Nancy Tatom AMMERMAN. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes. Finding Religion in Everyday Life. Oxford University Press, 2014. 376 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-991736-5 also eBook. . Reviewed by Ana Lourdes SUAREZ, Catholic University of Argentina, Buenos Aires
The book reports the findings of the research project called “spiritual narratives in everyday life” headed by Nancy Ammerman. It systematically explores the stories people tell about their everyday lives, tracing the patterns of religious presence and absence in their social world. The book explores where and how spiritual characters, relationships, activities, moral imperatives, and emotions find their way into everyday stories. By looking at religious practices and narratives, a new perspective emerges that allows us to see how spiritual resources are generated and deployed across the many religious and secular contexts in which people live.
The project recruited ninety-five participants from two contrasting cities, Boston and Atlanta, with whom the research team worked in multiple innovative forms of data gathering over several months. The voices in the book, like those of the U.S. population, are mostly Christian and Jewish, mostly connected in some way to a religious tradition and a local congregation; and they include a substantial number of people who are either religiously inactive or would be counted as “nones” (nonaffiliated). Participants´ narratives were “heard” through a progression of interesting research techniques: interviews, self-directed daily oral recording, and pictures of places important in the participant´s lives taken by the participants themselves. All these techniques aimed at listening to the participants into everyday places and daily activities. Stories, large and small, are the mechanism through which the world is socially constructed. By listening to the stories told in this book we learn the ways people experience and invoke transcendence and how that occurs in the many different social spheres of their lives.
The book consists of nine chapters. The first introduces the project´s framework and the stages it went through. Chapter two explores in depth the range of meanings that emerged from stories about religion and spirituality. What emerged were two distinct cultural packages that Ammerman calls Theistic and Extra-theistic; these are two cultural domains within which Americans understand spirituality. A third discursive path runs through the entire landscape is the Ethical spirituality of moral goodness. A forth discourse constitutes the contested terrain of being “spiritual but not religious.” The world most participants inhabit, as it comes out from their narratives, is both spiritual and religious at the same time. They are quite comfortable being both religious and spiritual. This finding challenges the “spiritual but not religious” label.
Chapter three focuses on practices related to the spiritual dimension of life. These practices cluster around different religious traditions and different understandings about what spirituality is. It also pays attention to how practices are embodied, being both material and spiritual. This chapter shows that spiritual activities are not the product of age or gender or income or education, but depend on how active people are in their religious communities. The more often participants attended services and other activities, the more stories they told about individual practices beyond the religious community. These religious communities provided a repertoire of practices and expectations.
Chapter four explores the ways religious communities offer time and places where people experience a connection with the divine. It also highlights the importance of the spaces that allow people to have conversations about spirituality in everyday life. Organized religion matters, even in the area of individual spirituality.
The following chapters examine the places often described as secular: home, work, and the political world. People´s narratives about their work, family, and civic matters show where and how events take on a more-than-mundane dimension.This book is a great step forward in understanding the nature of religion in society. It challenges the notion that there is a sharp line dividing sacred and profane, showing a continuum more than a dichotomy. The stories heard in the book intermingle the ordinary and the extraordinary, speaking of mundane actions as religiously significant. The recognition of a “more than ordinary” dimension in life is the common thread running through all spiritual stories explored in the book. It is sacred and transcendent. And this sacred consciousness, as Ammerman argues in the conclusion, constitutes the domain sociologists of religion can and should be studying. The book reports the results of a U.S. sample; similar research projects should be undertaken in different countries to broaden our understanding of sacredness in modern societies.