post by Sarah Oechsle
Oral histories are an important part of studying religion from the geographical perspective, as well as many other subjective disciplines. This is because, unlike physics or chemistry, human beings and human culture are abstract and complicated. Because of this, we must find progressive ways to study the human experience that go beyond classic scientific and statistical methods.
Oral history is an expanded version of the idea behind an interview, meaning that it involves sitting down with someone and letting them tell their own story. In this way, we get the best picture of that person and their own experiences. When we study geographies of religion, we cannot get by with just hard figures and facts, or set religious doctrines. We must know how an individual creates religion and belief in their own life, whether this aligns with the facts, figures, and doctrines or not. For example, it’s easy for us to say that the majority of North Carolinian Christians are Southern Baptists, and that Southern Baptists believe in the divinity of Christ as the son of God, but none of this tells us that Richard feels closest to Jesus when he is playing baseball with his son, or that Julia found God during her time in prison. Both of these people might be Southern Baptists from North Carolina, but they both experience religion in profoundly different ways. We know that forty percent of Americans go to church every week, but that doesn’t explain why Anna hasn’t missed a service since her mother passed away, or why Jack hasn’t been to church in four years despite praying every night. People’s experiences of religion, community, space, and place are all unique and profound, and deserve to be studied on their own terms rather than being made part of a greater set of statistics. Oral histories allow us to look at these differences and similarities, and let people tell their own stories, making it the most authentic representation of geographies of religion possible.