The Religion & Culture Web Forum
"'A place to go to connect with yourself': A Historical Perspective on Journaling"
by Catherine A. Brekus (University of Chicago)
This month, Professor Catherine Brekus of the University of Chicago Divinity School compares the modern-day practice of "journaling," promoted by cultural figures such as Oprah Winfrey, with early American devotional writing. While both early American devotionalists and contemporary journal writers use "spiritual" language to contextualize their writing, Professor Brekus finds significant differences between the two practices.
Oprah Winfrey's website...not only contains message boards and cooking and decorating tips, but a space for women to write a wide variety of journals: daily journals for “general daily thoughts”; gratitude journals for recording “five things you love every day”; spa girls' journals for keeping “your exercise routine on track with your fitness goals!”; discovery journals for getting to know yourself by “looking back”; and health journals for recording “your goals, successes and challenges.” There's also the opportunity to “create your own journal” with a unique name. Although women can create a password in order to save their journals on a secure part of the Oprah website, they are also invited to share entries with others. The “Shared Journals” section includes literally thousands of postings about everything from the death of loved ones to failed diets. “What is a journal?” the website asks. The answer is simple: “Often, it's a place to go to connect with yourself.”
In this essay, which briefly compares the recent phenomenon of “journaling” to early American devotional writing, I'll try to answer several questions: Why did so many early American Christians feel compelled to keep diaries, and why has there been such a surge of interest in “journaling” in our own time? How do today's “spiritual” journals either resemble or differ from early American diaries? In the first part of this essay, I show that early American Protestants kept diaries in order to “crucify” themselves and worship a transcendent God. In the second part, I argue that today, Americans write spiritual journals for a very different set of reasons: to create an authentic sense of selfhood, to come to a deeper appreciation of their own worth, and to find God within them.
Early in February, invited responses to Professor Brekus's essay will be offered by Leigh Schmidt of Princeton and Kathryn Lofton of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Invited responses may be found in the archived discussion board for this Forum (pdf).
If you would like to receive a notification about new content on the web forum, please subscribe to our mailing list.