Between Heaven & Earth: Standing on Sand Mountain

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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)?
  3. 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?
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6 thoughts on “Between Heaven & Earth: Standing on Sand Mountain

  1. On Question 2: I think to answer that it is important to think about the fact the Covington himself turned against Punkin’ Brown and everything he stood for and placed him as “the other”. The distinction between what the Group ‘we’ stands for, in moral and religious questions apart from the group ‘them’ is what makes argumentation possible (correct me please if I interpreted this wrong). So it is important to have this otherness to justify the correctness of one’s own beliefs.
    What I ask myself, however, is if it is possible to discuss or view anything without being subjective to the point when the opinion of someone that I consider other is precisely used to enforce my own point of view? Orsi offers an attempt to overcome this in stating that one should “[experience] one’s own world from the disorienting perspective of the other” (204), hence trying to look at the group ‘we’ from the ‘them’ perspective (that perceives themselves as ‘we’). I think, connecting this to our own studies of exorcism, Orsi asks of us to look at the cases of a topic that is as controversial as possession and exorcism from the perspective of the people who tell of their accounts, hence trying to look at it without prejudice or prefabricated belief and judgement of the events.

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  2. I feel that Orsi is fair in how he reacted to Covington’s book. Once Covington went and spoke out against the beliefs of the members of the church his position of neutrality was completely compromised. While I personally feel he had done a good job of documenting them in a neutral to positive way throughout the majority of the book, the snake handlers were definitely made to seem as “the others.” Orsi is also right in saying that it is easy to share your grievances with someone who is seen to have beliefs at the very margins of society, however I do agree that when covering their beliefs, it is important to remain impartial, no matter how strange or different the people may seem. Covington gave into the things that Punkin Brown was saying by responding to them with his own mainstream points of view. I feel in all that when we study exorcism, we must make sure to take it all in from an unbiased and holistic perspective. This can be done by seeing all view points and opinions as someone else’s truth, even if its something we don’t agree with ourselves.

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  3. The snake handling, genealogy of the academic study of religion, and the concept of ‘in-between’ applies to the attempt to study exorcism because it shows all of the aspects of exorcism past simply putting holy water on the possessed individual and reciting incantations from sacred text. We must look at the practice of exorcism objectively and sort through the irrelevant, unnecessary verbiage to get to the information that we will hold vital in studying exorcism. As Orsi suggests, analyzing the topics that we are studying without bias will help us to get to the root of the study and truly understand exorcism in a new light. Therefore, we will be able to gain a new perspective that is contrary to the one that media and popular belief has been force-feeding us for so long.

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    1. While studying without bias is important it must be accounted for that religion is a nebulous concept that need hard facts to ground it; however exorcism and likewise religion are not simply based on their tangible effects on the world. Social psychologist focus strongly on people’s emotions and behaviors as affected by situation or the presence of others. One important thing regarding this approach are construals, or how people view the world around them. This is based on the Gestalt principle, or the idea of a global whole. I feel like this is what is meant by the in-between. Not to only look at exorcism objectively but to also look at it as a whole, to include the importance of people’s emotions and interpretations of exorcism.

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  4. These observations are all good, but I do want to include one clarification that I think is important – Orsi’s concept of the ‘in-between’ is actually very much not an unbiased, objective approach to the material. The first half of his chapter is a critical look at how the kind of approach we tend to prize in the study of religion is neither unbiased, nor objective. It only seems this way.

    So, the ‘in-between’ is an important suggestion to be honest about our commitments and biases (and not act as though we can somehow make them go away). He actually thinks that Covington does a good job of this, and he doesn’t fault him for considering Punkin’ Brown’s/Carl’s tirade to be reprehensible. Where he finds the fault is in the way that Covington ‘others’ this reprehensible behavior, not allowing it to confront and make plain these modern, liberal notions of equality and the way in which they are just as situated and contingent as Punkin’ Brown’s.

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  5. To jump on some of the threads of thought going on here, I think I would like to address the notion of Intent.
    To begin with, I didn’t particularly like Covington’s style, so I enjoyed and generally agreed with Orsi’s critique of Salvation on Sand Mountain. However, I found the content of Covington’s piece highly engaging. What I think requires mentioning is that while Orsi’s analysis is thorough and compelling, he is responding to a piece of writing, the author’s biases in that writing, and how that piece of writing is functioning in a broader sense e.g., the shaping (or re-affirmation etc.) of general public opinion, while Covington on the other hand has done something completely different; He has experienced snake handling in a highly personal way and wrote about these experiences. These two authors have two completely different agendas in their work.
    The historical context of Religious Studies that Orsi provides in his piece was extremely helpful for me. Illuminating the field’s normative beginnings, in which a “civilized” or “denominationally neutral Christianity” carries an implicit categorization of “good” and “bad” with regards to other “religions”, and that this conception of “religion” at large is by way of exclusion, Orsi’s piece made quite clear how closely connected historically the Religious Studies field is with colonialism and its other serpentine hegemonic ways of thinking.
    Orsi’s focus on Punkin’ Brown is an illustration of one of the most interesting and specific moments in religion as I know it – the discourse between individual and whole. At some point there is a reckoning between the lofty and nebulous aspects of Religion and its sometimes all-too-human adherents on the ground. Perhaps it would be a bold and inadequately substantiated sentiment to express, but I wonder if Orsi is conflating Punkin’ Brown the person and Punkin’ Brown the representative of Appalachian snake handling writ large. Nevertheless I think that one of Orsi’s most poignant points is in cautioning individuals not to create, define or embrace this idea of “otherness” typified by the focus on Punkin Brown, and to illustrate just how easy it can be to do so.
    While I understand Orsi’s point that creating an other is inherently dangerous (in an academic setting or otherwise), the question I might ask in response is when, and to what extent do we allow our selves to pass judgment on others? How do we draw these conclusions and what crystalizes them? Wasn’t so much of why Covington cast Brown in a harsh, conclusive light a personal response to Brown’s misogyny, rather than an all-out attempt to create an Other in this particular religious instance? Personally I felt like Covington presented a decently diplomatic response to snake handling in general. To me it was Brown, not snake handling, which became the Other.
    A parallel that keeps popping up in my head with regards to these questions of Othering is the Westboro Baptist Church. Is Orsi implying that when a member of this congregation waves a poster in public reading GOD HATES FAGS that it would be unjust of us Religious scholars to condemn the individual as an Other?
    So, to finally come back to this idea of intent, it’s clear to me that Covington and Orsi had completely different agendas in writing their respective pieces. Personal intent factors into this realm in a heavy way. Orsi makes a great observation that “The point of engaging other religious worlds should not be to reassure ourselves and our readers that we are not them”. It’s about connecting, isn’t it? This is all to say that bias is inherent at the outset, which in turn demands the in-betweenness we spoke about in class and which Orsi cheers for in his piece.
    All of this is an intense lense through which to continue studies in exorcism. Assumptions ought to be quelled but criticality is something which keeps the conversation alive.

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