Trinkets from the Vatican Gift Shop

Vatican gift shop

On a 2015 trip to Florence and Rome (my first visit to both cities), I had the opportunity to take in some of the more popular sites, such as the Pitti Palace and the Roman Forum, along with several museums and basilicas that are as plentiful in those parts of Italy as Walmart and waffle houses are in the U.S. Both cities were flooded with tourists, which made popular attractions like Michelangelo’s David a challenge to see without advanced booking and marked virtually every experience as one that was shared with camera-totting strangers. At some of these sites, this meant being herded through an enclosed space by stern security guards, as I encountered at the Sistine Chapel:

Silence, silencio, no photos.

The sheer abundance of it all — from people to works of art to the rich and flavorful cuisine — was overwhelming at times, offset by more tangible realities on the ground, such as Nigerian merchants of black market leather purses and the many Indian migrants who traded in sunglasses, scarfs, and colorful tennis ball sized toys that would be tossed down on a wooden plank, splatter, and re-form in a matter of seconds … pick up and repeat. In Rome, unlike in Florence, they even made a noise — “whaaah” — that could be heard at uneven intervals on popular streets throughout the city. Continue reading “Trinkets from the Vatican Gift Shop”

Ceci n’est pas du papier

A scene from the American Gods

Shadow: In 1933, Roosevelt took the U.S. off the Gold Standard, right? … So you can’t just go into a bank and redeem money for gold or silver. You said money is the most powerful god in America. But money isn’t actually worth anything.

Mr. Wednesday: I have a piece of paper, hm? But I want this salt shaker. You have the salt shaker, but you’re willing to take my piece of paper for your salt shaker. Now, why would you do that?

Because this isn’t actually a piece of paper; it’s a story.

And the story that you heard over and over and over again. And it’s been drummed into you that this is worth something. This is of value. No matter what country, culture, or religion. The whole world loves… money. The greatest story ever told.


– Episode 204, “American Gods”

On the Spot with Martha Smith Roberts

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

An image of Martha Smith Roberts1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

My short answer to this question has actually changed a bit in recent encounters. I used to answer by referencing my sub-field and saying something like, “I study American religions.” However, I now try to answer with something more like “I study religions in the US” or “I study religion in American culture.” While in some ways these statements seem quite similar, there is actually an important distinction. Over the years I have found that the former answer is pretty meaningless and confusing to non-specialists — What is an American religion anyway? — while the latter can be a bit more helpful in designating both the geographical space and the plurality of things that I might be examining. Some assumed that “American religion” was synonymous with Protestant Christianity, and so after underwhelming many a flight companion with my lack of biblical expertise, I started shifting my language to more accurately reflect what I think I do. The longer answer is that my research interests revolve around questions of religious diversity in contemporary US culture, including the ways in which concepts and practices of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and embodiment affect the classification of human behaviors (e.g., as religious, spiritual, or secular). Continue reading “On the Spot with Martha Smith Roberts”

Indexing As Meaning-Making

An image of the multiple definitions of index

By Andie Alexander

I’m currently creating an index for an edited volume, and while I’ve repaginated an index before (for the new edition of a book), this is the first time that I have ever compiled an index from scratch. As I’ve been going through the book, I’ve been marking all of the important thoughts, people, theories, etc. Well, I say “important” not because those ideas and names are self-evidently interesting; after all, who would think that Ebenezer Scrooge or the recent Disney⋅Pixar film Inside Out would be among the indexed items for an edited volume in religious studies?

Much like the above etymological definition of “index” suggests, indices (or rather indexers — i.e., me), to be more precise, do “discover,” “point out,” and “disclose” information to their readers. That is to say that indices are neither self-evident nor neutral descriptors of a book’s contents. For what would a neutral descriptor even be? The number of times a word appeared? Well no, because apart from the word “the” making an extraordinary number of appearances, even doing such a word count seems to privilege quantity of word usage over the general argument those words are making. That said, indices are anything but neutral and are themselves, by nature of being a human production, very much situated and, yes, biased (they have a viewpoint). So for me, the indexer, to compile a list of what I and those editing the volume deem relevant for the work, I must have a certain understanding of the argument of the book to determine whether Ebenezer Scrooge is worth including in the index — worth offering to a reader as a hint of more to come. That is, in selecting people, places, and ideas for the index, I have to consider which ones I think best direct and support the arguments, theories, and e.g.s of the volume.   Continue reading “Indexing As Meaning-Making”

Tales From the Bottom of the Backpack: What was “The Point” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that my children often figure significantly into my posts if only because people in the midst of being socialized are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting people around. This is also why so many of my posts about my kids are often focused on their educational experiences, for while there are a large number of ways in which we are socialized, most of these experiences are rarely as intentional and self-conscious as formal education. (If you’re interested, you can check out  my reflections on their school introduction to Columbus Day and 9/11).

With that said, I recently had an interesting experience that shed some light on the ways that we negotiate our social rituals in order to suit the specific power relationships that such rituals foster. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurred a few weeks ago in the U.S., a holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. Many of you, no doubt, saw all sorts of King-related posts on social media, most of them lines extracted from King’s larger speeches and writings, transformed into motivational statements like these: Continue reading “Tales From the Bottom of the Backpack: What was “The Point” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?”