Book Reviews

Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape, by Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke

Roman R. Williams

Originally published on May 13, 2013 in Sociology of Religion.

In Places of Faith, Scheitle and Finke introduce readers to what they consider to be some of the most distinctive and important features of religion in America through an account of their 5-week, 6,904 mile road trip in a rented Dodge Charger. Along with traveling in style, the authors are interested in offering a portrait of religion in America that highlights its rich diversity, “give[s] life to otherwise lifeless statistics, and bring[s] far-removed historical accounts into closer view” (ix). In my estimation, this accessibly written and visually engaging book accomplishes these objectives.

Each chapter presents a brief historical overview, a survey of contemporary developments, and demographic maps which situate each location within the broader religious geography of the United States. Against this backdrop Scheitle and Finke describe their experiences as participant observers in a small African American congregation (Memphis), megachurch (Houston), Taoist and Buddhist temples (San Francisco), LDS ward (Utah), Catholic church and its charismatic Spanish language prayer meeting (Central Nebraska), mosque (Detroit), and a Jewish synagogue (Brooklyn). The inclusion of a chapter that takes readers inside the world of nonprofits headquartered in Colorado Springs (Colorado) makes sense in light of Scheitle’s work on this topic, but otherwise may seem out of place.

Throughout their journey the authors return to several broad themes. First, the intersections of religion and immigration, race, and ethnicity are revisited throughout the book. Readers are invited to consider, for example, the role of the Black church in the Civil Rights Movement and the contributions of African Americans to American culture. Immigration is brought into view through the conventional routes of San Francisco’s China Town and New York City’s Jewish communities, and explored through the experiences of Hispanic Catholics in rural Nebraska and Muslims in Detroit.

Secondly, the book captures the entrepreneurial spirit that lies behind innovations such as cowboy churches, larger-than-life monuments, and the many services and businesses that support religious life such as Mormon missionary clothing stores and Haztolahs (Orthodox Jewish voluntary ambulance services). While the text is not specifically framed in terms of a religious economy, those familiar with Finke’s work may detect hints of his perspective below the surface.

Thirdly, the book emphasizes many ways in which the reach of religion extends beyond its taken-for-granted boundaries into the everyday lives of ordinary people, their communities, and American culture more broadly. The incorporation of over 150 color images distinguishes Places of Faith as a compelling (and rare) example of visual methods in the sociology of religion. In recent years, visual sociology has gained some traction, but few sociologists of religion incorporate the visual in their work beyond the occasional photograph to illustrate a point. The photographs, historical images, and maps that appear throughout the text add rich layers of description. These images lend understanding to unfamiliar settings, bring the materiality of religion into view, and offer a perspective that words alone cannot always provide. Along with lending greater depth to description, these visual materials are data that explain the religious landscape and the authors’ experiences.

My main criticism of the book is that, while it may inspire “others to explore the ever changing religious geography” (238), would-be explorers are left without a clear roadmap for conducting their own research. The book stands as a wonderful example of participant observation and visual ethnography, but the authors downplay their research methodology as little more than carefully planned trip informed by their expertise and shaped by input from the people they met along the way, Google, the Yellow Pages, their GPS unit, and chance (8). While one may appreciate the methodological spirit of such an approach, the intended audience of the book is deprived of an introductory-level research guide.

As with all scholarship, the photographs and the narratives presented in the book are framed by the authors. Readers familiar with locations visited or academically well-traveled specialists may not be satisfied with the authors’ itinerary or level of detail provided by the book. Even so, Places of Faith will be a welcome addition to introductory courses in the sociology of religion and religious studies. It has much to offer as a model for exploring local religious landscapes, and I hope it will inspire students and academics to consider the promise of visual methods in the sociology of religion.

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