The Birmingham Quran and the Palimpsest of History


Note: This post originally appeared on the Marginalia Los Angeles Review of Books blog.

by Aaron W. Hughes

We like nothing more than a really big story about religion. If we are religious, it makes us feel good about ourselves regardless of denomination. If we are not, we wait patiently for the other shoe to drop. The media, always ready to sensationalize, is quick to oblige. With some regularity we are promised the next Cairo Geniza or Dead Sea Scrolls before better heads prevail. Recall the Mar Saba letter, the Lost Tomb of Jesus, the Jehoash Tablet, and the James Ossuary, to name only a few recent discoveries. Understanding historical relics or documents, however, is a difficult process, something that experts need time to analyze, contextualize, and assess. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t like waiting.

The latest “big” story surprisingly has very little to with Christianity or its older sibling, Judaism. Instead, we have been treated over recent months to a much-needed positive story about its younger sibling, Islam. I refer, of course, to those leaves of an early Quranic manuscript discovered among the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library. Believed to date somewhere between 568 and 645, we are told that it is among the oldest Quran manuscripts in our possession.

The story made the rounds in all the national media, including the BBC and CNN, and even made the front page of The New York Times. David Thomas, the University of Birmingham’s expert on Islam, was quoted in the BBC proclaiming:

The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally — and that really is quite a thought to conjure with.

Joseph Lumbard, an Assistant Professor at Brandeis, went even further when he boldly announced to the world in The Huffington Post that

This changes the field of Quranic Studies because it provides empirical support for the accuracy of the traditional Islamic accounts that many western scholars have previously claimed to be anachronistic and unreliable, such as the existence of variant manuscripts of the Quran before the collation of the text in 650.

As Lumbard proceeded with his praise for the light the Birmingham manuscript shed on the origins of Islam, the attentive reader hopefully noticed that much was bubbling just under the surface of his prose. At stake for Lumbard was the entire Western tradition of scholarship on the Quran. This tradition, operating with what he and others call a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” is mistrustful of Islamic sources:

If Western scholarship wishes to establish a viable empirical approach to the historicity and meaning of the Quranic text, it must first account for the vast literature on these topics in the classical Islamic tradition. Anything less is academically irresponsible.

It turns out, however, that we did not have to wait long for the other shoe to drop. Recent days have seen a spate of media headlines proclaiming not that the Birmingham leaves were a forgery, but that they might actually be so old as to predate Muhammad! The story soon broke that the material quoted in the fragments might not have been written down by someone who listened to Muhammad preach, to invoke Thomas’s words above, but someone much earlier.

As with the initial discovery, talking heads were immediately consulted — and, to be fair, probably quoted out of context. England’s Daily Mail went to Keith Small from the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, who told us that the Birmingham manuscript “gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven.”

One does not have to reread Said’s Orientalism to know that there is a long history of Western polemical writing against Islam in the West. Such writings often take the form of accusing Muhammad and the early framers of Islam of plagiarizing from Jewish and Christian sources. They certainly work on the flawed assumption that whereas early Islam was fluid, late antique Judaism and Christianity were both somehow much more stable.

Unbeknownst to most readers of these newspaper headlines, a very academic debate rages. We get a glimpse of it in the passage I quoted from Lumbard above when he refers to the “academic irresponsibility” of Western scholarship. He has in mind revisionist scholars of Islamic origins — perhaps made famous a few years ago by the media brouhaha surrounding the pseudonymous Christoph Luxenberg who suggested, among other things, that the Arabic term for “virgins” might actually be the Syro-Aramaic “grapes.”

But there is an interesting twist in the present story. Most revisionist scholarship has suggested that the Quran was composed sometime after the death of Muhammad. We are now told that maybe, just maybe, it was written before him. Though, since this is played out in the media, evidence is less important than sound bite. I am less interested in the dating of the Quran — I’ll leave that to the technical discussions of those more qualified than I; but what I will point out in the present context is the stakes of the debate. First, we know very little about the origins of the Quran. I think it safe to say that — like the Old and New Testaments — it did not fall from heaven. It was the product of social actors trying to make sense of their world.

Second, if we accept the dating of the Birmingham leaves and other early codices that the Quran is an early-to mid-seventh century composition, this does not preclude that we also have to accept the apologetic view of those, like Lumbard, who simply repeat the Muslim account of the Quran’s collection and codification as history and who then want to foist that reading on a misinformed reading public.

Third, it should not be a political act to claim that parts of the Quran — given the two points above — might well have predated Muhammad. We do not yet have that evidence, despite what the “experts,” whom the media frequently drags out in front of us, say. Yet I see no reason to think that what became the final version of the Quran — again comparing it to the Old and New Testaments — recycled earlier materials and oral traditions. One has to be able to say this and not be accused of “undermining” Islam.

To riff on the old “turtles all the way down” tune, in the absence of any hard and fast evidence, all we have is turtles. All the way down. The media has curiously created a situation that takes the Orientalist notion that Islam is the sum of its monotheistic parts, but in a way rearranges their faces and gives them different names. In so doing, it provides further “proof” for those critical of Islam. The great paradox for me, as I am sure it is for others, is how this new version accepts and uses the religio-Islamic myth of origins to then try to undermine Islam.

Allow me to conclude with an aside: I am (relatively) new to the world of Facebook, and, as someone who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, got all the news I needed from my hometown Edmonton Journal and the national Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). To my great surprise, the world of Facebook has opened up before me a world of designer news service where everyone can get the fix one needs. Opinions abound, but facts are frequently absent. My rightwing friends post rightwing articles from rightwing news sites that I have never heard of. Ditto for my leftwing friends.

Why do I mention this? One can now choose one’s narrative. It would seem that many in the West did not want Muslims to enjoy their five minutes in the spotlight for the full amount of time. The story of the world’s oldest Quran was quickly used against Muslims, as a way to undermine the tradition. But Islam is no more a human affair than any other religion.

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. Hughes was educated at the University of Alberta, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Oxford University. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington in 2000. He has taught at Miami University of Ohio, McMaster University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Calgary, and the University at Buffalo. He is the author of over 50 articles and 11 books. His book titles include Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History(Oxford, 2012), Muslim Identities (Columbia, 2013), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY, 2013), and Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularism and Universalism (Oxford, 2014). He is also the Editor-in-chief of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion.

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Theses on Professionalization: Jennifer Collins-Elliott


Thesis #11. While higher education is organized so as to train ever increasing specialists–a process that begins with surveys and broad course work, examines candidates on their knowledge in general areas, and then culminates in writing a dissertation on a highly technical topic–eventual full-time employment can just as easily depend upon one’s ability to contribute lower-level, so-called Core or General Education introductory courses to a Department’s curriculum. Because many Departments of Religious Studies justify their existence not simply by appealing to the number of their majors or graduates, but also the number of Core or General Education courses that they offer to students pursuing degrees in other areas of the University, gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s “bread and butter” courses.

by Jennifer Collins-Elliott

I see in Thesis 11 the confluence of a few vexing and sometimes controversial strands in the modern university, particularly at research-one state universities like McCutcheon’s home institution. First, Thesis 11 speaks to the ways in which the modern academy pulls graduate students and young faculty in two different, and sometimes competing, directions: that of specialization (research) and that of generalization (teaching). Woven into this are the concerns raised in Emily D. Crews’ piece last week and the reappearance of the Platonic form of “well-rounded job candidate”—the person who publishes original research that contributes to their specialization while also learning enough on far-flung subjects in their broader field to feel intellectually honest in the classroom while teaching survey courses. And second, McCutcheon presents here, though only in passing, an on-going conversation about the “usefulness” of the Humanities, the rhetoric of which is consonant with the increasing corporatization of public universities, and what future employment in the Humanities might look like.

Is there a teaching experience saturation point?

Similar to Thesis 10, there is a call here to be able to demonstrate one’s flexibility and range on their CV and throughout the hiring process. In a market awash with qualified candidates, institutions can, to some extent, afford to look for their unicorn. While McCutcheon recommends gaining experience as a Teaching Assistant, it is often not enough simply to have assisted in a course but rather is necessary to have been the instructor of record. To have the potential or educational training to teach such-and-such a course without having actually taught it can be a deal-breaker for a hiring committee. There is no time for on-the-job teacher training at research-one state institutions when the enrollment and numbers of majors is ever more used to justifying the existence of many Humanities departments. What increasingly appears to be the case, however, is not the lack of teaching experience before entering the job market, but rather an excess of teaching experience that, at a point, becomes less useful and more redundant—a point McCutcheon addresses in Thesis 5 and the struggles of which Matt Sheedy gives voice to in his post.

While demonstrating teaching experience in “gen ed” courses can help open the door, the axiom “publish or perish” remains as true as ever for those who are offered tenure-track positions. As a graduate student working on her dissertation who is also teaching “bread and butter” courses, I waver between appreciating and questioning the usefulness of the experience that I’m currently gaining. I, and others in my position, have the opportunity to learn how to balance research and teaching, which is a challenge that tenure-track professors face. How can those of us trained in universities that rely on graduate student labor protect our research time? How can we graduate students or young scholars in lecturer positions, tasked with teaching large survey-courses while also trying to establish a research and publication record, work “smarter, not harder”? How does one fight the teaching undertow? Years ago when McCutcheon was the keynote speaker at Florida State University’s Department of Religion Annual Graduate Student Symposium, he gave me two pieces of advice about teaching: he told me that I wasn’t obligated to the textbook, and that every course should have a thesis statement. I found this advice to be a relief. With this in mind I found it much easier to craft a more cohesive world religions syllabus and one that would give me space to incorporate aspects of my own research. While I still think of this advice each time I write a syllabus, it has also led me to invest an inordinate amount of my time in my teaching—a danger addressed in Thesis 19. While McCutcheon is undoubtedly correct that having teaching experience for “bread and butter” courses on one’s CV is crucial in the current job market, the process of gaining this experience in graduate school can feel a bit like trying to do a wheelie while you still have the training wheels on your bike.

Future Employment in the Humanities

With politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott doing their best to marginalize the Humanities and as of 2007 at least 70% of faculty members being employed “off the tenure track,” perhaps we should think about for whom these theses were written, or rather, what kind of future they imagine? When McCutcheon says that, “gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s ‘bread and butter’ courses,” I think he’s absolutely right. But then I find myself trying to imagine what these “future employers” might want me, and the majority of graduating PhDs in the Humanities, for, and what kind of positions might become more common in the next 5-10 years? The AAUP’s report on tenure and teaching-intensive appointments suggests that there is an emerging employment field between semester-to-semester lecture appointments and full-time tenure-track faculty. The language of these appointments vary, sometimes called “instructor tenure,” “continuing lectureship,” or “senior lectureship,” but each of these positions is meant to offer greater stability, support, professionalization, and perhaps benefits than more traditional forms of contingency labor.

Thesis 11, read alongside the other 20, continues to provide a clear and concise framework for all levels of graduate students and young scholars. However, in light of increasing graduate student teaching and longer periods of lecturership between graduation and possible tenure-track employment, coupled with the emergence of a “middle class” of university teaching, we should be mindful of the ways in which the imagined audience for this advice as well as the imagined employment landscape has changed in the nearly 10 years since McCutcheon published his theses.

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, “’Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust': Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.

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NAASR Notes: Adam T. Miller


by Adam T. Miller

NAASR Notes is a feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

This past spring, I completed my first year of coursework as a doctoral student in the History of Religions program at the University of Chicago. Coming from the semester system, it was hard to get used to covering almost the same amount of ground in just ten weeks. Now that it’s all said and done, though, I think I’m a fan of the long-distance sprint. In my most recent endurance challenge, I had the privilege of taking Historiography for Historians of Religions with Bruce Lincoln. Most of the material we read and discussed in class was incredibly thought provoking, but the sequence of Hayden White’s The Content of the Form and Carlo Ginzburg’s History, Rhetoric, and Proof really took the cake. Now that I’ve had some time to let the academic year sink in a bit, I’d like to share a few thoughts using these two works as a starting point. I should note up front that these ideas are still taking shape, so any feedback is welcome. The goal/hope is for these musings to provide a foundation of sorts for my colloquium paper, on the basis of which my advisor(s) will determine at the end of my second year whether I am ready for qualifying exams. Okay, on to the meat and ‘taters…

As I understand it, Hayden White (1928 – ) has spent much of his career reflecting on historiography, on the ways in which historians have written up their findings. In short, he treats historical scholarship as literature, and reads it as a literary critic. For White, the form of a work of history—that is, its narrative qualities of storyline, character development, drama, tension, resolution, and so on—is never neutral. What a historian counts as development or resolution, for example, reveals much more about his/her interests than the events he/she claims to depict. A less satisfying but more accurate depiction of the barrage that constitutes a given period of time on White’s view would be the annal—a chronologically ordered list of events, each of which exists almost as an island to itself. Anything more is distorting, ideologically motivated rhetorical flourish. And so, for White, historical narratives are rhetoric. We might even say mere rhetoric.

Reacting against such critiques of historiography (though not at all advocating a return to positivism or a Hegelian focus on the State), microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg (1939 – ) argues that although history and literature share significant overlap and historical narratives have a rhetorical dimension, they are not thereby mere stories whose degree of accuracy is indeterminable. He supports this position by returning to Aristotle, in whose view rhetoric and proof were related. Indeed, for Aristotle proof lies at the very heart of rhetoric—the thought being that an argument is more persuasive, a narrative more plausible/probable, when accompanied by evidence (the more the better). What this means is that even though rhetoric and history are inextricably linked, some stories can be judged more accurate than others. Holocaust deniers, for example, are flat out wrong—no matter how persuasive some audiences find their revisions to be. For a less extreme (but no less instructive) illustration of this argument, see Ginzburg’s “Lorenzo Valla on the ‘Donation of Constantine.’”

Now, as readers of the Bulletin are well aware, things get messy when religion gets brought into the mix. For as so many illustrious names have argued, the category emerged in a limited cultural sphere for reasons unique to that sphere, did/does not clearly delimit one kind of stuff within that sphere (or the spheres to which it spread), has few (if any) analogues in other spheres, and so on. What counts as evidence for religion, in other words, is up for grabs. And as such, if ‘religion’ is to be part of our analytical vocabulary, it must be defined/theorized. Given my interest in social formation, the best option on the market is, in my humble estimation, Bruce Lincoln’s definition in terms of discourse, practice, community, and institution.[1]

In addition to offering a definition of religion, broadly conceived, Lincoln also distinguishes ancient religion from post-ancient religion. Here I’ll quote him at length:

[A]s ancient religion gave way to post-ancient, one could observe a discourse based on canonic corpora of sacred texts displacing inspired performances of sacred verse; practices of prayer, contemplation, and self-perfection displacing material mediations through sacrifice and statues of the deity; deterritorialized elective communities constructed on the basis of religious adherence displacing multistranded groups, within which ties of geography, politics, kinship, culture, and religion were isomorphic and mutually reinforcing; and institutions that, with some exceptions, had better (also more creative and varied) funding, a wider range of activities, and more autonomy from the state displacing their weaker, more localized predecessors.[2]

I should note two things before moving forward. First, this distinction is based on of a wide range of materials gleaned almost exclusively from the ancient Mediterranean world; second, it is not clear to me whether Lincoln intends this distinction to have any analytical purchase beyond that world. With that said, I’ve been thinking for a while about how this theory might hold up when laid over first millennium India, and more specifically whether and to what extent it might help historians of religion think about the emergence and development of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Without going into too much detail, Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism seems to confound aspects of Lincoln’s theory. With regard to the foundation of discourse, it is commonly maintained that “the categories ‘written’ and ‘oral’ traditions fit Indian religions very poorly,”[3] and that “[t]he boundary between oral and written Buddhist texts was clearly an open one.”[4] As for practice, textual and material evidence suggests that those associated with the Mahāyāna engaged in both mediated/external and unmediated/internal practices.[5] In terms of community, although the bodhisattva path seems to have been a widespread supererogatory option of self-identification and practice closely associated with the Mahāyāna, it is not clear what criteria marked Mahāyānists as distinct from others according to Mahāyānists themselves. And lastly, with regard to institution, the archaeological record permits speaking of an institutionally distinct Mahāyāna only after the fifth/sixth century, more than half a millennium after the composition of the first Mahāyāna sūtras.[6] Which is to say that the Mahāyāna—whatever it was, whoever constituted it, however its members saw themselves in relation to like and unlike others, etc.—doesn’t even register because for quite some time it was not different from the established monastic system.

Whether Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism actually confounds Lincoln’s theory, I think, depends on how one views the relationship between theory and data. If an analysis concerns an area where the category ‘religion’ either did not exist or had no analogues, then it seems to me that whatever one’s definition/theorization happens to be is what constitutes certain aspects of the material under investigation as religious. In the case of ancient and post-ancient religion, then, the Mahāyāna does not confound Lincoln’s theory, but rather the theory gives historians of religion a novel way of seeing the evidence at hand, calling into existence two types of religion that ultimately dissolve into a larger social theory and, as such, could be of great use in thinking about the history of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India.

If this is all quite confusing, it’s because it remains so even to me. I am not only still working on how to best express what I want to say, but also trying to figure out whether what I’m struggling to say is important and worth saying. But in any event, that’s one of the more significant things that I’ve been up to. I’ve enjoyed reading the NAASR Notes series so far, and look forward to more updates!


[1] Lincoln theorizes religion as “(1) A discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and thus claims for itself a similarly transcendent status…(2) A set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by a religious discourse to which these practices are connected…(3) A community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices…[and] (4) An institution that regulates religious discourse, practice, and community, reproducing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.” Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, 75-76; see also

[2] Lincoln, GDPS, 82.

[3] David Drewes, “Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship,” Religion Compass 4.2 (2010), 60.

[4] Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men, 59.

[5] Buddha and bodhisattva images (which were themselves “treated as flesh and blood…[and as] possess[ing] full existential efficacy”) are common in the archaeological record starting around the second century CE, and self-cultivation/perfection by way of meditation is a hallmark of Buddhism, broadly conceived. Richard S. Cohen, “Kinsmen of the Son,” History of Religions 40.1 (2000), 15.

[6] There is “not a single reference to gifts or patronage extended to an explicitly named Mahāyāna or Mahāyāna group until the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth centuries.” Gregory Schopen, “The Mahāyāna and the Middle Period of Indian Buddhism,” in Figments and Fragments, 11.

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Star Wars and Religion


“May the Force be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Note: This post originally appear on the Feeling the Force blog.

by Kate Daley-Bailey

If you were to catch the end of any conversation I have with my family, you would hear the above dialogue. Various Christians will recognize the basic structure of this statement… it is a standard salutation among the fold. But with one major difference… “the Lord” has been substituted with “the Force”. For some Christians such a syncretistic blending of religion and popular culture is tantamount to blasphemy but for my family, and judging from this meme many other people, this blending is par for the course. One need only Google ‘Star Wars and Religion’ to be barraged by the plethora of books, articles, websites dedicated to this topic. There are not only laymen and scholars who champion Star Wars as something more than popular culture, there are Jedi Churches in many English speaking countries and, according to a 2001 Census, Jediism is the 4th largest religion in the U.K.

Before you choke on your Wookie Cookies or Hoth Dogs, let me clarify what Jediism is:

Jediism is a modern religion which was born as the result of the Star Wars mythology.  George Lucas, when he created the Star Wars saga, used various aspects of Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Mysticism, and many other religious universal truths as well as a combination of different martial arts and the code of chivalry, in order to create the Jedi and the philosophies behind the Force.  The Jedi are modern versions of the Shao Lin Monk, the European Knight, and the Samurai warrior all mixed together.  The Jedi path has become an inspiration and way of life for many people throughout the world who take on the mantle of the Jedi.  Even though Jediism is a new faith, it is just as real as the ancient faiths and philosophies that it came from… (From The Temple of the Jedi Force website).

So maybe you aren’t buying that idea that Jediism is a ‘real’ religion… but let me use this moment to explore a perennial question in religious studies, what exactly is ‘religion’? In our times, “I’m spiritual by not religious” is a common expression… one which did not exist a century ago. This suggests we might be more comfortable with ‘spirituality’ being unanchored from institutional foundations than we have ever been. We might ask why some ideologies count as full-fledged religions (and receive all the accompanying privileges and protections) and others are dismissed as purely cultural manifestations of popular sentiment. Or, maybe a better question is whose ideologies count as full-fledged religions and why? I am not proselytizing for the Temple of the Jedi Force or Jediism in general. I am actually using this striking example to illuminate some problems in the category of religion.

While many academics argue over disciplinary distinctions, the most divisive ideological battles within the academic study of religion, I have found, are over the most basic questions. The moment the ontological query is posed in regard to religion, ‘what is IT?’; all proverbial hell breaks loose. You might call it a battle of cosmic proportions… and one in which many participants come to their ‘objective’ conclusions long before the first light saber is drawn. And why might this be the case? Religion, as a topic, love it or hate, or dismiss it, is for a majority of the human population a ‘given’ and yet ask a handful of individuals in that same majority to define religion and you will be met with a myriad of definitions and interpretations.

How does this relate to Star Wars again? To give you an example of just how many variations can be generated by such an exercise let’s look at how a handful of writers have defined the ‘religious’ aspects in Star Wars:

Question: Is Star Wars religious?

1. What does the creator say about the ‘religious’ aspects of the series? (The following statements were made by Lucas in an interview with Bill Moyers for Time magazine in 1999.)

So Star Wars according to its originator is not inherently religious. Okay, so that is settled… and yet Lucas goes on to say that he purposely put the Force into the films “in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” So, per Lucas, we have myth, mystery, and God but no specific religious system. Notice that Lucas does not mention a god or gods but God… if he is invoking the so called God of Abraham here, then I would argue is he is pointing to a particular religious system whether he is aware of this or not.

According the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, he “consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs.” Lucas goes on to state that he doesn’t “see Star Wars as profoundly religious” but rather views it as “taking all of the issues that religion represents” and distilling them “down into a more modern and easily accessible construct—that there is a greater mystery out there.”

2. According to Christian Theologian John C. McDowell at the University of Edinburgh, in his article ‘Feeling the Force-Star Wars and Spiritual Truth’ from, there is a link between Lucas’ Force and a Christian view of God.

McDowell presents an interesting argument for the similarities between Lucas’ Force and a Christian understanding of God’s presence when he makes a connection between Obi-Wan’s teaching on the Force and a passage from Ephesians (4:6):

Obi-Wan’s teaching that the Force ‘surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together ‘(ANH) strikingly evokes Pauline imagery of ‘one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

While this connection may be too tenuous for most readers, McDowell presents this interpretation as just that… an interpretation. A more exclusivist rendering of Star War’s ‘true message’ comes from our next author.

3. ‘How ‘Star Wars’ Answers Our Biggest Religious Questions: The Movies take on- and Subvert- Christian Themes’ in The Washington Post by Joel Hodge

According to Hodge:

The Force itself is too abstract and impersonal to equate with the biblical God and is more readily indentifable with concepts in Eastern religions (Lucas came to describe himself as a “Buddhist Methodist”).

While Hodge does acknowledge the moral messages in the series, he insists that it is just a story and admonishes those who might attempt to use it to promote a particular agenda:

To become fixated on the story alone or to use it for a particular agenda- such as trying to create a Jedi religion and have that included in census data or claim ownership of the franchise direction/ meaning- is to ignore the message of ‘Star Wars’ itself.

Ironically, Hodge then claims ownership over the ‘true message’ of Star Wars:

And that is, to go beyond ourselves, and the binaries and limits of our own secular time and compromised identities, to contemplate the mystery of life and become our true selves in the loving fellowship and transcendence of the Force.

So, what is your conclusion? Have these varying answers clarified anything for you about the true meaning (religious or not) of Star Wars? Is it just a story? A modern epic embodiment of the eternal cosmic war between good and evil? An updated repackaging of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal Hero Myth? The celluloid settling of a real and true religious tradition as the Temple of the Jedi would have us believe?

What is going on here? Is Star Wars truly a postmodern enigma that defies definition or is there something else complicating our investigation? All of these answers assume one thing… that we all agree on what religion inherently is… notice none of these explanations tell us what makes something religious/sacred/transcendent or not, they simply assume our definition mimics theirs, and then proceed to enumerate the ways in which Star Wars is or is not religious/sacred/transcendent. So what have these descriptions provided us with? Maybe not with a clear distinction of the religious nature of Star Wars but rather an intriguing glimpse to what these authors deem religious.

For an excellent article on Jediism, read this piece, while other fascinating examples of Star Wars and religion may be found here and here.

Kate Daley-Bailey lives in Athens, Georgia, with her hilarious husband, Josh, and her fur baby, Bodhi. Kate taught university level courses in Religious Studies for over ten years and is currently an academic advisor at the University of Georgia. She has written brief pieces for Religion Nerd, the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, and book reviews for Reflective Teaching. Her relationship with Star Wars has been inextricably linked with her childhood Catholicism. As she describes in her piece Recovering Catholic: Ethos and Practice, when her family went to see Star Wars there was “at least one nun in tow.”

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How to Organize the World Religions Survey (?)


by Charles McCrary

Earlier this year, during the spring semester, I wrote a post about my teaching world religions and the possibility of using a tentative definition of “religion.” In the post I briefly considered how the course might look as a class on “world religions discourse” itself, including a critical analysis of the textbook:

Should we teach only a history of World Religions discourse itself—a meta-history? This is a viable option. Equipped with histories like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, intellectual frameworks from Wendy Brown and Russell McCutcheon, and maybe a few methodological tools from Foucault or Marx, students can use their textbook as a primary source, historicizing it and interrogating its normative assumptions. This would make for a good class. But I fear I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to accept total failure that this task would require, as I address a room full of students who are not well prepared for critical thinking and quite hesitant to give it a try. (Also, I know that “millennials” are supposedly marked by their ironic self-awareness, but that mood is characteristically absent from large portions of the demographic. My students resoundingly hate anything “meta.”)

For the reasons stated above—and others, such as fear of oversight as the university moves toward increasing standardization of content—I have not used my summer to rework my 1000-level world religions class into such a course. However, I have tried to create a course that incorporates some of the ideas above. Many instructors begin their introductory courses with a history of “world religions” and a critique of the category “religion.” I’ve done this too, but I always felt like I was undermining my own theoretical points. Hence, the previous post about a provisional definition, something to work with. Then, we could move on to specific case studies. This approach is loosely modeled after Bruce Lincoln’s books, which take case studies and analyze and categorize them in order to demonstrate processes of social formation, the maintenance and contestation of power, and so on. An approach like this would be difficult if the world religions course were organized by religious traditions, with a unit each for the five major world religions (and whatever extra categories, like Confucianism or “Chinese religions” or “indigenous religions.”) So, last spring I organized the course by topics, forming mini-units of two to four lectures, with titles like textual authority, revolution, prophecy, and religious freedom. It worked somewhat well, but it was disjointed and not clearly organized.

This fall’s iteration of the class is (I hope) clearer and better thought out. There are five units, each of about equal length, though the first two are a little shorter and might end up functioning more like units 1A and 1B. Students will have a 400–500-word paper due after each unit. I provide an overview of the course and the units on the first page of the syllabus, in the “course description” section. The first lecture—which I’ll deliver after students hold short small-group discussions of Steven Ramey’s recent blog post “The Harm of World Religions”—will be devoted entirely to explaining the section and answering questions about it. Here is that section, verbatim:

This class is about “world religions.” However, we will not attempt to “cover” everything that normally falls under that category. Instead, we will historicize and interrogate the categories “religion” and “world religions” themselves, and then we will use religious studies methods to examine a wide variety of historical developments. Rather than analyzing each religion as an isolated object of inquiry (e.g., an Islam unit, a Buddhism unit, etc.), we will study historical themes like empire, colonialism, and law, noting how religious actors and ideas, as well as the category “religion” itself, intersects with these themes.

The course will be divided into five units:

  1. The “World Religions” Paradigm: A History
  2. A Practical Introduction to Some Theories and Methods of Religious Studies
  3. Empires in the Ancient World
  4. Colonialism, Capitalism, and Globalization
  5. Religious Freedom, Secularism, and Statecraft in the Modern World

Perhaps I’ll do a post in the near future outlining specific lecture topics and how they relate to the units. Unit 3 includes lectures on the Babylonian empire, the Maccabean revolt, Confucian statecraft, and the Roman imperial cult. Unit 4 features a week on European Pacific exploration and colonization, two lectures on Mormon history, and one on Haitian Vodou. The fifth unit focuses on secularism and religious freedom in global perspective, inspired by and drawing from scholars such as those involved in the Politics of Religious Freedom research project (and the now-published resulting book.) I hope this approach will provide students with knowledge of a wide variety of case studies but, more importantly, some useful tools for analysis by which they can understand religions and “religion” today. As religious studies programs (and the humanities in general) must defend their existence, many have appealed to the importance of “religious literacy” in a diverse and globalizing world. As an undergraduate religion major myself not very long ago I often heard faculty from my department recruit students by saying that their courses would help students better understand world events—as well as their fellow students, neighbors, and, as we increasingly must think of college as job training, future coworkers and business partners. I’ve crafted this course with those goals in mind.

I know the issue of teaching world religions after “world religions” has been discussed quite a bit, including on this blog. But I hope my particular solution to the problem is helpful. What do you think, fellow Bulletin readers?

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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Theses on Professionalization: Emily D. Crews


In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Emily D. Crews

Thesis #10. Whether working at a publicly or privately funded institution, professors are comparable to self-employed entrepreneurs inasmuch as they can increase their social capital (i.e., reputation) by seeking out new books to read and review, unique topics on which to research and write, novel and timely courses to develop and teach, and different professional service opportunities to provide them with additional experience as well as new national and international contacts. Graduate students are in much the same position and the additional qualifications that result from their entrepreneurial pre-professional activities can serve to distinguish one job applicant from another. Documentation from such activities, as recorded on one’s c.v., communicate to the hiring committee that one is already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

In #10 of his “Theses on Professionalization” Russell McCutcheon writes that the young scholar entering the job market may distinguish herself from her peers by making evident that she possesses “additional qualifications that result from” her “entrepreneurial pre-professional activities.”

For many graduate students, advice of the type offered in Thesis #10 is both helpful and frustrating. It is immensely useful for us to have any lamp in the dark of the academic job market, particularly one that clearly points us to a course of action. However, to some this particular course of action sounds eerily similar to the unrealistic suggestion shouted down from the ivory towers of our institutions: “Do everything and be good at it all.” I know very few graduate students and early career scholars who are not already engaged in a dizzying array of more-than-dissertation activities. Many of us are teaching, advising, publishing, and working while also applying to fellowships and serving as workshop leaders or conference organizers, all as part of our professional development and in spite of a common pressure to reduce the overall time it takes us to obtain our degrees.

Thus, the advice in Thesis #10 can, for many, incite an overwhelming fatigue: “This again. How can we possibly do more than we already do? And how can we possibly be good at everything in a field that’s littered with speed-reading, twelve-language-knowing demi-gods?” What’s more, many might suggest that it is yet another example of a tenured faculty member perpetuating the crippling indentured servitude of academia through willful ignorance of the toll taken by such demands for hyper-involvement. I understand the impulse to approach recommendations of this type with a defensive posture, and am sympathetic to the perspective that academia continues to suffer from a multitude of crises.

However, I think that to read McCutcheon in this way misses the real point of his suggestion. Instead, it would be helpful to consider that McCutcheon has spent much of his career at large state schools, often serving as a department chair; at Alabama he has been responsible for the growth of a robust undergraduate program in religious studies in an era where many of its kind have shrunk or disappeared entirely.

It is out of this context that McCutcheon offers Thesis #10, which I would argue points us not toward a “do more, be more” philosophy, but instead toward the importance of using our graduate school experiences to indicate that we have been and will continue to be productive members of a community. As university budgets are slashed and the Humanities continue to take heavy fire, it is more crucial than ever that new hires are able to help overburdened departments tackle growing workloads. When there are dozens of things that any given department must be able to do—offer courses; advise students; produce original research; organize job searches, conferences, and publications—asking to join the team means that we must be willing and able to shoulder part of the burden. Candidates who are unprepared or uninterested in doing so would, I assume, be unappealing as future colleagues, and thus less likely to land a tenure track position.[1]

McCutcheon’s thesis leaves me wondering, however: are all types of preparation created equal? If not, what types of preparation are most valuable? What indicates that we are “already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor?” Conversely, are there types of preparation that are a waste of time? Further, from the perspective of members of a hiring committee, where is the line between diversification and distraction? Which types of activities or contributions make candidates seem well-trained and which make them seem unfocused? In the Sophie’s Choice of graduate school, where every moment is precious and each new commitment means the loss of another hour of sleep, what is the wisest investment of our time?

Take, for example, this very exercise. Were I to cite it on my c.v., how would a hiring committee view my having participated in this discussion? Does a relatively casual post in an online forum say much at all? If so, what? Could it read as time I have wasted when I might have been working on my dissertation (suggesting, perhaps, that I might go off course on the road to tenure)? Does it indicate that I am interested in being an active part of a rich community of people and ideas (and that I would be an asset to a department for this reason)?

Or another example: book reviews, an oft-debated topic in my own program. Are book reviews a service to the academic community and an indication of our expertise in a given area, or are they lines on our c.v.’s that potential employers skip over on the way to other, more relevant types of experience? Should graduate students write them or shouldn’t we?

While there are certainly many answers to all these questions, each based on the idiosyncrasies of the particular institution and department holding the search, I wonder if some who are reading this post, particularly those who have experience on hiring committees, might be able to provide a general set of guidelines for reference.[2] This includes a hope for further suggestions from Professor McCutcheon who, both in writing his “Theses” and in so many other ways, has been immensely helpful and generous to early career scholars.


[1] It should be noted that McCutheon’s advice, written before the economic crisis and the dramatic shift in the landscape of the academic job market, is specifically geared toward those who are applying to tenure track positions. How this advice might have changed or lost its relevance in light of the increasingly limited availability of such positions is well worth further discussion, which limited space has prevented here. On this topic, however, I will offer one question: does it make sense to prepare so thoroughly to be part of a department when most of us—well over 70%, according to recent statistics—will end up in jobs that might not even not come with an office, much less full membership in the faculty body?

[2] For instance, I’m sure that the needs and priorities of a large, elite research university differ significantly from those of a small liberal arts college.

Emily D. Crews is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her dissertation examines the religious lives of African immigrants in the United States, asking what role religion plays in the process by which Nigerians create homes in new geographical and epistemological places/spaces. Emily is also the editor of the Religion and Culture Web Forum and an editorial assistant at History of Religions.

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The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position Revisited


by Matt Sheedy

In August 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position: Some Contemporary Representations of Native-Jesuit Relations,” based on a trip that I took to a well-known shrine and museum in the province of Ontario. I opened the post as follows:


I recently paid a visit to Martyrs’ Shrine and Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons in Midland Ontario, nestled on Georgian Bay about an hour and a half north of Toronto. The former is one of eight nationally recognized shrines in Canada and one of the country’s most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics, containing shrines to and relics of the so-called “Canadian Martyrs,” (all of whom were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930) including the skull of Jean de Brébeuf, along with several monuments to the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha (aka “Lily of the Mohawks”), the first “Native-Canadian” saint (though some American Catholics claim her as their own as she was born in what is today New York state).

Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons is a reconstructed French missionary village that existed from 1639-1649, and was home to dozens of Jesuits and hundreds of “Huron” converts, the French term for the Wendat people. The village also represents the first known European settlement in what is now the province of Ontario and is the only re-creation of a French Jesuit mission in Canada. It is at this location that Brébeuf and fellow Jesuit Gabriel Lalemant were burned at the stake in 1649 by a group of Iroquois, who were at war at the time with the Wendat/Huron and the French.

What is perhaps most interesting is that these locales, situated directly across the street from one another, operate under different authorities–the Shrine is run by the Catholic Church and the missionary village by the government of Ontario, which was named a National Historic Site in 1920. While depicting related events, the former is not subject to the same criteria as the latter, which falls under the ethical guidelines of the Canadian Museums Association. Yes indeed, tis’ a ripe fruit for comparison!


Visiting with family in the area once again this summer, I thought it would be interesting to revisit these sites to see what changes have taken place and to consider how the space of two years and the sheer chance of coming on this day instead of that, might call attention to different sets of interest. I was in luck, as Martyrs’ Shrine was host to over 6,000 Filipino pilgrims, while at Sainte-Marie the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, was unveiling a plaque commemorating 400 years (to the day) since the French explorer Samuel de Champlain entered the region for eventual settlement, colonization, and nation-building … though that was not exactly how they framed it.

I was initially compelled to visit Martyrs’ Shrine in 2013 after reading Emma LaRoque’s book When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse, 1850-1990, where she describes her shock as a young Métis woman in 1976, upon seeing a large mural in the church depicting:

[K]neeling priests angelically looking up, hands folded, praying for mercy as open-mouthed, hideously painted, evil-eyed savages tower over them, about to bury hatchets in their skulls. (34)


I went on to observe that the mural that LaRocque describes was no longer present at Martyrs’ Shrine, and that the church today reflects a more multi-racial sensibility. I also noted how positive representations of Indigenous people at the church (namely Wendat/Huron and Mohawk) were contingent on their willingness to accept Christianity and, moreover, reflected a colonialist discourse of justification, where “good Natives” were those who aided the Jesuit missionaries (e.g., as with the image depicted in the stained-glass window to the right), sent to Huronia by the explorer Samuel de Champlain as a necessary step toward “civilization.”

While this was not at all surprising coming from a Catholic church dedicated to honoring the lives of so-called “martyrs,” what interested me most during my 2013 visit was how representations of Native-Jesuit relations at Sainte-Marie presented a similar narrative, despite clear attempts at a more “neutral” rendering of the past.

For example, I noted how the most prominent book sold in the museum’s gift shop, Images of Sainte Marie (1989), was written by a Jesuit, Jacques Monet, who stressed the courage and virtue of the missionaries, and the eagerness of the Wendat to accept Christianity.  I also noted how Monet’s discussion of Wendat “spirituality” served to legitimate the missionary position by denying voice to Wendat narratives, and neglecting the material interests that guided alliances in the region.

I contrasted Monet’s history with a counter-narrative by Métis scholar Olive Dickason from her book Canada’s First Nations (1992), where she observers how the Wendat controlled upwards of 50% of the fur trade throughout much of the 17th century, while pointing out the material incentives for conversion to Christianity, including the preferential treatment that Christian-Wendat received when trading with the French. (133)

In sum, my observations back in 2013 stressed the lack of any critical or counter-narratives at Sainte-Marie, which I argued served to legitimate a Euro-Catholic rendering of history and provided an example of how popular discourses on competing “religions” will often subsume the identities and experiences of subordinate groups in favor of an irenic portrait of the past that reflects the interests of those who still dominate in the present.

One thing that did not stand out during my first visit that struck me on this occasion like a cat-o-nine-tails was the role of nationalist mythmaking at Sainte-Marie.


During my previous visit, I had failed to take note of how the favorable portrayal of the missionary-settler position also functioned as a sanitized origins story for the province of Ontario (and of Canada, by extension). By minimizing conflict with the Wendat, and ignoring the genocide and dispossession that followed, the role of Francophone exploration and settlement in region could be reconciled with a modern, liberal sentiment of tolerance and a shared cultural heritage (see image to the left in the near-by town of Penetanguishine).

Upon entering Sainte-Marie, my father and I were disappointed to learn that we had just missed the unveiling of a plaque by the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, which was inscribed with the following lines written by the Premier of Québec, Philippe Couillard:


Québec and Ontario share a common francophone history dating back to the founding of Québec City in 1608, and to Champlain’s travels in Ontario in 1615.

On the occasion of the festivities celebrating 400 years of French presence in Ontario, this plaque stands as a tribute to the Francophones who have played a key role in the founding of Québec, of Ontario and of Canada.


In a similar vein, Wynne tweeted that day (August 1, 2015):

The beautiful plaque unveiled today commemorating 400 years of Franco-Ontarian pride! Merci ‪@phcouillard!


While traversing the grounds at Sainte-Marie, it was called to my attention that Wynne was also unveiling a large statue of Champlain meeting an unnamed Wendat Chief in the near-by town of Penetanguishine (see image above), which was located in the newly named Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park. Beside the statue, was a description of this alleged meeting:

The Meeting: On August 1st, 1615 French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed on the shores of Georgian Bay where he was greeted by the Chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation. This statue recreates this historic moment of Champlain’s landing in Huronia and the meeting of the two cultures!

While this framing of history as a meeting between two cultures should raise a red flag for anyone vaguely familiar with more critical versions of European colonization in the Americas, what struck me this time around as most interesting at both Sainte-Marie and at my unexpected side-trip to Penetanguishine, were the attempts to include Indigenous spaces and voices amidst the celebration of Champlain’s legacy, revealing not just a colonialist discourse of justification, but also a liberal discourse of toleration and appeasement.

Indeed, unlike my 2013 visit there was a more tangible presence of Indigenous spaces and voices that time around. For example:

* The day’s events included a small roundance at Sainte-Marie lead by people of Wendat and Mohawk heritage, dressed in traditional regalia (see image below right).11896035_10156129763295727_5661092626743686005_n

* There was a temporary exhibit by Mohawk artist Elizabeth Doxtater called Rednaissance!, which was on display in the main hallway at Sainte-Marie, just outside the indoor portion of the museum, with detailed descriptions in small print beside her various paintings and figures made from corn-husks that spoke of maintaining traditional ways and values, of Indigenous sovereignty, residential schools and genocide, and the need for “revillagization” (see image below).



* Similarly, in Penetanguishine there was a new ceremonial space called Circle of Four Nations in the renamed Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park.

While I don’t want to downplay or predict what kind of engagements may result from these Indigenous spaces and voices, their inclusion was clearly overshadowed by the dominant Christian-settler-colonial narrative, which functions to shape this history and its meaning in and for the present not only by virtue of its dominance, but also by projecting an air of historical neutrality, where the presence of “dissident” Indigenous voices appear to provide a sense of balance, while concealing much of what took place over 400 years and what it is at stake for today.


A further example of this discourse was on display at a newly unveiled exhibit in the indoor museum portion at Sainte-Marie, entitled Champlain’s Astrolabe: Navigating Culture Contact in a New World, which centers around the mythology of the (highly contested) discovery of Champlain’s astrolabe (an ancient navigational device) in 1867, the same year that Canada was confederated, and its alleged role in Canadian identity. One of the displays (pictured here to the left) describes it thusly:

The astrolabe and its history have continued to captivate Canadians’ imaginations. It has served as a symbol of scholarly knowledge and discovery, as well as of our country’s identity and historical origins. … Commemorations outside of Québec shared the focus on francophone culture while including other claims more closely related to regional identities, as soldier, ‘civilizer’ or navigator. … At times, too, it has become a focal point for contention and protest.


I must admit that I had never heard of Champlain’s astrolabe as a symbol of Canadian identity prior to this encounter, though it apparently has some historical currency as it features in the city of Ottawa’s coat of arms, circa 1954, was on the cover of the inaugural edition of the Journal of Canadian Studies in 1966, was taken into space (a replica, that is) by Julie Payette on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2009, and is a centerpiece at Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park (see image to the right) in Penetanguishine.

At the museum in Sainte-Marie, one half of one item on display, entitled Controversy and Alternative Memories, provides a brief description of how the astrolabe has “become [a] contested symbol of the place of indigenous peoples in the exploration narrative and in Canadian society,” though without any historical context, nor analysis of why such a symbol might be contested in the first place. Here, as elsewhere, the inclusion of some Indigenous perspectives are presented as an attempt at providing balance, while doing little to unsettle the dominant Christian-settler-colonial narrative.

While it strikes me now as painfully obvious that symbols like the astrolabe and the soft, irenic version of Champlain’s “meeting” with the Wendat function as parts of a sanitized origins story for the province of Ontario, which works to legitimate the dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous peoples in both the past and the present, I find it equally striking to think about how many of our observations and “choices” as scholars depend upon coming on this day instead of that, following a lead, and neglecting another. What adventures lay in the summer of 2016? Stay tuned for the Missionary Position 3.0!

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Scholarship on the Road, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment