Editor Jennifer Banks on the Boundaries of Religion
I had been acquiring religion books for Yale University Press for five years or so when my grandmother’s passing brought me back to the Catholic Church I’d attended as a child. I sat in the back row at her funeral, with my two-year-old daughter and four-month-old son, exiting out to the entrance area when they started chattering or crying, and re-entering for just long enough to catch wind of the priest’s scolding of my father, his five siblings, and their offspring for our long, collective absence from the Church.
Out in the entryway, in that in-between, penitent’s space, I stared at a poster of the priests serving that diocese. Although I’d heard plenty about the Church’s changing face, I was still surprised to see that most of priests serving the very white south shore of Boston I had grown up in were Asian or Latino. The few Sullivans holding their place in the register—their pale faces staring out through icy blue eyes—were in the minority.
If we had become truants in God’s kingdom, God seems to have found perfectly willing and acceptable substitutes to take our place. The priest evidently saw no need to try and gently coax us back into the fold; we were either in or out, take it or leave it. The message would not be softened and there would be no apology.
As they paraded my grandmother’s body down the aisle, I kept wishing my husband had been able to come. My grandmother had instantly formed a connection with him, surprising everyone. He was an Ivy League-educated, Indian, Hindu immigrant who had arrived late in her life through the daughter of her black sheep son, an unlikely recipient of her affections. Mostly, I believe, she liked that he was, like her, still a smoker at a time when everyone else was finally heeding the Surgeon General.
She’d quickly find her way over to him at family parties, go through approximately twenty seconds of polite chit-chat, and then hastily ask him, “You still smoking?” Even in the midst of a supposed abstinence phase (i.e. nicotine gum), he’d always go join her outside for a smoke. My Hindu, Indian husband would bum cigarettes off my Irish Catholic south-of-Boston grandmother, then in her late seventies or early eighties, a woman who had always been suspicious of higher education, non-Catholics, and men.
He’d say, “She’s cool,” the highest and only compliment he ever gave anyone. To say more would be a violation of deeply internalized taciturn codes he’d inherited from his parents and their parents and so on, further embedded and exacerbated by his family’s immigration from India to the US in the 1980s, beginning with his mother and sister followed individually by his father, him (at the age of thirteen), and lastly his brother.
He didn’t see his mother for six years of his childhood and when they were reunited, it was in Jersey City, not quite the land of milk and honey he had envisioned, where his parents worked in a soap factory and where he attended one of the worse high schools in the country and was mugged repeatedly. It wasn’t, for him, a topic of conversation.
Perhaps my grandmother, the daughter of an immigrant from Ireland who had boarded a boat with her parents and ten siblings, leaving the country of her birth behind her, never to return, intuitively appreciated his unsentimental brevity.
“You still smoking?” To tell her no would have been to suggest that he had a better handle on how things worked than she did. To smoke, for her at least, was not so much to rebel as to humbly obey; life will kill you and so how dare you have self-righteous convictions about how to stay alive?
Attendance at church suggested the same attitude; an unwavering belief in God expressed her certainty that she did not know anything. Listening to the priest was simultaneously an act of obedience and an act defiant of the temptation to claim any mastery for oneself.
Now, in October, in the lead-up to the annual AAR/SBL meeting, as I begin approaching the world’s experts on religion in my capacity as editor, I think of them – the Hindu who was more Catholic to my grandmother than the children and grandchildren whose Communions she sat through – and how such experiences as loss or poverty can bind spiritual communities together more than dogmas or ecclesiastical histories, how knowing and unknowing are always inextricably intertwined. The boundaries between the various faiths and between “religion” and everything else that isn’t “religion” begin to blur, slip, and realign as I sort through manuscripts in New Haven.
Jennifer Banks is Senior Editor for Yale University Press.
Below you will find a slideshow of Jennifer Banks’s acquisitions published this fall. You can also see more books in YUP’s Fall 2013 Religion catalog, or download the Anchor Yale Bible order form in advance of the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Baltimore, November 23-26.