For this week, one of the readings that we did together was an excerpt from Dennis Covington’s 1995 book Salvation on Sand Mountain, an interesting and well-written look into the world of Appalachian churches that practice snake handling as a regular part of their worship services along with the final chapter from Robert Orsi’s 2006 book, Between Heaven and Earth, which offers a trenchant critique of Covington’s account. While on the surface, the focus on snake handling may have left us wondering why this was assigned, I hope that we can learn something about our approach to exorcism via both Covington and Orsi.
To begin, I think that Orsi’s chapter, appropriately titled “Snakes Alive,” has a couple of different arguments going on, and at times, they can get tangled up with one another, which makes the thread of the chapter easy to lose in its labyrinth. So, I will try and proceed carefully through these elements in order to clarify why it is I had you read this chapter. Firstly, Orsi is tracing a brief genealogy of sorts for the academic study of religion. This has been done many times and in much greater detail, but Orsi is tracing this genealogy in order to make an important point, which he gets to by page 180:
…the tools that scholars of religion use to make moral distinctions among different religious expressions were crafted over time in the charged political and intellectual circumstances within which the modern study of religion came to be, and before introducing or reintroducing moral questions into our approach to other people’s religious worlds, before we draw the lines between the pathological and the healthy, the b.ad and the good, we need to excavate our moral and political history. (180)
That is, even when we talk about approaching expressions of religion ‘objectively’ or ‘critically,’ we do not somehow become free of bias, political leaning, or moral judgment. The very act of defining our approach in this way is very much a biased, political, moral act – and the development of these features are traced in the first few pages of the chapter.
Second (and I am skipping a section of his chapter here) Orsi is arguing that the ‘objective’ or even ‘scientific’ study of religion involves creating a strong and clear break between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ He suggests that this is often done with a schematic borrowed from the natural sciences, evolution. He looks at the way that religions are often placed on a continuum from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilized,’ with the very highest form of religion being that which is:
…rational, respectful of persons, noncoercive, mature, nonanthropomorphic in its higher forms, mystical (as opposed to ritualistic), unmediated and agreeable to democracy (no hierarchy in gilded robes and fancy hats), monotheistic (no angels, saints, demons, ancestors), emotionally controlled, a reality of mind and spirit not body and matter. (188)
Again here, Orsi is calling to our attention the taken-for-granted assumption that whatever would fit into the above mold is an inherently ‘good’ example of religion or religious practice, and that which falls outside is just this – outside, aberrant, unformed in some way.
Third, and now we return to his critique of Covington, Orsi (perhaps unfairly) uses Covington’s book as an example of just this kind of ‘othering,’ especially the sixth chapter that we read. This is an interesting part of his argument – on some level I think Orsi recognizes that when we read Covington’s book we might cheer a little when he is called to ‘testify’ by Carl and uses the opportunity to counter the tirade against women just given, if a bit tentatively. However, what Orsi sees here is an unwillingness to engage with a religious world that Covington finds threatening, and a confirmation of exactly the taken-for-granted assumptions about what constitutes the highest form of ‘true’ religion that he offers above. Once Punkin’ Brown steps up to preach, Covington has, in Orsi’s eyes, changed from a model participant observer to a resolute defender of a particular, if popular modernist worldview. He has placed Punkin’ Brown and all the snake handlers he spent so much time getting to know, and even liking at the far end of the continuum, as primitive, other, and different from himself.
Finally, the end of the chapter has Orsi offering his own kind of continuum for scholars of religion. He places Evangelical scholars on one end, and Postcolonial theorists on the other. I won’t go into the specifics, but what is important to note here is that these two groups are often seen as quite divergent in aim from one another. Orsi, however, suggests otherwise, observing that “proponents of both perspectives propose that the universalistic ambitions of Western enlightened rationality give way to local orientations: there is no essential, singular truth, only situated truths. (196)” Despite this positive assessment, Orsi is still dissatisfied with these scholars, insofar as they both construct an “other” for their own purposes of scholarship. His proposal is for the scholar to learn from both sides of his continuum and to stand ‘in-between’ them, which he defines as follows:
…a disciplined suspension of the impulse to locate the other (with all her or his discrepant moralities, ways of knowing, and religious impulses) securely in relation to one’s own cosmos. (198)
I am going to leave it here, because I want you to do the rest of the analytical work, but here are a few questions to get us started:
- Do you think Orsi is fair in his reading of Covington? Having read a portion of the book and not just Orsi’s redescription, does Covington do what Orsi suggests?
- What does Orsi mean when he writes “Punkin’ Brown and others like him are just too valuable precisely as others, as the unassimilable and intolerable, to he easily surrendered”(198)?
- How does all of this snake handling, genealogy of the academic study of religion, and most importantly, the concept of being ‘in-between’ apply to our undertaking this semester, the attempt to study exorcism?