The Translator’s Revenge

At this year’s national meeting for the academic study of religion, I found myself speaking to a colleague at day’s end and the bottom of a few pints. “I’m just not sure that I believe anymore in the framework that protected my earlier work,” I said.

“What if my subjects deserved the full force of my criticisms and not scholarly reservations and hedging?” It was a moment of honesty to say it aloud, but I’ve had the thought before. One of the lessons to be learned is already a fully conceived meme — the poorly translated tattoo. Check out this list at Buzzfeed of ridiculous tattoos. Caveat emptor, right?

But did these buyers really know what they should have been wary of? Can we even trust the humorous translations as identifying honest accidents? How do we parse a situation where the consumer and the retailer have one set of communications and create a product whose intentions and translations are then disconnected with others who see it? 

My largest piece of writing, my 2013 dissertation, deals with sensitive topics of belief, prayer, and imagination. Briefly, some groups of evangelicals came to argue they were Apostles in the present era and authorized to use the full range of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (as in the 2nd Book of Acts). These gifts included miraculous powers such as prophecy, healing, and the ability to identify and exorcise demons. My work focused on the claims by these figures that Christians lived in a demon-haunted world and examined the methods these Christians used to fight them.

In one sense, we are definitely talking about popular culture’s representation of demons and exorcisms as seen in famous portrayals like The Exorcist. What that movie gets right is the way it suggests by the film’s end that evil is real, certain humans are called to fight evil with God’s help, and that the entire process is riddled with danger. What was different for my subjects was that the demons were focused not on individuals but rather on physical places or territories. Exorcising a territorial demon involves a different kind of spiritual warfare than exorcising a demon from a human, but many of the principles of belief and religious imagination are similar.

My use of both belief and imagination is notable and it had serious implications for how the project was framed that I’m working to change as I develop the project into a book-length manuscript. There is no doubt that spiritual warriors believed in a wide range of things about demons, exorcism, and prayer. In fact, one of the challenges of the dissertation was making sense of the competing and often incomplete “systems” of beliefs about territorial spirits into a workable form.

Part of my argument about American religious history is that there was a movement of folks whose beliefs shared a core of attitudes about spiritual warfare. Another part was that these beliefs took place within a framework ruled by certain ideas of religion’s place in modern life that were motivated to see conflicts between the secular and religious in the public sphere.

This is complicated stuff and it took me a long time to explain what I meant and to provide enough evidence to be persuasive about it to please my several dissertation committee members. More evidence–undoubtedly too much for just myself–will be called for to fully understand the movement and its many connections to American religious history. Not everyone will agree with me that this small group of figures that operated on the margins of evangelicalism deserves mention as one of the striking things about late twentieth century American religious history. It is, after all, a very crowded and complex time.

The difference between belief and imagination was a way to distance my subjects’ claims about themselves (and what their fellow Christians should believe) from what I was proposing scholars and historians should think about their claims. Even this doesn’t quite hit the nail squarely, though. Consider this: My subjects believe that demons are real, or my subjects imagine our world is haunted by demons. One is near fact. I can demonstrate conclusively that my subjects believed demons are real. They said so repeatedly in print and in the pulpit. If I say, however, that they imagined our world is haunted by demons, I’m suggesting something different. Yes, they may believe in demons still, but I may also be casting doubt on that claim’s truth. “They imagine” suggests but does not explicitly locate my position on the belief. Moreover, it opens the floodgates of questions about how that “imagining” operates and what it looks like to someone on the inside.

As a historian it was my job to remain unbiased. If I had said “they pretend” instead of imagine, then my suggestion might have been that it was all pretense and fiction. “Imagine” hedges by suggesting, hopefully without color, that they were “making believe” in the sense of doing the work of functionalizing their closely held beliefs.

Beliefs that are closely held are those that are acted upon. This suggests a hierarchy of believing, which psychologists and sociologists have persuasively demonstrated exists for religious agents in practice. What is it that scientists say now about evolution? I don’t believe evolution is true, I accept the evidence that it accurately explains our origins.

I’m not sure anymore that holding my reservations in check was the right move for the project. I had convincing reasons for doing so. Writing without bias about one’s subject ensures that an author can avoid alienating an informant whose views may be controversial and hard to access. Dismissing the views of my subjects out of hand wouldn’t make me any friends to continue the work, engage in fieldwork, access materials, and so on. Suspension of disbelief in favor of accuracy in reporting evidence is the job of the journalist, scientist, social scientist, and, yes, the historian of religion. What good might it do to say I don’t believe in demons? Would that get me closer to my subjects who do? 

In some methodological frameworks, this kind of bracketing of an author’s predispositions is taken as neutrality. Many of us know better. I am not neutral. I aim to avoid bias, yes, but I have stakes in the project’s outcome that make me decidedly not neutral. The desire to avoid alienating my subjects invests me in certain ways in the handling of the project’s data. And yet I still feel that my attempt to present the material without bias may have missed opportunities to explore many of the significations of the work that will be called for in the project’s next iterations. Will I burn or build bridges? Hedge or lay bare? Would my disbelief serve a purpose in the project? Would that purpose’s benefits outweigh its risks?

After all, ours (religious studies) is a field notorious for making the claim (usually not so openly) that we do not need believe what our subjects believe. Catholics needn’t be the only guide to Catholics, nor do Muslims hold the only keys to understanding Islam. We make this claim so frequently, so fundamentally that it frames our textbooks, goes without question in the training of our field’s members, and only rarely becomes a point of scholarly debate.

Instead, we should think of ourselves as translators for difficult material or guides through unfamiliar territory.

We should be aware that the words we translate want to fight back. The territory changes as we guide people through it.

Perhaps I lost my way when I said that belief is something different and more real than imagining the world is the way we see it is. Or at least I worry that this distinction lacked the clarity of its convictions, which I so carefully sequestered away with language I suspect now protected me less than I intended.

When I learned orienteering hiking in North Carolina I was taught a simple lesson: when you are lost the first thing to do–even before you try to retrace your steps–is to stop and think about where you are. I might not have suspected I was lost after completing the dissertation, but I think I recognize it now. I’ve had time to retrace my steps and think about where I went, and now it’s time to set out on the path again. Sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us unless we’re looking from a particular perspective.