Many years ago, as an undergraduate English major, I found myself asking questions about the external situations – cultural, social, and particularly religious – that informed the novels, poems, plays, and short stories that I loved. But my questions were most often left unanswered by my professors, who were steeped in then-popular methods of textual criticism rather than newly emerging, culturally focused, types of analysis. Consequently, I moved my academic work into the area of American Studies, a field ideally designed for what I soon learned were my “interdisciplinary” interests. In that new intellectual home, I pursued graduate work in the study of religion, focusing on the history of religion in America and on literary and material (particularly architectural) religious expression.
Research and Teaching Interests
My training in American Studies repeatedly demonstrated to me what I feel is the central strategy and benefit of interdisciplinary work: applying the questions and/or analytical methods of one academic field to the materials of another. In my case, my study of religious life, and particularly religious spirituality in America, was greatly enhanced when I began to ask questions shaped by courses I took in architectural history and architectural theory. Bringing the material analysis of architecture and space to bear on my cultural analysis of late-nineteenth-century Protestantism, resulted in ground-breaking ways to rethink religious practice and experience within a host of relevant cultural contexts.
I continue to pursue interests in how religious practices and thought interface with broader cultural and social contexts, and frequently in the ways that physical or material components (architecture, space, performances or rituals, objects) contribute to religious experience and thought – that is, how the physical and material function as constitutive components of religion and religious meaning.
One of my current projects focuses on how religious spaces function in the construction of ideas about gender. Portions of this project include an in-depth analysis of how Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy deployed tropes of “motherhood” in the two churches she built in Boston as a strategy for concentrating her religious authority. In a somewhat similar vein, a chapter looks at how evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson used a very different strategy, though one still associated with the church she built, Angelus Temple, to advance her religious authority. Anther chapter examines the buildings that Mormon women of the late nineteenth century built for their Relief Society activities and how the buildings advanced a specific, gendered understanding of women’s religious work.
I am also currently involved in a project examining the early churches and synagogues of the Twin Cities, using the buildings as a lens through which to examine the development of and change within neighborhoods. The study begins with the imposition of white settlement on Dakota and Ojibwa lands along the Mississippi River, and follows the two urban centers’ growth to the middle of the twentieth century.
My teaching has drawn most recently upon the theoretical and methodological issues that naturally arise in doing this type of interdisciplinary work. The study of religion itself raises important methodological and ethical questions, as well as a number of intellectual conundrums rarely faced by other disciplines (e.g. what are the limitations of using empirical methods to study experience of the non-empirical or supernatural?) Applying such perspectives, I have enjoyed teaching a variety of courses on religion in the United States and on women and religion in the United States, including courses on the cultural, social, and political contexts of Protestantism specifically and Christianity in general.
Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, Author, 2008.
When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. Paperback edition, Oxford University Press, Author, 2005.