On the morning of Christmas Eve, my wife and I decided to visit a local spiritual destination near our hometown of Worcester, Mass. From our home in a city neighborhood, we cruised past the typical urban fare of bars and pizza shops, fast-food restaurants and pet stores, schools and churches and homes. Within 10 minutes of our departure, though, we were deep into the rural communities that encircle our city, and not long after that we arrived at our destination: St. Joseph’ s Abbey, a Trappist monastery set on a hilltop in Spencer, Mass.
From the gift shop parking lot we began the one-mile walk up to the abbey church. The ground and skies were clear, and we hiked a road that took us over babbling brooks, past wide green fields and between forested slopes of leafless trees and evergreens. The stone buildings of the abbey and the quiet and carefully tended grounds greeted us gradually as we crested the final rise of the hill. We sat for a few moments in peaceful contemplation in the visitors’s chapel as the elderly organist practiced for the Christmas services. Then we walked slowly back the way we came.
One can hardly imagine a starker contrast between the city to which we returned, gripped in the throes of last-minute Christmas consumerism, and the remarkable peace and solitude we experienced in the unseen presence of the monks at the abbey that morning. If I had not seen it for myself, I would doubt the existence of that extraordinary place and its community of extraordinarily spiritual men, seated not 20 minutes away from the city where so many of us live, work and pray.
The notes of wonder that my wife and I felt that morning—the presence of an interesting and unusual spiritual site in the midst of rural Massachusetts, just minutes from a large city—would sound a familiar chord to Christopher P. Scheitle and Roger Finke, who spent five weeks traveling the highways of the United States to document what they describe as “the geography of American religion.”
As the authors point out, the familiar landscape of so many of America’s cities—and even suburbs and rural communities—can fool one into seeing spirituality in the United States with the same jaded perspective with which we view generic strip malls and countless roadside billboards. What the authors found beneath this “veneer of homogeneity,” though, as they report in Places of Faith, was “a rich and varied topography of America’s religion.”
The two authors are sociologists of religion at Pennsylvania State University—Finke a professor of sociology and religious studies, and Scheitle a postdoctoral research associate—but this book is far from the type of academic writing we might expect from two well-credentialed authors. As they write in their preface, “this book is neither a history of American religion nor a statistical overview of recent trends. It is about experiencing and discovering local religious communities and traditions.”
The authors literally crossed the entire country in their search for those local communities and traditions, from New York to San Francisco, with stops in distinctive or ordinary religious cities and towns along the way: Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs out West, Memphis and Houston in the South, Nebraska and Detroit in the Midwest, and Brooklyn and central Pennsylvania in the East. Interspersed among these main stops, each of which is the subject of a chapter of the book, are shorter “Views from the Road” that offer brief accounts of unique forms of American spirituality, including Pennsylvania’s Amish communities and cowboy churches in Texas.
Each of the main chapters focuses on a particular strain of American religion, one closely tied to the city being visited. So, for example, the authors tackle Mormonism in Salt Lake City, the Christian megachurch movement in Houston and Judaism in Brooklyn. Each chapter has a similar structure: an introduction to the city and its distinctive religion, a narrative description of an encounter with a specific church or place of worship and then some broader reflections on the place of that religion in U.S. society today.
The book’s strongest features are in the opening and closing sections of each chapter, as the writers use their academic training to provide insights into the local contexts in which each religious tradition flourishes. Their time in San Francisco, for example, provides an opportunity to document the intertwining of Asian religious traditions on the West Coast and to consider those traditions within the context of Asian immigration to the United States.
The authors’ informed historical and cultural perspectives unfold many hidden aspects of America’s religious traditions, and they more than fulfill their promise to reveal a rich and diverse religious landscape overlaying the physical ground they covered. The accounts of each religion and its practitioners are also admirably sympathetic. With open minds and willing hearts the authors join worshipers at Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch, in an African-America church in Memphis and in a mosque in Detroit.
The book falls just short of its promise, unfortunately, in the narrative accounts of those religious experiences. Occasionally the shared worship stories are detailed and descriptive, but more often than not they remain at a very abstract and impersonal level. In some cities the reader is introduced to pastors or fellow worshippers; in others we meet no one but the authors themselves, as they limit their descriptions to their own personal experiences. (The authors reveal nothing about their own religious backgrounds or beliefs.)
One cannot help but wish the authors had invited a novelist to join them in the back seat of the car and to collaborate on the final project—someone who might have helped them flesh out those personal visits with the sort of narrative details, character studies and rich imagery that mark great nonfiction writing.
Even without some of those elements, though, the book remains an excellent overview of the spiritual nature of the United States in the 21st century. The authors conclude the book with the hope that their account “will spur others to explore the ever changing religious geography of America.” If they accomplish that goal and encourage more of us to seek out the monasteries—or temples, or synagogues, or mosques, or storefront churches—in our own backyards, they will have made a worthwhile contribution not only to the religious literature of the American landscape, but to the very shape of that landscape itself.