November 18, 2010

Iconoclasm, Western Style

by Sara M. Patterson  

Photo by Doug Crowl

About one month ago, Kathleen Folden drove almost one thousand miles from Kalispell, Montana, to Loveland, Colorado (a town that touts itself as having a thriving arts community), in order to walk into the Loveland Museum/ Gallery and destroy a lithograph with her crowbar. The offending lithograph Folden deemed too blasphemous to be, was an image of Jesus, decked out in a light blue bustier, receiving oral sex. Jesus looks pleased. As she tore the lithograph, one witness noted that she mumbled “How could anyone desecrate my Lord.” Since then, her supporters have likened her to the biblical Jael who, committed to her faith, was “hard as nails.”

Folden was not the only person offended by the lithograph that was only one panel of a twelve-panel, accordion-style piece. About three weeks after the exhibit opened to allow visitors to see the work titled The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals by California artist and Stanford University professor Enrique Chagoya, there was a complaint about the Chagoya lithograph that a city councilor tried and failed to place on the council's agenda. After word got around that the museum had this piece on display, protesters demonstrated outside the museum with picket signs. They believed they did not need to actually see the artwork; they knew that “This is not beauty, this is smut.”  (For an photo of the destroyed art work, visit here.  Visit this site for an image of the original.  Be warned. The image is graphic and may offend some readers.) 

One week after his art was ripped to pieces in the Loveland Museum/Gallery, artist Enrique Chagoya accepted a commission from a Loveland church to create a portrait of Jesus Christ, which he will do free of charge. Jonathan Wiggins, the head pastor at Resurrection Christian Fellowship, emailed Chagoya to inquire about his intentions in the original artwork. Chagoya responded with his explanation that the lithograph was a critique of the institutional church rather than Jesus himself. After the email correspondence, Chagoya said that he considered Wiggins his friend. Wiggins accepted Chagoya’s explanation and invited him to create a newer (and tamer) depiction of Jesus.

How does this relate to our discussions of religion in the American West—aside from the obvious answer that this is a western artist, whose artwork was displayed in the west and supported, protested and destroyed by westerners? It seems to me that these incidents are very much tied to what Tisa Wenger identified in her November 3, 2010 blog as the “power of religious imagination to shape local and national identities.” The rhetoric of the Loveland protesters clearly revealed that they perceived Chagoya as a religious outsider, one who could not be tolerated in Loveland, Colorado, a place they believed had Christian values that were not being protected by the local, tax-funded museum. And yet, the choice of the Resurrection Christian Fellowship Church to accept Chagoya’s new artwork—a piece of artwork done for free and with “no disrespect” to Jesus—allowed him to be reaccepted into the community. He was expelled as a “sodomite” and a “sinner” and reaccepted as a repentant believer. The narrative that allowed for his inclusion was deeply embedded in the narratives of evangelical Christianity. "I hope it's just a new beginning,” Chagoya said. His repentance of sorts was an indication that he could be welcomed; he could be a Lovelander, a westerner, because he promised not to sin again. 

News articles related to this incident:

November 17, 2010

Call for Papers!

If you haven't seen this call, check out this panel being put together for the Western History Association:

November 9, 2010

Topic for Discussion: “God in America” Goes West

by Tom Bremer

The recent PBS documentary “God in American: How Religious Liberty Shaped America" has received much attention, both critical and laudatory, from historians of American religions—see, for instance, reviews at Religion Dispatches (and this one); at The Immanent Frame; at Religion in American History (and this one; and yet another); and at the New York Times.  One criticism has been the scant attention to religion in the American west.  How might the American west have been better integrated in the narrative of “God in America,” and how would it have been a different kind of story if the religious history of the west had been more prominent?

November 3, 2010

Religion in the American West Seminar Meeting

by Tisa Wenger

It was great to see so many people at our seminar session in Atlanta! We had four very interesting papers to discuss:

1.    Travis Ross, “California Imagined: The Pacific Expositor and the Religious Imagination”
2.    Jonathan Olson, “Not Merely Asiatic but Pagan: Religion, Chinese Exclusion, and the American West”
3.    Barry Alan Joyce, “Creating an Axis Mundi in the American Southwest: Religion, Science, and the Sacred at Chaco Culture National Historic Park”
4.    Brett Hendrickson, “Mexican-American Religious Healing and the American Spiritual Marketplace”

For anyone who wasn’t at the session and would like to read the papers, they are available to seminar members through the website’s members-only page (link in the blog sidebar). I gave a longer-than-it-should-have-been response to the session, which I thought I’d share in condensed form here on the blog. Reflecting on common themes that ran through some or all of these papers led us to a broader discussion about what key themes might distinguish “religion in the American west” and what contributions our work can offer the broader fields of U.S. western history, religious history, and religious studies more generally.

One common theme was the power of religious imagination to shape local and national identities. The first two papers focused on nineteenth-century Protestant public discourse. Ross gave us a close reading of a California Presbyterian newspaper to show how its writers developed a particular vision of Californian identity as they spoke to national debates around slavery, denominational vs. ecumenical efforts, and religious liberty. Olson showed us the power of religious discourse, and religious “othering,” to shape national political debates—in this case, how Protestant politicians in California deployed religious rhetoric to justify exclusionary legislation aimed at Asian immigrants at the end of the century.

The second set of papers examined tensions and points of convergence in more contemporary or perhaps “postmodern” contexts of religious hybridity and diversity. Joyce’s paper provided a finely layered discussion of competing religious narratives and practices laying claim to Casa Rinconada at Chaco Canyon, where National Park Service personnel attempt to negotiate compromises that honor strikingly different understandings of this space put forth by Pueblo Indians, Navajos, and New Age practitioners. Should New Age uses of the space be prohibited when they are offensive to American Indian traditions, or does the principle of religious freedom give them the right to use this public space? What happens when Navajo sacred histories, and Navajo understandings of how the space should be used, are deeply offensive to the Pueblo Indians who trace their ancestry to those that built this ancient city? Joyce asks, “Who decides under the bureaucratic, institutional umbrella of First Amendment rights which narrative becomes part of the cultural canon and which is denied admittance?”

Finally, Hendrickson’s paper, a study of curanderas who work across racial/cultural boundaries in the southwest borderlands, showed us the power of religious imagination and practices of healing to cross borders. Here, Mexican-American curanderas reshape and perhaps re-indigenize their practices in order to appeal to multiple audiences and especially New Age Anglos who, in Hendrickson’s analysis, are predisposed through an ongoing American metaphysical tradition to these hybridized healing modalities. Here, without minimizing the ongoing power disparities that shape these exchanges, Henrickson shows us how the power of religious imagination may be invoked to provide healing across all sorts of boundaries.

My conclusion proposed several broad rubrics (none of them original to me) for thinking about religion in the American west.

·      Exploring the distinctive forms of racial and religious pluralism that are characteristic in this region
·      The particular salience and visibility of Native American traditions
·      The significance of LAND and PLACE for understanding religious practices, experience, and traditions in the west.
·      Mapping RELIGIOUS GEOGRAPHIES: region, regional identities and traditions as crucial to the study of religion. We can draw here on the work of cultural geographers and others who have done significant work to illuminate the cultural significance of place and geography.
·      GLOBALIZATION as a crucial emphasis in current scholarship across the humanities. How can we place our analysis of regional religious geographies in the context of globalized patterns of trade, communication, immigration, and religion?

·      The role of religious imagination in constructing regional identities
·      The place of the west in national and global religious imaginations

Please share your thoughts in response these comments, and your suggestions for additional rubrics and themes.