Hello and Welcome to the Humanities Pod.
I’m Annette Richards and today we’re talking about the emotions, early Christianity, and the role of feeling in the creation of new religious identities. My guest is Georgia Frank, Professor of Religion at Colgate University, and a Fabrication Fellow at the Society for the Humanities this year.
Some stories do have morals, but I don't see it as much as inculcating dogma or so-on. It's really about plunging you into a messy situation and feeling all kinds of emotions, whether it's from compassion, to pity, to anguish.
Georgia’s research focuses on sacred stories, the senses, and materiality in the first 600 years of Christianity, and especially on how the fabrication and circulation of emotions defined public life in Mediterranean antiquity. The project she is working on this year is titled, “Feeling Christian: The Reeducation of the Emotions among the Laity in Christian Late Antiquity”.
Georgia, welcome to the Pod! Before we get into the emotions, let’s begin with the body, if those two can be separated. Your most recent book, the collection The Garb of Being, explored bodily experience in the ancient world. I’m wondering about the degree to which notions of embodiment in the ancient world are ones that we would recognize today, or, if you like, how and whether late ancient Christian bodies might be different from ours in the 21st century. How do you approach that as a scholar?
I think the recognition is an important place to start because we probably would recognize the bodies of the ancients, but the stories around the bodies are what interest me. We have to think about whether we've inherited some ideas that bodies and minds are separate things. The late ancient Christians didn't see it that way. To them mind and body were one thing, so these questions about mind and body were not seen as mind and body at war with each other. The place to really think about that was in terms of early Christian monasticism. A little background on early Christianity: the first 300 years or so, it was an outlawed religion and bodies were being put to death in some places, so bodies were kind of alienating for some. And yet, it was also a religion that was deeply invested in bodies because one of its main beliefs was that God had become a human body. So, the human body meant something. What happens after it becomes legalized, it becomes accepted, is that bodies now have to be figured out in a new way. You don't have martyrs anymore. One way to figure them out is to think about early Christians who decided to remake their own bodies; that's the earliest days of monasticism or becoming a monk. That might mean withdrawing from society, living out in the deserts of the ancient Mediterranean, and the stories about those bodies – those bodies that see themselves as somehow perfectible – were bodies that denied themselves sleep and food and sex. This asceticism set in. It's often been seen as a form of body-hating. I got very interested in embodiment because when you think about these practices, they are actually more about thinking about ways of engaging bodies in seeking other realities, in coming to other kinds of awareness. Embodiment became an interesting way to live into a certain set of ideas in a more positive way than it had been read when it was seen as a war between bodies and minds.
I think of the different stories told about, on the one hand, martyrs, where the body in pain or the tortured body is right at the center, and on the other hand, angels, or the transcendence of the body in angels, those bodiless figures who seem to be the ideal or the goal of that monastic training. It’s interesting to think of those as being fundamentally imbricated, one in the other, rather than separate ideas.
That's the interesting question about asceticism, as you put it so well: it's between, is it a continuity with the martyr's body, the suffering body, or is it a transcendence of the body to become the angelic body, which angels were considered to be bodiless? And yet these ascetics often adopted practices where they deeply engaged their bodies. They were turned onto their own bodies in order to become a different kind of body. So, it's not killing a body or annihilating a body; it's really a way of thinking about how to materialize an angelic body. We have these material bodies. How do we use them to become angelic? The language of angels is also a very important one, not as a way of escaping the body, but really as one of becoming even more embodied.
Thinking about the relation of one body to another body, especially in this monastic context, let’s talk about singing and singing together. You've written about song in this context. Can you tell us a little bit about how practices of singing together enter into your stories about early Christians?
I'm really glad you mentioned that because the first stories about monks that interested me were that there were these people who would travel really long journeys to go out and gaze at these monks, just look at them. This is the pilgrimage to living saints part of my work. How sensory their experiences were: very many descriptions of what their faces looked like, their clothes looked like. One of the descriptions was about how from a distance, they were all singing together. One imagines, they were singing psalms. The travelers were saying, it felt like they were witnessing angels, a chorus of angels. So, there was this kind of heaven on earth image. So, I got very interested in this kind of group singing and psalm singing, which already goes back to Jewish worship and Christians adopted this. I started getting interested – if you go a couple of hundred years later, we start finding more mention of non-monastic Christians, just ordinary Christians, singing together. Sermons would be sung and often congregations would sing back a refrain or a line with the preacher. It's not just sermons about, “what should you do?” And, “what does this Bible passage mean?” That might be what some understandings of sermons are. These were actually retelling Bible stories from the perspective of the character. The preacher becomes that character. The congregation, you might say, comes in as another character, comes in as maybe another voice of judgment, a narrator, "no way!," or "yes!," just like any kind of crowd would do in acclamation or in denunciation. And that, to me, is also a form of embodiment. Through sound, you reenter another time, another place, another body, and you can move through different bodies in the story.
It's not just Christians who did this. Over the years, I became very interested in the work of other scholars. This was done in Jewish worship, and also some of these are in Aramaic and some of these are in Greek. We have this idea of singing together as a way of retelling stories from different perspectives. It's another way of engaging storytelling through one's body. Just as an aside, it's also been shown that when people sing together, their heartbeats become synchronized: a scholar at Le Moyne, Karmen MacKendrick, stumbled upon some of this research in very interesting ways. I find that also interesting, that singing is not just creating a soundscape, but it enters one's own body in a different way.
Yes, I think that's right. It creates a collective body that feels together, that experiences the same kinds of temporality and, I guess, participates so that the congregation is no longer just listening. The congregation is not an audience, it becomes an actor. What you're describing sounds like a kind of theatricality or sort of theatrical participation – or is it less theatrical than simply moving through a story together, experiencing a story together, and thereby somehow collectively affirming the moral of the story?
It is theatrical if you think that there are different characters speaking in the first person. It's not theatrical in the sense that there are props or staging or, you know, any kind of costumes or any kind of scenery. And yet it's very theatrical because there's an audience; there's sometimes an internal audience. If you think about a Greek tragedy, the chorus would be on the stage witnessing these events and commenting upon them. What was the chorus’s relationship, say, to the spectators and what kind of energy is circulating in the room? I think there's a lot of ways that thinking about these as theatrical events gets us to pay more attention to whose voices, whose feeling. It's not just feeling one character, it's a very empathic kind of feeling. You will speak other characters’ voices in the course of this. The theatrical has been very helpful for thinking about how affecting these stories are. You get to sing with the villain. You get to sing with the good people. You get to sing against the villain. You get to sing with God, a God's eye view. You get to sing from all perspectives. It's a theater that's very much in the round in that kind of empathic sense.
So this is a very sophisticated form of convincing, educating, of conveying the messages of this new religion. Would you say it’s almost like a very elaborate, expanded form of classical rhetoric?
It is. Some stories do have morals and some characters are cast positive as positive examples, some are cast as negative examples, but I don't see it as much as inculcating dogma or so-on. It is really about plunging you into a messy situation and feeling all kinds of emotions, whether it's from compassion to pity, to anguish around certain characters. So, it is a new religion. It's not quite necessarily a catechism in that sense of transmitting a certain body of religious knowledge through storytelling (although that does happen). It's very much linked to thinking about the cycle of time, not as a set of beliefs. In the course of a religious year, a liturgical year, what are the high points? What are the low points? What are the middle places? If the story is following for early Christians, the life of Christ, what does the Nativity feel like in your body? What does the impending death feel like? What are the moments of glory? But it's also these kinds of stories around Noah's Ark, around Elijah, biblical characters from what Christians would call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. Thinking about the course of time in the course of the year, how do you move through a story cycle?
What you describe is very familiar to me as a scholar of 18th-century music, and especially I'm thinking of Lutheran Germany and the elaborate musical constructions that came to be a central part of the Lutheran experience. It’s an experience shared by everybody, since everybody goes to church on Sunday, and everybody becomes deeply familiar with a set of stories as the liturgical year progresses, with a set of texts, especially hymn texts and the melodies that go along with them. You have this kind of sum experience of the year that plays out every year and becomes ingrained in the voices, in the bodies of those individuals. And then of course, that kind of knowledge is woven into brilliant artistic manifestations, the cantatas and passions by composers like Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s a musical tradition that's very much about multiple voices telling stories that are punctuated by interruptions from the congregation participating and reiterating or questioning or embodying various responses to particular characters. This is surely connected to, or a kind of echo of, the much earlier practices you describe.
It is. It's a way of engaging not the religious elite, but really trying to engage a wider audience to think and feel through a religion. We tend to think of the Protestant Reformation as a movement towards a literacy in religion. We've used literacy, being able to read the Bible – but that idea of using your whole self to understand something better, that I could see as a continuity that one sees as the different ways religious groups try to know something through their bodies, through their being together, through beauty, through the things they make together, whether it's music or painting or art, and to feel time together, how in the course of a liturgical year a person becomes shaped by this.
Georgia, you’ve mentioned shaping and making. Let's move here to fabrication. This is the Fabrication year at the Society for the Humanities. Can you tell us a little bit more about how fabrication as a concept figures into your work this year?
Well, after I wrote The Memory of the Eyes, I became very much more interested in ordinary Christians, not these famous ascetics. I got very interested also in sermons. I felt like we don't have a lot of writings by ordinary Christians, but we do have a lot of writings that recorded speeches that were given to them. Some of these sermons were spoken and some of these were sung. I started getting very interested in how rhetoric fit into this, this kind of training to persuade people, to bring people together. This is all through the kind of education and rhetoric that many in the ancient world received, mostly men, and how preachers adopted these techniques. So, some of these school books we have were about, “How do you make a speech that makes a famous figure from a story or from history come back to life, to make it vivid? How do you make something with words so that it can be pictured in the mind?” It has a picturability, some might say.
Through rhetoric, I got very interested in the ways early Christian preachers and writers used these kinds of tools and devices to make people feel things. We have a lot of ancient, rhetorical handbooks about how to feel, how to make people feel anger, how to make a jury feel vindictive, or how to make a jury feel kind of lenient or merciful. That kind of crossover got me very interested in thinking about how you make adult new Christians feel Christian, not just feel like a certain emotion and not just profess a certain set of beliefs. I think that's what feeling any religion sometimes is defined as: if you can say what you believe, you are feeling it. I was really interested in how you bring these folks together and without demanding a certain feeling, but by what techniques do you make them feel that to become this new identity requires having a slightly different way of thinking about one's emotional life. The Fabrication [theme] was, I thought originally, is a great chance to delve into these rhetorical manuals, to think about the making of emotions, and to think how it translates into a certain kind of Christian storytelling and a certain Christian formation.
Thinking through these readings we're doing together in our two hours of conversation in our seminar, I've started noticing a lot more metaphors of fabrication, the process of fabrication going on in sermons. I'm especially interested in sermons for Christians who were preparing for baptism. and those sermons have often been read as well. They're full of water symbols because it was a ritual that involved large amounts of water! I noticed that more and more of the sermons, as I reread them, were actually talking about dyeing in terms of coloring fabric or coloring skins, smelting, refining metal work, carving statues, carving wood, carving stone. I started seeing through this year's theme, the material opens up in new ways I hadn't expected – thinking about matter resisting the maker. It got me really interested in apprentices. How does one learn to do craft? What is the bodily aspect of craft? So, that's where I was: the theme drew me to one aspect of my project; the conversations opened up several other aspects.
That's fascinating. Are you finding that the process of forming the new Christian, in that case, in the context of baptism is somehow figured as an apprenticeship or as a kind of learning by being, by doing, by following, rather than a learning by being told? I think of apprenticeships as being the long process of learning from a master who shows rather than tells, and that’s a thoroughly hands-on, craft-based way of gaining knowledge and way of gaining experience, as well as a way of testing experience.
I think that you put your finger right on it. It is that it's a different type of learning. So, whereas I had always thought baptismal catechesis or instruction – it always sounds like knowledge transmission, very discursive, very propositional – and to think about how the metaphors are actually much more about the hands-on. With hands-on, there has to be practice. There has to be repair. There have to be do-overs. Materials don't behave as we wish, and then they shatter and we have to start over again.
This last month I've been reading a lot about the archeology of workshops. What kind of junk did they leave behind? The waste bin of a workshop. There would be strewn, broken pieces, or just semi-carved foots, or a practice piece, a piece in which you can tell on stone that many different hands and tools have been used. You can differentiate the different people. This one object passed through many hands as a way to practice. It's intergenerational; I think that's interesting too. So, it's this transmission of a kind of ‘body knowledge’. And what I found interesting is, I thought, so in early Christian preparation for baptism, are you the apprentice working and the teacher is your master? No. It's not just that. You are also the practice piece. You are the object itself. Sometimes in the sermons right after you're baptized, when you've finished the initiation, you still have: wait a minute, this isn't set for good. Colors can fade. Things chip off. You're still very fragile or friable or breakable. How will you protect yourself? How will you keep these habits going?
The process of craft got me to think a lot more about sequenced processes that are slow, that are sometimes unpredictable, and that require constant reworking. It is really only through thinking about makers, and the frustrations that makers have, that I started seeing more sides, that to be baptized is to be the object, the apprentice, and eventually the artisan.
That's very beautiful. And we could expand that to ourselves too. We think we've polished ourselves in various ways, but then no, there are chips and fractures that have to be worked on. Maybe that also gets back to the idea of practice and alternative ways of acquiring knowledge. I think, again, about musical practices related to religion and of monastic singing inscribing knowledge into the body through immense feats of repetition and memorization. The doing and the knowing seem to map onto one another.
You mention this idea of copying and copying, and imitation, and memory, which can often be dismissed as rote and flat and soulless, even. It is a way one feels one's way into something. That idea of repetition and practice is not a quest for originality. It's a quest for a deeper dwelling. I am also thinking with the Fabrication Fellows, there are some of us who work on things from very early periods and some of us who are very much in the now, and yet, we will find some ways that these notions, this notion of originality, for instance, our newness, how it's valued differently in different times and places.
Let me ask you one final, straightforward question. If there's one thing that you think we should all know that has informed your research or informed the way you think about what you do as a scholar, what would that be? What should we be reading?
My immediate thought was a book by Mary Carruthers called The Craft of Thought. I think it's a brilliant book about the physicality of writing, the construction of ideas and thoughts, the materiality of creativity. She is thinking also about how there's labor involved in forgetting things too, that it requires overlaying new ideas. There's just this very layered sense of human understanding. It's a book I go back to so often. She is a clear and crisp writer who just sees connections in such thoughtful ways.
We've been talking today with Georgia Frank, Charles A. Dana Professor of Religion at Colgate University.
The Humanities Pod is a production of the Society for the Humanities, introducing you to some of the new work, the current conversations, and the latest ideas of the humanists at and around Cornell. The Pod is produced by Tyler Lurie-Spicer. Our music is from the Continuing Story of Counterpoint by David Borden, performed and recorded by Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company. Our thanks go to the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Cayuga Nation, on whose lands Cornell is situated.