The woman leans confidently out of her car window, her right hand at high noon on the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she tells the reporter for CNN, who has just asked about her decision to attend a crowded late afternoon evangelical church service in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. “Aren’t you concerned you could infect other people inside?” the reporter presses. The woman swings her head defiantly, her straight black hair catching the overhead lights. “No, no, I’m covered in Jesus’s blood,” she says. People who don’t go to her church “could get me sick,” she says, when she goes to Walmart or Home Depot, “but I’m not, because I’m covered in Jesus’s blood.” Then she drives off.
It may protect this woman against infection, but Jesus’s blood paints me into an epistemological corner. I have argued for an approach to religion I’ve been calling plural ontological realism, which in this case means I take this woman at her word: her experience of Jesus being really present to her in the community of other Christians (she was clear in her brief comments how important the church was to her) protects her from infection (and perhaps from infecting others, although she seemed to care less about this). I am committed to resisting the impulse, deep in the theoretical inheritances of the modern study of religion, to lift this woman out of the ontology in which she became (or remade herself as) a subject and through which she lives her subjectivity in relation to others, among whom are, in this instance, the people she meets in Walmart and Home Depot. Any theoretical work about the role of religion must begin (although it does not end) with the reality of this woman’s claim of immunity, within her world, without translating it, and relocating her, into alien ontologies. This is not to suggest that her world is singular: it is adjacent to and cross-cut by other ontologies (such as the reporter’s). Amid this ontological diversity, evangelical Christianity of a particular sort is determinative for this woman, at this moment in history and in her life.
Every sentence of the preceding paragraph requires discussion, but this is not why I am here right now. Rather, I want to think outwards from the corner. I begin by wondering why, ever since I heard this woman’s comment on the night’s news, I have been feeling I needed to do something about it. What is this imperative and where does it come from? Is it the disciplinary impulse to speakforothers (she seems to be doing ok on this front); or, is it the drive to translate her to others? If it’s the latter, then to what end? The way the question insisted on itself to me was specifically in the form: what is to be done about this woman? Eventually, I came to see this as an articulation of the drive to power that moves through the study of “religion” in modernity. We scholars of religion are more aware of this drive now, but, still, the temptation exists to offer our services as deputies of law and order. Resisting this is the first thing to do in response to this woman’s statement about being washed in Jesus’s blood. I accept the ontology of facts as given: she continues to shop at Walmart in a pandemic because she is protected by the blood of the Lord in which she has been washed.
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