2 Professors Work on Museum of the City of New York Exhibit

Courtney Bender and Matthew Engelke lend their expertise to “City of Faith,” which examines New York’s secular image.

Eve Glasberg
March 30, 2023

City of Faith: Religion, Activism, and Urban Space, an exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) through September 18, 2023, explores New York’s image as a secular city and maps the complex relationships that connect religion to public space. Matthew Engelke, a professor in the Religion Department and the director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life (IRCPL), and Courtney Bender, the Tremaine Professor of Religion, were both advisors on the exhibition’s concept and design.

City of Faith focuses attention on how religion engages the city at a public level—in the streets and on sidewalks, waterfronts, and other spaces. The exhibition examines the nature of secularism in New York, how the city has historically favored Protestantism while rendering other communities hyper-visible, and how such communities assert their right to the city through transformative art and collective action. 

Columbia News caught up with Engelke and Bender to find out more about the exhibit, their connection to it, and why people should see it.

How did this exhibit come about, and your involvement with it as members of the advisory committee?

Bender:  Azra Dawood, the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the MCNY, is the brains behind and through the exhibition. She was invited to develop an exhibit as part of her fellowship at the museum, and she chose to engage issues of public religion in the city, which she has done in novel and important ways.

I met Azra at an SOF/Heyman Center-GSAPP event in 2017, and we learned we were both interested in how a city like New York—which is so secular—is, nonetheless, shaped by changing religious concerns. When Azra began to develop the idea for this exhibition, she asked me to suggest other scholars she should contact, so I put her in touch with Matthew and a few other people.

Matthew, how did your research on religion and public culture in England partially inspire the exhibition?

Engelke: As an anthropologist, I’ve done fieldwork on how Evangelical Christians in England try to create more room for discussions and displays of faith in public life and public culture. They faced a lot of resistance; in Britain, “doing God” in public, as my interlocutors liked to put it, is often frowned upon, because many people think religion should be private.

So Evangelical Christians developed a number of projects—with politicians, journalists, and even advertising companies—to “do God” in more subtle, less straightforward ways. The research has highlighted that religion and religious actors cannot be fully understood in relation to the most obvious markers of faith—particular buildings, for instance, modes of dress, or ways of speaking.

What does "ambient faith"—a term you coined—mean? The exhibition has a section devoted to this concept; what's in it?

Engelke: I came up with the term ambient faith to try to help make sense of the subtlety I was observing, the fact that religion was appearing as more of a mood, or background element, of the larger social and political fabric. Expressions and signs of faith are not always front and center; they can be part of the ambience of a streetscape, especially in urban environments like New York.

When you walk by a halal cart, and smell the food, that’s a kind of ambient faith; it indexes a whole host of Islamic dietary laws, and marks a kind of religious presence in public space that will be recognized as such by some, but not others. That emphasis on the senses and sensuality is very important. As I show in my work, this also requires us to think about questions of power and privilege. Who gets to be public, and in what ways?

In the exhibition, Azra focuses on how ambient faith can be used to help understand the ways in which some South Asian communities (including Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs) navigate the challenges of being profiled or stereotyped—hyper-visible—on the one hand, and dismissed or ignored—invisible—on the other.

Why should people see City of Faith?

Bender: The exhibit presents the viewer with a fantastic range of ways to see and sense religion in the city. We see religion as it is present in smells and sounds, in addition to sight. In activism and artistic initiatives, in addition to architecture and congregations.

City of Faith opens up our means of observing, appreciating, and thinking about religion in unexpected ways. The show does a brilliant job of illustrating how religious diversity in New York is lived out—not just in the kinds of interfaith rituals that we might see at City Hall, but through the daily life of exchange, commerce, eating, social activism, and festivals. It is a joyful and thought-provoking exhibition. 

Are there any exhibition-related events happening this semester at Columbia or the museum?

Engelke: On April 11, at 5:30 pm, IRCPL is partnering with the Religion Department and Courtney’s course, Religion, Culture, and Public Life, as well as the Society of Fellows/Heyman Center for the Humanities, to bring Azra Dawood to campus to talk about the exhibit. It’s an opportunity for students to connect with New York’s incredible cultural resources. The event is also open to the public.