Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the third chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous installments are found here, here, and here.
The third chapter of Robert Orsi’s provocative and sophisticated book leaves behind the broad and sweeping trajectories of earlier chapters in order to focus on the mundane experiences of everyday life. Personal relics, individual relationship, holy encounters—this is where humans experience the gods. This is, of course, lived religion, a genre that Orsi has championed. But in this form it is focused on the personalized contexts in which “abundant events” are experienced. The chapter interweaves three different narratives–Chicago housewives in 1940s war-torn America who worried about their families overseas, a young Arizona girl who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father slightly later, and a social sciences grad student in the 1990s staring down her own leukemia–while meditating on the nature of gods’ presence in everyday life. Each of these three stories feature women facing insurmountable evil, yet finding refuge in a spiritual event, even if that moment of religious deliverance didn’t feature a headline-grabbing episode.
Much of this focused on sacralized banality should be familiar with scholars of Mormonism. Terryl Givens coined the term “collapse of the sacred” within LDS circles, as we have long emphasized the lack of distance between spiritual and secular. (My favorite anecdote is when Givens pointed out how Mormons partake of the sacred emblems each Sunday with basketball hoops over their heads and Cheerios under their feet.) Mormonism’s founding prophet found God in the woods behind his house, declared an ancient and sacred history for a skeleton found on Zion’s March, and discovered divinity while studying Hebrew. Dialogue hosted a conversation between Orsi, Richard Bushman and Susanna Morrill about how abundant events have explicit relevance for Mormon history. So yeah, there’s some overlap.
But in History and Presence Orsi tries out new perspectives of the issue. Directly in his scope are historians who claim supernatural narratives are meant to help people escape the banality of everyday life and avoid real-world consequences. In the modernist claims that separate presence from absence, as outlined in the first few posts of this series, scholars view sacred events as departures from reality. But in the three case studies Orsi deals with here, the exact opposite is true. Sure, there was a clash and conflict between spiritual and modern expectations, especially in the case of the leukemia patient who argued she should be allowed to bring her contaminated bag of sacred dirt into the sterilized surgical room, but these were more than mere forms of coping. “The holy figure,” Orsi explains, “did not offer a pathway out of the world, an escape from reality, as some theories of religion have it, or submission to it, but rather a pathway back into the world” (109). These direct interventions provided avenues for understanding and responding to real-world events. It helped them face their challenges, not shrink from them.
Connected to the crisis framework for abundant events is the subversive nature of these intimate encounters. People often look to “abundant events” when they are in a crisis, most often when they are backed into a corner. It seems their only option is to be compliant with the external world. Yet these spiritual moments provide new possibilities. Scholars of Mormon history should look at moments of LDS spirituality as points of creative expression, perhaps as a release valve that exhumes pent-up frustration prevalent in such an orchestrated and systematic religious world. Female ritual blessings are perhaps the most prominent–and thanks to our own Kris W and J Stapley, well-mined–but what about women who claim direct answers to prayers that flirt with the orthodox boundaries of priesthood stewardship, fathers whose spiritual intuition test the borders of Christian masculinity, or young women who reject proposals from men who claim revelatory confirmation? How can abundant events disrupt patterns of priesthood authority in the LDS tradition? These are just a few–albeit corny–examples that immediately come to mind, but I imagine we can come up with many more.
One final thought from the chapter. Robert Orsi concludes this topic by addressing the scholarly (and modern) anxiety to find a purpose in these abundant events that match our own values. When talking with the woman who endured frequent sexual abuse as a child, he caught himself hoping she would say something to imply that religion gave her a way to feel “empowered” against such egregious evil. But that solution he desired was not hers. “One of the things I have found over the years,” he realized, “is that very rarely, if ever, do the people we scholars of religion talk with and write about need our protection, because what we are protecting them from is the judgment and condescension of critical theory. In other words we are protecting them from ourselves” (111). In our attempt to transform the religiosity of nineteenth-century Mormon women into modern-day suffragists, are we forcing them into categories they would reject? Does that matter? How can we better analyze claims of religious experience in their own terms, rather than our own?
I’m currently struggling with similar issues in my own work. As I seek to reconstruct the cultural dynamics of Mormon Nauvoo, especially how men and women cultivated notions of power and politics, I keep returning to the narratives female participants offered regarding the introduction of both polygamy and theocratic/theodemocratic control. Did their spiritual tales of answered prayers and angelic visions merely provide them a key to accept patriarchal control? Did they grant them innovative models of religious participation that were external to those crafted by priesthood leaders? Am I to judge these episodes either positively or negatively based on my expectation that they will reveal something about power dynamics?
I don’t know. But these are questions I look forward to struggling with in the future.