O God of Players: An Interview with Julie Byrne

Julie Byrne grew up in Pennsylvania and completed her B.A. degree in Medieval & Renaissance Studies and Religion at Duke University in 1990. She entered Duke’s graduate program in religion and earned her master’s degree in 1996 and her Ph.D. in 2000. Her first book, O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (Columbia University Press, 2003) is a product of her dissertation; her next book, The Other Catholic Church, is an ethnography of an independent Catholic group. Currently Julie holds the Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies and is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Hofstra University in New York.

O God of Players details the experience of young women basketball players at Immaculata High School in Philadelphia from 1930 through their championship years in the 1970s. This book provides a window into the lives of young Catholic women prior to the Second Vatican Council and is an ethnographic study of religious activity on the margins of culture. Byrne explores Catholic women’s sports as a means for understanding the way religious ideas are formed and reformed. O God of Players reveals the tension between official prescriptions for women’s behavior and the living expression of young athletes defining themselves as women and as Catholics. This book combines religious-studies scholarship along with an engaging narrative, often told in the words of the women who lived it. Byrne discovers that the Mighty Macs’ competitive spirit was driven by the fun and pleasure they experienced playing the game and asserts that much of what is meaningful about religion can be found in the market, the kitchen, the school gym, and other seemingly nonreligious places.

When I was invited to generate interviews for the Bulletin, I chose to look for scholars who are shaping the study of religion in new ways and who may not have received a great deal of attention—scholars speaking with a unique voice. Julie Byrne has crafted her career out of listening to the “other voices” of Catholicism and as such is the embodiment of my theme. In coming to know Julie I discovered that she had an enthusiastic and adventurous view of religion, the study of religion, and professional scholarship. Julie’s interest in the intersection of religion and culture allows her to see religion in places that others may overlook. As a result, she hears the voices of those who live a tradition and hears a narrative that often tells a story different from that of the tradition or the scholar. Listening in this way, Julie heard young Catholic women tell of the joy, fun, and pleasure they experienced growing up Catholic, attending a Catholic girls’ school and playing basketball. In the following interview Julie provides insight into her book O God of Players, her current work, and the work of being a scholar.

Sherry Morton: Your book O God of Players is a work on religion and culture that reaches beyond theology, ethnic and gender categories and into sports as a means of understanding American Catholicism. How did you come to this project?

Julie Byrne: I was always interested in religion outside church walls—what we could find out about religion by looking at what religious people did when they weren’t specifically in their houses of worship. Initially I was planning a book with three case studies: sports, the jazz scene, and community organizing. But then I was persuaded that micropolitical analysis only works if you really go micro, and you can’t do that spreading it thin over three examples in a dissertation. Plus, serendipity had struck. For the sports example, my advisor Tom Tweed suggested investigating the Immaculata story, which he knew about because his wife Mimi McNamee had played basketball for one of the Catholic academies in Philly. After I visited Immaculata and realized the story was great but also that they had archives and were willing to work with me, the conceptualization fell into place.

SM: What scholarship most influenced this work?

JB: Reading Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street earlier in grad school was a major influence, especially because I was so taken that his influences were William Christian and other historians of early modern Europe. Taking courses on late ancient, medieval, and early modern history as an undergrad at Duke with people like Liz Clark, Tom Robisheaux, and Ron Witt was what first turned me on to history. But I went another way because I just didn’t see myself poring over sixteenth-century tax records in little German villages! I did most of my early graduate work in theory, reading a lot on questions of agency, from Deleuze & Guattari to Judith Butler. I found the field of American religious history in Tweed’s class at UNC, while he was working on the Retelling book. With that, I saw that my interests in both theory and history could find a place in the field.

SM: What are some of the more interesting criticisms this work received, and how did you respond?

JB: The best criticism was in Patrick Allitt’s review. He said something to the effect of this is such a strange history book, since its organizing principle is not change over time, but consistency over time. I just laughed because it was totally true; I say it right in the introduction. I might have thought twice about that organization if I had had more training in the field of history as such, but I was such a newbie and it didn’t even occur to me how odd that was.

SM: You suggest at the close of O God of Players that scholars look further into the margins of institutional forms of religion to access how religion is lived and lives. You recommend looking at the way the faithful employ their religious beliefs in ordinary activities like community gardening and book clubs in order to determine how these activities affect our understanding of religion. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

JB: Like many scholars thinking about lived religion, I wanted to fill out the picture of religious cultures, rather than reduce religion to institutions and beliefs. In the study of Catholicism in particular, all those para-institutional nooks and crannies begged to be investigated; what would we find out about Catholic cultures when we did? Now I am constantly amazed at the inventiveness of the field in analyzing religion and secularism, religion and space, religion and animal studies, and so much more. I think such investigations affect the overall understanding of religion simply by making the case, in ever more rich and convincing ways, that—to paraphrase Ann Braude—American history is American religious history.

SM: Do you have a fresh insight regarding something you have discovered in the margins?

JB: I just feel ever more strongly that what I found as just a hint in O God of Players—that leaders and institutions “did” lived religion as much as so-called ordinary people—is important for the study of Catholicism. There needs to be a study of the lived religion of bishops. And some scholars, like Michael Pasquier, are starting to do this, sources permitting.

SM: Currently you are working on Catholicism beyond the boundaries of the Roman Communion. What do you have to offer regarding this project as it emerges?

JB: Last summer I read lots of Anglican historians who were interested in what is now called independent Catholicism because of Anglican anxieties about valid apostolic succession. I was simply amazed that this history of “other Catholicisms” existed, yet was not on my radar nor on the radar of the field, because American religious historians were less focused on Catholicism, and historians of U.S. Catholicism assumed the Roman kind. So the summer of 2009 was a wild process of self-education about a segment of the scholarship I didn’t know existed.

SM: What work are you currently reading (academic or otherwise) and how do you see it influencing your scholarship?

JB: I read novels a lot and just trust that they rub off on scholarship in some way. I did not agree with the critical assessments of recent Don DeLillo; I loved The Body Artist and then Falling Man even more so, especially since I was newly living in New York. A long time ago, I wrote about DeLillo’s White Noise as a series of eucharists, in a shopping mall, of course.  Still his writing is so real—or unreal, it hurts.  I can’t wait to read Point Omega.

SM: Here’s a wild card: what question do you wish had been asked here?

JB: What is your best advice for graduate students and pre-tenure scholars in religious studies? It’s a stressful time in a stressful profession. I love my work, but I am not one of those who thinks the only thing to be in the world is a scholar and teacher of religion. Someday I might be happier doing something else. So, this is a Quaker way to put it: listen to the still, small voice within. The research university is not for everyone. Neither is the small liberal arts college; neither is the adjuncting life; neither is full-time position. Then again, you really might love any of those paths. There are contingencies. But there are also many versions of a happy and successful intellectual life.

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