How to demystify Pentecostalism

It’s not that dropping to the floor in a spasm of joy upon receiving the Holy Spirit is wrong, exactly. It’s just that this doesn’t represent the entirety, or even the majority, of the Pentecostal faith. Such is the perspective of Joy Unspeakable, a documentary produced by the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio & Television Services in 1981. While the so-called holy rollers receive some attention in the film, the Pentecostal story is told mainly by members of the faith—many of whom wish to lift the perception of their religion as a collection of rural eccentrics. Describing the ecstatic state that some Pentecostals experience, one of the film’s subjects comments: “Some of them, maybe, did roll on the floor. And they called everybody, then, holy rollers. I didn’t like that.”

Through commentaries like this, Joy Unspeakable presents an insider’s portrait of a Pentecostal assembly in Bloomington, Indiana. The members of the church are collected, amiable people who seem to have little use for snakes and strychnine. Instead, they describe their religion as a series of daily joys experienced via shared worship in a tight-knit faith community. Women are a particular focus. The role of the female in church life is a major theme, and this is more often than not explained by female churchgoers themselves. The film is memorably bookended with commentary from an elderly woman who eloquently narrates her faith in an accent that captures the unique vocal cadence of southern Indiana.

joy_unspeakable
A still taken from Joy Unspeakable

University Archives and Records Management now makes available the administrative files for Joy Unspeakable. More than anything, these serve as something like DVD extras. Because the film is already available in full, for free, on the website Folkstreams, the papers of this collection are a chance to understand the filmmakers’ vision for the project. While it’s one thing to watch a movie, it’s another thing entirely to figure out how the producers want you to watch it.

The production techniques used for Joy Unspeakable are typical of ethnographic film, a genre in which the people onscreen determine the tone of the project as much as (or more than) the producers. Reading through the materials of this collection reveals that the filmmakers’ approach was rooted firmly in ethnographic soil. A remark in the project overview is illustrative: “The emphasis here is not on academics, but rather the community.” This bears out in the film, as voiceover is used only minimally, and members of the church take the lead on relating who they are and what it means to be part of their group.

After its release, the film became a touchstone for fostering public dialogue. Producers Elaine Lawless and Elizabeth “Betsy” Peterson arranged for local screenings before audiences of religious devotees and social service professionals. The latter group were invited to participate with the hope that an open discussion would allow them to better serve their Pentecostal clients. In a letter dated Sept. 18, 1980, Lawless and Peterson note that “our program has been designed with the aim of clarifying misconceptions and stereotypes about Pentecostals as well as providing a general overview of the religion.”

Both women were Folklore Institute graduate students when they completed Joy Unspeakable. In one way or another, their aims for the film—those of public outreach and community engagement—have carried forward into their careers. Lawless, an esteemed folklorist at the University of Missouri, recently completed an ethnographic film focusing on Pinhook, Missouri, where a federally-sanctioned flood displaced residents in 2011. Peterson, previously a consultant for folklife-related projects, is now the director of the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C.

To access the archive of the Folklore Institute’s Joy Unspeakable project, visit the University Archives and Records Management website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

Dispatches from a remote wedding table

A few years ago, I was sitting at a wedding reception table that felt like it was a quarter mile from the bride and groom. Most receptions seem to have a few tables like this: co-workers, college roommates, and longtime babysitters who are special enough to have warranted an invitation, but who are probably seated too far away to tell whether the best man is having chicken or steak. The people at these tables often don’t know one another, making the conditions ideal for small talk. This was our case.

The guy next to me said he was an engineer. Dutifully, the rest of us asked about the details of his work. I forget what they were. What I remember, however, is this: When I later said I was a folklorist, the engineer went into hysterics. For a moment, I thought to be offended. Then I realized he was laughing because he had legitimately never heard the word before. He probably thought I was making it up. So I swallowed this particular grain of salt and ruminated for the umpteenth time on the smallness and relative obscurity of the discipline of folklore studies. (For the record, the word “engineer” isn’t exactly a model of linguistic normalcy. It’s pretty close to “mouseketeer,” as far as I’m concerned.)

The Brothers Grimm (Wilhelm, left, and Jacob)
The Brothers Grimm (Wilhelm, left, and Jacob)

If I had the engineer in front of me today, I would tell him that he probably knows the names of two famous folklorists, and that he has probably known them since childhood. “Who?” he would ask incredulously. And with particularly Germanic aplomb, I would answer: “Have you ever heard of Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm?” The conversation would proceed from there, as I explain that the Brothers Grimm provided a template for the sort of work that many folklorists still do today. They identified traditional art in their own culture, sought out its experts, and collected material directly from them.

The point of this anecdote is to highlight a new resource for explaining the history of folklore studies in the United States and Germany.  IU’s University Archives and Records Management now makes available the archive of the German American Conference, which is shorthand for Folklore and Social Transformation: A Dialogue of German and American Folklorists, held November 1-3, 1988, at Indiana University. Organized by the Folklore Institute, the conference was an attempt to build a connection between scholars in the United States, where academic folklore studies are comparatively young, and scholars from Germany, where the discipline’s roots are deeper.

The conference accomplished two things. First, as any academic meeting does, it gave scholars a chance to present new research. Second, and more importantly in this case, it provided a venue to discuss the international folklore studies community. When scholars from different countries come together to discuss what they’re up to every day, the vibrancy and visibility of a given discipline are likely to increase. A practical result of this sort of collaboration is a more globally conscious academic. When armed with an international perspective, scholars get better at explaining their work within the academy–to colleagues in other disciplines, for example–and outside of it–say, to engineers who think the word “folklorist” is the neologism of the year.

The archive of the German American Conference is a direct line into what German and U.S. folklorists thought of their discipline in the late 1980s. Their presentations addressed the nature of folklore studies in a variety of social contexts. Anthropologist and folklorist Christoph Daxelmüller traced the history of German-Jewish folklore studies in the decades leading to the rise of the Third Reich. Folklorist Marta Weigle explained the role of folklore in creating and marketing images of the Southwestern United States during the years of westward expansion. Folklorist Elliott Oring examined the implication of folk expression in journalism, where objectivity, not creativity, is the common standard of success.

For three days in 1988, folklorists from two nations gathered to discuss these ideas. Conference organizers, mindful that the event should be collaborative, organized cross-cultural respondents for each paper. U.S. presenters got respondents from Germany, and German presenters got respondents from the U.S. This was an ultimately successful bid to ensure that international discourse would drive the meeting. As IU folklorist Richard Bauman summed up in a later piece of correspondence, everyone involved had “done gut.”

In fairness to the engineer from the wedding reception, a single conference held at Indiana University in 1988 does not change the visibility of folklore studies in any way that he or most people can see. But events like this go a long way in developing academic community. And when communities crystallize, inter-community connections become easier to develop. In other words, before we attempt to explain ourselves to others, we must first take steps to understand ourselves alone. Who are we? Where do we fit? What histories do we inhabit? These are heady questions, but perhaps they’re necessary for the group that wishes to establish a sense of identity, either locally or internationally.

The finding aid can be found in Archives Online. To view the archive of the German American Conference, email or call us at (812) 855-1127. We would be happy to assist!