Religion as Commodity and the Deification of Beer

By Philip L. Tite


I must admit that beyond the beautiful mountains, lush green forests, and interwoven water ways, one of the things I love most about the Pacific Northwest is the plethora of amazing beers. Being raised on the east coast, I was never a beer drinker before I discovered British ales and pubs – and when I moved from the UK to the west coast, I was delighted that there were some amazing breweries producing delicious stouts, porters, and ales.

As a scholar of religion, however, I am fascinated by the presence and dissemination of religious motifs in supposedly non-religious contexts, yet socially engaged contexts nonetheless. I continually run across video clips (such as on YouTube) that evoke religious concepts (typically in humorous parodies, such as Eddie Izzard’s treatment of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Javier Prato’s Jesus musical short (to the music I Will Survive), or a “shared” Facebook image either challenging or affirming insider truth claims (it seemed like an avalanche of these during the last Presidential election in the United States). In many cases, directly engaging a religious tradition seems to be secondary (if important at all), with the emphasis falling on simply evoking laughter or reflection.

At least two breweries in Seattle tap into ancient mythologies to brand their products. The Elysian Brewery tends to label their products with Greco-Roman mythic motifs, though occasionally they have tapped into Norse myth. And in one case, they have used the Devil (a Christian mythical entity) for their red ale. Another brewery that I only recently discovered, the Odin Brewery, uses Norse deities to label their brands: Odin (amber ale), Thor (Belgian-style dark ale), and Freya (golden ale). By tapping into such mythologies, the question arises as to how is “religion” (or perhaps more clearly in these cases, “myth”) being constructed and utilized, for whom, and to what ends?

IMG_0383In thinking of these empty bottles of beer on the wall, I was reminded of the metaphor of the “marketplace” that arises as a social model for, especially, North American religions. And the idea that “religion” (as a discursive product that is received and contested as an object of study) is a “commodity” that is created, exchanged, and imbued with value all came to mind. Yet unlike a graphic novel expounding on some sacred text (such as the narrative presentation by Virgin Comics of Hindu gods a few years ago), or a bumper sticker that makes a declaration of faith or aligns the driver with a particular cosmogony, the presence of Norse, Greco-Roman, or even Christian myths on the labels of locally produced beer does not seem to imbue the producers – nor the consumers of those products – with a confessional stance. Rather, the discursive value seems to be in the light, hoppy context of social engagement, where laughter intersects commodified practices and encoded normative structures.

The consumer culture of “religion” – or “religion” as one of many goods produced and exchanged within consumer culture – offers moments of interactive alignment for the consumer. Perhaps the goods used serve as means to express, modify, or disrupt those social narratives by which identities are aligned with others. The beer bottles selected for this blog evoke archetypal or stereotyped ideals that perhaps contribute to the broader interactive engagement. The products serve as venues for defining or re-defining the consumer through a conflation of consumer with product. Specifically, these beers each seem to encourage an intersection of the “heroic” with the product (and thus the consumer).

IMG_0385Note the Odin Brewing Company’s statement: “Great beer designed with great food in mind.” The Elysian red ale intersects the Devil with the “Men’s Room”. In both cases festive consumption – a participatory interaction between social actors – underlies the manly or heroic values that seem to function as a subtext. The Odin Brewing Company’s website highlights such values as an exploratory spirit, traditional styles, and “the beer experience” as  “integral to the dining experience” – all of which their line of beer is designed to pay homage. If we were to expand our analysis, we would undoubtedly compare these beer labels with the growing fascination with Norse mythology in North American popular cultures – from comic books, to films, to knitted hand puppets, to playful t-shirts – where mythological figures such as Thor, Loki, and Odin have become commonplace even if transgressed or transformed to fit our cultural expectations in diverse yet still commodified ways.

IMG_0388For the Men’s Room ale, the heroic aspects attached to the Norse images may not be at play. For me, this label raises interesting questions about the role of the Devil (and demonic figures generally) within modern popular cultures. What is it that makes the Devil cool and perhaps even a festive figure? Could it be the idea that all the fun people, and thus the best parties, are hosted in hell? Does such humor carry a tacit rejection of established religious traditions?

But surely this talk of a “beer experience” is a light and playful advertising gimmick. Myth is literally consumed with a wink not a protest or a mission or a calling. It’s just another round of pints for one’s mates. It’s not really religion, now is it?

Or maybe it is something more than just pints that we are consuming. Perhaps the dismissal of beer bottles that have mythic images as unworthy of study tells us more about our perception of religion – as something disconnected from commodified or economic exchanges; i.e., “religion” as sui generis, a protected object of private belief – than it does about actual practices and structures of consuming seemingly trivial mythical motifs within broader systems of exchange, exchanges that shape those interactive narratives within which identities are generated, played out, and rendered normative.

If my hunch is correct that the presence and dissemination of religious motifs in supposedly non-religious contexts (such as with these beer bottles) demonstrates one kind of commodity utilization of “religion” in popular culture(s), then perhaps the importance of such anthropological evidence is due our scholarly gaze, even if to only illustrate presuppositions underlying such terms as religion and myth.

Regardless of the theoretical implications my examples may evoke, I think I’ll continue my field work – Another round, please!

Author Bio: Philip Tite is co-editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

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Theory & Religion Series: The Americanization of Religious Minorities


by Rebecca Barrett-Fox

In The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order, Eric Michael Mazur (now the chair of Judaic studies and a professor of American studies at Virginia Wesleyan College and the author of some other terrifically useful texts) points to a gap between two foundational religious texts in U.S. history, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Article 16 and the First Amendment, and their application in the lives of actual people. The freedom of religion guaranteed in these texts is, says Mazur, “the gift with the greatest potential to be given by this country to the world.” However, the “gift” of religious freedom has never been fully realized; rather “it is a promise that, like the messiah, is always coming but never here” (ix).

Mazur examines three cases of religious minorities interacting with the American constitutional order: Jehovah’s Witnesses (mostly 1930-1950), Latter-Day Saints (mostly in the second half of the 1800s), and Native American religious traditions (from the early 1800s to the 1990s). Each experiences congruence (the Witnesses), conversion (the Mormons), or conflict (Native American religionists) with the constitutional order, for “if the central functions of the order are challenged, the competing system must be either realigned or destroyed” (134). Mazur does not provide deep legal analysis but rather compares across cases to demonstrate patterns of engagement “in light of their symbolic impact on cultural dominance and religious hegemony” (xvi).

His first move is to posit the engagement not as state versus minority religion but as two competing religious communities: American Protestantism and religious minorities—interestingly, all indigenous in their own ways. When such minorities are “unable to find themselves reflected in the cultural presuppositions of the legal system,” they have limited choices as they can “neither simply accept the system as it is nor live freely denying its applicability” (xxii). Mazur’s cases illustrate the adaptability of religion in the face of the order of things even as that order changes with U.S. demographics and law (though Mazur notes that the situation for minorities “has not necessarily improved with the wane of Protestant cultural hegemony” (xxv)—perhaps best exemplified by the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision delivered in 2014 by a Supreme Court that, for the first time, lacked a Protestant.)

Mazur’s comparisons also highlight the risk of marginalization that those who reject the authority of the legal system face and the risks that they may pose to the nonviolent coexistence of religious adherents (and not) of various stripes. The potential for danger emerges when religious nationalists—who “aggressively oppose… the movement of modern nation-states toward an increasingly secular identity” (138)—feel hopeless to change the constitutional order and either disengage or strike back. Within the U.S., this has included groups like Christian Identity, which influenced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, but the comparisons that Mazur was unable to make in the late 1990s keep the citations to The Americanization of Religious Minorities coming, more than 15 years later.

Indeed, the foundation that Mazur lays in The Americanization of Religious Minorities makes the book, which is relatively short, teachable and useful as a model for further scholarship. Since 1999, the number of hate groups has increased dramatically, and many ground their ideology in religion. “Lone wolf” actors engage in domestic terrorism inspired by religious fervor, from Army of God hero Scott Roeder (who murdered abortion provider George Tiller in Tiller’s Lutheran church one Sunday) to Frazier Glenn Miller, a neopagan Odinist who killed three people in an anti-Semitic rampage in Overland Park, Kansas, on April 14, 2014, the first day of Passover. But one does not need to look as far as extremist violence to find recent examples of conversion, congruence, and conflict between the American constitutional order and U.S. religious minorities. For example:

* Members of Christian Exodus began to encourage “personal secession” after its efforts in the early 2000s to encourage mass migration of Christian patriots to South Carolina failed. It is currently working to build networks of like-minded individuals who reject, as far as possible, government intervention in their lives in California, Colorado, Panama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

* Since the Great Recession made visible structural changes in the U.S. and global economies, new questions emerged among the Amish about their rejection of unemployment insurance benefits. As Amish move into industries in which they are in direct competition with English (non-Amish) workers, such as construction, there are calls to reconsider the Amish’s exemptions from social security and unemployment insurance taxes, which may make bids from Amish contractors more competitive than their English counterparts.

* In 2008, Texas law enforcement and child welfare workers raided the Yearning for Zion ranch near rural Eldorado, Texas. Home to several hundred members of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints sect, the ranch was the suspected site of underage marriage, bigamy, and the sexual abuse of children. Though public backlash to the raid was widespread when images of FLDS mothers and their children circulated publically and Oprah Winfrey visited the ranch to speak with mothers about the overzealous removal of children from their homes, multiple convictions were achieved through the raid, including further convictions for FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

* In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in support of the wildly unpopular Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket funerals with their message of God’s hatred for America.

* Conservative Christian commentators continue to recommend civil disobedience, predict mass social disorder, and to even advise listeners to “prepare for martyrdom” if the same-sex marriage is further legally recognized.

* This April 15, thousands of American would-be taxpayers will voice their religiously-justified opposition to military spending by refusing to pay taxes, withholding a symbolic amount of their taxes to register their dissent, or redirecting taxes that would go to support war to social justice causes.

In other words, every day we see new examples of how useful Mazur’s framework for understanding church-state conflict is. The book remains vitally relevant in understanding these potential conflicts, congruencies, and conversions.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religions Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999).

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University, where she teaches courses in the sociology of religion and sexuality. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Proteus: A Journal of Ideas, Radical Teacher, The Journal of Hate Studies, and The Bulletin for the Study of Religion as well as Religion Dispatches. Her first book, an ethnographic study of Westboro Baptist Church, is forthcoming from the University Press of Kansas. She wishes to thank Sherry Wright for assigning Mazur’s The Americanization of Religious Minorities in REL 602: Religious and Legal Issues in US History at the University of Kansas. She welcomes conversation at

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“We’re here to talk about religion”: A Few Examples for Teaching Classification


by Charles McCrary

This post’s titular sentence was spoken Friday morning by a student during first lecture of the semester. It was a protest, playful but betraying frustration. She was sitting in the front row of a packed classroom, spending fifty minutes of her day on a class called “Religion in America.” But, ten minutes into class, she and her classmates were working to come to a collective decision as to whether or not a platypus is mammal. The main point of the lecture, like the point of most first-day religious studies lectures, I assume, is to argue that classification is not inherent. Nothing is intrinsically “sacred” or “secular.” Acts of classification are political acts, etc., etc. This point isn’t new, of course; it’s the cornerstone of religious studies, or at least a certain kind of religious studies. I think students can grasp it pretty easily. Many of them believe “religion” is so personal and individual that a sort of relativism about it doesn’t bother them. In the lecture, though, I did not talk much about things normally called “religious,” lest they think the point applies only or especially to “religion.” So, instead, I used a few examples from that supposedly unconstructed realm, “science.”

The first exercise was to place animals into categories. I showed a list of animals—alligator, marlin, box turtle, gray whale, sperm whale, platypus, jellyfish, fur seal—and asked for classification suggestions. The first was “land” and “sea,” so I made a T-chart on the board and we divided them up thusly, with alligator and fur seal triggering some ambivalence. The next suggestion was “mammal,” “fish,” and “reptile,” which raised not only the exasperating platypus question but also highlighted the curiosity of the jellyfish, whose name makes an unfulfilled promise of easy classification. The final suggestion was “big” and “small,” which is a fascinating choice since they’re thoroughly comparative categories, dependent entirely on the data in the larger set. I followed this exercise by describing the 1818 case Maurice v. Judd, drawing from D. Graham Burnett’s entertaining and excellent book Trying Leviathan. The trial hinged on the classification of whale oil as fish oil and, thus, the question, “Is a whale a fish?” The judge, after hearing a variety of testimony from naturalists and other experts, sided with common sense and popular opinion that the whale was indeed a fish. Some of the students seemed disconcerted by the notion that Jesus seems to have classified whales as fish (see Matthew 12:40).

The last anecdote I used is about James Dwight Dana and nineteenth-century American geology. I became aware of Dana only recently (my main sources here are Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory and the sixth chapter of David Igler’s recent book, The Great Ocean, both of which I read over winter break), so the example is a new one, but I will use it again. Dana was a scientist on the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), and he was particularly interested in volcanic activity and erosion in the Pacific. He wrote a number of books based on his research on the Expedition, including Geology (1849).

In his work, he relied on an oceanic-centric geology and discussed California as a part of the Pacific. By the 1850s, American geologists, including Dana, were much more interested in continental geology, situating California as part of the North American land mass. Why? What changed? For one, California became a U.S. state. During the Expedition it was part of Mexico. But why did it become a state? The answer, of course, is gold. Dana’s works from the 1840s never mention gold, nor do they show much interest in North America. By 1855, though, Dana gushed over the North American continent. He lauded its remarkable simplicity and symmetry, contrasting it with Europe, “a world of complexities,” “one corner of the Oriental Continent—which includes Europe, Asia, and Africa,” mapping geology and patriotism onto each other seamlessly.

“What is California?” The land itself was mostly unchanged—at least in geological terms—between the 1840s and 1850s, but the way geologists studied it changed dramatically. The question “What is California?”, like the question “What is religion?”, is not a question worth asking in a history course. We’ll do better to ask what’s at stake in a definition of California or religion or America or the good life, how those definitions have changed over time, who gets to decide, and so on. It is in this way that we study verbs, not nouns.

The lecture’s final PowerPoint slide, titled “religious things and secular things,” is just a list of things—Morality, Incense, George Washington, Crying, Cows, The Book of James, Oprah Winfrey, A Christmas Tree, Science. By the time we get to this slide, students (are supposed to) see the potential of studying acts of classification, as well as the lack of self-evidence for those categories themselves. Thus, “We’re here to talk about religion” is exactly the sort of claim whose employments we’ll be studying, because, well, that’s what we’re here to talk about.

Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. He is writing a dissertation on the cultural history of sincerity and belief in 19th-century America. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.

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Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture – Special Issue: Religion and Nature in Asia and the Himalayas


Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture

Volume 8, Number 4

Special Issue: Religion and Nature in Asia and the Himalayas

Guest Edited by Georgina Drew and Ashok Gurung


“Wastes and Worldviews: Garbage and Pollution Challenges in Bhutan”

Elizabeth Allison

The global trend toward urbanization has led to increasing waste challenges, especially in developing countries. Although Bhutan is still one of the world’s least developed countries, its economy and capital city have grown rapidly during the past two decades, causing solid waste production to outstrip management capacity. The government instituted new waste management initiatives in 2007, but they gained little traction. Ethnographic research in communities across the country revealed competing paradigms about the identification of waste, the disposition of waste, and household practices of waste management. Vajrayana Buddhism, the dominant religion throughout much of the country, profoundly shapes local beliefs and practices. Local environmental imaginaries and cultural concerns about ritual pollution have conflicted with technocratic management protocols, leading to confusion and incompletely implemented policies. Waste management policies may be more effective if they engage with the values and practices inherent in a lived religion that contributes to cultural understandings of waste.

“Everyday Buddhism and Environmental Decisions in the World’s Highest Ecosystem”

Jeremy Spoon

As Tibetan Buddhists from the Nyingma sect, the Khumbu Sherpa generally view the landscape as sacred and protected by various deities and spirits. Beliefs that humans can earn protection by following certain religious practices have traditionally provided beneficial environmental outcomes. Changing economic conditions, including those driven by foreign tourism, however, have reduced the prevalence or changed the character of these religious beliefs and practices. Mixed quantitative and qualitative research conducted in 2004–2007, 2008, and 2011 showed both generational and market-driven changes related to how consultants conceived of the relationship between humans and nonhumans and which environmental taboos they observed. Everyday Buddhist knowledge and practice appeared to focus on fewer spiritual entities and to be hybridizing with more secular belief systems. For Sherpa who are not following place-based religious traditions, economics may motivate less sustainable decisions; other Sherpa will likely continue their practice or utilize new knowledge to support sustainable environmental behavior.

“The Earth as a Treasure in Tibetan Buddhism: Visionary Revelation and its Interactions with the Environment”

Antonio Terrone

In this article I examine conceptions of the environment in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Treasure revelation that I propose are founded upon systems of exchange and relationality. Tibetan religious specialists known as Treasure revealers do not simply remove a Treasure from its place; they often leave a ‘replacement Treasure’ intended to appease both the local protective deity believed to be in charge of guarding the Buddhist Treasure and nourishing the local environment. I demonstrate that the logic of Treasure revelation is based on forming an interdependent exchange between humans and the land they inhabit. The source of the Treasure becomes a place deserving respect, protection, and devotion on both religious and ecological levels. I call this phenomenon ‘the ecology of revelation’, and I maintain that this is a fundamental socio-religious ethic characterized by respect for the environment and awareness of humans’ connection to it.

“Sentience of the Earth: Eco-Buddhist Mandalizing of Dwelling Place in Amdo, Tibet”

Dan Smyer Yu

I present a case study of Tibetan Buddhism as a lived religion embodied in the greater environment of a village in eastern Amdo, Tibet. Specifically, I explore the interconnectedness of place-based Buddhist practices that, I argue, present an example of care for sacred landscapes in Tibetan Buddhism. Based on my ethnographic work, I make a threefold argument. First, Buddhism in Tibet can be viewed as ‘an emplaced religion’ signifying the antecedent role of place in forging the complex intertwinement of the Earth and humans. Second, the sacredness in the local landscape entails a shared, hierarchical entwinement of place, humans, and gods. Third, the way the villagers, especially the lay tantric yogis, consecrate their environment expresses their connection and care for the landscape.

The articles described above are available for download here. Current and past issues of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture are included in memberships to the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. The ISSRNC is a community of scholars engaged in critical, interdisciplinary inquiry into the relationships between human beliefs, practices and environments. Scholars interested in these relationships are cordially invited to join the society, attend its conferences, and submit work for possible publication in the journal.

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North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR): An Interview with Russell McCutcheon


1. For readers unfamiliar with NAASR, could you briefly outline its history and its general aims?

Russell McCutcheon: The North American Association for the Study of Religion—of which the Bulletin and thus this blog are representative publications, along with Brill’s quarterly peer review journal, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion—was established as a non-profit scholarly association in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe. Those interested in some of the details of its founding may find this unpublished paper, co-written by Martin and Wiebe, interesting. While our website describes the organization in detail, suffice it to say here that NAASR’s very existence is evidence of a dissatisfaction in the field, in North America, on the part of those who had hoped that, once it was re-established in public universities all across Canada and the US in the early to mid-1960s, the academic study of religion would be something other than a well-meaning paraphrase of what the people we study were already saying about their own lives. But, in too many cases, scholarship on religion seemed merely to reproduce a set of assumptions commonly found among the more liberal groups we study—e.g., that religion is a product of deep, inward faith or experience, that this experience is the sine qua non of being human, and that all people share in it but, inasmuch as our expressions and communications are inevitably flawed (e.g., “I can’t quite put it into words…”), the institutions we devise pollute what William James once described as “the originally innocent thing” (by which he meant the unique experience of the religion’s founder).

For those interested in studying religion as nothing more or less than human behavior, as historically discrete or socially enmeshed actions and institutions that come with interests and consequences, the scholarly apparatus to support such work (conferences, journals, etc.) just wasn’t there 30 years ago. So Lawson, Martin, and Wiebe created a small corner of the field where those interested in doing something different could present and discuss their research. They gained membership for NAASR within the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) and also within the then Council of Societies for the Study of Religion (an organization that is now defunct), and, eventually, obtained an affiliated society status for NAASR within the American Academy of Religion (AAR; like many other societies, NAASR’s annual meeting traditionally takes place along with the AAR and SBL annual conference). An early alignment between NAASR and MTSR, which was itself established quite apart from NAASR, in the late 1980s, by grad students at the University of Toronto, led to what many of us today think of when we think of NAASR: a small but active scholarly association, that meets annually and publishes peer review research, with an emphasis on the role theories and methodologies play in making scholarship on religion possible, persuasive, and innovative.

So although there’s surely a variety of viewpoints within NAASR concerning almost any topic of relevance to the field, I’d wager that one thing that unites its members is their assumption that this thing we call religion is not a pristine, sui generis thing but, instead, is all too human, through and through (as is scholarship on it!), and thus something to be studied using the tools we bring to virtually any other instance of human belief, behavior or institution. Religion, as well as scholarship on it, is ordinary and that’s what makes it all the more interesting.

2. What do you hope to bring to the table with your tenure as president?

RM: I’ve written about this, prior to knowing that I’d again get involved in NAASR’s leadership (I was Executive Secretary/Treasurer from 2004-7, a role Craig Martin now fills quite nicely). I tend to think that (I’m being a little ironic here) NAASR was too successful and that, like any social institution, its members can’t take gains for granted and so we need continually to press toward what we think to be the cutting edge, challenging the field to move in new directions and tackle new topics.

For if I think back on my own career (I was a doctoral student at Toronto in the late 1980s and early 1990s), I recall when almost no one would list the word theory on their C.V.; in fact, as I’ve described elsewhere no long ago, I was once advised, very early in my teaching career, to change the word “theories” to “approaches,” in a syllabus, so as not to alienate older (and, yes, more powerful) members of the Department where I then worked. This was the context of NAASR’s (and MTSR’s) founding—a time when description and interpretation (aka phenomenology and hermeneutics) exhausted most scholars’ toolboxes. To explain these actions that so interested us (seeing them as the result of, say, economic or psychological factors) was quickly dismissed as reductionism (as if Eliade wasn’t reducing sheer variety to some sort of abstract uniformity in his work as well). Daniel Pals, Robert Segal, and Don Wiebe had some great exchanges on this in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But today, the phrase “method and theory” appears on almost everyone’s C.V. and also in every second job ad; for Departments across the country took notice of what was happening in the field and so began developing and requiring such courses at the undergrad and graduate levels, because people began reading what were, back then, only marginal voices in the field. And, voila, we arrive at the present moment when everyone seems to know, for instance, all about the critique of the world religions category.

Yet, to stick with this one example, the curious thing is that world religions courses show no sign of disappearing.

In fact, judging by W. W. Norton’s investment in marketing their new world religions anthology, this way of talking about what people do, how they supposedly organize and identify, is as strong now as it ever was. So the question that comes to my mind is what’s going on in a field that claims to be theoretically aware and knowledgeable, on the one hand, and, on the other, which is comprised of scholars who are, in many cases, doing little different now than their predecessors were back when theory was a dirty word? So this is what I mean when I say that NAASR experienced a level of success—not that it was the lone cause, of course, for theory swept through the human sciences back then, but I think it and its members have played an important role over the past three decades—but that these advances were sometimes taken for granted and domesticated, such that now one can cite a number of problems with using the category “world religions,” near the opening of a paper or a book, yet then just get on with studying something called Hinduism and know that it is obviously related to this other thing we call Buddhism or Judaism, or… , and doing so as if those critiques of the world religions category that you cited earlier were of no lasting consequence.

So that’s a long way of saying that our hope—I think I can also speak for Aaron Hughes here, our new Vice President (who I passed this text by, for comments, before sending it on to the Bulletin blog)—is to try to ensure that NAASR is always pressing toward a critical edge, for neither of us think that we’ve arrived at the end of history or that the academic study of religion in North American has achieved its full potential.

And we know we’re not alone in sharing this view.

3. Could you say a few words about the theme for NAASR’s upcoming annual meeting in Atlanta, “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which marks the organization’s 30th anniversary?

RM: This was Willi Braun’s excellent wording—he, Aaron, and I met together in San Diego, at last year’s annual conference, and conferred with Craig Martin, discussing the topics I just referred to above, and Willi (himself a former President of NAASR [2008-11]) nicely captured the problem: what does it mean to “do theory” when everyone now claims to be doing it too, though few, if any, understand it to mean generating explanations that account for the cause of the item under study. So we invited members to submit proposals for substantive papers that examine what they think ought to count as “doing theory” in the study of religion today—we were looking for bold statements. And we have settled on four such papers and are now working on putting together a group of respondents for each (so each session will be one main paper plus its responses), and so we hope to announce the full 2015 program very soon.

What also sets this year apart is that we aim for all of the main papers to be pre-distributed to all NAASR members by October 1, with each paper then being summarized briefly at the session itself. Add to that several brief responses per paper (from largely early career people, those who constitute the next generation of scholars) and we hope that we arrive at provocative sessions with plenty of time for conversation and spirited debate. And since Equinox Publishers has already agreed to publish the 2015 program as an edited book (which will also include papers from our traditional Presidential Panel, which this year will feature presentations by two more scholars, each also focusing on the situation of the field today and where it might be going), we hope that we’re setting a new tone for NAASR sessions not only in terms of the topic and format but also by finding new ways to distribute the work our members do so that we can continue to press the field in new directions.

4. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

RM: Just that I hope any current NAASR member reading this will take seriously the longstanding linkage between NAASR and MTSR—as well as the Bulletin and its blog, since both are now also NAASR publications—and submit their work so as to keep pressing the field. And for those who are not (yet) members, I hope they’ll stick their heads into one of the Atlanta sessions this November to see what we’re all about.

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Finite Demands, the Toronto TA Strike, and Critical Theory


by Tenzan Eaghll

* Photo by Ian Brown

It has been two weeks now since 1000 members of Cupe 3902, the union representing University of Toronto graduate students, decisively rejected a motion to send a tentative agreement reached on February 27 to a ratification vote. Since then members of Cupe 3903, which represents graduate students at York University (also in Toronto) has followed suit. The demands are real, as most of the graduate students, myself included, live below the poverty line and struggle to maintain the demands of research and teaching on a below subsistence funding package.

On that note, I thought a brief post regarding the connections between the strike and critical theory might be in order. For some of you with academic appointments this might not seem like an important issue, and you may even consider the role of theory to be purely a matter for scholarship, separated from the struggle for academic and social justice, but for some of us fighting to make ends meet as we finish our degrees, the connections are all too real. For some of us, critical theory is not just about challenging essentialism in the name of historical difference and alterity, but challenging those who hold power to question the abstract checks and balances that maintain the status quo. Critical theory, for us, is not just about how and why “religion” gets used to police political, economic, aesthetic, and cultural boundaries, but how the means of production are allocated and distributed along essentialist (and hierarchical) lines of force. Or, as Max Horkheimer once described critical theory, it is about liberating “human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”

Going on strike is one of the few powers some of us have at our disposal to effect real change, and has nothing to do with infinite, pie in the sky demands. So much of continental philosophy over the past hundred years has been consumed with infinite demands, and has tended to portray the advance of capitalism and political essentialism as so oppressive as to be insurmountable. This has led to a sense of apathy and futility concerning matters of reform, as if the struggle against hegemony was impossible, and that the only way forward was to wait for an outburst of Benjamin’s ‘divine violence,’ or Levinas’ “good beyond being.” (a contemporary example of this politics of infinite expectation can be found in the work of Simon Critchley) This emphasis on the mysterious forces of historical transformation, I believe, has at times led to a resignation of the will to the “impossibility” of social change, and a suspension of finite demands in the name of an infinite justice. But make no mistake, surrendering precise finite demands for better pay, gender equality, political change, etc., in the name of an infinite justice, is a choice to let those in power continue to exercise their unfair dominance.

As Slavoj Žižek argues, this trend in continental theory to resistance over struggle is a form of surrender to the status quo. The only way to force change in the political and economic orders’ is to bombard those in authority with an infinite series of small finite demands. (How does mere resistance change the fact that the presidents of the UofT and York make over $400,000 a year? Or, more globally, that a handful of billionaires like Bill Gates control more wealth than half of all the people on the planet combined?) As Žižek writes:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power … The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

The value of critical theory lies in this call to address the finite, which doesn’t imply violence or even necessarily “physical” action, but it does imply commitment to the finite. Calls for infinite justice function as an opiate that obscure the real finite concerns that oppress us, right here, in the midst of the world, and this is the connection between critical theory and the strike. Critical theory in religious studies, is, at least in part, about instilling the importance of these finite demands. (I recognize that this is a somewhat normative claim, but being able to eat and pay rent should be normative)

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Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History, An Interview with Aaron Hughes


* This post originally appear on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History, by Aaron Hughes

1. What is the main argument of your book? 

My main argument is the term “Abrahamic religions” is an invented term.  Like all of our terms and categories in the academic study of religion it does not name some thing in reality, but represents a sort of wish fulfillment.  If Jews and Muslims and Christians—the so-called “Abrahamic religions”—can be shown to possess the same essence, spirit, ethos, or whatever else we may want to call it, then it is often safely assumed that we have found a common core that exists beyond the most recent depressing headlines, and, of course, beyond history. Since the events of 9/11, the subsequent “war on terror,” and the pushback against it, we have seen many embrace and use “Abrahamic religions” as a way out of the current political quagmire. But, and this is the key point, there is absolutely no historical precedent for this term—Jews, Muslims, and Christians have being killing one another for centuries over the proper understanding of Abraham, among other things. What they most decidedly have not done is hugged one another based on this figure, nor have they sat down at what we today dub as “Abrahamic salons” to talk about perceived common beliefs.

If local religious communities want an invented term to feel good about one another and enter into interfaith dialogue with other religions, so be it. I have no problem with this. I certainly prefer peace to bellicosity. My problem, however, begins when such an invented term crosses over into the Academy. Initially I saw the term sneak into textbooks, and now it has become a full-blown rubric (like equally fictive ones such as “Judeo-Christian,” “Eastern religions,” or “Western religions”). To my sheer amazement we now see courses devoted to “Abrahamic religions.” There are endowed chairs at major universities for “Abrahamic religions.” There are conferences on the topic. The questions informing my book, then, were pretty simple: How did this happen? Why did this happen? And, when did this happen?

Abrahamic Religions traces the genealogy of this term. How it moved from a symbol of exclusion—for example in the New Testament, Abraham is a “pre-Christian” Christian, and in the Quran he becomes a “pre-Muslim” Muslim; and in neither tradition is Abraham a symbol of interfaith relations—to one of inclusion. So, in many ways, I see the book as a case study that exemplifies the much larger discipline of religious studies and its problematic use of terms. If “Abrahamic religions” is so problematic for the reasons that I have just outlined, then even much more basic terms—“Judaism” and “Islam,” to name but two examples—also become complicit in, for lack of a better term, “the disciplinary lie.” To this end, the final chapter makes the point that if we really want to be specific and accurate we can neither speak of “Abrahamic religions” nor Jewish, Christian, and Muslim relations in, say, the Middle Ages. What we can speak about, though, are specific interactions between various social groups often with very porous boundaries who exist locally, say, Jews and Muslims in Cordoba in 1203. This is why I subtitled the book On the Uses and Abuses of History.

2. What motivated your work? 

That’s pretty easy. Lying in the service of ecumenical ends. Are we really willing to lie to make our students, our colleagues, and ultimately ourselves, feel better about the world we live in? I see the goal of scholarship to be critical of everything that has been bequeathed to us—terms, categories, basic narratives, axioms, and so on. Unless we do this, we just take things on authority. If we assume, for example, that “Abrahamic religions” is a natural category that actually names something real, then we haven’t really clarified anything. It is one more barrier that we have erected that limits our understanding.

3. What theory or theorists inform your methodology? 

I wear a lot of hats, and do not believe in methodological purity. In terms of religious studies, I am informed by the usual suspects—Jacob Neusner, J. Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, Donald Lopez, and Russell McCutcheon. In terms of philosophy, I would have to say the line running from Nietzsche to Derrida via Heidegger and Foucault has been very important to my intellectual development. In this latter context, I would also have to note my indebtedness to Elliot Wolfson, a philosopher and friend, whose creative work and conversation have always helped me to see what is important and, especially in the context of Judaism, to grasp how pernicious an attachment to perceived atavistic essences can be.

Another important area for me, at least in this book, is history. Here I am not so much interested in historiographical theory than I am in the close and often hesitant readings that historians bring to their material. They are often unwilling, unlike so many scholars of religion, to make sweeping generalizations in the service of some all-encompassing myth or lie. While History may not be as theoretical as I like (trust me, I spent three frustrated years in a History department), it is, as I like to tell my students, one of the best antidotes that we possess for the essentialist and other excesses that seem endemic to the current practices found within the academic study of religion.

4. How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom? 

I think it has already been used in several classrooms, from what I can tell. I think it could be used in a theory and/or method class, again, as a case study of the problems besetting the academic study of religion. I would also think that selections of the book could be used in an introductory class that is meant to introduce students to the three “Western religions.” In such a class, I would hope that my argument might nicely problematize for them the danger of using such unwieldy terms.

5. How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

Again, I think the real benefit of the book for students would be as a caution to using terms that are problematic, but are assumed to be natural or, at the very least, neutral. In this regard, I think the book charts, in non-jargony language, how we got from there to here. It starts with a problem and then goes back to the historical record to see the various turns that the term has undergone until finally, post-9/11, many can declare that there is now such a thing as “Abrahamic religions.” The book shows quite clearly when, why, how, and by whom this term was invented. If students can see this for “Abrahamic religion,” I would like to think that they will start to question pretty much every other term in the conceptual toolbox of religious studies—myth, ritual, liturgy, Eastern religions, Western religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, to name one a few big terms.

The real problem with the discipline, though, is that we rarely do this—in the classroom, at the American Academy of Religion, in our academic writing. In sum, then, I would like to see this book as a call for conceptual and terminological clarity, and intellectual integrity.

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