Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the fourth 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, here and here.
The fourth chapter of History and Presence explores the relationship between print culture and practices of presence. Orsi maintains that Catholics in the United States, and elsewhere, use printed things in a distinctive manner. While they read, and looked at religious texts and images,
“devotional print was not simply a vehicle of ideas in this world, it was itself a medium of presence.”
This chapter opens with the story of a dying woman being fed a small piece of a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and contrasts Catholic and Protestant approaches to printed matter. Underscoring the idea that the Protestant/Catholic divide is not always absolute, Orsi demonstrates the centrality of the printed word to Protestant denominations, particularly through the medium of the scriptures and the sermon as well as their relationship to creeds and theology. By exploring print culture, Orsi states that the fundamental question of this chapter is “what we learn about modern practices and understandings of reading and writing in the world when we look at them from the perspective of what Catholics did with presence in print.” This includes an exploration of holy cards which were often transformed into relics. Orsi probes Catholic religious curriculum, illustrated Bible stories, coloring books, comic books, and popular magazines as sources of printed presence. He also discusses the role of the unprinted, but textual, presence involved in cursive handwriting as a devotional task.
These work together to create a “supernaturally realist imaginary” and assist in generating (internal) visualizations of the sacred. Orsi concludes this chapter with the converse side of print culture and presence, the threat of secular texts and images, particularly to Catholic children. Printed presence could be dangerous and corrupting and Orsi explores Catholic opposition to comic books, which included burning them, as well as the nature of Catholic supernatural realism in art, underscoring “the power for good and evil contained in the acts of reading and looking.” This chapter leaves us with an understanding of print’s capacity for appropriation and excess as well as it being a powerful vehicle of presence.
By now, your heads should be spinning with the possibilities of studying the relationship of presence, the printed word, and images. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ foundational text, The Book of Mormon can certainly be understood within this context. Framed within a narrative of delivery in the form of golden plates by an angel and steeped in a supernatural translation process, textuality and presence are deeply intertwined within Mormonism. Even physical contact with the book could result in a direct sensory encounter of presence. Zina Huntington Young remembered:
The Book of Mormon had been brought to my Father [’]s. I had been to school. The family ware at supper. I went into the front room, saw a book laying in the window. I opened it, saw what it was. The sweet Spirit of peace was with it. I clasped it—my hands pressed it to me with that childish but pure joy that is one sense not told. 
Other sources of print media could include, The Book of Commandments, patriarchal blessings, temple rolls, institutional and personal record keeping, the practice and meaning of hanging a picture of the temple in homes. I have advocated elsewhere that embroidery and other forms of sewing on textiles can be understood as a type of religious document and thus could be understood as a form unprinted but devotional text. These all provide rich fields of inquiry for scholars to test and adapt Orsi’s framework. While different from the Catholic experience of printed presence, the media of Mormonism offers different ways of thinking about how “the gods act in space and time”, new ways of understanding material religion and the lived experience of “abundant events.”