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Beyond the Niebuhrs: An Interview with Robert Orsi on Recent Trends in American Religious History
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Historically Speaking July/August 2006 Beyond the Niebuhrs: An Interview with Robert Orsi on Recent Trends in American Religious History Conducted by RandallJ. Stephens ROBERT ORSI IS THE CHARLES WARREN PROFESSOR of the History of Religion in America at Harvard University. Orsi's work on Catholic devotionalism and what some call "lived religion " has helped reorient religious history in the U. S. to the common men, women, and children who practiced theirfaith from day to day. His most recent work, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press, 2005), combines autobiographical insight with keen scholarship. Peering into the worlds of devotees and academics, Orsi explores Catholic notions of suffering, the presence of the sacred for believers, and even scrutinizes serpent handlers and the observers who study them. He is currently completing a book on growing up Catholic in the 20th-century U. S. In that work he plans to explore the religious worlds children made and how they formed their beliefs in creative, imaginative ways. In May 2006 Randall Stephens, associate editor of Historically Speaking, spoke to Orsi in his office at Harvard University. Randall Stephens: Would you comment on the concept of devotionalism that is so central to much of your work? Robert Orsi: What intrigues me about devotionalism —and one of the reasons I find it so interesting and compelling to study historically—is that it's a charged field where institutional imperatives intersect with people's own efforts and desires to engage the world religiously. There's a powerful interplay at work in devotional practice, and the results are not predictable . For instance, the cult of the Virgin Mary does not in any simple sense enforce a regime of docile femininity on living women. Women appropriate the Virgin Mary. They pray to her; they make her part of their lives. She becomes a mother, sister, grandmother to them, and as this happens, they use her to authorize their lives, to think about their lives in different ways, to make certain changes that might otherwise have been unthinkable. So I don't like the simple grid of empowerment/disempowerment. Devotionalism offers a much more subtle ground where people live real, necessarily limited, and contradictory lives. Stephens: In Thank You, St. Jude you explore the combination of institutional and popular dynamics in Catholic devotionalism. You argue specifically that St. Jude became the patron saint of lost causes in part because devotional promoters in Chicago sold St. Jude to a mass audience. But there were also women who made the saint their own. Orsi: I see this as the dialectic of devotionalism . Women didn't invent the devotions to St. Jude. The devotion was the creation of priests in Chicago who needed money for their new church in a poor Mexican neighborhood, and devotions were a rich source of income in the The Queen of the Saint Jude Society of San Lorenzo marches at the Festival of the Holy Ghost at Novato, California, May 1942. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LCUSW3 -003294-D]. mid-20th century. So women inherited Jude. But once Jude was there, then women came and made Jude part of their lives, and in turn Jude helped them live these lives. For example, the Catholic press in the 1930s and 1940s insisted that women not work outside the home, that the working mother was a bad mother. Yet, at the same time, women were praying to Jude in their devotions to him to help them find jobs because they needed to support their families. That's what I mean about devotionalism as the ground on which women could live their lives as they found them. Stephens: Scholars like Eugene McCarraher have criticized the fusion of consumerism and Christianity in America. What are your thoughts on the subject? Orsi: McCarraher is right. It's there all along. If you look back, for example, to Henry Ward Beecher's appearances in advertisements for soap and flour, you can see this at work, as well as in his sermons. Consumerist faith represented an effusive, romantic Christianity; modern Christians consumed to express and even to constitute their...