Religion and Culture Web Forum

September 2015

"Encountering When Prophecy Fails, Encountering Cognitive Dissonance" by Betty M. Bayer

What does it mean to speak of encountering a work published decades ago--especially when that work exceeds the bounds of time, place and disciplinary field?  And how might we create an ethnography of these encounters to understand larger communities in which a book lives? Martin Marty Center senior fellow Betty M Bayer hosts this podcast on the many worlds and flights of imagination and belief one finds attending the well-known 1956 book  When Prophecy Fails by social psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter and Henry Riecken. 

When Prophecy Fails is the subject of Bayer’s ethnography of encounters.  Why does she call her approach ethnography of encounters rather than a reception history or ethnography of reading.  To her, ‘encounter’ captures better that sense of how a book is experienced and how it is sometimes simply happened upon; how it intervenes in communities or becomes the impetus for creating community.  She likes how the word encounter draws attention to a book’s agency; sometimes intervening in meaning and worlds of ideas and other times unsettling us, haunting our days and nights by speaking to our private selves or revealing anew, regardless of religious tradition, something about our human condition.  An ethnography of encounters turns us to study of a book’s more intimate journeys across time and space, its habitus, how it takes up residence in the classroom, in our work, in our lives, and in our hearts and minds. 

This podcast offers selections from Bayer’s senior fellow forum held in February, 2015.  It begins, as the forum did, with a dramatic reading by graduate student of the Divinity School Seth Patterson.  Here we encounter some of the newspaper coverage of the woman whose prophecy set in motion the study resulting in the book When Prophecy Fails.  Joining her in this forum after her own talk are University of Chicago Divinity School alumnus Lowell Bloss (’72, History of Religion) and alumna Susan Henking (’88 Religion and Psychological Studies).  Each offers studied reflection on teaching When Prophecy Fails over the last three (or more) decades.  Their contributions discern the book’s deep resonance with questions of humanity, belief, faith, hope, comparative traditions and religions and with how we remember – or misremember – our encounters with a work.  Their presentations direct attention to how disciplines, and, more specifically, fields within a discipline, encounter a work in ways that intervene in its meaning beyond ideas of a book (in the totemic sense) of being good to “think with.”  Ethnography of encounters thus opens onto a rethinking of how books participate in remaking the worlds they describe outside of specifics of time and space.  Their good reflections spark additional ones from Martin Marty Center co-director and professor Wendy Doniger (Hinuism and mythology) and alumnus and senior fellow Loren Lybarger (‘02, sociology of religion).  Each reveals further how this book – as perhaps many – unbound by time and place nonetheless speaks to us in the here and now, to what we care about.  

Please click here for access to the podcast.

Betty M. Bayer is professor of Women’s Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, where she teaches courses on notions of human nature in histories of women’s psyche, imagining peace, and debates amongst psychology, science, religion and spirituality. Most recently, she has published essays on Spirituality (2014) and Enchantment in an Age of Occupy (2012). Bayer recently completed a two year fellowship at the University of Chicago Divinity School's Martin Marty Center, where she worked on her book, “Revelation or Revolution? Cognitive Dissonance and Persistent Longing in an Age Psychological.” This book entails a history and rethinking of the same text discussed in this month's podcast.

About the Web Forum

The Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum is an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship of scholarship in religion to culture and public life. Each month the Marty Center, the research arm of the University of Chicago Divinity School, invites a scholar of religion to comment on his or her own research in a way that "opens out" to themes, problems, and events in world cultures and contemporary life. Scholars from diverse fields of study are invited to offer responses to these commentaries.

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The Religion and Culture Web Forum is edited by Emily D. Crews, Divinity School PhD student in the History of Religions.