The significance of religion in people's lives

Dr Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye's research shows how members of religious communities aren't passive consumers of beliefs, but use their agency to shape religious practice.

"I'm a historian partially because when you think about all of humanity, who we are now is a very narrow slice of who we've ever been. Most of us have died, and so looking at history is a way of understanding people.

"I grew up in California; my mother is third-generation Chinese-American, and my father is third-generation Japanese-American. I learned Chinese from scratch as an undergraduate, trying to recover my identity. But I was also running cross-country, so I was asleep for most of my initial Chinese classes. I went to Beijing after my second year at uni and really warmed up to the Chinese language. And the popsicles and dumplings were so cheap, I had to go back.

Religious communities provide little worlds in which your talents are needed and where you can make a difference.

"My book, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church (Oxford University Press, January 2019) is about a Pentecostal church that started in China in 1917 called the True Jesus Church.

"Religious movements and ideas are incredibly consequential in today's world. From a critical, intellectual perspective, you can't ignore the significance of these things in people’s lives. And if it's important, then it should be worthy of study.

"From the beginning, True Jesus Church members were speaking in tongues and practicing exorcism. Some of the scholarship has suggested that these Pentecostal Christians 'did this crazy stuff because they were poor and uneducated'. I thought, 'There's got to be more there' and so I looked and indeed, there is more there!

"The early converts read the Bible and used their own critical faculties to interpret Christian life for themselves, rather than accepting all the cultural practices associated with missionary denominations. They looked at the Europeans in their luxurious houses, their stiff and silent prayers, and their very-European-sounding church names (like 'London Missionary Society' or 'Wesleyan Methodist'). They said, 'What you missionaries have brought us does not look or sound like the Bible. So we are going to follow the Bible and the true Jesus Christ!'

"And so they tried to follow the Bible 'directly', seeking the same miracles and experiences as described in the Bible, including praying in tongues."

The challenge of being a religious scholar of religion is that same critical scrutiny you apply to other traditions, you also apply to your own tradition.

"I'm a religious person myself, a Latter-day Saint (Mormon), and I feel this gives me a different perspective on some of my material.

"One well-known social science model is that 'consumers' choose religions within a religious marketplace. This is not really convincing to me because, in my personal experience, what many religious people believe is inseparable from what they do. People are not just consumers, but also producers, of religious beliefs and mindsets.

"For example, Chinese house churches are volunteer-powered movements. Their members want to contribute to communities, to serve people.

"And participating in a church is an outlet for the human desire to be creative. Most of us are not going to become world-renowned at what we're good at. But religious communities provide little worlds in which your talents are needed and where you can make a difference, and that's important."

Everything deep and human is flawed and self-contradictory. Things with no irregularities are boring.

“The challenge of being a religious scholar of religion is that same critical scrutiny you apply to other traditions, you also apply to your own tradition. It can be wearying, but it is helpful to have a broad lens, to hold that there’s good stuff and bad stuff everywhere.

"Everything deep and human is flawed and self-contradictory. Things with no irregularities are boring. Anything with human input over time is going to be messy.

"At the same time, I appreciate institutions — I like how a lot of people getting together can do big stuff. That's exciting for me. It usually takes some pretty powerful and audacious ideas to unite people.

"And I'm a cancer survivor. My faith and my faith community were huge supports to me during that time, and that's substantial."