Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Conference and Workshop:
“Media, Material, and Visual Components of Contemporary American Religious Erlebniswelten (‘experience worlds’)”

Titles & Abstracts

Kathryn Lofton

“Spiritless Space: A Religious History of the Office Cubicle”

In December 2009, Rich Sheridan, CEO of the Ann Arbor, MI software firm Menlo Innovations posted a blog entry to his company's site declaring that office cubicles “kill.” He wrote that cubicles “kill morale, communication, productivity, creativity, teamwork, camaraderie, energy, spirit, and results.” When AnnArbor.com ran an article about his post under the title “Death to Cubicles,” many replied, including its famed mother company. After a skirmish of posts and angry disagreement by critics and connoisseurs, Herman Miller waded into the fray, posting to their own web site a compassionate commiseration with Sheridan, as well as a reasoned reiteration of their own marketing clarity. “For us, the best places to work give people a choice of where to work and how to work-if wide-open spaces suit the kind of work you do, go for them.” This product was-and is-about choice, Herman Milller reminds its buyers. “People will always need privacy, and organizations around the world have found the good old cubicle a wonderful way to organize heads-down work and minimize distractions.”

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Omri Elisha

“Giving in a Material World: Charitable Gifts, Spiritual Mediations, and the Trouble with Materiality in American Evangelicalism”

My paper explores how problems of mediation and materiality inform the religious lives of evangelical Protestants, and how U.S. evangelicals in particular wrestle with these issues in their efforts to promote the gospel through ministries of evangelism. Building on ethnographic fieldwork, I consider the example of Christian charity, a morally and politically loaded area of ministry in the evangelical subculture, with an eye toward understanding how material gifts and services come to be seen as endowed with redemptive powers (i.e., the "fruits" of divine grace), despite iconoclastic and antimaterialist overtones in evangelical theology. The paper argues that some of the ethical challenges faced by American evangelicals in relation to charitable giving reflect, in part, larger ambiguities about the spiritual and moral significance of material objects themselves. I suggest further that these ambiguities are linked to a general tendency to regard materiality and material wealth in simultaneously positive and negative terms, a tendency that is deeply rooted in American religious, economic, and cultural history.

Kelly J. Baker

“‘The horror! The horror!’: Abject Objects and the Study of American Religions”

Klan robes and hoods, burning crosses, end-times websites, „rapture practice,” prophecy books, zombies and zombie-destroying weaponry might appear unrelated cobbled together as a list, but all appear in my research as artifacts of religious life in America. While it might appear strange or disconcerting to include all of these objects in the study of religion, I would argue that each of these artifacts appear as the material manifestations of the religious life of many Americans. Why do these objects and their evidentiary traces need to be studied in religious studies, particularly American Religious studies? How are they relevant, much less religious? What is to be gained by analyzing objects of the so-called fringes from white supremacy to dispensational pre-millennialism to cinematic and literary monsters? How does the addition of hateful artifacts, embodied rapture theologies, and zombies contribute to scholarly understandings of „religion” in American life? This paper addresses a problem for the study of American religions, which is that some objects prove to be „proper” religion, ripe for study, while others are not. This assumed propriety has consequences for both the study of material religion and religion in Americal life. Claims of illegitimacy and inauthencity function to limit what counts as "religious" and what does not. This paper, then, problematizes these limits by exploring what we might gain in the study of abject objects from Klan robes to zombies. Judgments about suitable studies emerge in both the hesitance to engage some objects as well as in the reticence to discuss the scholar's often unstated relationship to her evidence.

Book of Abstracts