Christianity: You're Soaking in It

Inside Higher Ed's recent article on the prevalence of religion on campus came as no surprise to me. Although it has been about a month since the article came out, I still think that the time is ripe for me to make a confession: I actively incorporate the gospel of Christ into my teaching -- although not for the reason you might think.

November 2, 2006

Inside Higher Ed's recent article on the prevalence of religion on campus came as no surprise to me. Although it has been about a month since the article came out, I still think that the time is ripe for me to make a confession: I actively incorporate the gospel of Christ into my teaching -- although not for the reason you might think.

I myself am not Christian -- as some readers may remember, I'm Jewish. I am, however, a passionate choral singer with an interest in music of the Baroque and Renaissance, and it is hard to find secular ensembles that perform this repertoire. As a result I spend a lot of time in church.

After I get done writing this, for instance, I'm off to my second gig of the week -- a compline service sung in candle light featuring a procession (often with handbells), the complete chanted Anglican rite for the office of compline, two anthems, a nunc dimittis, the office hymn (we have over 25 settings of te lucis ante terminum), an orison, and a psalm. The group itself is quite small -- 10 men (countertenors sing the treble parts) who rehearse without accompaniment in a 90-minute rehearsal before our performance.

I'm very proud that I have what it takes to sing in a group that operates at such a professional level. But singing in church means more to me than just pride in my musicianship -- it is part of the more general rapprochement I've had with Christianity. I went to a college where people were more likely to take acid than communion and my last visit to the Bay Area involved stopping at both anarchist communes and picking up equipment to broadcast an illegal radio channel from our car while road tripping up to Burning Man. So you see, attending church seems infinitely more transgressive of my socials norms than does, say, running around naked in the middle of the desert while dosed to the gills on synthetic mescaline.

This generally lefty background, combined with my religious background, means that Christianity was something that I only ever heard about from my friends, whose lifestyles were an elaborate form of rebellion against it. As a result it's been a bit of a surprise to me to discover that the religion had any redeeming features at all. But in fact my time as a chorister has given me the opportunity to meet Christians whose faith has led them to lives of remarkable compassion, caring, and integrity and to appreciate the power and value that the Christian faith has for its followers.

The other thing that singing in church makes you realize about Christians is that they're everywhere. When it first hit me, this revelation filled me with the same shock that fills those ladies in the old Palmolive commercials -- I'm soaking in it! These "palmolive" moments continued into the classroom and it soon became apparent to me that many of my students -- who looked perfectly normal -- actually considered Jesus Christ to be their personal savior.

I quickly noticed that being a Jewish church musician gave me something in common with my Christian students -- indeed, in some strange way I knew more about their religion than they did. This is because I am, like all church musicians, a liturgy junkie. My students think of the celebration we just observed as "Halloween," while for me it was the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. Many of my students know the Lord's Prayer by heart, but few of them can spontaneously spout the text of the Magnificat in both English and Latin. And while I occasionally get a student who knows that Easter is somehow tied to Passover, I've never encountered one who knew that Pentecost was actually Shavuot.

My decision to begin incorporating the anthropology of Christianity into my classes was premised on the belief that, academically speaking, Christianity could be used to soften hands while I did the dishes. That is to say, I realized that I didn't just have to let the fact that my classes were saturated with Christianity go unremarked. Rather than simply soak in it, I could use it to further the goals of the class. Even the fact that my students came from diverse faith backgrounds within and without Christianity could be foregrounded as a way of asking students to think through and share with each other exactly what their beliefs were.

The key, of course, is that the stance we take on Christianity in class be distanced and yet respectful. While I may feel that I'm soaking in it, Christian students see themselves to be an embattled minority in an increasingly secular society full of professors who belittle their beliefs in lectures on evolution and secular humanism. Beating up on my Christian students for their faith in the name of cultural relativism is simply not effective anthropology.

So while I have a gimlet eye for some of Christianity's more incongruous beliefs, I am someone who actively participates in the life of their faith community. I'm the guy who sings motets while everyone else takes communion -- in participant-observation in the classically anthropological sense. This sense of being both insider and outsider helps, I believe, to reassure students that our my analysis of Christianity is not meant to be a partisan exercise either for or against, but a demonstration of the power of social science to make taken-for-granted topics amenable to analysis.

The textbook in my "intro to anthro" class, for instance, has a chapter on the way symbolic action reinforces worldview through the use of compelling and culturally specific metaphors. It then takes examples of rituals from "other" cultures and demonstrates how these seemingly bizarre activities function, once you understand the metaphors at play within them. I, however, have given up teaching the Kwakiutl Cannibal Dance. Now I just teach communion -- my favorite Christian ritual after the procession on Palm Sunday. I begin by taking the belief of Christians that they can be made pure only through the cannibalistic consumption of their deity. How can we account for this belief?

I begin by having students explain what communion is to members of the class who are not familiar with it, and we pause to consider the special fact that practices within Christianity vary greatly from one church to another. This is, literally, anthropology 101: Cultural traditions are not internally homogeneous, but demonstrate a wide variation in practice ranging from Roman Catholics (who do believe themselves literally to be cannibals) to Lutherans (who hedge their bets with consubstantiation) to Mennonites (who may go their whole lives without taking communion).

Next, I begin slowly peeling away at the communion service, pointing out the metaphorical associations of consumption and identification which -- as in most Christian rituals -- derive their power by recreating in the here-and-now of the church an event from the there-and-then life of Jesus (I don't burden the students with technical terms like "metricalization of space" and "distal chronotope"). Students pick this up relatively quickly: In communion the priest is to Jesus at the Last Supper as the congregation is to the apostles, just as in the Palm Sunday processional, the priest becomes Jesus entering Jerusalem just as the congregation becomes the crowd welcoming his entrance into Jerusalem.

The original grounding event of the Last Supper thus becomes the source of a metaphorical identification. This is not the end of the matter, however, since the Last Supper itself is Jesus's own elaborate riff on the festival he was celebrating -- Passover. Passover itself is a here-and-now remembrance of the then-and-there event of the angel of death (creepily represented in The Ten Commandments by colored dry ice) passing over Hebrew houses marked with the blood of a lamb.

Having taken the students back to Exodus, we then begin working forward with the image of the blood of lambs, passing successively through pastoral imagery in the Hebrew Bible, prohibitions on the consumption of blood in Leviticus, and all the way forward again to the Roman Catholic liturgy in which God becomes not the shepherd who makes us to lie in green fields, but the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

I typically wrap up by noting that these metaphors and identifications continue to circulate in our own culture and keep us "soaking" in Christianity. Recently, for instance, I've ended with the new Superman movie, which features a man sent by his omnipotent father to Earth who protects humanity using his supernatural powers, only to be defeated by The Adversary -- Kevin Spacey cum Lex Luthor on a gigantic island made of kryptonite -- but who rises again to triumph in glory and help Kate Bosworth quit smoking.

I think it is one of my better lectures of the semester. I can't take much credit for this fact, however, since the communion service is such a spectacularly well-designed ritual. And of course it's not like I figured all of this symbolism out -- it's a series of connections that Christian theologians have been quite articulate about.

Best of all, this discussion of communion leaves my students turned on to some of the central concerns of my discipline: What is the distinction between "the real" and "the cultural" in a situation where most Christians do not believe in transubstantiation and yet rely on tropes of incorporation (cannibalistically, when Jesus's body enters you, and communally, when this act of alimentation brings you into the "body" of the church) to give their rituals power? How do we characterize the awareness of a participant at a ritual event who "gets it" but may not be able to articulate the play of tropes they experience without their professor's help? What is the status of interpretive social science as a science if it consists (merely?) of re-presenting the knowledge of our informants in a new form?

And speaking of productive tropes -- what sort of metaphorical associations are invoked in my own lecture (a genre that in America at least has an unabashedly homiletic past) when I mobilize the then-and-now of the communion in my role as a maverick Jewish proselytizing for my own brand of human knowing to a classroom full of potential intellectual converts?

Years ago Gerald Graff argued that the best way to deal with the culture wars was to teach them. My own experience with Christianity, as atypical as it is, has led me to see the value of bringing it into the classroom and making it an issue with my students. Like a lot of worthwhile tasks, it's a tricky one. But I believe it's an important one and -- when done correctly -- fun as well. Above all, I think it is best to realize when it comes to religion in our schools, the issue is not necessarily what is being taught, but how it is being approached. After all, America is a country where we are "soaking in it" -- even if we are not as fully immersed as some would like.


Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds. His last column was about joining the tenure track.


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