by Charles McCrary
If you’ve been reading this series (first of all, thanks), you probably have learned more about Shaun T than you cared to know. Shaun T is interesting to me, but only because I understand him as a product of other interesting an important trends, movements, and ideas. If the purpose of this series were simply to understand this guy, then it wouldn’t be worth doing. But I think that Shaun T is a lens into very important aspects of American culture and history, including secularization, self-control as a virtue, the integrity of the body, and more. I’ve also touched on consumer capitalism a few times, which could certainly be explored further, along with American conceptions of selfhood, but not self-help, per se. With his new book, AffirmaSHAUNS: 52 Weeks of LIVING, coming soon, this angle is a fruitful one, with some intriguing overlaps with certain television evangelists. Also, Shaun T is gay, though he came out only recently, when he married his husband Scott Blokker in October 2012. These facts could pair interestingly with Michael Warner’s work on sexuality and publics. What does Shaun T’s race have to do with any of this? How does he perform his sexuality or his blackness? What does it mean that a gay black man is the most popular fitness instructor in America? All these questions and more could be taken up, but four posts about a fitness instructor is quite enough for a religious studies blog, I think you’ll agree.
This sort of character-focused genealogical exercise that I’ve done could be undertaken with other figures, of course, and some scholars have done so, in very productive ways. In Kathryn Lofton’s book on Oprah Winfrey, for example, Lofton argues that Oprah is “more than just her life. The brand supersedes her biography” (6). Shaun T is certainly attempting to brand himself in this way. “[F]eel me when I tell you,” he writes, “that this website is not about me—it’s a reflection of YOU. ‘Shaun T’ isn’t possible without you. Together, we will grow from here.” Shaun T is a product. His online shop sells, alongside “Trust and Believe” wristbands, shirts with Shaun T’s impromptu catchphrases from Insanity DVDs (including everyone’s favorite, “That shit is bananas, yo”). Like Oprah, Shaun T is more than himself, and he must extend himself in order to help others collaboratively create their best lives, “to touch people’s souls.”
The main reason I wrote this series was as a sort of methodological experiment. The methodology, however loosely conceptualized, has a simple theoretical underpinning: humans are nodes in complex networks, and in any particular person or action we can unravel and untangle the web’s various strands. This is far from a new method. Many other people, from Foucault and Bourdieu to Goffman and even back to Durkheim, have made fundamentally this same argument. What constructed things appear natural, and how does that happen? Shaun T treats categories like “YOU,” “LIVING,” and “experience” as sui generis concepts. But they aren’t, of course. They come from a complex web of practices, exchanges, and ideas.
My own field, American religious history, has for a long time been attempting to untangle these webs, but in breaking from the “church history” model of divinity schools and theological historians, many historians got too far away from ideas, placing them in the same category as “theology” and thus leaving them alone: “We don’t do that.” But I think that the field is coming back around, drawing on first-rate works (like these two) and reintegrating ideas—even theological ones—into our histories. If I were (able) to shift scholarly discourse at all, I would hope to continue to push it in the direction of “intellectual history.” By that I don’t mean older models of theological history that are happily unconcerned with economics, and people who don’t write. What I’m after is something closer to a cultural history of the transmission of ideas.
If we’re really interested in intellectual history as cultural transmission of ideas, then we should be paying attention to all the nodes in our various networks of thematic interest (e.g., secularization.) With this in mind, I would argue that Shaun T is today one of the most effective, persuasive, and increasingly popular purveyors of ideas about bodies, agency, and selfhood. And for those reasons he’s worth our awareness and discussion.
Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His 2012 MA thesis focused on autobiography and historiography among 19th-century Methodists, and his current research is on antebellum public schools, religion, and secularity. He also is finishing an article on disestablishment cases and specialty license plates. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.