The Imagination Resists
By Wendy McDowell
We invited Anne Monius to publish her recent Harvard Divinity School’s Convocation Address (”On the Question of Relevance”) in this issue of the Bulletin because it is an insightful reflection on the ways that thinking critically about religion, including in so-called arcane or obscure fields, is crucial to contemporary life. But truth be told, we also had selfish reasons for publishing this piece, because Monius’s call for complex intellectual thought and a ”training of the imagination” could be read as a mission statement of sorts for the Bulletin.
As we go about our work for each issue, we constantly aim to counter the kind of public rhetoric that tends to simplify religious beliefs and believers (or, in some cases, misrepresent them). By including a rich and varied set of opinion pieces, features, book and arts reviews, and poetry, we hope to expand our readers’ imaginations. Moreover, we send this magazine to anyone who requests it, asking only for a donation. We believe, and hope our audience is similarly convinced that the work done by scholars of religion, theologians, and religion news writers is extremely relevant. If there is ”an assault on reason” going on in our civic life, our authors are on the defense against it and we dearly want their arguments to be heard.
Let’s hope, though, that there is pleasure as well as edification to be found in these pages. One of the main hooks for me in reading and writing about the complex knot of ”religion” is the delicious discovery that religious beliefs, and religious believers, do not always cut the way you might think they would (nor do they always vote as expected, but that’s a topic for an upcoming issue!). For instance, as David Hempton points out, extensive Bible reading and study can actually end up being ”a secularizing dynamic in the lives of Christians.” Or, as Mónica Maher describes, the mystical experience of a loving God leads some Mexican women to a sense of religious and sexual agency that is in contrast to the ”double discourse” of other Latin American citizens and officials. Or, as Tulasi Srinivas makes clear in her review on violence in India, complexities and contradictions in colonial and postcolonial history have given rise to interreligious conflict, but the richness of India’s civic and religious history is where the resources for dialogue and peace can be found.
For me, such ironies and paradoxes are evidence of the deep, abiding tenacity of the human imagination even in the face of forces that try to stifle these impulses. Students of religion cannot help but notice that the religious imagination tends to resist being caged. Two authors address this theme of resistance specifically: Sarah Sentilles, who impels us to question the narratives we impose on the tortured bodies from Abu Ghraib, and Kevin Madigan, who recommends two films about the Nazi era.
All of these pieces avoid simplifications and stereotypes and encourage us to bring ”the other” into our imaginations. As Monius notes, most ”new ideas, new angles of interpretation [and] fresh insights” come from working to understand the questions of others in past times and distant lands, thereby immersing ourselves in knowledge that is ”beyond the now and the near.”
I do want to add one caveat to my wholehearted agreement with Monius’s critique. I intentionally included religion news writers under my umbrella of ”complex thought defenders” because I want to stress that there are hard-working journalists in the United States and throughout the world who cover religion with intelligence and panache. Working in an academic institution, I have noticed that ”the media” can be an easy target for scholars, who sometimes paint this group of professionals with broad strokes (thereby painting them into a box). ”The media” is by no means a monolithic entity. Yes, there is way too much mind-numbing, simplistic, destructive news coverage out there, but there is also impressive, in-depth reporting about religion being carried out every day by writers, editors, and broadcasters.
The best religion journalists have an insatiable appetite for learning about religious traditions and adherents, and many have earned graduate degrees in religion either before or during their tenure as reporters. They serve as educators, translating complex doctrines, structures, events, and scholarship to the public, and they take this responsibility quite seriously. They, too, argue for the relevance of the historical and the arcane in understanding the contemporary world.
This important group of public intellectuals is often represented in the Bulletin. In this issue, for example, freelance journalist Chris Herlinger gives a thoughtful reflection on the current situation in Darfur, Orlando Sentinel religion reporter Mark Pinsky writes about his experience covering Trinity Broadcasting Network, and freelance writer Eric Guttierez provides an intimate look at the struggles and rewards of his lifelong spiritual journey with his grandfather. As Pinsky’s piece reveals, this group is also particularly poised to be faced with the limits of religion journalism and scholarship in the world, and to feel the resultant frustrations.
I invite all of you to reflect on why and how you believe reading, writing, and talking about religion matters. And for those of you who get frustrated by what you see or hear, I have a proposal. I encourage you to write two letters in the next month, and I promise to do the same: Write one letter of criticism to a news outlet or publication whose coverage of religion you find offensive, destructive, or just inadequate, and one letter of praise to a news outlet or publication you think helps the public to understand the complexity of issues involved. If we want ”the media” to provide the kind of intelligent, humane coverage we all deserve, we have to act like the community of ”argumentative intellectuals” who relentlessly pressed for the truth about riots in India (as described by Srinivas). Meanwhile, to that same end, let us all continue to read about times and places completely ”other” to us and be unapologetic about it.
Wendy McDowell is an editor of the Bulletin.