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One may discuss his own experiences inside a religion, simply report facts, or try to persuade others to a particular opinion. The question is, is one method more appropriate than another? It is the goal of this paper to determine a possible answer. Within this paper, I will analyze various religious studies read in the class: Sonsyrea Tate’s Little X; three ethnographic articles about Rastafarianism, Hinduism, and Haitian Vodou; and Bill McKibben’s article about evangelical Christianity. I will compare and contrast the different approaches, note each method’s advantages and disadvantages, and discuss a few things that were learned from each text. In the end, it may become clear that the most appropriate way to discuss religion is to be honest. Little X is presented as a memoir. As such, the narrative is looked at from a retrospective view, looking as someone who quit the Nation of Islam. However, the story is written with an honest opinion of the religion; admitting both the positives, such as the tight-knit sense of community; and the negatives, such as the attitude towards outsiders. It seems as though Sonsyrea Tate, the author, may be writing about her past with a slight sense of guilt or remorse; perhaps even wishing things had happened differently, especially when she realized her disagreements with the religion. The reason she wrote the book, as shown in the introduction, was that she “hoped that by writing it all down, spelling it all out, it would begin to make sense” (5). Presumably by the fact that she published the book, one would think that she also wanted to educate outsiders on what it was actually like to be a part of the Nation of Islam. She presents her experiences through
the eyes she had as a child, and not so much as she has now. In doing so, she tries to create as vivid an experience as possible. However, this does not real much more than what she knew at the time. It does, on the other hand, make for a good story. In contrast to the memoir, the studies on Rastafarianism, Hinduism, and Haitian Vodou, are ethnographies. They view the religions from a third-person perspective. Going along with this distance from the subject, the ethnographies have a neutral tone towards the subject. They also tend to be very detailed, bringing in historical facts and statistics. The Rastafarian article, for instance, contains this descriptive piece of information: At the Nyabinghi-and EWF-sponsored Second Annual Rastafari Meritorious Awards Banquet, held on November 12, 1995, at the Caribe Club in New York City, the Haile Selassie I Meritorious Award was bestowed upon Asento Foxe for “leadership in establishing the first recognized Rastafari church in the country.” (Hepner, 304) Hepner’s article also quotes, in dialogue form, a recitation of Rastafarian anaphora. Ethnographies often explain things with different stories, such as the Haitian Vodou article’s narrative of ten-year-old Marie-Carmel’s experience at Mass. All three articles explain various terminology used in the religions. The articles are clear-cut and definite, and tend to report information, rather than make suggestions or state opinions. Bill McKibben’s article has a much different approach than the other two styles of study. His work is a personal essay, which brings his own personal experiences into the picture. It explains who he is, which is important to understand, because the article makes his opinions about evangelical Christianity very clear. The essay uses casual, informal language. In the essay, McKibben tries to disprove the beliefs of American Evangelical
Christians. To do so, he brings in many statistics which, at least to a degree, relate to his points. One of the advantages of Tate’s memoir is that it is fairly interesting to read, because it is a story. It is also good because it is open about both the good and bad things in the Nation of Islam. The reader gains quite a bit of insight because the narrative comes from a first-person perspective, and not some third-party analyst. Because it is viewed from the inside, the book teaches some interesting facts that might not otherwise be known, such as the fact that the Nation named everyone “X.” Tate actually points out some good things about the Nation of Islam, which is not done very often. Furthermore, she connects and contrasts it to Orthodox Islam, which also does not seem to be discussed very often. The story brings the characters to life, which reminds the reader that it is talking about real people, and simply a vague religion. It also shows how these real people, like Tate’s family, obey or disobey the standards of their faith. Possibly the best feature of the ethnographies is that they introduce a great deal of data and statistics. They also carry a harmless tone in their approach to the subjects. This provides a way to understand the people mentioned in the narratives, without growing so close as to bring in unnecessary details. All three articles provide at least somewhat of a timeline of events in each religion’s history. If any argument exists in the articles, it is a discussion of what is – as opposed to what should be. The use of many religious and foreign terms in the article displays a tone of knowledge and understanding of the subject at hand, which is always reassuring in an academic investigation. These particular ethnographies show a connection between the past and present, such as discussing the CHSI’s history and what it is currently doing. They also do a very good job of explaining
the connection between the American version of each religion, and how it relates to its home country. The personal essay provides a recommendation of how to apply the information therein. It also uses multiple references to the Bible, such as comparing Leviticus 24 to the New Testament, as relevant ways to help make his points. McKibben also quotes members of the evangelical churches, including a particular pastor who apparently told his congregation, “The war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse” (33). He is sure to use multiple examples for all of his points. In terms of relevancy, McKibben draws a very strong comparison between religion and politics quite a few times. The article is a very interesting read, mostly because it is easy to read. One of the reasons that it is easy to read is that McKibben connects his points and makes his message very clear, so the reader is not required to create a judgment of the subject. The memoir, despite being honest – or perhaps because of it – also has Tate’s bias. This applies to both the good and bad sides of the subject. Through her childlike perspective, some things are viewed in a tainted light, such as the stern attitude of the schoolteachers. Even though Tate is able to relate how she feels in retrospect, the reader is unable to see how the other characters now feel about the past. The book is not based as much in facts and historical details as much as her experiences – which, it should be noted, are not necessarily the same as others of the same background. She may not have had a clear point to make as she wrote the book, so her style of describing things may have subtly changed through the chapters; in the end, the reader may leave with a slightly confused opinion.
Because they are so detailed and informative, the ethnographies are quite long and can be mentally taxing upon the reader. Also, with the emotionless nature of the articles comes the fact that the reader does not know what the writer is thinking. If there is a bias, therefore, it is too subtle to be noticed; the reader may agree with it without even realizing it. Too much information, as well, can cause an overload, and even less information than usual may end up being stored. For instance, the article about Haitian Vodou mentions so many different saints and other names; the reader may easily confuse them with each other. Seemingly unnecessary details, like the scents of ceremonial herbs, make the reading less concise. If an article is read through in one sitting, the reader may have forgotten the beginning by the time the end is reached. The neutral stance of the article unfortunately does not discuss any seemingly negative characteristics – which may make the article seem to have an unofficial bias of some sort. A highly proclaimed bias, on the other hand, is seen in McKibben’s work. He is presumptuous about what conclusions one would make, given the proper information – which, of course, is contained within his article. This leaves little room for the reader to make his own decision about the topic. McKibben carries a condescending tone towards those he criticizes, and he even somewhat mocks them without actually doing so: “This is the contemporary version of Archbishop Ussher’s seventeenth century calculation that the world had been created on October 23, 4004 B.C. . . .” (33). He expects the reader to mock these kinds of quotes upon reading them. Furthermore, he creates an unnecessarily long list of things that are wrong with the megachurches. It is one thing to give a few examples to prove a point, but he lists almost ten different items. In reference to himself, however, he attempts to appear very friendly by listing his own good deeds, such as
working at a soup kitchen; this is done, of course, to bring the reader more towards his perspective. The worst part of this article, though, is the fact that he does not give his opponents a good chance to defend themselves. Little X teaches many interesting things about the Black Muslim community. The Nation of Islam believed the white man had tricked the black people into slavery. They were waiting for a time, which was coming soon, for the black man to destroy the “white devil.” However, the Nation of Islam was not nearly as bad as it seemed. For instance, a strong sense of community was felt in the Nation’s congregation. Many of the children would go to temple every day. Granted, they did believe in standing up for oneself and one’s kin with violence, as seen when Tate’s older brother was forced by his uncles to fight his best friend. The Nation, in general, was quite strict and conservative. The ethnographies inform the reader of the customs and traditions of their respective religions. They also discuss how the different religions established their transnational identities, and also their typical worship services. The current state of affairs is also described, as well as compared to its history. For example, Hinduism in America is currently very organized. Hindu denominations can find peace with each other through sharing similar beliefs, and ignoring their differences. Rastafarianism is described as extending between America, Jamaica, and its home in Ethiopia. Rastafarians, though wanting to bring power to the black people, try to do so through peaceful methods. In contrast to Rastafarianism, Haitian Vodou has created its own identity for itself, separate from the stereotypical African-American. They have mixed Haitian Vodou, Catholicism, and Cajun culture into one unique religion.
McKibben’s article, unfortunately, does not teach as much as it tries to preach. It mostly teaches basic bible knowledge or statistics, like how most Americans claim to be Christian; most of these Christians agree that “God helps those who help themselves” (31). America is ranked second to last in government foreign aid (32). Megachurches are popular because they help members, but they do not stress enough the idea of helping others. They also appeal to people through non-church-related things, such as Xboxes and Krispy Kremes. Tom Delay believes that the war he has encouraged will bring the apocalypse, and Jesus overruled the teaching of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” (36). As one may see, it is difficult to determine what, if anything, McKibben teaches the reader. Which of these various methods, then, is the best way to discuss religion? It seems as though it depends on what the goal of the discussion is, and whether it is seen through the perspective of the writer or the reader. As a reader, it is best to be treated with honesty and without any sort of manipulation. In this case, the ethnography or the memoir would be a better study to choose. However, as a writer, McKibben is quite good at bringing an unsuspecting reader over to his side. This paper was written through the perspective of the reader, and so many of McKibben’s “negatives” could be seen as quite positive in a different light. When looked at by a reader, though, his essay is no more than a persuasive one; it is not very informative. This leaves the ethnography and the memoir as possible choices. Neither one seems to have very many negatives. The ethnography is filled with more information, and the memoir creates a feeling of what the religion is like. The choice, then, all depends on what the reader prefers. Because both attempt to be open
and honest about the subject, then that is what matters. They are both legitimate styles of discussion.
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