Recently a reporter for the University of Tennessee student newspaper interviewed me for a special issue on religion. In this resulting article I am a key source alongside some local ministers—mashed together in an effort to capture dominant religious trends in Tennessee under a tight word limit.
The reporter took this half-decent picture of me, holding my book on Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth Century United States.
But the article itself was bumped from the print issue—exiled to an online-only version—by apparently more resonant topics including neo-pagan and Muslim issues on campus, plus an article about the difficulty of defining religion. Did our effort seem too long? Too complex or convoluted? Admittedly it didn’t have one clear through-line of argument—although neither did the “defining religion” piece that made the cut. But should our article have been cut and dried, if religion is hard to define in the first place and our mandate was sketching complex trends related to it?
I gained the impression that the reporter was commissioned to generalize about “normal” Tennessee religion (presumed to be overwhelmingly white and conservative), “normally” organized in denominations. My goal was to stress how classifying religions along denominational lines creates distortions from the outset, and how most denominations are deeply divided internally with significant minorities (sometimes majorities!) of non-conservatives. Also that if we wish to see straight we must use race (as opposed to denominations or an implicit white norm) as a central category—both to sort out internal denominational conflicts and simply to understand how denominations are structured at their roots, for example in the case of white and black Baptist groups.
The reporter got a solid amount of this right—one wonders whether it contributed to her article being exiled—while some of it became scrambled or lost in the mash-up.
The experience reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s argument, made memorably in the film Manufacturing Consent—that if we solely wish to reproduce and reinforce aspects of common wisdom, it is possible do that using sound bites. However, if we hope to unsettle and rethink common wisdom, attempting this with sound bites is to set ourselves up to fail—perhaps to come off crazy, or stupid, or at best pedantic and off the point.
Still I found it interesting to get my talking points in order for this interview. It had been extremely hard for me to compress my above-mentioned book down to 230 pages, and it is harder still to cover all the issues in the book even during a full semester course. More pointedly, much of what I attempt in my book and class is to push back against oversimplified common wisdom circulating in our culture. This is a screenshot of a slide that jokes about one aspect of the problem during my course.
How could I boil all this down to a couple hundred words? I show this slide in a classroom where I have quite a bit of time and control over the flow of information. Even so I cannot always tell if I succeed. Obviously I was risking failure in a short newspaper article where it is only one theme among others.
In any case, I felt pretty good about my notes for the reporter. I didn’t crunch them all the way down to a sound bite, but at least I stayed under 1000 words. That was good by my standards at least.