REFLECTIONS – “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce” with Dr. Adam Davis

by Savannah H. Finver

On December 1, 2022, Dr. Adam Davis, Professor of History at Denison University, delivered the annual Don and Barbara Davis Lecture in Christianity, co-sponsored by the Department of Comparative Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and the Department of History. The lecture, entitled “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce,” focused on the emergent connection between charitable giving, especially in the form of almsgiving, and the increase in rhetoric around the profit economy popularized in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Davis’ argument stems in part from his recent book, The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Medieval Hospital (2019) which was awarded the Ohio Academy of History’s 2021 Publication Award for best work published in the previous year by an author from the state of Ohio. While the book focuses more heavily on the founding of hospitals during the 12th-13th centuries, Davis’ lecture focused primarily on the ideas circulating through both churches and the emerging market economy which led to charitable giving being reframed as a kind of spiritual capital; that is, as a loan that a layperson could make to God which God would then be obligated to repay “tenfold” or even “a hundred fold.” Crucially, this reframing of charitable giving in economic terms directly challenged prior notions of the very definition of “charity” put forth in the gospel as Christian clergymen had interpreted the text before.

The problem with framing charitable giving as a “loan,” as Davis explains it, is that by definition, a loan requires reciprocity, meaning that which is given must be compensated or repaid in full. Furthermore, usury, or the taking of interest on a loan (being paid back tenfold, for example), was explicitly denounced as a sin in early Christian and Catholic teachings, and in certain cases in Jewish and Muslim teachings as well. Charity, then, at least prior to the 12th century, implied a certain type of attitude towards the act of giving, that the giving must be performed without any expectation of compensation or reward in return, even emotional or spiritual reward. In the 12th and 13th centuries, though, it was the very promise of spiritual reward or spiritual capital in Heaven—indeed, sometimes even material rewards on Earth—that clergymen used to encourage their congregations to engage in almsgiving. Though the idea of performing good works, especially in the form of charitable giving, in order to secure favor with God may sound like a familiar idea to readers today, in the 13th century it amounted to a fundamental paradigm shift, one which would usher in a new era of conceiving God as a debtor to his human creations, who were in turn conceived as merchant creditors with the power to force or manipulate God into providing them material or spiritual wealth in exchange for their good deeds. In other words, the language used in churches to discuss charitable giving began to take on the same terms and ideas that were emerging from the profit market. Put differently, churches began borrowing the language of economy to make sense of the gospel to their congregations. You can see some examples of how this language was equated and interchanged in the table below:

Economy Church
loan charity
debtor God
creditor layperson
repayment spiritual reward
profit favor
market congregation

At the end of the lecture, many audience members remarked that, though they very much enjoyed the lecture, they were unsurprised by Davis’ findings and felt that the language of market/profit economy was still very present currently in churches and in matters of charitable giving. For my part, I was reminded multiple times throughout Davis’ talk of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (originally published in English in 1930) and my own undergraduate advisor Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion. Because the rise in free market capitalism coincides pretty closely to the height of Protestant Reformation (in the 16th century), it hardly seems surprising that the commercialized language that would become the center of the modern world would inevitably have an impact on those discourses we call “religious” as well. Relying in part on Weber’s argument that the Calvinist expectation for engaging in good works drove the development of modern capitalism, Martin argues that many kinds of so-called “religious” discourses have been adapted to produce a particular kind of docile worker–one which won’t protest worsening conditions in the workplace and accepts individual responsibility for systemic issues. No corner is truly safe, it would seem–even the supposedly “separate” sphere of religion–from the jaws of the gods of the marketplace.

We look forward to continuing these conversations at next year’s Davis Symposium, a day packed with discussions about Christianity and Capitalism, on Oct. 27, 2023. We hope to see you there!

Research Notes from the Field, 2022 – Dr. Hugh Urban

Our faculty blog contains short posts from faculty members affiliated with the Center for the Study of Religion updating us on current events in Religious Studies and the progress of their research. Read on to learn more about Dr. Hugh Urban’s recent trip to India to continue his studies on the practice of Tantra.

Research Notes, 2022

Hugh B. Urban

Professor, Department of Comparative Studies

From January to February 2022, I traveled to northeast India to continue research on a project that I have been working on since around 2001. With the working title of “The Path of Desire: Living Tantra in Northeast India,” the project focuses on the lived, popular, and vernacular forms of Hindu Tantra in the state of Assam. Historically, Tantra is one of the most important forms of Asian religions, which spread throughout both Hindu and Buddhist traditions from roughly the sixth century CE onward. But it is also one of the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented. While most European Orientalist scholars and Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century dismissed Tantra as “black art of the crudest and filthiest kind,” modern American popular audiences have celebrated Tantra as a form of “spiritual sex” and a “cult of ecstasy” (as we see in books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tantric Sex). My project looks instead at Tantra as it is practiced today in Assam, which is often identified as one of the oldest centers and perhaps original heartland of Tantra. Known in early sources as Kamarupa (the “place” or “form” [rupa] of “desire” [kama]), Assam is the seat of the mother goddess Kamakhya (the goddess of desire), whose temple is believed to be the locus of the goddess’ yoni (womb and/or sexual organ; see figures 1 and 2). The most important festival at the temple is Ambuvaci Mela, which celebrates the goddess’ annual menstruation and coincides with the coming of the monsoon in early summer.

Kamakhya Temple, Assam

Kamakhya Temple, Assam (Fig. 1)

Lajja Gauri, the Goddess giving birth, outer wall of Kamakhya Temple

Lajja Gauri, the Goddess giving birth, outer wall of Kamakhya Temple (Fig. 2)

In my project, I am not only interested in understanding this fascinating tradition and its historical development; more importantly, I am also grappling with the changing nature of this tradition in the twenty-first century, in the face of Hindu nationalism, globalization, neoliberal capitalism, tourism, and a rapidly developing Indian economy, all of which have radically transformed many traditional religious sites. For the sake of these brief research notes, I will highlight just two examples from my recent research.

Perhaps the most striking transformation concerns the goddess’ annual menstruation festival, Ambuvaci Mela. For the last five or six years, the festival has been aggressively promoted by conservative Hindu politicians, including India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Assam’s Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma.  Modi and others are explicitly trying to use goddess temples and pilgrimage sites as new symbols of Hindu nationalism and as a means of accelerating India’s economic growth, particularly in the northeast states. When I visited the festival in 2017, for example, I noted huge billboards featuring Prime Minister Modi himself, welcoming visitors to come “Come, seek the blessings of Maa Kamakhya” in the “Cradle of Tantra” (Figures 3 and 4). This promotion by the conservative BJP government is profoundly ironic, however. This is, after all, a Tantric festival based on the goddess’ menstruation, which involves practices that are typically condemned by conservative Hindus like Modi. Perhaps most controversial is the practice of animal sacrifice, which is considered to be essential to the goddess’ worship in Assam, where large numbers of goats, buffaloes, pigeons, fish, and sheep are sacrificed each year (Figure 5). In Assam and throughout India, conservative religious and political groups have attempted to ban the practice, which they see as barbaric, primitive, and fundamentally “un-Hindu.”

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam state politicians.

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam state politicians. (Fig. 3)

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela (Fig. 4)

Another key focus in my project is the practice of magic in Assam, where it is usually referred to as tantra-mantra or jadu. From very early sources, Assam has been known as the “land of magic,” and still today it retains a reputation of a realm of enchantment and particularly of black magic or sorcery. Indeed, Assam has the dubious distinction of having the most witchcraft accusations and witch killings in South Asia; since 2010, over 100 suspected witches have been murdered in the region – most of them women. In this part of my project, I discuss the village of Mayong, Assam, which has a widespread reputation as the quintessential “land of black magic.” In recent years, the village has also been promoted as a tourist destination, with posters reading “Welcome to Mystic Mayong,” and numerous Youtube videos and social media sites advertising this as “India’s own Hogwarts” and as the center of Tantric magic in South Asia (Figures 6-7). For this part of the project, I interviewed three male practitioners of tantra-mantra in Mayong, as well as one female activist who is fighting against witch-hunting in Assam (Figures 8-10). I was basically trying to understand how these individuals navigate the complex terrain of Tantra, magic and witchcraft in the twenty-first century, particular in the context of globalization and social media in which they might become the subjects of a Youtube video or a Facebook post, or — conversely – the target of viral witchcraft accusations.

Goat sacrifice, Kamakhya Temple

Goat sacrifice, Kamakhya Temple (Fig. 6)

Poster from the Mayong Museum

Poster from the Mayong Museum (Fig. 7)

Prabin Saikiya, a local bej (healer) and practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong

Prabin Saikiya, a local bej (healer) and practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong (Fig 9)

Tilok Hazarika, a practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong

Tilok Hazarika, a practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong (Fig. 9)

Birubala Rabha, a female activist who fights against witch-hunting in Assam

Birubala Rabha, a female activist who fights against witch-hunting in Assam (Fig. 10)

At least at this point in my research, I am concluding that Tantra today lies at the complex intersection or “node” between a great number of different social, political, and religious interests. To borrow Michel Foucault’s term, it is a kind of “linchpin” at the intersection of many tensions – tensions between religion and magic, between local identity and Hindu nationalism, between “tradition” and modernization, between spiritual practice and the inexorable forces of globalization, tourism, neoliberalism, and economic development.  In fairly simplistic schematic terms, these tensions could perhaps be diagrammed as follows:

tantra diagram

Why Study Religion? with Dr. Chadwick Allen

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Dr. Chadwick Allen, Professor of English and Adjunct Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, think it’s important to study religion? Watch the video below to find out!

And don’t miss the upcoming opportunity to hear Dr. Allen’s talk (4/14), “Wombed Hollows, Sacred Trees: Burial Mounds and Processual Indigenous Subjectivity,” and go on a curated tour of the Newark Earthworks (4/16) with him and Dr. John Low, director of the center. These events are co-sponsored with the American Indian Studies Program in the Center for Ethnic Studies at OSU. More information can be found on the event webpage. We hope to have you join us!

Transcript:

I’m a professor of English, and my work looks at indigenous self-representation in literature, other arts, and activism. I did my undergraduate degree, however, not in English or art history or  political science or even anthropology, but rather in the comparative study of religion, which combined all of those areas and more.

I think I was drawn to the study of religion for two primary reasons. First, because I was fascinated by how different peoples construct their worldviews. And, second, because I was interested in comparative approaches. What happens when we put different conceptions of the world into generative conversation?

Because I was particularly interested in studying indigenous worldviews, I was struck that, although the study of religion was expansive in its interdisciplinarity, it was also rather conservative. When I was an undergraduate, the field focused primarily on so-called “world religions” that had one or more central written, sacred texts. I like to think the field has expanded beyond such limitations, and I think one reason more people should study religion is to push the academy to continue to expand its understandings of the breadth, diversity, and, really, the complexity of human experience

***

Interested in sharing with us what brought you to the academic study of religion? Send us an email at religion@osu.edu!

Why Study Religion? with Dr. Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Dr. Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, think it’s important to study religion? Watch the video below to find out!

And don’t miss the opportunity to hear Dr. Wells-Oghoghomeh’s talk, “Conjuring Death: Black Women and Retribution in the Era of Slavery” at the CSR conference, “The End of Life and What Comes Next: Perspectives from Healthcare, History, Anthropology, and Religion,” March 31-April 1. For more details and registration, check out our conference website: go.osu.edu/dyingwellconference.

Transcript:

So why should we or do we study religion? Well, religion is in an incredibly dynamic category.

It’s one of the only categories I think where you have people from so many different disciplines who can come together in a department and study this phenomenon together. And one of the things I like to always remind my students of is that while religion itself was not always an academic category—we can’t just use “religion” as a universal term to identify phenomena across spaces and time because there’s always been different ways that people would understand their relationship to the cosmos—we can break it down into these different components that are equally dynamic: things like power and ritual and ethics, all these elements of our human interaction and human strivings that constitute this very broad category that we call “religion.”

And so, religion is just a really wonderful way to think about convictions and interiority, to think about what powers people, what drives them, what helps them to survive under extraordinary circumstances, what keeps them motivated, what do they transmit to their children, what kinds of ideals are important to people, groups of people, to individuals, to families across spaces and time. These are all the kinds of questions that people in religious studies address through various means. So, I think religion as a category, as a field of study, is incredibly exciting because you can approach it from so many different cultures through so many different linguistic traditions and still find meaning together, still finds points of coherence and ways that we can converse across sometimes these incredible cultural or chronological or ethical divides. There are many ways we can use religious studies and the skills you learn within religious studies, the ways of relating and communicating with people through very difficult, sometimes deeply-seated understandings and beliefs that can translate into many other spaces.

And I think most importantly, religion is the study of what makes us human. What is it about us that separates us as entities on this planet? What is it that coheres us? These are some of the questions I think that, when we think about the fundamental category, what religion is fundamentally about, we’re asking questions about humanity across space and time. So, in that way, I think it’s such a flexible and versatile area of study. It’s something that, whether you want to be an attorney or a physician, you can do successfully because we are together addressing questions that I think impact our society on multiple levels

***

Have questions about our upcoming conference? Interested in sharing with us what brought you to the academic study of religion? Send us an email at religion@osu.edu!

Why Study Religion? with Dr. James Padilioni, Jr.

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Dr. James Padilioni, Jr., Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College, think it’s important to study religion? Watch the video below to find out!

And don’t miss the opportunity to hear Dr. Padilioni’s talk, “‘When the Consciousness we Know as Life Ceases’: Zora Neale Hurston’s Hoodoo Multiverse” at the CSR conference, “The End of Life and What Comes Next: Perspectives from Healthcare, History, Anthropology, and Religion,” March 31-April 1. For more details and registration, check out our conference website: go.osu.edu/dyingwellconference.

Transcript: The best way I can answer the question “Why Study Religion?” is just by telling you why I study religion. So, for me the study of religion comes down to a question about meaning but also meaningfulness, moreso than just meaning—meaningfulness being the whole potential that we discover for meaning, and meaningfulness abounds.

So, what is meaningfulness? When I think of that in three different dimensions, there is the cosmic sense of meaningfulness, thinking of cosmogony, or creation stories, origin stories, myths, all of those questions—cosmology—these cosmic sensibilities of meaning and meaningfulness and pattern, structure. And also mystery, which is a running corollary to meaningfulness in religion for me. It’s also about cultivating this sense of wonder and mystery around the inability for meaning to present itself all of the time to us.

But another sense of meaningfulness that I find in the study of religion is in social meanings and social meaningfulness, the patterns that we discover and then create and recreate in kinship and in other forms of social relations: friendships and communities we belong to and the feelings of belonging or feelings of ostracization or outsider. All of that can be part of the study of religion and understanding how shared sensibilities, “the group mind,” comes together and understands itself and creates itself and doesn’t always understand itself, doesn’t always seek to create itself as a community Again all of those understandings can be part of the study of religion.

And then the last dimension of meaningfulness that I find in the study of religion pertains to the interior self and the interior meaningfulness of our life, of our sense of self, who we are as persons, who we are as human beings, but also and more importantly who we are in our human becoming. I think all of that is accessible to students, especially when they are studying religion in college because there are so many questions that you’re going to have as a young person anyway that will be boiling up and pushing and resonating against some of those same questions of the interior meaningfulness, the patterns that we create in our everyday life, the everyday rituals and habits and friendships and other relationships and chosen kinship networks that we associate with.

We can study both or all from the cosmic to the social down through the interior person and out again in the religious studies classroom. So, I think that the study of religion really offers students a whole cosmos worth of wonder.

***

Have questions about our upcoming conference? Interested in sharing with us what brought you to the academic study of religion? Send us an email at religion@osu.edu!

“Dying Well” Conference March 31-April 1

As we hit the midway point of the spring semester, we’d like to remind you of all the exciting events we have for Spring 2022, especially our conference coming up soon on March 31-April 1, “The End of Life and What Comes Next: Perspectives from Healthcare, History, Anthropology, and Religion.” We have an exciting line-up of speakers and performances across disciplines and media. Check out the video at the link below for more information and head over to our website for schedule, details, and registration. Plus, stay tuned for some of our speakers to appear as guests on our Why Study Religion? series on the blog!

Dying Well Spring Events with Interim Director Hannibal Hamlin

Questions? Send an email at religion@osu.edu.

***

Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Hannibal Hamlin, the Director of the Center for Studies in Religion, and I’d like to announce the amazing group of events we’ve got planned for next term, Spring 2022. This is the last term of our two-year project, “Living Well, Dying Well,” sponsored by a generous grant from the Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme. This year is “dying well.” Last year, we focused on various aspects of health and life and living. This year, we’re focusing on the second part of the equation: dying well, death. And we have a variety of one-off events focusing on different aspects of death and dying in different cultures.

We also have a terrific conference planned March 31 and April 1 called “The End of Life and What Comes Next: Perspectives from Healthcare, History, Anthropology, and Religion,” where we’re bringing together a brilliant group of scholars who all address aspects of the big question, but again from their particular perspective. Our keynote lecture will be by Thomas Laqueur, the eminent historian, and our final event, a reading and talk by Thomas Lynch, will feature some of his poetry. He is, in addition to being a celebrated poet and a popular bestselling author, he is a former undertaker, and so his perspective on death and dying and what comes next will be particularly interesting.

In between, we have a variety of different events featuring topics related to East Asian and Asian funeral, death, and burial practices; we have a panel focusing on contemporary issues, ethical issues related to the healthcare industry and end of life; and we have another session that brings together some fascinating scholars who are going to be addressing a wide range of topics, including burial practices and the migration crisis in Europe, African American women and religious practices involving death and the afterlife, and in fact, Hoodoo conceptions of the afterlife. This will be a very exciting couple of days. There’ll be something for everybody, and I’m sure we’re all going to discover much more than we knew coming in with. I hope you will come to at least a few of these events, and if you’re like me you’ll want to attend them all.

Grad Chat with Savannah and Elise

After finishing their formal thoughts for their “Why Study Religion?” videos, Savannah and Elise kept chatting while the camera kept rolling. They talked more about why studying religion is important to them personally and what has motivated them to pursue doctoral work in their respective areas of interest. See what they had to say in the informal, podcast-style recording below!

Transcript

Savannah: Which is so weird because, I mean, every book, every book covers religion in some aspect.

Elise: Exactly, like you can’t get away from it, especially if you’re studying English literature.

Savannah: The Anglican Church is steeped in everything.

Elise: Exactly, and it is in the idiom of our language, inextricably linked. Whether a person is writing a text that they are conscious of being religious or not, it is in the way we speak

Elise: I don’t know…cause I think there’s a lot of beauty in a lot of religions, but there’s also a lot of harm

Savannah: I think it’s any social group, any society, there’s parts that are really beautiful or were intended to be very beautiful and unfortunately, end up causing more harm than good. And you know, figuring out how to navigate that by finding these questions that are so high stakes to people and really trying to tackle them head on, that’s something that we’ve been talking about in one of my grad seminars. It’s that knowing what’s important to us and what questions we want answers to and why and how our disciplines shape our thinking about those questions and how we answer them are so critical. In as much as I love being a theory head and being up in the clouds, what is that doing for the world, is my question.  And if you can’t take that and apply it in your life and in your work then-

Elise: Like, what are you doing?

Savannah: Right, it’s just an exercise in how many mental back flips can I do? You know? And while that is fun in a certain context, I don’t know that I’m leaving the world a better place for my kin, you know?

Elise: Yeah and I just don’t know if that’s enough to fuel a difficult career, you know?

Savannah: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, I agree with you. You have to believe in what you do because passion will only get you so far. I remember actually going to a conference once. It was at Syracuse University, and the woman who was the head of the Religious Studies Department there, Gail Hamner, gave this talk, and she was like, “You know, you think your passion is going to be enough to drive you through the PhD, but you’re wrong. It’s not going to be enough. You’re going to be so sick of what you study by the end that you really need to have some other reason. It can’t just be that you love it. It needs to be important to you for something else.” And I think that because these questions about religion have so fundamentally shaped the decisions the state can make about my body as a woman and things like that, these questions have high stakes for me.

Elise: Yeah, absolutely

Savannah: And so while it’s nice to read philosophy and just kind of speculate about the nature of reality, if I can’t take those speculations and use them to create a world that is safer for bodies like mine, what’s the point?

Elise: Absolutely, I love that. And I feel like that sometimes when I’m thinking, like, “Oh Renaissancce literature, why?” But then I think about the ways that words have been used, leveraged from that time, specific choices that translators made or commentators made and how I’ve seen them impact my life. Talking about how when I was working in church, like how women can’t preach or whatever and how that is a toxic choice that has been made, that is removed from its context. So, I think that establishing the context can at least help us have conversations about how things don’t have to be the way that we’ve taken them to be.

Savannah: Right, it’s never inevitable.

Elise: Exactly.

Savannah: That’s what I love about theories that are grounded in language as the generator of a reality. Because when you realize that’s the case and it’s not embedded fundamentally into, like matter that can’t be changed.

Elise: Exactly

Savannah: You know, when we remove the idea of fundamental realities and universal truths, we realize that nothing is inevitable and that actually we do have the power to make change.

Elise: Absolutely.

Savannah: Figuring out how to do that—the academy just offers one pathway for us to be able to explore those ideas, I think.

Elise: Yes, that was beautifully put.

Savannah: Thank you.

 

Why Study Religion? with PhD Student Elise Robbins

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Elise Robbins, PhD Student in the Department of English, think it’s important to study religion? Watch the video below to find out!

Transcript: “So in my Masters, I had a professor tell me, when I expressed that I was interested in studying religious literature, he told me, ‘OK, well you better be ready for people to argue with you.’

And I think that’s why, for me, the study of religion is so important. It’s because it is so high stakes for so many people, and people have feelings about it. I have feelings about it!

So, my main area of interest is the intersection of English literature and Christian religions in the Renaissance, which is an incredibly formative time for our modern culture. I mean, our country probably wouldn’t exist without the Protestant Reformation and what came out of that.

And, so if I had to sum up in one word why I think it’s so important to study religion, it would be the idea of “inheritance.” This idea that our past is not really our past. It informs our present and will continue to inform our future. And we can just let it take us on that ride, or we can be more critically aware abut how we shape the future coming out of the past.

So, I’m really interested in creating these connections between past individuals and religious communities to help us better understand ourselves and our very religiously steeped culture. For me, I’m particularly speaking about the Protestant-majority United States, which is my world, which has been incredibly shaped by our religious past. I think being able to understand that makes me and makes others critically aware citizens of this religiously informed community, whether we’re practitioners of religion or not. And for me personally, it helps make me a more critically aware reader of religious texts and practitioner of religion myself.

I think being able to intervene critically and see these traditions as not things that have to be the way they are but that can be changed—that originated in a specific moment in time and therefore can be different than they are—helps us to hold some things a little more loosely. And that can help us assess and evaluate these past inheritance and decide what beautiful parts of those inheritances we can hold onto and what harmful aspects of those inheritances we can—to borrow a biblical metaphor—prune in order to grow towards a more just and loving society.”

Interested in sharing with us what brought you to the academic study of religion? Send us an email at religion@osu.edu!

Dr. Solimar Otero on her Recent Book, Archives of Conjure

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure to host Dr. Solimar Otero, professor of folklore at Indiana University, at OSU as she presented on some of her most recent work, including her 2020 book Archives of Conjure: Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures. We also got the chance to sit down with her and talk in more detail about her work in the book—her approach, motivations, biggest take-aways, and future plans. Take a look at the video and interview below to get a taste of how Dr. Otero’s research opens up new possibilities to think about how the material artifacts of the archive actively forge meaningful and transformational bonds with our ancestors. FOLLOW THIS LINK to learn more and purchase her book!

Q & A with Dr. Otero: 

How did this project start? 

I began the fieldwork and archival research for Archives of Conjure at the Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) as a Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of African Diaspora Religions in 2009–2010. The support from the WSRP allowed me to travel to Cuba to set up the initial framework for the book, which at that point was primarily ethnographic interviews and participant observation in rituals conducted with women and LGBTQ practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions. My move to incorporate the archives of Ruth Landes and Lydia Cabrera came later with additional support from The Reed Foundation. With these elements in place, I felt I could creatively incorporate literary criticism of Mayra Santos-Febres’ and Lorna Goodison’s works as a way to bring together interdisciplinary explorations of gender, sexuality, and spirituality in Afro-Caribbean and Afrolatina religiosity.

How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

The relationships I established in Cuba with the religious community started with my dissertation research that eventually led to my first monograph, Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World (University of Rochester Press, 2010). The fieldwork and oral histories for this book took place primarily in Lagos, Nigeria. However, the connections and circulation of religious practices, particularly creolized religious practices, between Cuba and Nigeria made a deep impression on me. Doing the work of reconstructing the lives of Afro-Cuban repatriate Yoruba with their descendants planted the seeds of doing the of work vivifying ancestors through research. I wanted to focus more deliberately on gender, sexuality, and race in Archives of Conjure. Thus, I incorporated queer theory, transnational feminist thought, as well as the important theoretical interventions and practices of the communities I worked with in Cuba into the project. The result is a book that reflects a range of interests, approaches, and geographies that is tied together by the idea of tracing ancestors’ intentions, movements, and interventions in the words and material culture they leave behind.

Why was it important for you to write this book?

I wanted to highlight the Afrolatinx communities, past and present, that were doing creative work in archiving their rituals through what I call residual transcriptions. These transcriptions can take on many forms, paper, beading, dolls, altars, etc. It seemed significant that these practices and objects could be shared transnationally and across linguistic differences.  I believe these forms of interacting with memory, the world, and each other is an important way to grapple with the trauma of the violence of colonialism and slavery.

Can you describe your methodology/methodologies? 

I am an interdisciplinary folklorist who engages with fieldwork, archival practices, and critical methodologies. My work involves thinking through cultural and artistic practices through multiple lenses guided by Afrolatinx religious communities’ ways of being in the world. I am particularly excited by practitioners’ own methods for documenting, reinventing, and activating their history. The theoretical perspectives of Édouard Glissant and José Esteban Muñoz also provided much inspiration for navigating issues of creolization and queer identity in the text.

What key questions do you hope this book will raise for readers?

I hope readers will take seriously the ways that everyday people practicing Afrolatinx religions work through the historical legacies of colonialism and slavery through spiritual inventions that are complex, open, and oriented towards healing. This means looking at rituals and archives in ways that make us question the authority and grand narratives that usually guide ethnography and historiography.

Where did this project lead you? What are you working on next? 

Archives of Conjure made me pay attention to the relationship between material culture and storytelling in a new way. I am working on a co-edited volume, with folklorist Anthony Bak Buccitelli, on performance and folklore, Emerging Perspectives in the Study of Folklore and Performance. The book has essays written by folklorists, theatre scholars, and communication studies. My chapter in the volume focuses on how performances that call on the ancestors, like songs and the spoken word poetry, think through the materiality of the spirit through bodily imagery. These metaphors mark the mutable and pervasive nature of Black performance and ritual in a way that fights institutional objectification, violence, and eradication.

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Video Transcript: My book Archives of Conjure: Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures, deals with spirit mediums in Afro-Cuban religion, archival research from Brazilian Candomblé culture from the late 1930s, as well as Afro-Puerto Rican literature that deals with Orisha traditions and trans and LGBTQ communities. So, the book is actually really trying to get at the ways that ritual practice, archival artifacts and materials, as well as literature all come together, in Afro-Caribbean and Afrolatinx understandings of what ancestors do and their presence in our world. So, it’s an interdisciplinary book. But it’s a book that’s really based on how artists, scholars, and practitioners have ritual practices that intersect and create this—and it’s called ‘Archives of Conjure’—that create these ways of knowing that can be vivified or conjured in ways that allow us to think through histories that may not be found in the archive, that may not be found in traditional ethnography, but can be elaborated upon if we look at these folkloristic or vernacular ways of how people understand themselves, their history, and their communities.

It’s very rhizomatic. So, the cover of the book has these beads, right? Like these, this is an idé, but the beads that are on the cover are mazos. It’s actually very similar. So, when you see somebody wearing one of these, that usually means they are a priest or priestess. And it actually relates to a story, to a narrative and a particular road of the gods. Every Orisha has an avatar, and those avatars have colors and numbers and symbols associated with them. I’m a daughter of Oshun, so when people see this, they know that my road is Ibu Kole. Because the beads and the colors, have a specific rendering and numbering. And these relate to specific verses and stories that are all bunched up in these many different strands. So, the book, I tried to write it as if it was one of these strands, and they come together in these, we call this a moño, like a knot. And everything comes together, and they’ve come apart and together. So that’s the kind of rhizomatic, diasporic structure of how people can pass on these histories through difference in language, right, because you have similar beading, same beading happening in Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, and other spaces, and coded because of the ways that black religion was demonized during the colonial period in particular, is still demonized because of class and racism, in many different iterations in different places. So, this coding is something that can be read, but it also is a way of keeping history that’s not found in an archive or an ethnography or necessarily in historiography. So, this is a vernacular way of reading who somebody is, and it brings up all those other elements.

Why Study Religion? with PhD Student Savannah Finver

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Savannah Finver, PhD Student in the Department of Comparative Studies, think it’s important to study religion? Watch the video below to find out!

Transcript: “Why study religion? And why is it important to study religion? That is such a great question, and there are so many different ways that we could potentially answer it. Thinking about my context and what I study—I study the intersection of religion and law in the United States—I think that particularly in this country, there is a strong myth that there is a strict separation between church and state. But one of the things I’ve learned over the course of my study is that actually that wall of separation metaphor comes out of a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association and actually doesn’t appear anywhere in the legal structure of the United States. So, what that leads to is quite a number of complications in determining what actually is the role of religion, especially when so much of the population sees religion—at least in the United States but also in other neoliberal, democratic nations—as this segmented off sphere of life that doesn’t really impact other spheres, such as politics or law—you know, “Religion is something you do on Sundays, it’s not something you bring to work with you.” Of course, as we can see, especially recently with the legal battles playing out in the Supreme Court, that’s not the case. Religion plays such a fundamental part in our lives. It informs for many of us in the United States a core part of our identity. And that, in turn, impacts how we vote. It impacts how we think about the major issues in our lives. It impacts our stances on key political questions and stuff like that. So, for me, the study of religion has allowed me to really think critically about the question of why do people do what they do? Why do they think what they think? Especially in our current moment being as divisive as it has been.

Also, religious studies is such a fundamentally interdisciplinary study that the answers that I’ve gotten when asking these questions about what people do and why they do it have been more rounded than, say, if you were only to take a psychological lens or only to take a social science lens. I’m able to get a more complete picture of how social groups form, how power operates, and what really is the role of religion in forming who we are and what we do.”

Interested in sharing with us what brought you to the academic study of religion? Send us an email at religion@osu.edu!