a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by Elijah Siegler

Bewitched by <a href='' target='_blank'>Alicia Byler</a>
Bewitched by Alicia Byler

The word spirituality fills me with anxiety. As the member of our department of religious studies who teaches contemporary religion, (New Age, popular culture, Asian religion in America, that sort of thing…) I should be a spirituality expert, ready to use the word as a clever retort for my cynical family members, as a piece of sage advice for my sincere, confused graduating majors, or as a contextualizing quote for the religion writer from our local paper.

In other words, I feel I should have a handle on this whole spirituality thing, but I really don’t. When I think about spirituality, I ask myself, throat tightening: what do I need to know? What conversations about it should I be injecting myself into? Who’s writing about it? Whose brilliant new definition of it is so broad, or so narrow, or so unexpected, or so obvious, or so self-conscious, or so un-self-conscious, that we academics can no longer talk meaningfully about spirituality without nodding metaphorically or literally in the direction of this exciting scholar?

I can toss off an article on a particular religious group in contemporary America, or put together a chapter about how some artifact of pop culture is, in fact, religious. But if I want the security of a tenured position at the best possible institution, and the prestige of having written a serious work of scholarship, I need to write a book whose title uses big words and that does not evoke any particular time or place.

I need to write an academic book about spirituality.

The word spirituality fills me with anxiety. Sometimes as I work on my laptop (or pretend to) late at night, my wife will ask what I am writing. An article or an entry or a book review, I’ll tell her.

“What are you doing that for?” she’ll ask.

“Well it’s part of my job.”

“So are you getting paid for it?”

“No, but I get to keep the book.” Or: “They should send me a copy of the encyclopedia when it comes out, plus $60!” That fails to impress, as does my monthly paycheck.

“You’re a good writer and you know a lot about religion. Write a book that will sell,” she says, “Make us some money. Get famous.”

Why not? If professors of economics serve as consultants to the very banks they study and professors of medicine are paid by the companies whose drugs they test, why can’t professors of religious studies financially exploit the subjects of our investigations? What is wrong with a little money and publicity? Why can’t we cash in too?

I need to write a popular book about spirituality.

The thought of writing a book about spirituality, whether academic or popular, fills me with anxiety. Shouldn’t these kinds of books just write themselves?

In the academic book I’d like to write, a smooth and vague language, full of whispered half-promises, conjures the free-floating theorizing that can only happen when the discipline of religious studies merges with postmodern theology and cultural studies. The popular book I’d like to write could be found in any of a dozen sections of the local bookstore: New Age, Self-Help, Eastern Religions, Psychology, Fitness, Humor. Or better yet: next to the cash register.

Shouldn’t these kinds of books just write themselves? Maybe not, but the titles can. And that’s a start.

So Louis, the Webmaster, and Laura, the Instructional Technologist, helped me create an automatic, random title generator, which has inside of it over one and a half million possible book titles about spirituality. At last I am no longer anxious about spirituality; I might even feel a little bit spiritual myself, for the first time. Because I have harnessed the power of randomness and automation, which are unthinking, productive, and modern, like spirituality itself.

I created this generator for myself. In using it, I have noticed that in all these potential book titles, the word “spirituality” stands like the eye of the hurricane, the vacant signifier, the placeholder, the empty vessel…

And now I invite everyone to partake.