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WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011 - THE NEWCOMBE FELLOWS: 1981-2011
Yvonne Chireau CN ’92 Brings “Lived Religion” to Life
The academic study of religion, says Yvonne Chireau CN ’92, needs some new approaches. “We can’t just study churches and institutions,” she says. “We have to study what some people call ‘lived religions.’”
Dr. Chireau is professor of religion at Swarthmore College and author of Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (University of California Press, 2003), based on the dissertation that her Newcombe Fellowship supported. In Black Magic, she traces the interweaving of such alternative practices as Conjure and Hoodoo with 19th-century African American institutional Christianity, as well as harming and healing practices and, ultimately, popular culture.
Scholars of religion, Dr. Chireau says, “have come late to the party on a lot of these ideas about magic and marginal or alternative religions. In 2003, I was making that argument with respect to African American religion. And now there seems to be a flurry of academic activity around African-based religions, supernaturalism, occultism. I tend to think sometimes the academic disciplines get behind the curve, and then interests move to new areas and the paradigm shifts.”
Why such interest now, just past the turn of the 21st century, in supernaturalism and the occult—what is understood as the metaphysical world—as in the early decades of the 20th century? “There are many layers,” Dr. Chireau says. “In the popular culture, you have discourses around religion, and then within communities—the African American community, or political communities, even—you have discourses around religion that tend to veer from the margins to the center.
“Beyond that, there are public or intellectual discourses. I got a call a few weeks ago from a reporter at The Wall Street Journal to comment on the rise of what they call ‘hoodoo’ as a business, in the economic downturn, as people seem to be looking more to what they call ‘superstitious remedies’ or ‘folk medicine,’ all kinds of pejorative words. There seems to be this notion that people turn to magic when there are certain economic or social stresses. I found the same thing when I was looking at slavery: magic was very much alive in the black communities and the slave communities in the 1800s, and these ideas flourished with groups that were under pressure. So there’s something to that.
“But I think we also need to be aware,” Dr. Chireau cautions, “that there are different levels at which this kind of practice is taking place. Yes, it reflects a lot of what’s going on in the larger social context, and is shaped by the historical trends. But attention to these practices also ebbs and flows. It’s always been there, people have always done this, but then we intellectuals seize upon it, and we say, ‘Wow, this is new!’ But it’s really not new at all. It’s present. It just catches our attention at different times.
“I find that to be true for religion as a whole,” she adds, “and that’s the wonderful thing if you’re writing or studying about religion. It turns out that religion is actually undergoing a sort of new prestige—in the academy to a lesser extent, but definitely in the culture itself.”
The academic study of religion, Dr. Chireau argues, needs to catch up. Since her initial work on Conjure in the 19th century, she herself has explored new ways of teaching comparative religion. “Students want to know what it all means and how we think about religion today. And so my argument has been, well, the academic study of religion needs to catch up with that. How do you teach religions using different kinds of methods in order to get at the big questions?”
She has tried innovative approaches in two recent courses: one on religion and food, and one on religion and graphic novels. “The food course came out of a desire not only to use this idea of food and welcome students with food, but also to try to stretch our approaches to the notion of religion as it relates to a particular theme or topic. And food is perfect—it’s a metaphor, a trope, it’s material, it’s spiritual.”
As for the graphic novels course, Dr. Chireau recalls, “It came out of a bunch of us nerds meeting at the American Academy of Religion and talking about the good old days with comics. You know, a lot of people who are faculty today grew up with these comics that have really made a resurgence in the popular culture, particularly in film. There are even some AAR scholars now looking at comics and graphic novels as sources of religious narratives.
“So I wanted to examine that. We’ve had graphic novels and comics since the early twentieth century that convey religious ideas, and I really wanted the course to explore those developments in popular culture. So we looked at evangelical and fundamentalist comics in the United States. In Japan and India there are also a number of English language comics that tell scriptural narratives. So I was using that, again, as a way of introducing students to the study of comparative religions, but in a slightly different format. That was interesting, because my students are basically raised on this stuff anyway. It made sense to them. So I feel these are different creative approaches of bringing the study of religions to students where they are.”
And where her students are, Dr. Chireau says, is a little surprising. “It’s really interesting: after 20 years, we’re getting more students who want to be told what to believe and think. Before, it seemed that more students said, well, we’re here to wrestle with these ideas and deconstruct them—that was the word maybe ten years ago—but now it seems that they really want to be told what to think about these issues of religion. I think it has to do with the fact that there’s so much in the air, so many options and so many ideas, that it’s confusing. And these are young people. So I try to jump right into that—I always tell them, I’m not going to tell you what to think, but I’m going to present you with every single argument.”
Still, Dr. Chireau finds, the students likeliest to espouse one religious perspective adamantly are the least likely to turn up in her classes. “We don’t get more fundamentalist-minded students in the classroom, which I think is unfortunate because they have a lot to offer. Part of me thinks there’s a little bit of fear there—there’s a sense that people feel under siege and they want to stay with communities of comfort. It’s unfortunate for young people, especially now, when we need the dialogue more than ever. It’s almost like a retrenchment. It’s discouraging to see.
“But,” she adds optimistically, “I’m always filled with hope that something will happen to bring people together to air their stuff.”