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A Review of
History and Presence
Hardback: Harvard UP, 2016
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Reviewed by Ben Brazil
In 1988, Robert Orsi, an eminent historian of American religion, visited a shrine in a dead boy’s bedroom. The shrine’s story had begun a decade earlier, just after the boy’s death, when a circle appeared on an image of Jesus hanging in his bedroom. According to the boy’s parents, the circle grew and changed shape until it took the form of their son’s face.
A miracle, a comfort, a divine gift: such was the judgment of the grieving parents and a priest they consulted. Word spread, and others flocked to the house, seeing both comforting images of their own dead loved ones and disturbing images of the living.
Yet Orsi’s own visit to the home, which he recounts in History and Presence, also involves a distinct dramatic question: when the great historian looks at the image himself, what will he see?
In works of academic religious studies, such questions do not often arise. Scholars might explain about how believers themselves understand such encounters, or they might explain them as the products of purely natural circumstances, whether psychological, social, or cultural.
But History and Presence is not an ordinary work of religious studies. Instead, it is a manifesto for a different kind of scholarship, one that suspends disbelief and writes as if believers’ “gods” (Orsi’s shorthand for all supernatural entities) were really present, active, and capable of upsetting scholars’ own worldviews. For precisely these reasons, the book is also a lush, tender, poignant collection of stories of how supernatural presences enter into regular, daily contact with ordinary Catholics.
The book marks both a culmination and an intensification of an intellectual campaign Orsi has waged since his first book, 1986’s The Madonna of 115th Street, which established him as perhaps the most influential American religious historian of his generation. In that book and subsequent others, Orsi has poignantly chronicled the everyday piety of everyday Catholics. In the process, he has helped spark a movement to study religion as it is lived and practiced, rather than as it is defined by institutions and formal theologies.
Yet Orsi, a past president of the American Academy of Religion and current chair of Northwestern University’s Catholic Studies program, has long pushed the point further. Against both believing church historians and materialist scholars who explain religion by explaining it away, Orsi has called for a “third way.” Secular scholars, he argued, might enter into vulnerable dialogue with the religious worlds they study, not just treat them as specimens for dissection. Nonetheless, Orsi assured readers – and other scholars – that he and they could still maintain a scholarly distance.
No longer. History and Presence works under what Orsi terms a “postulate of presence” (65). What that means, effectively, is that Orsi writes as if “the gods” – Mary, the saints, Eucharistic real presence – are “really real.” Orsi never claims he personally believes, but neither does he offer assurances that he doesn’t. Instead, he pleads:
I am asking readers not to make the move to absence, at least not immediately, not to surround presence with the safeguard of absence, but instead to withhold from absence the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual prestige modernity gives it, and to approach history and culture with the gods fully present to humans” (8).
The “abundant historiography” (71) that results means doing “history as theory, theory as history” (250). The bulk History and Presence illustrates, in lush example after lush example, what this approach to history would look like.
First, though, Orsi spends a chapter setting the intellectual stage and articulating the stakes. In essence, he treats the Reformation-era debate over the Eucharist as a crucial seed of secular modernity. When Reformers (though not Luther himself) rejected real presence in the Eucharist, Orsi contends, they began a process of stripping supernatural presence from the fabric of everyday life.
The intellectual descendants of this disenchanted world include not only the secular academy, but also colonial ways of understanding non-European “cultures of presence.” Backward, superstitious, primitive: such colonialist words, Orsi argues, applied first to Catholics, the prototypical “other” of the modern, liberal, secular West.
Orsi’s goal is certainly not to paint Rome as victim; he acknowledges that Catholic empires found their own rationales for colonial oppression. Instead, Orsi aims to defend everyday believers from those who claim to understand their experiences better than they do. That includes the secular academy and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, both of which seek to police what counts as real.
History and Presence endeavors to study history differently, weaving tenderly rendered religious lives with theoretical argument. Several chapters center on historical events, like Marian apparitions, and on historical documents, like devotional print material (prayer cards, Catholic comic books, etc.) Even when writing history, though, Orsi attends to the intimate. He describes, for instance, the press of pilgrims’ bodies at Lourdes and the handwritten notes on an old set of prayer cards.
More often, though, Orsi includes himself in his stories. He accompanies a student, sick with cancer, as she clings to holy, healing dirt dug from the shine at Chimayó, New Mexico. He describes how his own father cared for his mother as she was dying – how they held, together, her doubts about heaven.
These stories are poignant, and they have to be. Orsi has not set out to simply describe what his subjects believe, but rather to evoke what it’s like to live in their skin. Fittingly, then, the book crosses genres; it often reads more like creative nonfiction than academic history. In places, Orsi plays with narrative tension and relies on unexplained resonances rather than on explicit argument. The result is an account of Catholic piety that emerges via a kind of thickening – of stories, lives, and networks between the gods, the living, and the dead.
The book’s most disturbing, and most necessary, chapter comes last. Under the rubric of “abundant evil,” it engages survivors of sexual abuse by priests. The details, simple but devastating, will make readers’ hearts sink. At the same time, Orsi also shows how the priest’s role in consecrating the Eucharist – acting, theologically, as a stand-in for Christ – gave abuse an added, Catholic dimension.
As Orsi argues throughout History and Presence, the essence of that dimension is relationship. Mary calls to visionaries, the dead need prayers, and God faces questions about God’s culpability or negligence in priestly abuse. In the end, it is the mutual, unpredictable vulnerability of relationship that make religious lives more than their social determinants. Secular theory contains that “more” only by assuming it away. Or so Orsi argues.
History and Presence will face fierce refutation from many scholars, the more generous of whom might insist that it is a fine book – it’s just not scholarship. Of course, that’s precisely the question. Does history aim to submit the observable causes of human behavior to rational analysis (more like science)? Or does it attempt to evoke what it would be like to live in a different time and cultural world (more like literature)? Don’t both options require writers to interpret the lives of others, imposing their own viewpoints on other lives? When does empathy with others slip into projection of the self? Can we ever really know each other? How?
These are fundamental questions. Orsi makes his case with the fine-grained research, literary skill, and humane tenderness that have become his calling cards. When imaginative readers look with him at the dead boy’s shrine, they may not expect to see the deceased looking back. Still, they may feel the hopeful suspense of those who do.
Ben Brazil is assistant professor and director of the Ministry of Writing Program, Earlham School of Religion.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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