Wars, Religion, and the Postmodern Sacred
a review of One Nation Under God?: Religion and American Culture (1999), edited by Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L.
Walkowitz. (New York: Routledge, 1999); $16.00 and
Para/Inquiry: Postmodern Religion and Culture, by Victor E. Taylor. (New York: Routledge, 2000); $25.00.
Wake Forest University
the 1980s and 1990s, Americans saw their country torn apart over issues of
“political correctness,” the right-wing rhetorical hot button used to discredit
a more liberal appreciation of our nation’s multiculturalism. The so-called culture wars of the last two
decades made evident the deep ideological divides that exist in this country
over issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Two recent books, both published by
Routledge, examine the way in which religion and spirituality has been part of
the fray. One Nation Under God?:
Religion and American Culture (1999), edited by Marjorie Garber and Rebecca
L. Walkowitz, investigates, in fifteen separate but complementary essays, the
practical effects of these culture wars on religion. The theoretical implications of a decidedly postmodern outlook on
religion and culture are examined in Victor E. Taylor’s Para/Inquiry:
Postmodern Religion and Culture (2000).
vocabulary that emerged from the conservative right during the Reagan and Bush
administrations has since become part of the vernacular. The Republic Revolution, as Newt Gingrich
dubbed it, attacked the “cultural elite,” labeling its multicultural project
and attendant causes as “political correctness” or PC. Rush Limbaugh cheered on angry white males
who themselves assailed newly-empowered women as “feminazis.” For their part, pro-life anti-abortion
rights activists labeled their pro-choice opponents as “pro-death.” Then, as if to forget their own point, the
more extreme elements added bombs to their message, killing and injuring
physicians and nurses at family planning clinics.
and imagery married to violence compromised the fulfillment of the kindler,
gentler nation envisioned by George Bush.
As a nation, we sat bleary-eyed as we watched George Holliday’s
videotape of the beating of Rodney King by L.A. police officers in March of 1991. The officers’ acquittal in April of 1992
caused the worst race riots in recent memory.
Since then, terrible events continue to occur. White supremacist radicals in Jasper, Texas, dragged a black man
to his death. African American churches
have been bombed. The innocent question
of Rodney King—“Can’t we all just get along?”—still rings in our ears.
the battle lines were redrawn, given the bully pulpit afforded liberals by the
election of a Democrat to the White House in 1992. Something different was clearly taking place on January 20, 1993,
when Maya Angelou delivered her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at William
Jefferson Clinton’s inauguration as the nation’s forty-second president. Angelou declared this to be an historic
opportunity. “The horizon leans
forward,” she said, “Offering you space to place new steps of change.” Angelou’s words—and Clinton’s choice of
Angelou as inaugural poet—marked a clarion call in the battle over differing
cultural ideologies that had been waging for some time. Suddenly, both message and messenger were
and Walkowitz’ One Nation Under God? documents how religious conflict
has been imbricated in all those other conflicts of our culture wars these past
two decades, under both conservative and liberal leadership. The broad scope of the collection can be
seen in three representative essays.
collection’s opening piece, Diana L. Eck’s “The Multireligious Public Square,”
sets the stage brilliantly. What does a
country that prides itself on free expression and separation of church and
state do when push comes to shove, when its multitudes demand, explicitly or
implicitly, their right to worship freely?
“Whether diversity is a source of division or strength,” Eck concludes,
“is one of the crucial questions in the controversies of the public square as
racial, cultural, and religious differences are negotiated” (5). Why?
Because religious expression is so visible. “When a new Hindu temple is constructed, when an Islamic school
applies for permission to build, when a Sikh wearing a turban appears for a job
interview, or when a Muslim woman wearing a hijab goes to a grocery
store,” Eck observes, “the striking visibility of a religious culture
unfamiliar to many Americans may be the catalyst of suspicious and fearful
response” (7). In the language of
current criticism, WASP hegemony—and its racial, ethnic, and religious
prerogatives—fuels this suspicion and fear, potentially leading to hostility.
is Eck’s larger point: “Incidents of violence and vandalism make clear that race
and religion are different yet inseparable markers of identity. Many attacks on religious institutions also
have racist overtones” (10-11) For
instance, she continues, “the arson of a black church is not directed against
Christianity, but against the buildings that visibly represent the life of the
African-American community” (11). In
short, religious strife in America is generally racially and ethnically
motivated. Fortunately, Eck recounts,
there are “numerous … countervailing stories not of violence, but of growing
understanding and cooperation between and among religious communities in the
United States” despite the fact that this “new deliberate era of interreligious
relationship does not usually make it into the newspapers” (11).
should and does make it into newspapers occasionally are positive public
expressions at the highest levels which suggest that diversity is our
strength. Eck points to the example of
Hillary Rodham Clinton receiving American Muslims at the White House in
1996. “The significance of the event
itself is amplified by the photographic icons that display a new image of what
America looks like: the American flag and the Great Seal of the Presidency
frame the First Lady receiving American Muslims. In a culture saturated with print media and television,” Eck
adds, hitting on the importance of rhetoric and imagery, “these iconic
representations convey, above all, the public record an extraordinary historic
occasion” (16). Thus, the horizon, to
gloss Angelou, does seem to be leaning forward.
interesting essay, Robert Kiely’s “From Monticello to Graceland: Jefferson and
Elvis as American Icons,” steps back to examine the function of iconic
representation in America. Kiely asks,
is there anything that we, as Americans, irrespective of our differences, hold
as sacred? He posits that America’s
lack of a “state religion” causes us “to transfer our need for a unifying
faith, [a] shareable reverence, onto the landscape or onto secular places and
especially buildings associated with persons or events that we can all claim as
our own” (208). He does not suggest
that Graceland, the gaudy tribute to Elvis Presley, the late “King” of
rock-and-roll, has replaced the splendor of Jefferson’s Monticello; rather,
Kiely suggests per force how they exist side-by-side, each taking on their own
sacred character. As Kiely puts it,
what’s remarkable about the American experience is that our sense of unity and
division simultaneously define what we view as sacred. “St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Mormon
Tabernacle in Salt Lake City can never compete with the Mississippi River or
the Empire State Building as American shrines,” Kiely concludes, “precisely
because they are denominational and therefore signs of our differences rather
than our unity” (208).
is Kiely’s fundamental point, then: there are those universal, traditional
elements of the sacred found when we revel in our denominational difference
while sitting in our churches, synagogues, and temples. Then, there are those moments when we revel
in our sameness while standing before the majesty of, say, the Grand Canyon.
collection’s concluding essay, Marjorie Garber’s “Two-Point Conversion,”
addresses the curious marriage in this country between sports and evangelical
Christianity. This piece is a must read
for liberal-minded, academic sports fans everywhere. It has become a commonplace nowadays for athletes, when
interviewed after the big game in which they made the deciding play, to give
thanks to God for their victory. The
logic of this strikes many as strange.
Does God really favor one team over the other? One player over another?
It’s all a part of the phenomenon known as “sports evangelism,”
exemplified best, perhaps, in the person of former Green Bay Packer Reggie White
and his so-called God Squad. While
White’s popularity may seem to challenge WASP hegemony, it falls short. After all, Garber muses, how well received
would Reggie White’s evangelism be if he was a Muslim, or if the Promise
Keepers promoted Judaism? Ultimately,
Garber concludes, “The high visibility of evangelical and salvific Christianity
in sports, and its close ties with a competitive rhetoric of patriotism and
Americanism, suggest that this may be the moment to call for a time out on
proclamations of holiness in the huddle—time to rethink the troubling
implications of public prayer on the field and organized team prayers in the
locker room” (307). She provides
numerous examples of just why such a separation of church and sports is
by The Reverend Dorothy A. Austin, Michael Eric Dyson, Barbara Claire Freeman,
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, William R. Handley, Peter S.
Hawkins, Azizah al-Hibri, Janet R. Jakobsen & Ann Pellegrini, David Lyle
Jeffrey, David Kennedy, Deborah E. Lipstadt, Stephen Prothero, and a Foreward
by Cornel West, complete the collection.
The interdisciplinary nature of the book only adds to its broad appeal.
E. Taylor’s Para/Inquiry moves in a different direction. At first glance, given the book’s structure,
Para/Inquiry reads like Roland Barthes’ S/Z, employing as it does
something like the lexias and divagations contained in Barthes’
inventive essay. Like Barthes’ work,
this book forges new paths given its interdisciplinary lines of inquiry. Taylor moves deftly from philosophy to
religion, art, and literature. Divided
into eight chapters—framed by a ponderous opening titled “Posting” and a brief
glossary—the text attempts to push the traditional boundaries of how we
understand and articulate the sacred within the postmodern condition.
task is formidable. After all, we live
more and more in the shadow, the “post-,” of those daunting nineteenth century
declarations about the death of God. Of
course, the startling notion included in these provocative statements by Ralph
Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Nietzsche is that we ourselves killed God. It took Harvard University several decades
until it warmed up to Emerson’s startling message to its 1838 divinity
graduates. His goal, like that of Walt
Whitman, was for individuals to become their own ministers, priests, and
rabbis, achieving a kind of religious and spiritual self-reliance. Para/Inquiry examines where we are
left theoretically in a world of multi-religious pluralism and in the wake of
the death of god and of the transcendent.
outline of Jean-François Lyotard’s later philosophical project underlies much
of Taylor’s work, primarily Lyotard’s thesis regarding the inadequacy of
metanarratives, those stories that presumed to speak in a continuous and
comprehensive manner. This is exactly
what Lyotard was referring to when he declared “Let us wage a war on totality”
at the end of his essay “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” That essay echoes through Taylor’s book as a
whole, offering a complementary question: “What is the Postmodern sacred?”
his terms in the first chapter, Taylor writes that “The sacred, a well-worn and
much abandoned concept today, is generally invoked as that archaic foundation
which has been lost or forfeited by collective humanity to a thoroughly
(post)modern secular world” (14).
Resisting nostalgia, he then adds, “The sacred, with its archaic
foundation, its promise, its secret, cannot be restored to its former
grandeur….” Instead, “it [the sacred]
must be substituted for, and that substitution is always non-transcendent,
inadequate, infinite and necessary” (15).
For Taylor, this sacred substitution demands going beyond (para-)
the archaic. This makes his lines of
inquiry post-modern and decidedly non-linear.
“[T]he question which drives this writing,” Taylor makes clear at the
end of chapter one, is this: “What was inquiry before it found its rules?”
(17). While this question may be
unanswerable, it is all the more valuable.
It demands that we think prior to foundations, transcendence, and
origins, all the while investigating their limits.
two and three consider this exigency through numerous visual and narrative
artists, primarily Elihu Vedder and André Malraux. Postmodern artists are key participants in parainquiry, Taylor
writes, because they “continually pay tribute to Nietzsche’s thought by
addressing the heterogeneity and ultimate inaccessibility of origin and end”
(22). Again, Lyotard circulates through
the text, specifically his references to the unpresentable. “[I]t is our business not to supply
reality,” Lyotard writes in “What is Postmodernism?”, “but to invent allusions
to the conceivable which cannot be represented.” By the end of chapter four, referencing the religious philosopher
Marcel Eliade, Taylor concludes that “The sacred power, the ultimate … can
reside … anywhere” (69). This
reformulation of the sacred as parasacred is key in Taylor’s book,
attentive as it is to allusive and ubiquitous character of the unpresentable.
thought is often criticized as being apolitical and nihilistic. While a critic like Bill Readings has worked
to dispel this myth in the example of Lyotard, Taylor implicitly addresses such
a critique through his references to the Shoa in chapter five. Can or should any grand narrative be able to
account for this tragic event that Paul Celan declared to have caused the end
of poetic discourse? Consider the
recent and remarkable comments by the Pope regarding Catholic complicity in the
holocaust, altering as it did the continuity of one of Christianity’s grandest
grand narratives. Did those comments
gesture toward the parasacred?
Certainly it seemed a more responsible acknowledgement, the result, no
doubt of re-thinking the origins and ends of Catholic theology. Referencing Lyotard once again, it resisted
supplying a flawed reality, preferring acknowledgment of what was
inexcusable. Refiguring typical notions
of the sacred is ultimately more ethical, Taylor suggests, adding a decidedly
political bite to what Lyotard called “our business.” After all, “anything (history, deity, class, race, gender,
sexuality, etc.) can produce a grand narrative which can account, with equal
proficiency, for the continuity of all events.” Or, I would add, a grand narrative which remains silent. What must be recognized, however, is that “nothing
can account for discontinuity” (78).
Parainquiry attends to such discontinuity. “The prefix para,” Taylor says in reference to the key
term in his book’s title, “indicates this complexity, this beyond, this extra,
this alteration of the continuous line found in things such as subjectivity,
ethics, politics, experience” (79).
is the parasacred always already unreachable, unpresentable? If so, is death the best reference we have
to it? In other words, how do we get
“there”—to the beyond of the para—from here?
book’s ante-penultimate chapter is a meditation on the link that death has with
the parasacred. “Consecrated grounds,”
such as cemeteries Taylor suggests, “represent, figure, signify, and forge the
links between the ‘here’ and the ‘there,’ life and death” (93). In fact, “The grave”—as
aporia—“illustrate[s] this tension between the here and the there. … The here and there, from either direction,
meet at the site of the grave” (96).
They key phrase is “illustrate[s] this tension.” Death only marks a meeting point between the
two, not a full and complete narrative about their relation. This is why grave markers, whether sacred or
profane, with images of folded hands, saints, or football players and cars, are
parasacred, Taylor says later in chapter six, because “they defer the
totalization of the ultimate” (101).
penultimate chapter continues this thought, musing on the way in which
seemingly “irreverent/iconoclastic” markers now commonly replace specifically
religious ones. “If any and all
representations are, in the end, inadequate, what makes a football player or
fisherman less appropriate than Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or John the
Baptist?” In relation one to the other,
“the irreverent/iconoclastic” marker, Taylor writes, “is more pious than the
overtly religious as it parodies and speaks directly of the inadequacy of the representation(s)
of the aporia” of death (110).
Why? Because “death exceeds all
gestures toward completion” (110).
we have no complete, adequate marker today to lead everyone from here to
there. Postmodernism, Taylor suggests
in his last chapter, is still itself just one more inadequate marker. After all, “One cannot remove a foundation
in the name of anti-foundationalism only to re-instate a foundation that is
more pleasing to an array of ideological formations or neurotic styles.” Instead, “Parainquiry in the age of
postmodernism leaves us unable to think and live comfortably, with either the
simple presence or absence of an ultimate concern” (117).
that good or bad?
Maria Rilke, that great spirit of existential pondering, offered a comment
about questions and answers in “Letters to a Young Poet” nearly one-hundred
years ago that I think is relevant here.
“[T]ry to love the questions themselves,” Rilke says, and “Do not
seek the answers, that cannot be given you because you would not be able to
live them.” What the ensuing culture
wars have taught us is clear: conservatives like the answers, especially
because they have such a clear sense of what the right answers are. Of course, liberal-minded and postmodern
folks are just the opposite. They, like
Rilke, prefer the questions, finding in their postmodern sensibility that the
center really cannot hold, and that things have and will always fall apart.
- As our nation becomes more successful at
dealing with its diversity, it is a book like One Nation Under God? that
helps us navigate the remaining religious and spiritual challenges to form our
more perfect union. For those caught up
in the questions themselves, particularly in light of the sacred, it is a book
like Para/Inquiry that prompts one’s inquisitive nature.
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