Theses on Professionalization: Adrian Hermann


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 Adrian Hermann

Thesis # 14: Depending on the type of institution into which one is hired (i.e., its teaching load, service obligations, emphasis on research, sabbatical opportunities, etc.), the dissertation may constitute one of the few, or quite possibly even the last, opportunity a candidate has to devote an extended period of time to one, focused project, free from the many obligations routinely expected of an Assistant Professor. Given the pressure to publish that, for some time, has attended academic careers, graduate students would be wise to write their dissertations while keeping in mind their eventual submission for possible publication-whether as a monograph (which, depending on a Department’s “Tenure and Promotion” requirements, may be preferable) or as separate peer review essays.

In his fourteenth thesis on professionalization, McCutcheon alerts graduate students to the fact that the time spent working on their dissertation might be the only instance in their professional career in which they can completely focus on only one large research project. At the same time, he highlights the importance of thinking about one’s own research in terms of publishability from the very start.

Reflecting on this thesis today as someone who received his degree from a university in Switzerland and is now working in Germany, a number of things come to mind.

In the current climate in which peer-reviewed publications are becoming more and more important for any substantial academic career, beginning to think early on about the possibilities of publishing one’s work is not only sound but necessary advice. At the same time, the two parts of McCutcheon’s thesis could also be read as slightly at odds with each other. Every young scholar faces the question of whether to treat the environment offered by a graduate program or graduate school as a chance to focus purely on one’s own interests without necessarily taking into account employability, or to choose a topic which may be more fashionable and might promise ‘market success’. Making this choice is complicated by the fact that as someone just starting out in a graduate program you might not be able to completely assess how your possible topic will fit into the current research climate and the priorities of the field as a whole. While the decision itself has to be taken by each student individually, advisors should discuss these issues with their PhD students and both encourage them to follow their interests while also alerting them to the fact that not all topics might be similarly conducive to their subsequent applications to faculty positions.

In any case, even as a graduate student it is important to actively be looking for chances to publish the work one has decided to focus on. In Germany, most dissertations in the humanities have traditionally been published as books. While publishing online is now a possibility at almost all institutions, in most cases it is not yet advisable to do so, as many hiring committees are still paying close attention to the context (i.e. the publisher) in which a particular dissertation appears. At the same time, it seems to me that thinking about designing one’s dissertation to facilitate publishing journal articles based on the manuscript is a good idea that many PhD advisors do not yet think about enough. A closer focus on this issue might be one of the more important changes currently taking place in graduate programs in the humanities, at least in Germany. At the same time, if your advisor is a senior scholar, he or she might not be completely aware that young scholars today are facing new requirements for launching a professional career. Therefore, even in the context of the often more traditional German system, it seems advisable to prepare the dissertation in a way which still allows for publication as a book by one of the more recognized publishers, and at the same time attempting to publish one or more chapters as articles, possibly while still working towards the degree.

Another issue that seems to be insufficiently explored by graduate students and young scholars in the humanities is the idea of writing together with another person. As a graduate student, the chance to co-author an article or book chapter either with someone with more experience in the given field of research or with another graduate student or young scholar might offer an early chance to contribute something substantial to the scholarly conversation. Such a publication might also receive increased interest by readers already familiar with your co-author. While writing in pairs or groups is an established practice in the natural sciences or social sciences, it is not yet widespread in Religious Studies. Luckily, it looks like this is about to change.

This goes along with another suggestion about finding and identifying possibilities of getting work published even very early in graduate school. You might not be aware that editors of collections on a specific topic or even of conference volumes are often looking for a particular essay to fill a spot or deal with a specific topic which is still missing from their outline. If you hear about such a publication being prepared, it might be a good idea to ask the editor(s) about their plans and to propose contributing a chapter of your own. You might just end up with your first publication as a result.

The biggest difference between universities in the U.S. and the German (and larger European) context probably concerns the possibility of fully focusing on one large project. Traditionally, in Germany the completion of a “Habilitation thesis”, a second focused and long-term book project after the dissertation, used to be a necessary requirement to apply to full professor positions. Therefore, it always has been expected and – as much as was feasible – was encouraged by universities and colleagues that a young scholar finds the necessary time and space to work on such a second large research project.

While many young scholars continue to work towards completing a “Habilitation”, other career options have become available. Over the last decade and a half, new large-scale funding initiatives, especially in Germany, have led to a comparably longer post-doc period than before (at least in the humanities). A young scholar might for a couple of years – or even for up to six years (as, for example, in the Emmy-Noether-Program of the German Research Foundation) – continue to work on a clearly defined research project while also supervising a number of PhD students, before moving on to a full-time faculty position. In such a position as a ‘research group leader’ the teaching load is not as high as for most other positions available to PhD holders.

At the same time, the introduction of an Assistant Professor position (“Juniorprofessor”) into the academic system in Germany has made the situation even more complex. Young scholars appointed to one of these positions are awarded all the rights and duties which traditionally were limited to full professors in the German system. They teach regular classes, participate in their departments’ administrative work, and are also expected to bring in third-party funded grants and supervise PhD students. At the same time, because they are demonstrating their potential as future full professors in these other ways, they are no longer expected to complete and submit a formal “Habilitation”. Nevertheless, many of these young professors, especially in more traditional disciplines in the humanities (like History or German Studies) are hedging their bets and try to write a formal habilitation thesis at the same time as they are attempting to fulfill all the other responsibilities their positions entail.

All of these career choices and possibilities are taking place in a context in which the rise of big research clusters and large collaborative research endeavors even in the humanities, as well as an increased pressure on all scholars to apply for a variety of small and large third-party funded research grants, make it difficult to find the time to focus on writing a second comprehensive monograph. Rather, every young scholar I know is constantly struggling with the challenge of keeping up with the various deadlines for essays, articles and book chapters which one has promised to funding institutions and colleagues in the context of one’s own or other’s research projects.

In regard to publishing, the academic world is changing rapidly, so that often your own mentors are unsure how to counsel you on which publications (books, journal articles etc.) you should focus on, and which types of publications are the most important. In this way, it becomes increasingly important to discuss such issues with other young scholars and colleagues to get an idea of how they are dealing with these different demands.

I find it important to reflect on these issues while I myself am moving from being a graduate student/post-doc to thinking about my own priorities in mentoring future PhD students. As many aspects of how graduate students and young scholars should approach publishing in order to prepare for a successful professional career in the humanities are profoundly changing, these issues are only becoming more important.

Adrian Hermann is an Assistant Professor (“Juniorprofessor”) of Religious Studies and World Christianity at the Department of Protestant Theology, Faculty of the Humanities of the University of Hamburg, Germany. His first book, published in June 2015, deals with the emergence of a global discourse of ‘religion’ in the nineteenth and early 20th century. He is currently doing research on independent Catholic Christianity in the Philippines and religion in a globalized world.

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Statement from the ISSRNC on the Proposed Closure of the Religion Department at the University of Stirling


September 16, 2015

To: Professor Richard Oram and Professor Gerry McCormac

Re: Proposed Closure of the Religion department at the University of Stirling

On behalf of the Board of Directors of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, an affiliated society of the International Association for the History of Religions, I am writing you to offer our support of the September 3rd statement issued by the British Association for the Study of Religion. We agree with BASR that the Stirling department has been at the forefront of critical study about religion, and that the academic and nondenominational study of religion “has a key role within higher education institutions.” Because the University of Stirling Religion Programme is the only religion department in Scotland not affiliated with a Christian denomination, it serves a unique and indispensible role in the academic study of religions. The study of religions in a global and non-confessional context remains vital today, as our BASR colleagues point out. We support their request that you reconsider the closure of Stirling’s Religion department.


Sarah M. Pike

California State University, Chico

ISSRNC President

Bron Taylor

University of Florida

ISSRNC Founder and Past President

Editor, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture

Mark Peterson

University of Wisconsin, Washington County

ISSRNC President-Elect.

Kristina Tiedje

Université Lumière Lyon 2

ISSRNC Treasurer

Evan Berry

American University

ISSRNC Secretary

PDF of this Letter to Professor Richard Oram and Professor Gerry McCormac

The online petition to support the University of  Stirling Religion Programme is collecting signatures. For those outside of the UK.  please use any UK postcode. To find a valid UK postcode, please use Royal Mail’s postcode finder; some examples are:

  • TW12 1PD – Diagon Alley, 56A High Street, Hampton Hill, Hampton
  • S10 2GB – Hogwarts, 33 Wilkinson Street, Sheffield
The Critical Religion Association has been tracking this story and from the first announcement, statements from supporters and  associations and groups (BASR, NAASR, CTDR and the ISSRNC) have been posted. 


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Field Notes: Announcing a New Academic Society for the Study of Christian Apocrypha!

Death-Simon-Magus-Nuremburg-ChronicleStudents and scholars of the Christian Apocrypha are encouraged to become members of a new scholarly association: the North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (NASSCAL). The association made its formal debut in an announcement at the conclusion of the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium on September 26, 2015.

NASSCAL is a North American counterpart to l’AELAC (l’Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne), the French/Swiss group of scholars responsible for the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum and other publishing endeavors. The goals of NASSCAL over the next few years are to establish a membership base and promote collaboration among members in several endeavors, including a comprehensive online bibliography/clavis and an open-access journal. The association plans also a series of bi-annual meetings in alternating locations between the U.S. and Canada. These meetings replace the York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium Series, convened in 2011, 2013, and 2015. The first NASSCAL meeting is planned for Ottawa in 2017.

The creation of NASSCAL goes back to the concluding session of the 2011 York Symposium, when those in attendance discussed the possibility of establishing an association. Soon after, a founding board was formed and members of this board met at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2014 to consider the group’s mandate. In the subsequent months, an executive was elected from among the board and a web site ( created to promote the group and to build its membership.

The NASSCAL executive comprises Tony Burke (President), Janet Spittler (Vice-President), Brent Landau (Communications Officer), and Bradley Rice (Student Member). The members-at-large are Charles Hedrick, Cornelia Horn, F. Stanley Jones, Stephen Patterson, Pierluigi Piovanelli, Annette Yoshiko Reed, Jean-Michel Roessli, and Stephen Shoemaker.

To become a member of NASSCAL, register directly at the association’s web site. There are no membership fees. For addition information about NASSCAL, visit the web site and seek out the “Contact Us” link.


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Field Notes: International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture Announcements


*   Call for Nominations: ISSRNC Lifetime Achievement Award.

*   Registration for the ISSRNC 2016 Conference Religion, Science and the Future, now open

*   Prize for Best Student Conference Paper, Religion, Science and the Future.

Call for Nominations: ISSRNC Lifetime achievement award.

Deadline October 15, 2015.

The International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (ISSRNC) announces the ISSRNC Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to the study of religion, nature and culture. The award goes to those whose work has a relevance and eloquence that speaks, not just to scholars, but more broadly to the public and to multiple disciplines as well. The contribution can be any medium (e.g., books, films, TV, public speaking), so long as it is based on scholarship about religion, nature and culture.

Nominees need not be ISSRNC members. The ISSRNC Lifetime Achievement Award will be given at the ISSRNC’s 10th anniversary conference, January 14-17, 2016 at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. The award winner will be expected to appear in a plenary session at the meeting, which will feature an interview with the scholar about his/her/their achievements in the study of religion, nature and culture.

Nominations should be sent to by October 15, 2015. Please include a curriculum vitae and a letter of nomination of no more than two pages summarizing the nominee’s merit and fit for this award.

Registration for Religion Science and the Future is now open.

Featured speakers:

Baird Callicott, Environmental Philosopher

Daniel Deudney, Political Theorist

David Sloan Wilson, Evolutionary Biologist

Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe scholar/activist

Kocku von Stuckrad, Religion Scholar

Tim LeCain, Environmental Historian

Graham Harvey, Religion Scholar

Kyle Powls Whyte, Potawatomi Philosopher

Robin Kimmerer, Botanist and Anishinaabe Philosopher

Jace Weaver, Cherokee Religion and Law

Bron Taylor, Religion and Nature Scholar

Ailton Krenak, Brazilian Indigeous Nations leader

Emma Tomalin, Asian Religion Scholar

Ursula Goodenough, Botanist

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Sociologist

Lisa Sideris, Religious Ethicist

Islam and Environment Scholar İbrahim Özdemir

ISSRNC Award for the Best Student Conference Paper. (PDF)

Students are invited to submit their ISSRNC conference paper (or a longer version, not to exceed 5,000 words) to be considered for the Award for the Best Student Conference Paper.

Submissions should include two documents. The first document should include: Title, Name of Participant, contact information for participant, and a 150-word abstract. The second document should include: Title and the full text of the conference presentation, or a longer version not to exceed 5,000 words. No names or contact information on the second document.

Please submit the attached documents in a commonly used format such as word, rtf, pages, or pdf, to by 1 November 2015. Papers will be anonymously reviewed by a committee of ISSRNC board members.

The winner will receive $500 and be honored at the conference.

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Religion as Film: Constructing a Course as a Critique of a Dominant Paradigm

tenzan use

by Tenzan Eaghll

This summer I taught a class on Religion and Film, and I feel as though I had to reinvent the wheel. This was my first time teaching Religion and Film and I was shocked by the state of scholarship on the topic when I began constructing my syllabus. From the perspective of ideological critique, the area of study is rife with essentialism and is about twenty years behind current trends in continental theory. There are a few great books in print, such as Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner’s Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, M. Gail Hamner’s Imaging Religion in Film: The Politics of Nostalgia, and Gregory J. Watkins, Teaching Religion and Film, but many of the books on the subject imagine religion in essentialist terms.

The dominant paradigm used in the field is to treat “Film as Religion,” which boils down to a mythological analysis of film. According to this perspective, film functions like a religion because it is a cultural projection of the deepest human values and beliefs onto the silver screen. Film is portrayed as a social glue that constructs symbolic universes of meaning. In his popular book on the subject, Film as Religion: Myths, Ritual, and Rituals, John C. Lyden uses this paradigm to develop “a method for understanding film as performing a religious function” (3). Building upon the work of Clifford Geertz, Lyden defines religion as “a ‘myth’ or story that conveys a worldview,” and suggests that films express these myths by using all the tricks of cinematography (4). Lyden uses this definition to explore how the artificial nature of filmic reality has the power to affect us religiously in the modern world.

Another popular book on the subject, which is used as a textbook in many courses, is Joel Martin’s and Conrad E. Ostwalt’s, Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, And Ideology In Popular American Film. Like Lyden, the editors of this book also privilege mythological readings of film and devalue ideological analysis. The text is superior to the former book because it offers examples of theological, mythological, and ideological film criticism, but the editors repeatedly suggest that ideological criticism lacks the depth of theological and mythological perspectives. Moreover, the editors openly state their desire to study religion in film in order to uncover its essential qualities. As they write, the aim of the study is “to take the things of the spirit spiritually” (12).  The editors make the apt point that religion can’t just be rejected as the “opiate of the people, a mystifying set of symbols and ideas,” yet their correction to this error is to essentialize religion as an autonomous domain of culture (11).

Given the state of scholarship on the topic I decided to construct my Religion and Film course as a critique of the “Film as Religion” paradigm. Instead of privileging theological and mythological criticism, or simply inverting this model and privileging ideological criticism over the former two, I treat “Religion as Film,” and interrogate how films present religion on a symbolic and technical level. This means that rather than looking for the “religious power” in film as Lyden, or taking the things of the “spirit spiritually,” as Martin and Ostwalt, I present religion as a modern cinematic creation without essence or origin. The fundamental thesis of my course is that religion is not a thing with definite qualities but a symbolic and technical production of popular culture. Religions are often portrayed as static and insular traditions that stand in opposition to (or in conflict with) popular culture, but my course explores how films challenge this perception by creating, mimicking, and influencing our understanding of religion.  Following the lead of Gail M. Hamner in her syllabus on the topic, I treat religion as an “occasion for analysis,” not an “object of analysis.” The films I screen in class and the readings I give students do refer to  Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, indigenous traditions, and new religious movements, but I do not use any as authoritative presentations of religion. Rather, I present the films and the readings as attempts to frame the relationship between reality, symbols, and society.

Since there are no textbooks that expose “Religion as Film,” I have used  Martin’s and Ostwalt’s Screening the Sacred, but juxtaposed this text to alternate forms of criticism and analysis from film studies. First, rather than simply screen the films and readings from Screening the Sacred in a chronological order, I have mixed things up by showing how the types of criticism the editors select in this volume are not mutually exclusive. Whereas Screening the Sacred is divided into three neat sections, each of which provide a different type of criticism – theological, mythological, and ideological – I blur the distinction between these forms of analysis by providing students with competing theoretical articles, and inviting them to make up their own minds about what type of criticism is most dominant.  Second, each week I also supply students with readings from Timothy Corrigan’s, The Film Experience and Louis Giannetti’s, Understanding Movies. These readings provide the technical terms from film studies that are necessary to understand how film images are created by directors, cinematographers, writers, actors, cameras, lighting, make-up, costume, etc.

For instance, on week two we watched Oliver Stone’s first Vietnam War flick Platoon (1986), and read a wonderful essay from Screening the Sacred on how the entire film functions as a New Testament allegory. According to a theological reading, Platoon offers a  critique of the American war effort by making stark claims about absolute good and evil, and providing a narrative of redemption in Christological form. However, in addition to this theological reading, the students also read an essay that offers an ideological critique of the film. According to this second reading, Platoon reinforces the American War effort by obscuring deeper political considerations and sustaining various myths associated with American nationalism. Of course, the point of this juxtaposition of critical readings is not simply to show how multiple interpretations are possible – a point most undergrads already accept – but to get the students to notice what technical aspects of the films these differing arguments rely upon. It is obvious that a film such as Platoon can lend itself to multiple readings, but what are the cinematic elements that support these various perspectives? What sort of cinematic style does the director use to get his point across; realism, formalism, or classicism? How does the plot and character development use religious ideas to facilitate this cinematic style? How about Symbolism and imagery, is it used to endorse or critique religion? Moreover, what about the use of dialogue and monologue, who is telling this story? Is there an omniscient narrator, narrative, or theme, or are all the characters subject to the whim of chance? What is the tone of the film and how do all the special affects support this tone? And, perhaps most importantly, what about music, lighting, makeup, costume design, etc.? How do all these technical factors combine in the mis en scene of each camera shot? How does each image frame religion as something to be observed, felt, or critiqued? Hence, I use the types of criticism in Screening the Sacred in conjunction with critical analysis from film studies to expose how religion is presented through film, not as a guide for uncovering the religious essence in film.

Fundamentally, what interests me is what films do with ideas and images, not defining religion in any particular way. At no point in the class do I provide a strict definition of religion. Rather, I invite students to examine how the films and the readings tell us to think, feel, and imagine religious content. What I continually ask everyone to consider is how religion is talked about in film, and to explore all the intellectual assumptions and technical aspects that go into the creation of images and effects on the silver screen. In a sense, what I ask them to consider is how everything we think we know about religion is created by filmic reality. By reversing the paradigm of “Film as Religion” with that of “Religion as Film,” I invite students to consider how cinematic production creates the very content of religion in popular culture.

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Fifteen Maxims for the Study of Religion

by Nathan Rein

* This post originally appeared on Medium.

These fifteen “maxims” are a work in progress. I first started drafting them seven years ago. They were intended mainly for students who were at the early stages of a religion major, but we had so few students who fit that description at the time, I never really put them into classroom use in a regular way.

I’m happy to hear whatever feedback you might have.

  1. Start with what’s right in front of you.
  2. Never ignore the obvious.
  3. Keep track of your own reactions.
  4. Ask questions, but don’t expect to figure it all out.
  5. Get comfortable with discomfort.
  6. Listen to your hunches, but never trust them 100%.
  7. What do your physical surroundings tell you?
  8. Use all five senses (as appropriate).
  9. Beliefs aren’t everything.
  10. Words matter, but sometimes other things matter more.
  11. Also, words might not mean what you think they do.
  12. What’s “special” about this — anything?
  13. Look for the religion outside religion. Look for context.
  14. Nothing is perfect. What are you not supposed to notice?
  15. Comparisons are odious — but draw comparisons anyway.

headshot with unicorns and rainbowsNathan Rein teaches religious studies at Ursinus College in southeastern Pennsylvania. Connect with him on Twitter at @ProfessorRein.

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A Shared, Yet Strangely Comforting Delusion: Cognizing Minds, Theorizing Exegesis, and Scholarship as Readerly Constructed Intentionality

By Philip L. Tite

I have recently been working through Hugo Lundhaug’s wonderful book, Images of Rebirth: Cognitive Poetics and Transformational Soteriology in the Gospel of Philip and the Exegesis on the Soul (NHMS, 73; Leiden: Brill, 2010). In this book, Lundhaug applies cognitive science of religion (CSR) to the study of ancient texts. Rarely are modern theoretical models applied to the Nag Hammadi tractates, as the field remains very philologically driven within historical-critical approaches to religious texts. Lundhaug uses theories of intertextual “blending” (especially the work of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner) and George Lakoff’s Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs) to analyze the potential form and function of metaphors within these two texts from Late Antiquity.

Cognitive HeadIn a section on intertextuality, we find an insightful discussion of “authorial intention and the role of the reader” (which are clearly contentious topics among religious studies theorists). At one point, Lundhaug offers a few thought-provoking quotations from Margaret Freeman and, subsequently, Raymond Gibbs on where meaning in a text lies – or is generated – within the very activation of a text. According to Freeman, “literary texts are the products of cognizing minds and their interpretations the product of other cognizing minds in the context of physical and sociocultural worlds in which they have been created and read” (Freeman, “Poetry and the Scope of Metaphor: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literature,” in Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads: A Cognitive Perspective, edited by Antonio Barcelona [Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000], 253; cited by Lundhaug, 51). Similarly, Gibbs states:

the meaning of a text is generated by hypothesizing intentions authors might have had, given the context of creation, rather than relying on or trying to seek out the author’s subjective intentions. Readers’ interpretations of texts depend on their inferences about a hypothetical author founded in the linguistic conventions and artistic practices at the time the author wrote the work, as well as in publicly available knowledge of how the text was created. A work might display a multiplicity of meanings given the large set of intentions readers can hypothesize about an author and the conditions under which a work was written. This multiplicity of meanings is perfectly appropriate to propose, even if the actual author intended only a single interpretation for a text. (Gibbs, Intentions in the Experience of Meaning [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 262; cited by Lundhaug, 52, emphasis mine)

The basic idea is that in the act of reading – or reception – the intention or meaning of a text is not self-evident or absolute (as if it were possible to access authorial intention or if such intention is primary for the “meaning” of a text), but rather the “intention” is the product or products of reading or activation. Yet, such reception is not a free for all (so often when I talk to people about such ideas, I am accused of evoking relativism, with relativism being a “dirty word” where all analytical analysis collapses within self-indulgent subjectivity). Rather, the exegetical product “meaning” (along with the assumption that such a product is the real or true meaning of the author or the original meaning of the first reader/audience/recipient) only arises when the reader adopts “inferences about a hypothetical author”; thus, all such exegetical products are dependent upon the reader’s hypothetical reconstruction of the moment of authorship, occasion, and initial reception. As there are multiple sociocultural or semantic worlds, there are inevitably multiple “authentic” or “real” meanings potentially attached to a given text. The “authenticity” of such a reading or interpretation is valid for those embedded within such interpretative worlds and, consequently, invalid within other, contending interpretative worlds where other “authentic” meanings have arisen.

Such a view of text reception is nothing new for those who have read Paul Ricoeur (on the nature of “texts”), Michel Foucault (especially his concept of author-function), Julia Kristeva (especially her concept of transposition), or J. Z. Smith (especially his 2008 presidential address “Religion and Bible” published in the Journal of Biblical Literature). Indeed, Smith’s call for us to shift away from exegetical analysis to the reception and construction of canons (= sacred texts as “sets” of trajectories or traditions as it were) attempts to move scholars – such as Lundhaug or myself – to stop looking for the meaning of a text (after all, are we not imposing our own hypothetical reconstruction of the author onto the text?) lest we simply become practitioners of (insider?) exegesis rather than being critical theorists of “religion” who are exploring the continually shifting construction of “sacred texts” within a plurality of semantic contexts. For those who still find value in the interpretation or exegesis of religious texts – even within explanatory frameworks, such as those drawn from the social sciences – Gibbs and Freeman’s comments are not surprising. Indeed, the shift toward literary models in the 1970s and ‘80s and the rise of reader-response or reception criticism in the 1990s are heavily indebted to such theoretical problematizing of authorial intention, exegesis, and hermeneutics. Thus, within a range of scholarly circles, we are becoming more comfortable with the concept of “readerly constructed intentionality” (Lundhaug, 53). At least that has been my experience over the past twenty-five years working with early Christian materials.

However, there is another implication that is often overlooked in method & theory discussions contrasting interpretation and explanation (and let me be clear that I appreciate and embrace such a distinction). Specifically, in the reading of each other’s scholarship are we not also engaged in “exegesis,” if, by exegesis, we mean discovering the originary or authentic meaning of a text? When I read an academic article, monograph, thesis, or even blog post, I also try to “get at” the meaning, agenda, or argument of the author. For example, I just started reading the most recent issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and at the end of each article (or abstract, depending on the article and my interest level), I have a “view” of “what the author is arguing”; i.e., I have interpreted what, for example, Brian Sowers or Todd Berzon are trying to accomplish in their research.

As a reader, I hypothesize the conditions and intentions/agenda of the author even when that author is another scholar. My “author” is not Aristotle, Paul (Pauline corpus of letters), Irenaeus (Against Heresy), Snorri Sturluson (the Edda), Muhammad (or whoever wrote/recited the Qur’an), Anton LaVey (The Satanic Bible), or Bahá u’lláh (the Tablets), but rather Hugo Lundhaug, Catherine Caufield, Craig Martin, Margo Kitts, Bart Ehrman, J. Z. Smith, Maureen Korp, Amina Wadud, or Randi Warne. I’m reading other scholars and I’m constructing what I believe is a plausible “what do they mean” interpretation or reading of those scholarly “texts”. Even within a genealogical approach, such as Aaron Hughes’ recent (and excellent) look at “Abrahamic religions” in the pages of the Bulletin, our very meta-critical conclusions are the product of our cognizing minds as we attempt to reconstruct (or construct!) narratives of shifting cognizing minds within historical processes (and, of course, historical reconstructions are always narrative mappings, i.e., hypothesized developments over time; thus, there is a sociology of knowledge driving even a sociology of knowledge). As we read scholarship, we still face the same problems of “interpretation” that we face when reading our data (i.e., religious texts). Indeed, in the very process of theorizing we render scholarship as data. Thus, when we say “According to Warne, gender relations in the academy are …” or “Caufield challenges us to explore disruptive narratives in popular culture …” or even when we engage our own work (“My critics have misread my work” or “In my earlier work, I argued that …”) we play the same role as a reader. We hypothesize a possible context within which we understand scholarly positions, critical viewpoints, and trends in the study of a given topic. When we do research, we inevitably engage in exegesis.

Lundhaug goes on to indicate (see, I’m exegeting Lundhaug!) that such cognitive products are not simply dependent on the reader. Quoting Fauconnier (see, Lundhaug is exegeting Fauconnier!), he states that a “linguistic expression … does not have a meaning in itself; rather, it has a meaning potential” (55; emphasis original). Central to such an insight is the role of the interpretative community (evoking Stanley Fish). Thus, the expression carries meaning because we transpose a set of possible contextual factors onto the reading, often infused with our own cultural location(s), assumptions, and (explicit or implicit) agendas (i.e., our own contextual factors). We as readers create contexts of meaning potential and thus, to apply such insights to our reading of scholarship, we impose social (and cognitive) constraints onto the scholarship we engage, including no less our own scholarship.

Such reflexivity as applied to scholarly interaction raises serious questions about whether we can ever really know anything. Can we actually critique, correct, develop, challenge, or affirm academic positions if all such positions are simply the result of meaning potential(s) arising from our own interpretative communities? To be honest, I have no answer to this question. Just as Bertrand Russell (in Our Knowledge of the External World [London: Routledge, 1993; original 1914]) pushed the epistemological limits of our knowledge construction beyond commonsense or everyday experiences while recognizing that such disruption does not necessarily negate the functional role of daily experience of an external reality, so also perhaps with scholarship; i.e., in order to exist within the academy (and to interact effectively with each other in general), we assume authorial intentions or meanings when we read and debate scholarship – just as we do in daily life even though there is no certainty that we can know what we know about the world beyond ourselves (and perhaps even our knowledge of ourselves is questionable). But before we simply reject the insights of those scholars who are challenging exegesis (be that exegesis of ancient texts, modern scholars, or even ourselves), as if a return to simple naiveté is the only theoretical default (at least for those who want to have careers in academia!), or throw out the entire academic enterprise (and perhaps enter a state of utter madness) let me make a simple suggestion.

Just as we are enriched by those challenging us to move beyond the exegetical or interpretative “meaning” of a given text and to recognize the interpretative communities underlying the very production-through-reception of a given interpretation (including the interpretation of an interpretation), perhaps we should do the same when we read each other’s scholarship. All scholarship is the product of a given contextual or situational framework, be that cultural, historical, ideological, or theoretical. We live in interpretative communities as scholars, including those of us who study the study of religion. Our reflexivity is a corrective, a caution, and a challenge to not settle into a comfort zone of absolute understanding or “meaning” even within academic discourse. It means, in part, that we can never fully understand each other. Rather, we should more effectively appreciate the role of our own assumptions as cognizing minds producing cognizing products. That we do such cognizing within social networks, however, gives us hope (if hope can be valued in this process at all!) of “understanding” or engaging each other. Our private worlds and our public worlds seem to overlap, if not in actuality (if there is such a thing) then certainly practically (for those producing scholarship, associations, and conversations). Indeed, the very criteria of academic “plausibility” (and thus correction, affirmation, and denouncement) are only valid within such shared webs of meaning. Yet, we must always recall that such “meanings” and overlapping webs are nothing more than (individually and socially) internalized – and thus normalized – potential meanings now rendered into plausible or obvious meanings. We can critically engage such processes by elucidating the ICMs and data input processes that allow cognitive blending to arise within the very production of scholarship. The key, I suppose, is to extend such analysis to ourselves and our own “interpretative communities” in acts of self-reflexivity.

But then again, perhaps academic interaction – much like the exegesis of “religious texts” – is nothing more than a shared, yet strangely comforting delusion.


Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).


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