Material History of American Religion

Judith Weisenfeld

Through A Glass Darkly: On Religion, Race,
and Gender in American Film, 1913-1950

Weisenfeld's project examines a range of American films, from both Hollywood and independent producers, as sites for producing shifting constructions of race, gender, and religion. She seeks to explore the largely untapped source that cinematic representations of American religiosity provide for examining the role of popular culture in American religious history. Unlike most recent studies on "race" and religion that present only people of African descent as standing in for "race," Weisenfeld is interested in, for example, the various ways in which Jewish, Irish, Mexican, and Italian Americans have been racially categorized and re-categorized. This book focuses particularly on film and on her reading of the intimate connections between constructions of race (in particularly gendered ways) and of religion. This project will not concern itself with more traditional approaches to religion and film, but rather will examine films that directly address questions concerning relationships between religion and race in America. Weisenfeld considers the historical context for the production of each film or group of films as critical to understanding its particular perspective on constructing religion and race.

The field of "religion and film," within the bounds of the discipline of Religious Studies, has tended to make use of contemporary films that do not directly address aspects of American religious life (such as science fiction or action films) and interpreted them as constructing larger myths about American religious identity. In addition, religion and film studies have generally taken the genre of the Biblical epic as the primary location of "religion" in American film. This book will not concern itself with either of these traditional approaches to religion and film, but rather will examine films in questions of relationships between religion and race in America arise in the narrative. This project emerges as a truly multidisciplinary one, bringing together materials from the study of religion, from gender studies, film criticism, and American studies and makes a unique contribution to the field of American religious history.

Judith Weisenfeld is an associate professor of religion at Vassar College. Her book, African-American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945, was published by Harvard University Press in 1998. She has written entries for the Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History and the Encyclopedia of New York City, and co-edited This Far By Faith: Readings in African-American Women's Religious Biography (Routledge, 1996). She has published articles in Church History and Semeia, and serves as a contributing editor for Afro-American Religion: A Documentary History Project. She is also editor of The North Star, an electronic journal devoted to the history of African-American religion. She received a doctorate in religion from Princeton University in 1992.

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