Across the range of my books, my approach to the study of religion has drawn upon anthropology, history, and theories of modernity to ask how people and communities become “religious” subjects in purportedly secular times and places.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
At the dawn of the radio age in the 1920s, a settler-mystic living on northwest coast of British Columbia invented radio mind: Frederick Du Vernet—Anglican archbishop and self-declared scientist—announced a psychic channel by which minds could telepathically communicate across distance. Through retelling Du Vernet’s imaginative experiment,The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indigenous Land shows how agents of colonialism built metaphysical traditions on land they claimed to have conquered. Following Du Vernet’s journey westward from Toronto to Ojibwe territory and across the young nation of Canada, I examine how contests over the mediation of stories—via photography, maps, printing presses, and radio—lucidly reveal the spiritual work of colonial settlement. A city builder who bargained away Indigenous land to make way for the railroad, Du Vernet knew that he lived on the territory of Ts’msyen, Nisga’a, and Haida nations who had never ceded their land to the onrush of Canadian settlers. He condemned the devastating effects on Indigenous families of the residential schools run by his church while still serving that church. Testifying to the power of radio mind with evidence from the apostle Paul and the philosopher Henri Bergson, Du Vernet found a way to explain the world that he, his church and his country made. Expanding approaches to religion and media studies to ask how sovereignty is made through stories, this book shows how the spiritual invention of colonial nations takes place at the same time that Indigenous peoples—including Indigenous Christians—resist colonial dispossession through stories and spirits of their own.
Co-edited with Monique Scheer. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2019.
The Public Work of Christmas provides a comparative historical and ethnographic perspective on the politics of Christmas in multicultural contexts ranging from a Jewish museum in Berlin to a shopping boulevard in Singapore. A seasonal celebration that is at once inclusive and assimilatory, Christmas offers a clarifying lens for considering the historical and ongoing intersections of multiculturalism, Christianity, and the nationalizing and racializing of religion. The essays gathered here examine how cathedrals, banquets, and carols serve as infrastructures of memory that hold up Christmas as a civic, yet unavoidably Christian holiday. At the same time, the authors show how the public work of Christmas depends on cultural forms that mark, mask, and resist the ongoing power of Christianity in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. Legislated into paid holidays and commodified into marketplaces, Christmas has arguably become more cultural than religious, making ever wider both its audience and the pool of workers who make it happen every year. The Public Work of Christmas articulates a fresh reading of Christmas – as fantasy, ethos, consumable product, site of memory, and terrain for the revival of exclusionary visions of nation and whiteness – at a time of renewed attention to the fragility of belonging in diverse societies. Contributors include Herman Bausinger (Tübingen), Marion Bowman (Open), Juliane Brauer (MPI Berlin), Simon Coleman (Toronto), Yaniv Feller (Wesleyan), Christian Marchetti (Tübingen), Helen Mo (Toronto), Katja Rakow (Utrecht), Sophie Reimers (Berlin), Tiina Sepp (Tartu), and Isaac Weiner (Ohio State).
Co-authored with Paul C. Johnson and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, TRIOS Series, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State offers a New World rejoinder to the largely Europe-centered academic discourse on church and state. In contrast to what is often assumed, in the Americas the relationship between church and state has not been one of freedom or separation but one of unstable and adaptable collusion. Ekklesia sees in the settler states of North and South America alternative patterns of conjoined religious and political power, patterns resulting from the undertow of other gods, other peoples, and other claims to sovereignty. These local challenges have led to a continuously contested attempt to realize a church-minded state, a state-minded church, and the systems that develop in their concert. The shifting borders of their separation and the episodic conjoining of church and state took new forms in both theory and practice. My essay argues that the colonial churchstate relationship of Canada came into being through local and national practices that emerged as Indigenous nations responded to and resisted becoming “possessions” of colonial British America.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing and Liberal Christianity reveals how liberal Protestants went from being early-twentieth-century medical missionaries seeking to convert others through science and scripture, to becoming vocal critics of missionary arrogance who experimented with non-western healing modes such as Yoga and Reiki. Drawing on archival and ethnographic sources, Pamela E. Klassen shows how and why the very notion of healing within North America has been infused with a Protestant “supernatural liberalism.” In the course of coming to their changing vision of healing, liberal Protestants became pioneers three times over: in the struggle against the cultural and medical pathologizing of homosexuality; in the critique of Christian missionary triumphalism; and in the diffusion of an ever-more ubiquitous anthropology of “body, mind, and spirit.” At a time when the political and anthropological significance of Christianity is being hotly debated, Spirits of Protestantism forcefully argues for a reconsideration of the historical legacies and cultural effects of liberal Protestantism, even for the anthropology of religion itself.
This book won the 2012 American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence for Analytical-Descriptive Studies.
Co-edited with Courtney Bender. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement is co-edited with Courtney Bender, and brings together a range of scholars concerned with the question of how the ideal of “religious pluralism” has shaped the recognition of what counts as religious in scholarly, state, and popular contexts. The contributors to this volume treat pluralism as a concept that is historically and ideologically produced or, put another way, as a doctrine that is embedded within a range of political, civic, and cultural institutions. Their critique considers how religious difference is framed as a problem that only pluralism can solve. Working comparatively across nations and disciplines, the essays in After Pluralism explore pluralism as a “term of art” that sets the norms of identity and the parameters of exchange, encounter, and conflict. Contributors locate pluralism’s ideals in diverse sitesBroadway plays, Polish Holocaust memorials, Egyptian dream interpretations, German jails, and legal theoriesand demonstrate its shaping of political and social interaction in surprising and powerful ways. Throughout, they question assumptions underlying pluralism’s discourse and its influence on the legal decisions that shape modern religious practice. Contributors do more than deconstruct this theory; they tackle what comes next. Having established the genealogy and effects of pluralism, they generate new questions for engaging the collective worlds and multiple registers in which religion operates.
With Shari Golberg and Danielle Lefebvre.4 volume edited collection. Routledge, 2009.
Women and Religion: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies is a four-volume collection I edited with the assistance of Shari Golberg and Danielle Lefebvre. I wrote the orienting introductions for the first two volumes, “Women and Religion: Critical Foundations” and “The Politics of Public and Private Religion.” Shari Golberg wrote the introduction for Volume 3, “Texts, Rituals, and Authoritative Knowledges”, and Danielle Lefebvre wrote the introduction for Volume 4, “Women and Religion: Feminist Effects”. Organized thematically, each volume includes the most formative theoretical contributions to the field, grouped together with articles that explore a particular set of issues from a range of traditions, with the use of methodologies drawn from anthropology, history, sociology, textual criticism, and religious studies. This collection is an essential research tool for all students specializing in religion and women’s studies, and will be equally useful to those working in related fields such as anthropology, cultural studies, history, literary studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, and theology. By tracing the evolution of the topic, from the beginnings of feminist research on religion to more contemporary debates about categorizations of gender in the study of religion, this four-volume collection serves the needs of both specialist and generalist users.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America explores how women who give birth at home use religion to make sense of their births and in turn draw on their birthing experiences to bring meaning to their lives and families. Pamela Klassen introduces a surprisingly diverse group of women, in their own words, while also setting their birth stories within wider social, political, and economic contexts. In doing so, she emerges with a study that disrupts conventional views of both childbirth and religion by blurring assumed divisions between conservative and feminist women and by taking childbirth seriously as a religious act. Most American women who have a choice give birth in a hospital and request pain medication. Yet enough women choose and advocate unmedicated home birth–and do so for carefully articulated reasons, social resistance among them–to constitute a movement. Klassen investigates why women whose religious affiliations range from Old Order Amish to Reform Judaism to goddess-centered spirituality defy majority opinion, the medical establishment, and sometimes the law to have their babies at home. In considering their interpretations–including their critiques of the dominant medical model of childbirth and their views on labor pain–she examines the kinds of agency afforded to or denied women as they derive religious meanings from childbirth. Throughout, she identifies tensions and affinities between feminist and traditionalist appraisals of the symbolic meaning of birth and the power of women. What does home birth–a woman-centered movement working to return birth to women’s control–mean in practice for women’s gender and religious identities? Is this supreme valuing of procreation and motherhood constraining, or does it open up new realms of cultural and social power for women? By asking these questions while remaining cognizant of religion’s significance, Blessed Events challenges both feminist and traditionalist accounts of childbearing while broadening our understanding of how religion is ”lived” in contemporary America.
Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994.
Going by the Moon and the Stars: Stories of Two Russian Mennonite Women tells the stories of two Russian Mennonite women who emigrated to Canada after fleeing from the Soviet Union during World War II. Based on ethnographic interviews with the author the women recount, in their own words, their memories of their wartime struggle and flight, their resettlement in Canada and their journey into old age. Above all, they tell of the overwhelming importance of religion in their lives.
Through these remarkable stories Pamela Klassen challenges conventional understandings of religion. The women’s voices, intimate and powerful, testify to the importance of religion in the construction of personal history, as well as to its oppressive and liberating potential.