethnic-cleanse but a class-cleanse of homeless people, people who are on the brink of being homeless, those living in poverty, and lower-classes and even the working-class are cleaned out of cities; they are moved to the suburbs and taken away from view to make cities look nice. It’s literally a cleansing to make them look nice for the international scene.”

Perhaps exposing his religious commitments, Miller also identified lack of community as a problem. “We have these euphoric moments with gold medals, especially with men’s hockey where everyone dances in the streets but the next morning they’re hung-over and angry and their life is just as lonely and isolated as it was before.”
Miller saw the protesters as calling Canadians, especially the leadership, on false sense of national identity.

“We were trying to show that we’re not unified as a country. There are massive problems: our government says they’re working for us but we’re seeing more unemployment than we’ve seen in decades in Canada. People are lonely and broken and we have no community. We have these two weeks where we somehow feel something bigger but it’s vanishing.” The excitement mounts in his voice as he is speaking. “Now that the Olympics are over people are trying to reach back to get those moments of community back, but their lives are still just as empty.”

He pauses for a moment, looks up at me and says softly. “That’s why we were there.”

The Experience

The group from SCM took part in a number of protests and resistance activities throughout their week-long trip in Vancouver. Their first big action attempting to block the torch relay at two points in the city of Vancouver proper in an attempt to draw attention to inner-city needs. Vancouver’s downtown eastside is identified as the poorest urban postal code in Canada, so the intention of the activists was to show that the very presence of the Olympic torch was an affront to more pressing social concerns. Miller explained, “we said this community doesn’t need a seven-billion dollar party, it needs investment in housing, in drug rehabilitation, in detox centres, in social workers.”

Along with the rest of the world, I watched the Opening Ceremonies and read about the various protests, including the so-called ‘Heart-Attacked’ protest, which attempt to restrict access to the Games on the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The group from SCM participated in both of these protests, as well as others. These protests were at times intense, and the extensive police presence was intimidating, but Miller experienced moments that he labels as “profoundly spiritual.” It was during these moments that Miller linked his experience to his understanding of his religious faith.

I asked him to speak about their presence in Vancouver as a religious group. “What did it mean to go specifically with SCM, rather than with another organisation, or by yourself?”

“I think for us as the SCM, we entered into a tradition that goes back through the history of the church and the history of religious groups that sees these links and struggles. Martin Luther King wrote in the Letter from Birmingham Jail that he wasn’t an outside agitator but that he was an invited guest to Birmingham. And they had organisational links through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I think we felt that connection because as Christians we follow one God, a God that is Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining. I believe, and the group out in BC believes, that this is a God of justice and that we are God’s agents working in the world. I think it provides something that sustains us and gives us hope that even through troubles, through fears, through intimidation we believe in a new world and that a new world is here and is also yet to come. It’s hard to put words to it, but there is a connection that goes much more and much deeper than ‘let’s all get together and yell and make trouble in the streets’.

“One of the actions that we did as SCM is that we were there over Ash Wednesday that is the day that marks the beginning of Lent. In Christian liturgical traditions Lent is forty days of preparation leading into Easter and we took part in an Ash Wednesday Mass and had that reminder that ‘from ashes or dust you came and to dust you shall return’. We went from this Mass into a Prayer Vigil March through the UBC campus calling for and praying for an end to homelessness in Vancouver and around the world. We were marching through a university campus singing hymns and praying and reading scriptural verses calling for justice. It was a celebration—it was a lament and a celebration all at once.”

The image of a group of ‘freshly ashed-penitents’ calling for an end to social problems and singing hymns is a compelling one. And while Christian involvement in social justice advocacy and protests is not new (historically Christians have been involved in abolitionist factions, Latin American liberationist movements and more recently in protests against the WTO), what is interesting is that they root their movement in the social contexts of the biblical Jesus narrative. Recently, Christians from both ends of the conservative-liberal divide have appealed to Jesus’ role as a revolutionary and have advocated advocating that Jesus’ message was primarily anti-empire. They replace ‘Rome’ with ‘America’ or ‘capitalism’ and imagine themselves to be following a biblically-derived model.

“It goes right back to Jesus and the disciples countering the Roman Empire itself. We have our empires today that we’re trying to be a resistance force to and we’re met with the same levels of security apparatus. We were told that if we stepped onto certain streets on the UBC campus that we’d be arrested without question, without further warning. We were told that not just the people taking that step would be arrested but different organisers who were trying to control a group. All at once it was a fear that came from the police apparatus but here we were praying and singing. It did raise some awareness from different people. There’s a group just trying to pray and sing but at the same time there was a bunch of police all around with guns, in uniforms, pushing us away and hiding us.

“So there is a symbolism associated with that too. What danger are the Christians who are singing and praying? There’s no danger of us. We’re not going to bomb the hockey arena on campus or run around and smash windows. But I think there is that symbolic danger and so much of the state apparatus and the corporate apparatus, the systems of empire are based so much on symbolism and a constructed sense of power that our singing and praying was such a force to reckon with that they came out with all they had against us on a university campus. A group of students singing and praying was, at least for me, a symbol of what the resistance is and how those two symbols clashed so much.”

Christian Community

Of course it is difficult for contemporary Christians to situate themselves within this framework. While the best of the tradition has certainly aligned itself with the marginalised, one can easily observe the Church’s role, especially in Canada in relation to indigenous rights claims, as a hegemonic power.

“I think that not just in Canada but around the world the Church attaches itself to powerful institutions. Every president of the United States with a couple of exceptions who might have been Deists, have been Christians and look at the destruction that the United States has caused the world in this century and the previous centuries. In Canada we have the churches that carried out the government policies of residential schools. In Spain you have the Catholic Church that aligned itself with the fascist government of Franco. You’ve got the history of the Crusades and the Inquisitions, so there’s this dark side of religion too. We make power an idol; we seek it and we hold it and it’s a huge temptation. I think it takes a really deep and rooted spirituality: a radical spirituality . . . to overcome this temptation. There’s a lot of pressure within religious groups even today to say that resistance movements aren’t true religion, that it’s religion getting involved in politics.”

Miller went on to criticise his own tradition for a failure to speak out against what he perceives to be the injustices surrounding the Olympics.

“I think that’s almost a disservice to true religion which I think calls us to something much more than political power. In the context of the Olympics, one of the things that has really struck me is the unquestioned support, even in the church community. I come from the Anglican tradition and we have a national newspaper in the Anglican Church called the Anglican Journal, and in January and February 2010 the main stories had to do with the Olympics. In January it was on a young woman who is an Anglican from Vancouver who was one of the ‘happiness ambassadors’ on the torch relay. It was a personal interest story about her: how she has ‘the best job in the world’. It speaks to a culture of consumption and consumerism and the creation of a false sense of community. I think as a religions group we’re called to form true and healthy and sustaining communities. It upset me that that’s the story that my church chose to do about the Olympics. In February, right before the Olympics started there was an opinion piece from the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada that spoke about the Olympics and how they are time for us to come together. It referenced Saint Paul and one of his Epistles about the virtues of athleticism, and how this is something we can all strive for.

“I think we missed a great opportunity as a church to really dig deeper and to peel back the layers of the onion and see what’s really at the centre of this. It’s really corporate greed and money. . . . I think we as a church, through promoting the Olympics, have taken a step back with indigenous communities. In 1993, the previous Primate of the Anglican Church, Michael Peers, apologised to the indigenous communities of Canada for the Anglican Church’s participation in the residential schools and said we stole your identity and your image and your culture from you and tried to reform you in our image. I think that’s one of the things that the Olympics are all about is stealing identity and stealing culture. If you look at the merchandise at the Olympics it was all branded as part of Canada’s indigenous peoples. There were souvenir pins of the Inuksuk, which is an Inuit tradition and is way farther north than Vancouver. So it wasn’t even a celebration of the indigenous traditions around Vancouver such as a totem pole. All these key-chains of the Inuksuk and t-shirts and sweat-shirts and hats—there was a whole line of ‘authentic aboriginal products’ which were available in the souvenir shops and online. If you look at the fine print they were all made in China.”

Instead of appropriating cultural artefacts, Miller would have preferred to see the church spend some time reflecting on its identity.

“We missed that as a church. We celebrated the Olympics and were encouraged to come together as a community. I think there is much more that draws us together as a community: celebrations of the Eucharist, of being with members of our parish who are going through hard times, funerals, baptisms, weddings which provides the true community with a foretaste of that community which is to come. Being encouraged to gather around the glow of a television to watch skiing and hockey, I think it numbs our relationships with one another and gives us a false sense of connection. We’re not engaging with one another, we’re spectators. I think the church missed that and that’s been really hard as a member of the church, watching the church’s reaction to things and saying: ‘this isn’t what we’re about.’ We’re not about empty celebrations and stealing aboriginal culture.”

Returning to my question about whether or not the trip to Vancouver was a pilgrimage experience, Miller said that it was.

“There was this connection to place that you don’t get in urban Toronto as a student finishing papers and going to work at another campus. In our fast-paced consumer culture we miss that. Even though we were in another major urban area surrounded by the consumer brand industry and the extremes of it, what we were doing and who we were doing it with connected us to place and there is great meaning in that.

“And then there are some of those small moments in protest. For example, the march on the Friday night where we walked behind the elders: it was cold, it was raining, and we’d been outside for hours. It was an hour and half march followed by an hour-long festival of dancing and songs and performances and speeches. Then we marched for another hour and then stood in front of BC Place where the opening ceremonies were, it had been drizzling the whole time and then the rain picked up and it got quite heavy. As the sun was setting and it was getting a bit colder, someone whom I had met at a couple of the summits and had seen at the other protests opened his backpack and pulled out a bag of chips which he shared with ten of us. I don’t know what meaning that had for him, but coming together in the cold and the rain in a protest with the police all around us and walking behind a group of elders.

“As someone who sees communion or Eucharist as something that is very important to spirituality that was one of the most Eucharistic moments that I’ve ever experienced: coming together, sharing food and saying, ‘we’re in this and what I have is yours.’ It is those sorts of moments that, for me, really emphasis the spirituality. It may not have been a spiritual experience for the person who shared with us but for us as part of a spiritual organisation and part of a faith group who thinks this way; we saw great symbolism in those little moments.”





Reality TV, reality me.

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, February 12, 2010


This blog post begins with a confession: I love reality television, like really love it —in fact, I might be addicted. As is often the case with graduate students, when I like something, it is for the selfish reason that it reminds me of my project. That’s right! Reality television makes me think about my research on contemporary liberal Protestants. Specifically, it reminds me of the ways that Evangelical Protestant conversion rhetorics are mirrored in non-evangelical environments.

Religion and Reality TV

I am certainly not the first person to note the religious elements of reality TV. Many have commented on the ways which shows like Survivor or Big Brother seem to replicate the liminality of an initiation ceremony à la Victor Turner. Others have taken note of the genre’s explicit religious references: prayers and religious discussions by contestants, the God-like powers provided to the audience who are often given final judgement over the fate of the contestants, the overly ritualised ceremonies of elimination, so on and so forth. Still others have reflected on the fact that after having passed through this period of testing and undue suffering, the contestants are granted celebrity status similar to that of the mythic heroes of old (although whether or not one designates them as heroes or so-called Z-list celebrities depends on one’s own affection or lack thereof for the genre).

The upcoming season of ‘Survivor: Heroes versus Villains’, which premiered last night, is banking on the hero designation from its fan-base. This season features a Manichean casting of the ten most benevolent against the ten most malevolent contestants from past series (the American version of the show is in its twentieth season). Astute observers of the show will note that rather than the familiar slogan: ‘Outwit, Outplay, Outlast’ this season’s catch phrase has apocalyptic undertones: ‘Return, Revenge, Redemption.’ If last night’s episode is meant to set the standard, it is clear that the show is seeking to complicate the hero-villain dichotomy by suggesting that the status of hero is retroactively applied after all the chips have been played.

Their Eyes were Watching Us


Scholars of reality TV (yes, there is a vibrant discourse on the topic) have found that while many cultural commentators dismissively presume that audiences are attracted to reality TV by some sort of sick voyeurism, the majority of viewers tune-in specifically because they seek an experience that is simultaneously authentic and performed. According to Hill (2005) reality shows have “capitalized on this tension between appearance and reality by ensuring that viewers have to judge for themselves which of the contestants are being genuine” (70). This quest for a determined authenticity appeals to the inner-Calvinist, which Weber tells us we all possess as members of Western society, and echoes concerns of the “frozen-chosen” about who is and who is not predestined for salvation.

In reality television the tension between the performed self and the authentic self is addressed in the contestant’s one-on-one interviews with a silent, off-camera interviewee (who stands in for the viewing audience). In CBS’s Big Brother these interviews take place in a special location of the house known as the Diary Room, which is off-limits except for these moments of introspection. In their interviews, contestants reflect upon their actions; these monologues often resemble a confession of sorts explaining, or perhaps justifying, acts of deception within the game. The audience, having been provided with “the whole story,” is therefore able to determine whether or not the deception (dare I say, sin) is forgivable.

The winner is ultimately selected by either the television audience or the other contestants themselves. In Survivor and Big Brother the two finalists are subjected to one final grilling, or judgement, during which they are asked to account for all of their past actions. In this context their past sins are arranged narratologically in such a way that we are made to understand that while they may have deceived so-and-so it was done for the greater glory of the game (evidenced by their position in the final two). With liturgical exactness, all of their past sins are brought to light by the former contestants, and they are ultimately deemed worthy or unworthy—see Susan Hawk’s infamous snake and a rat speech from the finale of the first season of Survivor as an example.

These various depictions and presentations of the self are what I find most fascinating about reality television, as they seem to follow a pattern and adhere to tensions evident in contemporary Protestant narratives of transforming identity (I refer specifically to the conversion experience most popular among evangelical Christians which advocates a new self brought about through the process of having been ‘born again’).

It’s Just a Game; It’s Just your Life


The recognition that “it’s just a game” is common in shows like Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race, which establish themselves as competition-based. A second genre of reality television, the Makeover Show, intersects intimately with the so-called real lives of real people.

Popular series such as TLCs ‘What Not to Wear,’ the Slice Network’s ‘Last Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ or NBC’s ‘The Biggest Loser’ are specifically focused on exposing its subjects failings and enacting a permanent physical, psychological (and moral) transformation. In What Not to Wear, the participants are unknowingly filmed for weeks to expose their many fashion faux-pas and then subjected to 360 degree mirror in which their favourite outfits are mocked and critiqued. They are schooled in the laws of fashion and are then sent out into the world to attempt to abide by the new rules. The initial attempts of the contestants are never successful, and after a tear-filled recognition that they cannot save themselves from their fashion failings, the perfectly assembled co-hosts swoop down to save the day. In the Slice Network’s ‘Lat Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ contestants’ cupboards are raided and their junk-food consuming sins are exposed for all to see. The hosts make the offense especially clear by dumping pounds of lard and sugar on the floor to represent the calories consumed each week by the lethargic glutton. NBC’s hit series ‘The Biggest Loser’ follows a similar pattern: contestants are stripped naked and dramatically confronted by their obesity on a weekly basis. They are asked to account for each calorie consumed and each minute of physical activity. Each week those who lose the least amount of weight are eliminated until the final individual must stand alone in judgement providing a full account of his or her actions. In each instance the problem is recast as a moral dilemma (contestant A does not respect her body; contestant B has a weakness for potato chips; contestant C is living in the past—evidenced by her inability to give up her nineties-styled hair scrunchies and neon pants). These problems and others are overcome by hard work and the right program: as long as she follows the correct diet/exercise/colour coordination she will find relief.

In each instance the champion emerges as a new self–the unfashionable heroine is decked out in the latest trends; Ali Vincent loses 112 lbs in Season Five of The Biggest Loser; and contestant after contestant on The Last Ten Pounds weeps because she is finally able to fit into her wedding dress/string bikini/skinny pants.

The Makeover Show provides a neatly packaged thirty minute/one hour/or season-long transformation of the old self into a new (and better) self. In the end, despite the humiliation, the subject represents his or herself as improved and redeemed. Affirming for the viewing audience that the process was “the best thing ever,” participants understand themselves as having received deliverance from their food/bad fashion/etc. sins. This transformation, they tell us, would have been impossible were it not for the actions of the hosts and the good people at [insert major television network here].

The ultimate thanks, however, goes to the individual herself. She enacts agency and brings about her own physical (moral) transformation. A revelatory moment of self-awareness and an inner-desire for change prompts her to take that initial step, that first act of faith to contact the producers and audition for the show.

The resemblance to Protestant conversion rhetoric is telling; participants in the Makeover Show follow the traditional model for a Christian testimony. The Pauline echoes of the new self are palpable. As with the final vote ceremonies in Survivor and Big Brother, the subject summarises all of the events into a concise and coherent narrative of transformation. The past self is no more as the new and better self emerges; this transformation is visually signified to us by new clothes, better hair and a fitter body, as well as the many declarations that now, at last, they feel fulfilled.

Confession and Obsession


It all starts with that initial recognition that something is not right—the public confession on the part of the reality television subject ensures the ultimate resolution and transformation. So maybe there is still hope for me. I have after all taken the first step. I have confessed my addiction in this very public forum of the Religion Beat Blog – I’ll be waiting for my million dollars and my new and better self but until then I’ll be tuning in to Survivor on Thursday nights.







Savage Minds

Notes and Queries in Anthropology

Culture on the Edge

Studies in Identity Formation