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In pursuit of Bridget & Carrie

Culture | An academic conference on religion offers an unlikely wake-up call

Issue: "UN: Kofi's crisis," Dec. 18, 2004

You know you're heading to a major academic conference when, in the bathrooms at the airport, fellow hand-washers are furtively looking around, trying to see who's who. Is anyone important here? Anyone who could advance my career if I engage her in a clever conversation about the soap dispensers? This sizing up is made easier when you arrive at the actual conference itself, because everyone has nametags. But in the airport no one has a nametag. You have to be crafty to make your way. (And, actually, the nametags have a downside and must have been invented by men. I always leave these conferences feeling that people have been staring at my breasts for three days.)

So this was how I knew I was heading to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the "learned society and professional association dedicated to promoting the academic study of religion in all its dimensions." (That from the AAR's online overview, which you can find at www.aarweb.org.) The AAR gathers together people who "find the academic study of religion intrinsically interesting because people often express their deepest values in forms of religious symbolic behavior, whether in ritual settings, creedal statements, or in their ordinary ways of living."

In other words, the AAR is the professional organization for most religious studies professors and grad students. At the annual conference, over 7,500 religious studiers come to meet and greet, wine and dine, and read from their research papers on topics ranging from "The Ethical in Derridean Deconstruction and Contemporary Discourse on Zen Buddhism" to an evangelical "Theology of Employee Selection," from "Catholic Responses to the Expulsion of Ethnic Germans from Postwar Poland" to "Religious Language, Self-Determination, and the Native Hawaiian Recognition Act."

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This year's conference was in San Antonio, and I flew in from Houston. Almost everyone on my flight was headed to the conference. (I could tell not only by how baldly my fellow passengers scoped people on the plane, but also by their reading matter. Most folks were scrutinizing the thick brochure of conference abstracts, marking panels of interest; two were reading books by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, and the guy who sat across the aisle from me was halfway through a Buddhist treatise on anger.) I found myself guilty of the scoping as well. I'm almost sure that Stephanie Wellen Levine, a professor at Tufts whose ethnography of Hasidic teenage girls I adore, was on my flight, but I was too shy to go introduce myself.

It would be easy to make fun of the conference. The crass networking left me feeling a need to detox. The jargon was overwhelming: Scholars should be limited to one set of super(fluous) parentheses or un/necessary (back)slashes per paper. But I had a grand time seeing old friends, letting my inner nerd out of the closet, and devouring an intellectual feast. The conference in San Antonio included presentations of research papers on everything from Islamic dietary regulations to the novels of Grace Livingston Hill.

What I didn't expect was to be spiritually fed, given the presence of papers such as one exploring "BDSM (bondage/ dominance, sadomasochism) as potentially transformative encounter in relation to themes of trust and surrender, suffering and pleasure, self-shattering and self-donation found in Christian sacramentality and mystical spirituality." And, yet, spiritual feeding was exactly what I found this year.

For me, the conference highlight was meeting Donna Freitas, who teaches spirituality at St. Michael's College, a small Catholic school in Vermont-even though I rolled my eyes when I first heard the title of her talk: "I'm Spiritually Homeless! (and Ritually Invisible): Religion for the Bridget Joneses and Carrie Bradshaws of the World." (For those of you who stay away from popular culture, Bridget Jones is the leading lady of British chick lit-she's played by Renee Zellweger in the movie version-and Carrie Bradshaw is the heroine of Sex and the City.)

The Freitas session was packed-278 Bridget Joneses and Carrie Bradshaws of the world showed up, not to mention a few Mark Darcys and Mr. Bigs (albeit with graying hair). Still, I was suspicious. Would this be merely some flaky paean to pop culture? Akin to the (possibly apocryphal) panel I once heard about on the spiritual significance of Star Trek? Could I possibly take the spirituality of Sex and the City seriously?

In a word, yes. Why go to Carrie and Bridget to have a serious conversation about spirituality? Because the generation Professor Freitas represents and speaks to-my generation, 20- and 30-somethings -is a generation that speaks pop culture. We are a generation that wants our MTV and our iPods, so examining fluffy novels and hip TV can begin a terrifically important conversation about spiritual things with a crowd that the contemporary church sometimes finds puzzling: single women, married career gals without kids-people, in short, who often say they're spiritual, but don't feel very drawn to church.

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