Students in REL 237 are watching Avalon this week, a 1990 film about the changes that take place within a family of early to mid-20th century Americans who, like so many of our ancestors, came to this continent from somewhere else.
“I came to America in 1914…, by way of Philadelphia. That’s where I got off the boat,” says Sam, one of the film’s protagonists, recollecting an epic past for the grandchildren.
One of the reasons that I like using the film is the chapter on it that Bruce Lincoln contributed to a 1996 collection of essays, Myth & Method. If we watch the movie then we also read the chapter afterward.
I’ve written about this film before but never quite made the point that what’s so nice about Lincoln’s essay is that it makes evident that scholars of religion can find something to study pretty much anywhere — but not because the sacred manifests itself virtually anywhere (as old school religious studies scholars might have once asserted) and not, as some now say, because there’s implicit religiosity all around us (if we only look hard enough — at baseball maybe, or who knows what else). No, instead, it makes evident that if a scholar assumes that what we call religion is just an ordinary part of mundane social life — say, among the ways that members of groups authorize or contest their various social experiments and social statuses — then you’d expect to see these techniques (like, say, telling and disagreeing over tales about origins and identity) exemplified or used anywhere that you find people doing what people do: interpreting, arguing, persuading, coaxing, celebrating, musing, bemoaning, and working (to name but a few gerunds that, taken together, comprise this thing that we often call culture).
So the ability for a scholar of religion to find an e.g. worth mulling over in this Hollywood film — especially a scholar known so well for tackling such diverse historic examples in his writings and working only in source languages over which he has command — strikes me as reason enough to show it and thereby to invite students to complicate what they take for granted, like a Thanksgiving dinner or an older relative telling a story about the good old days, or maybe even first cousins changing their name, Kirchinsky, to Kaye and Kirk just coz its easier to say.