The Sightings Moment
By Brett Colasacco|January 31, 2019
Ed. Note: The Martin Marty Center is thrilled to introduce Sightings: Reflections on Religion in Public Life, published by Eerdmans and edited by Brett Colasacco with an introduction by former director of the Marty Center, W. Clark Gilpin, and a foreword by the current director, Willemien Otten. All unlinked Sightings columns mentioned in today's column are part of the published collection. So purchase your copy today, and if you are in Chicago this Monday, February 4, join us at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore at 6 p.m. for a conversation about the book with Colasacco, Otten, Martin Marty, and Richard Rosengarten.
“For exactly one month after the Fourth of July, we monitored and clipped—made confetti of, really—all stories dealing explicitly with religion and religiously named groups in the very secular New York Times.” The quotation is from Martin Marty’s column “Counting,” first published in Sightings on September 22, 1999, and the earliest of the 100 essays included in the book Sightings: Reflections on Religion in Public Life, published one week ago.
Marty has written often about “moments” and how we “sight-ers” observe and make sense of them. More often than not Sightings authors have had to reckon with moments in the literal sense: “a minute portion or point of time” or “a comparatively brief period of time”—the events of a day, a week, maybe a month. As I edited this book, gathering together a selection of the best work that has appeared here in this publication’s roughly twenty-year history, I wondered if it might be possible to define a “Sightings moment.” What story do these columns tell about contemporary history and the place of “religion and religiously named groups” in that history?
Sifting through and sorting the many essays from Sightings’s past—approximately two thousand in total, half of them by Marty and half by others—I felt a little bit like Marty himself, clipping and counting newspaper stories in an attempt to understand not just what happened on the religion news scene but also how commentators have interpreted those events. While the book in its final form does not, and cannot, tell the whole story of its epoch, what its pages do tell may help illuminate our past as well as our present and, perhaps, point a way forward into our future.
Without doubt, one of the hallmarks of the era of Sightings has been a pervasive and escalating sense of crisis. The Sightings moment has been marked by violence, conflict, and terror from the beginning. Some of the first columns (not included in the book) dealt with the Columbine massacre and the media’s “attending to the multiple and complex aspects of religion, both good and not so good, in the midst of this tragedy.” Then came the September 11 attacks, America’s response, and responses to that response. Authors have reflected on the discrimination and stigmatization experienced by Muslims in the post-9/11 United States. Others have “sighted” the chaos in the Middle East following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Others still have debated the causes and consequences of subsequent acts of terror, such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Clearly, if religion has not been at the core of the crises of our age, then it has at least been closely connected.
Marty’s interests and expertise are extraordinarily broad. (We are talking about the author of books with titles like When Faiths Collide and The Christian World: A Global History, after all.) But modern American religion is his special focus, and though Sightings has noticed and given space to countries and regions the world over—including India, China, Russia, and Latin America—religion in the U.S. has remained its special focus as well. Commentators have attended to the relationship between race and religion with particular intensity: from the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr., to developments in black and womanist theology; from the election of Barack Obama as president to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture; from Southern traditionalism’s efforts to find a foothold in the academy to the killing of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina; and from the musicality of William Barber’s preaching to the moral quandary of saving the life of a bigot. As for Marty, he has written about the role of churches and church leaders in the pursuit of racial justice and about the difficulties faced by progressive churches that struggle, sometimes vainly, to diversify their own ranks.
Looking, now, at the book’s table of contents, I am struck once more by the range of subjects that are covered and by the patterns which emerge among them. No piece stands alone; rather, each contributes to the bigger picture. Themes appear and then disappear, only to reappear later in new and surprising ways. The status and treatment of women in religious traditions; religion and science; religion and sports; religion and art—all of these topics play a significant part in the book, as they have in our collective life these past two decades.
In recent years, Marty’s columns have increasingly invoked grand concepts and language: ressentiment, death, repentance, cultural disintegration, chaos, hope. But if I had to choose a single word that could serve as the theme of this book, it would be “trust.” In his December 22, 2008, essay “On Trust,” Marty observed that trust, and the breaking of trust, seemed to be the basis for “virtually all news and opinion media of the past months.” He was referring, first and foremost, to coverage of the 2007-2008 financial crisis and its effects—effects we continue to live with today. However, trust was, and is, equally key to our political and religious crises.
Trust is implicit to varying degrees in many of the columns included in the book. The theme resurfaces, explicitly, in the book’s concluding essay, Paul Mendes-Flohr’s “Jerusalem” (December 14, 2017). Reflecting on the tragically persisting Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mendes-Flohr writes:
It is only by laying a firm foundation of mutual trust—trust that the other is not out to “get one,” to outmaneuver one on the playing field of politics, not to speak of the battlefield—that a mutual political accommodation can be achieved. Such trust cannot be attained by negotiations, or even polite debate and convivial conversation. It requires the jettisoning of adversarial attitudes and posturing, and marshaling a determined will to honor the existential reality of the other, to listen attentively and empathetically to the spiritual and emotional voice of the other, the voice that is often muffled by words.
These words, I would argue, are every bit as true of American society as they are of Israel-Palestine. The Sightings moment has witnessed our plural society become ever more polarized. Opportunities to engage with one another across our religious and political differences—to address the matters which divide us without, at the same time, seeking to eradicate them—are few and far between. If nothing else, Sightings has endured as a site where encounters with the other are yet possible, where a light can shine, if only for a moment, on something one might otherwise fail to notice, or choose to ignore. And it is in this task, I believe, that Sightings will continue to have its moment.
|Brett Colasacco is former editor of Sightings. He has a PhD in religion, literature, and visual culture from the University of Chicago, where he currently works as a writer.|