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The Institute for Signifying Scriptures hosted its first open forum for attendees to bring topics and ideas for discussion. Current news items, blogs, and opinions set up what turned out to be a very engaging and kaleidoscopic discussion. The forum made a compelling case for the ISS tagline about discourse and power as attendees excavated a wide range of topics that included hipster Mormons, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Republican presidential hopefuls Herman Cain and Mitt Romney.
In a recent New York Times article, “To be Young, Hip and Mormon”, the author documents current visual self-representations by Mormons whose choices on what to wear take on strait-laced stereotypes and show a different set of cool and diverse Mormons. Prying through these sartorial gestures, what emerged from the discussion were significations of a religious identity that is different but also pads the angst of the strange and not-quite-Christian stereotypes. These significations are brought into sharp relief especially by the rhetorical positions doing the rounds in the current run-up to the Republican presidential nomination. In the so-called post-racial political climate, inclusion and exclusion in a political discourse are increasingly validated along concentric rings drawn up with religious overtones and orientations around certain texts. Hence a Rick Perry stance on Mormons as less Christian and a Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, who expresses more anxiety about Mitt Romney than Herman Cain reinforce the theological-sociological discourses about insiders and outsiders. A theological “sect” is thus a shorthand for claims to a different sacred text and, hence, on the concentric ring furthest from the center in the scriptural economy that frames dominant political discourses in the US.
Stabilizing the centers in scriptural economies however is far more than straightforward. http://commonsensejesus.tumblr.com/ pushes the envelope beyond what the Rev. Jeffress would risk it. This blog engages Herman Cain’s position on Jesus as a “perfect conservative” and counters it with visual narratives of a social and fiscal liberal Jesus. Although both positions subscribe to a common scriptural center, counter-inscriptions thicken the center so that what emerges from these significations is a palimpsest that is neither stable nor uniform. Amidst the slippages and ruptures in securing a center, notions such as “hipster” and “cool” can be seen as cultural negotiations of othering and identification, which are hyperrealized in the current politics of inclusion and exclusion.
Center formations also highlight the pivotal importance of location in political discourse and imagination. This was highlighted in a recent New York Times article, “In Protest, Power of Place”. In the absence of clearly articulated demands and ends, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) etches out the significance of place—both spatial and ideological—in relation to center formation. Whether it is Auschwitz, Tahrir Square, or the Zucotti Park in New York City, locations house our memories and collective consciousness. When signified and activated, these symbolic spaces haunt our imaginations but also conjure up political energies. The OWS is one instance among many where the message is undeniably the location or what that particular location represents. From a history of religions perspective, location has always mattered in terms of center formation. Modern formations of Christian denominations exhibit the breakdown of scriptural economies, resulting in the center being replaced by a text. When the center becomes a text it becomes mobile or portable. It can be carried anywhere by individuals as a physical text or even as a memorized text. In contrast, the OWS protestors are going back to the prior notion of center as a physical space or geographical place.
In sum, the open forum highlighted scripturalizing dynamics in the cultural and political arenas. With an emphasis on the participial, scripturalizing shifts focus from concrete scriptures to the human activity of meaning-making. Hence, multiple shifting centers, palimpsest scriptures, and sartorial significations are thumbnail images of the negotiations, constructions, and contestations of identities and power. Excavating these thumbnails orients us and what we make scriptures do for ourselves.