NAASR Notes: Russell McCutcheon

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NAASR Notes is a new 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

by Russell McCutcheon

In terms of my own writing, I published a couple collection of essays last year, one a set of responses (with Equinox) that I’ve written over the years, either replying to others’ criticisms of my work or as a respondent at a conference, and the other a collection of articles (with Brill’s new Supplements to MTSR book series), a few of which are published there for the first time (including two on some of the difficulties I see in New Testament and Christian origins scholarship and one on troubles with how the field is portrayed in recent volumes of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion). As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to have ended up being an essayist for a variety of reasons, one of which was that, given how much I disagree with some work carried out in the field, it afforded me a series of discrete opportunities to tackle a specific issue in specific situations (hopefully always making evident how it was but an instance of a wider problem). Critics Not Caretakers (published in 2001) was the first time I had enough to collect up and that seems to have set the model for me ever since.

Given that a number of younger people now find the study of religion to be a worthwhile focus, seeing the sociology and politics of category formation to be interesting (case in point, just why do we [i.e., members of the media, politicians, and yes, scholars as well] worry so much over whether this or that group is, as they say, authentically Muslim?), I decided to collect up some of my responses over the years (a couple are newly published there) because they seemed to me to nicely represent the sort of challenges that sometimes (often?) greets scholarship on scholarship. And I explicitly had earlier career scholars in mind when I thought about my intended audience, as I wrote the introductions to each of its chapters, hoping they’d see here one way of addressing colleagues who inform you that your work isn’t real scholarship (a response I’ve heard, in one form or another, on more occasions than you’d think and it hardly subsides as you get older). But hearing, over the past few years, those same tired, old lines being tossed around with regard to the work of some newer writers in the field was particularly frustrating to me and it prompted me to think about collecting up the responses I’ve penned, seeing it all as a bit of a record of the back-and-forth that constitutes an academic field. After all, whether we agree or not, we’re both going to put our responses on our C.V’s and citation indices will log how many times I cite you even if it’s just to show how not to practice the study of religion. So taking seriously the way we’re all entangled in the formation of our own field seemed to me to be an interesting exercise, to try to make evident that critique is good for the health of an academic enterprise (even good for the C.V’s of those who say there’s no legitimate place for it).

Otherwise, I continue to blog, whether at my Department’s own site (which posts the work of profs, students, and grads as well, along with a guest or two every now and then—a recent post of mine was why I even blog in the first place) or at Culture on the Edge (a site devoted to identity studies, which involves 7 scholars in total, a few of whom are also NAASR members). Although I think publishing peer review articles and books is still crucial for the life of our enterprise, critiques of pay portals and the need for scholars to write for wider publics also strikes me as relevant, so I decided a couple years back to start writing online regularly, for good or ill. It’s something our Department takes pretty seriously too, especially trying to get students writing in the public domain, and it’s had a really positive effect within the unit. In fact, we do a lot of novel things in our Department, all aimed at injecting energy into it. It’s been a pretty successful experiment, I must say: like our university’s enrollment, we’ve doubled in size over the last decade (all tenure-track lines), a time during which my colleague Ted Trost and I have been Department Chair. Given how many people seem to, at least from my point of view, rush through something I’ve written and then conclude that I’m out to kill the field, well, taking a look at our successes here in Alabama might prove interesting—especially at a time when Humanities majors in the U.S. feel under siege. While we certainly have our share of challenges on our campus, we pay careful attention to as many factors as we can identify, factors that play a role in recruiting and retaining students as well as those that enhance the quality of life for those working in the Department—we’re even starting to experiment with podcasts now (Mike Altman and I were in a studio recording one not long ago), something to add to the movies our students are already making about life on the second and third floors of Manly Hall.

In terms of new projects, like everyone, there’s a variety of things I’ve got in pots and pans on burners with various flames under them, some boiling pretty hard and others just bubbling a bit now and then. The trick is to get to each before they either boil over or go cold, of course—so I’m knee deep in that and teaching classes, just like everyone else. I’ll be heading to Switzerland sometime in the Fall 2015 semester, to teach for a week or so, and hopefully also heading to Iowa and Rochester too, to give papers; I’ll be on a panel at the annual AAR conference in Atlanta, devoted to issues of academic labor and the work conditions of non-tenure track appointees, and, speaking of Atlanta, I’m really looking forward to the NAASR program this coming November, which prominently features a diverse group of early career scholars who, it seems to me, all have something to say about where the field ought to be going. (A workshop for ABDs and early career scholars on the job market has now been added to that program, by the way.) And Aaron Hughes, our Vice President (and MTSR’s editor), will even be collecting up all of these papers into a book. (Perhaps future programs can follow this same model?) Regrettably, I won’t make it to the IAHR World Congress in Germany this August—the first I’ve missed since Mexico City in 1995; I’ll sure miss seeing some old friend there and meeting in person some new virtual friends, so I’d really encourage anyone to go if they’re able to attend.

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You Say Spiritual; They Say Political

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* This post originally appear on the Culture on the Edge blog.

by Steven Ramey

We often assume that actions are either political or spiritual, that those two categories are easily discernible and inherently distinct, but are they different? At times the distinction is legal, centering on the separation of church and state, while at other times the distinction reflects a personal judgment about the actions of another. Whatever judgment is made, however, reflects the assumptions and interests of the observer rather than an inherent difference, as two recent events illustrate.

The US Ambassador, on behalf of Obama and the US government, presented a ceremonial cloth to a shrine in India associated with the founder of the Chishti order, commonly associated with Sufi Islam, while on Saturday, British Prime Minister David Cameron participated in a festival at a gurdwara in Kent.

A leader at the shrine in India, who is also a descendant of Moinuddin Chishti, who is recognized as the founder of the Chishti order, interpreted the donation of the ceremonial cloth (a common gift to the tomb of a Sufi) as “spiritual greetings of peace” from Obama, the first non-South Asian country’s head of state to make such a gift to celebrate the death anniversary of Moinuddin Chishti. He further declared, “The underlying message is to promote spiritualism through harmony, peace, and love for all,” the very values that he attributes to the Chishti founder and his own life work. Of course, others probably view this gift as a part of a diplomatic effort to connect and promote groups that present Islam as a religion of peace and harmony. I can also imagine some in the United States who still believe Obama is Muslim could interpret this as a confirmation of Obama’s religious identification. The interpretation is about the person interpreting, not the action itself.

Cameron’s visit to the gurdwara included participation in a procession and other rituals during Vaiskahi, a festival recognized both as a Punjabi New Year and the commemoration of the founding of the Khalsa, a group that now represents orthodox Sikhism for many. In the midst of an election season, Cameron’s participation can easily be seen as a campaign photo opportunity. In contrast to the rhetorical use of Obama’s gift, the ritual leaders at the gurdwara saw Cameron’s participation as a distraction from “spiritual” concerns, forcing him to move his speech to a side room so that he did not interrupt the devotional practices.

In either of these examples, how people interpret and classify the events reflect their own assumptions and preferences rather than some innate character in the actions. The gurdwara leaders chose to distinguish their ritual practices from Cameron’s presence, while the Chishti leaders emphasized Obama’s participation in a spiritual act. Such assertions reflect the interests that an individual wants to promote, as people describe and classify things in ways that help achieve their overall goals, whatever their personal understanding of the event might be, what I often describe as a political act (as it negotiates different interests among groups of people). So, classifying an action as political or religious is itself a political act, but of course, my statement about classification being a political act is itself a form of classification, making it a political act itself. In that sense, it is all political.

 

Photo of Ajmer Sharif dargah of Moinuddin Chishti by Shahnoor Habib Munmun [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, South Asian Studies, Steven Ramey, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Return of the Savages

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by Craig Martin

The New York Times recently reviewed Jared Diamond’s new book on “tribal” societies, The World Until Yesterday. Among other things—according to the review—we learn:

The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. We generally don’t see them trying to improve their own lives, alter their destinies or become a more admirable people. It’s possible they do not conceive of life in this individualistic way.

As I and my friends noted on Facebook, this is a repackaging of Durkheim’s “primitive savages,” which we all find objectionable for reasons that appear obvious.

I would argue, however, that we see a homologous collectivist/individualist distinction made by supposedly more academic scholars—who should know better—when talking about “institutional religion” and “spirituality.” According to this distinction, some people are slaves to religious tradition, while free individuals make their own spirituality for themselves—and the latter is presented as more “free” than the former. Consider Heelas and Woodhead’s The Spiritual Revolution:

Some hundred years ago, Durkheim drew a distinction between ‘a religion handed down by tradition’ and ‘a free, private, optional religion, fashioned according to one’s own needs and understanding.’ (148)

Or David Lyon’s Jesus in Disneyland, which privileges the individual religion of “advanced” societies:

[I]t has become a truism that religious activity is, increasingly, subject to personal choice, or volunteerism, and that, increasingly, for many in the advanced societies, religious identities are assembled to create a bricolage of beliefs and practices. (Lyon 2000, 76)

[W]here we once would have identified ourselves in terms of the villages or clans we came from, and located ourselves within a social hierarchy stretching down from prince or president to pauper, now nothing is fixed. … The realm of choice has opened up tremendously for most people in the affluent societies, giving us unprecedented opportunities to choose lifestyles and beliefs from a range of options. (91)

If the distinction between “primitives” and “moderns” is objectionable, why isn’t the homologous distinction between “institutional religion” and “individual spirituality” equally so?

Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Executive Secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. His books include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere (Equinox 2010) A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox 2012). Craig’s research interests concern social theories of religion and ideology, particularly how “religion” is imagined in modern thought and popular discourses.

Posted in Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

NAASR Notes: Donald Wiebe, Levyna Interview

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NAASR Notes is a new 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.

We thought it would be of interest to our readers to get some background on the research of NAASR’s three founders–Thomas Lawson, Luther Martin, and Donald Wiebe, along with the work of a few others who have been affiliated with NAASR. In this clip, Donald Wiebe talks about the shift away from the phenomenology of religion toward a greater focus on method and theory, including explanations of religious behaviour, as seen with the cognitive sciences.

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NAASR Notes: Luther Martin, Levyna Interview

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NAASR Notes is a new 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.

We thought it would be of interest to our readers to get some background on the research of NAASR’s three founders–Thomas Lawson, Luther Martin, and Donald Wiebe, along with the work of a few others who have been affiliated with NAASR. In this clip, Luther Martin talks about his work as a historian of religion with an interest in theory and method in the study of religion and the cognitive science of religion.

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NAASR Notes: Robert McCauly, Levyna Interview

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NAASR Notes is a new 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.

We thought it would be of interest to our readers to get some background on the research of NAASR’s three founders–Thomas Lawson, Luther Martin, and Donald Wiebe, along with the work of a few others who have been affiliated with NAASR. In this video clip, which was conducted as a part of Leveya, a Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion (see here for their Facebook page), Robert McCauley discusses his work on cognitive science and reductionism in the study of religion.

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44.1 (March 2015)

Bulletin March 2015The March issue of the Bulletin has been published and is available. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes an eclectic set of articles offering a genealogy of “Abrahamic religions” (Hughes), a theoretical assessment of Islamophobia (Larsson and Sander), an application of myth-as-metacode to popular culture (MacKendrick), and a look at apocalyptic discourse in modern America (Hoover). In addition, this issue includes a look at a new set of clichés that undergird the field of religious studies (Eaghll) and a review essay of Sutcliffe and Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities (Tse).

As always, we welcome submissions for future issues – including responses to published articles – from established scholars and graduate students engaged in the study of religion (regardless of discipline) for either publication in the Bulletin or for here on the Bulletin‘s Blog. Our guidelines for the journal are available online.

 

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 44, Issue 1 (March 2015)

“Abrahamic Religions: A Genealogy” (pp. 3-11) – Aaron W. Hughes (University of Rochester)

“An Urgent Need to Consider How to Define Islamophobia” (pp. 13-17) – Göran Larsson (University of Gothenburg) and Åke Sander (University of Gothenburg)

“What is a Superhero? How Myth Can Be a Metacode” (pp. 19-26) – Kenneth G. MacKendrick (University of Manitoba)

“Wasteland America: The United States in Premillennialist Apocalypse Scenarios” (pp. 26-32) – Jesse A. Hoover (Baylor University)

“Religion Clichés” (pp. 33-38) – Tenzan Eaghll (University of Toronto)

“First as Sociology, Then as Geography: A Review Essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion (pp. 39-43) – Justin K. H. Tse (University of Washington)

 

 

Posted in Announcements, Kenneth G. MacKendrick, Politics and Religion, Reflections on Islamic Studies, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment