A Spectrum of Faith

Religions of the World in America's Heartland

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Timothy Knepper
  • Des Moines, IA: 
    Drake Community Press
    , April
     134 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A Spectrum of Faith: Religions of the World in America’s Heartland presents a series of contributed essays alongside stunning photos that detail fifteen different religious communities within the larger Des Moines, Iowa area. We learn how each community functions in Des Moines from a combination of expository reporting by editor Tim Kneppler’s students and direct quotes from interviews with members and practitioners in each community. Refugees comprise significant populations in many of the faith groups and, as the essays note, influence the practice and identity of the spaces. 

The overarching thesis of the book is that each faith community negotiates authenticity and functionality by combining preserved historic or cultural beliefs and practices with necessary adaptations. These negotiations serve the needs of residents in Des Moines’s particular landscape, culture, and economy. At the same time, each community contributes to public life in Des Moines by challenging the notion that religion exists only within the bounds of “belief” or “practice” dictated by text or dogma. The photos further this claim by demonstrating how religion is lived among the complexities of community formation, maintenance, and growth. The book provides an example of how nuanced stories within one Midwestern city can pose questions about religious identity and civic life in the United States. 

Each essay focuses on four themes that the contributors detail within each community: identity, history, space, and practice. The themes reveal how the contributors understand the concept of “religion” as a process of community formation and negotiation of physical space. “Identity” suggests that each faith community expresses religiosity through a combination of cultural values and praxis. The Ezan Islamic and Education Center, for example, hosts a high population of Bosnians and offers language courses and serves food inspired by Bosnian traditional cuisine. As a large refugee community, the Center knows part of its identity holds significant pain and trauma, yet comes together around the promise of freedom from violence and coercion. The Wat Phothisomphan Temple and Hindu Cultural Education Center also hosts large communities of refugees and immigrants driven to Des Moines by the need to escape war in their home nations. 
In many of the spaces, immigrants and refugees played a significant role in every process of envisioning and building the community. 

The “History” segments in the essays detail the origins of each community in Des Moines and the process of developing centers that serve the needs of the tradition’s members. The particular reasons for settling in Des Moines often dictate these needs. Some of the Sikhs that founded the gurdwara of Sikh Iowa Khalsa Heritage, Inc. for example, traveled to Iowa for the low cost of living and financial opportunities. At times, these historical sections feel slightly esoteric if one does not possess previous knowledge of key terms that describe particular rituals or specific types of spaces, such as the difference between a “synagogue” and a “temple” in the Jewish tradition. However, the nuance of each community’s needs and vision tell an essential part of the story. 

The “Space” sections in each essay most directly complement the vivid photographs of architecture, rituals, festivals, and materials. “Space” describes the physical characteristics of the buildings and distinct objects that make the community function. Descriptions of the spaces allow us to conceive of the types of activities in the different communities at specific times of the day or week. Further, some essays offer valuable portraits of holidays or festivals. The trials of raising enough money to build a space, navigating gender expectations, and accessibility influence construction and use of each community’s home space. “Space” contributes to the notion of a spectrum of faith communities in Des Moines through the creation and transformation of buildings and materials into sacred matter. 

“Practice” includes descriptions of ritual and ceremony, but also includes community-related activities that may not be considered sacred at first glance. A weekly food bank or reading circle, for example, shows the space combining religious and civic life for the community members. In some essays, it is important to clarify the practices of religious leaders in contrast to the practitioners. Imams giving a weekly khutbah at Masjid An-Noor or Hindu priests performing an invitation ritual for deities to live in the icons at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Iowa,reveal some of the power structures in the different traditions represented. The “Practice” and “Space” sections complement the book’s argument that each community uniquely navigates life in Des Moines through preservation and negotiation. 

A Spectrum of Faith combines visual representation with intentional reporting to provide a significant case study not only for sociologists and anthropologists of contemporary American religions, but also furthers the emerging field of interfaith studies. The communities represented each connect to a broader, global tradition-we often hear these traditions included in the “world religions.” At the same time, the photos and interviews suggest that nuance matters deeply for understanding the particularity each community possesses because the experiences of each individual member matter in the shaping of identity, history, space, and practice.

Although the four categories do offer clear structure to the book, the projection of each community’s essence onto these four categories sometimes creates discomfort. The essays at times reach to maintain these categories- for example, the history and identity segments in the Beth El Jacob Synagogue feel disjointed when the local history of the site and the backgrounds of some of the founders intertwine. The categories also limit how we understand religious communities within a broader landscape, as physical spaces in which events and gatherings happen. One wonders if less delineated categories might speak to the vast distinctions each community holds in how they view their own purposes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jem Jebbia is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018



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