Two Exorcisms: The Narrative Functions of Consecrated Space


by Joseph Laycock

Last week, two reports of exorcism made the news. In Oklahoma City, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley exorcized the Civic Center Music Hall to reverse the effects of a recent black mass. Meanwhile in Liberia, self-styled bishop Edward Adjei announced his plan to banish the Ebola virus by exorcising the old presidential palace. These two cases––which involve exorcising spaces rather than people––offer an insight into the logic of exorcism, and more broadly into the use of space and ritual to impose order onto the cosmos.

While exorcism is normally framed as a traditional and even archaic practice, the public exorcisms of bishops Coakley and Adjei demonstrate how the practice is often improvisational and a response to unprecedented situations. In both cases new threats to the social order (Satanists publically mocking Catholicism with impunity and Ebola, respectively) are framed as demonic forces. This move ascribes complex and widely diffused problems with a physical presence that is both local and accessible. By identifying these forces and then ritually banishing them, the exorcist offers to restore the polity to its state before the crisis occurred. In this sense, exorcism can function almost like a “reset” button in response to the vicissitudes of history. The ritual imposes meaning onto space and then, by extension, seeks to impose meaning onto time. If “all history is local,” as some historians have claimed, then these exorcisms change history by altering the stories that religious communities tell themselves.

The Oklahoma exorcism was a direct response to the claims of “The Dakhma of Angra Mainyu Syndicate” that their ritual held in the civic center would invite a literal demonic presence and “banish the Holy Spirit” from a Satanic worshipper. In a statement, Coakley announced that he took the Satanists’s claims about the efficacy of their black mass seriously. At one point he threatened a lawsuit over speculation that the Satanists had stolen a consecrated host. Despite great objections from Archbishop Coakley’s office and demonstrations by an estimated 1600 lay Catholics, the Satanists were still allowed to hold their ceremony. The failed campaign to block the black mass was a political defeat even as it energized conservative Catholics.


The archdiocese expressed that they had received concerned e-mails from lay Catholics asking whether the civic center was now spiritually safe to enter. By exorcizing the civic center, Coakley not only reversed any supernatural effects caused by the black mass, he also symbolically delegitimized the Satanists. What the archdiocese could not accomplish through the courts and political pressure, it did with ritual. For those who accept the exorcism’s efficacy, Oklahoma City was not a place where Satanists enjoyed the same Constitutional protections as Christians, but a place where spiritual evil rallied and was defeated.

The Liberian exorcism involves a more complex demonology. For Edward Adjei, any incurable disease is the result of demonic influence. The true cause of Ebola, he argues, lies in the former mansion of Charles Taylor––who was accused of both warcrimes and witchcraft during Liberia’s civil wars. The burned out hulk of Taylor’s mansion has allegedly become a stronghold for demons that spread Ebola. Also demonstrating the improvisational nature of exorcism, Adjei announced that he would douse the mansion in a pink soda called Vimto, which many Liberian churches use as an affordable alternative to communion wine. By using Vimto to consecrate the mansion, Adjei claims the site will be “dominated by the blood of Jesus.”

Exorcism is used to heal disease in the Gospels. What is significant about Adjei’s ritual is that he is not proposing to exorcise Liberians infected with Ebola, but rather to consecrate a space that is tied to Liberia’s history. His demonology neatly folds the two horrors of Liberia’s civil wars and Ebola into a single and manageable demonic threat. By consecrating Taylor’s mansion, he offers not only to reverse the spread of Ebola but to correct something in Liberia’s past.

The two exorcisms discussed here follow the same logic as many contemporary forms of deliverance ministry. C. Peter Wagner introduced “prayer mapping” in which Christians engaged in spiritual warfare research and identify spaces where “territorial spirits” reside. Once these demonic strongholds are identified, they can be exorcised and their influence over the community broken. In some cases, prayer mappers have concluded that a land is cursed due to ancient Pagan rituals. In 2007 deliverance ministers in Olney, Texas, ritually destroyed two matrimonial vases of unspecified “Native American” design that allegedly displayed images of Baal and Leviathan, in order to release residents from a curse affecting their town. Like the exorcisms of Coakley and Adjei, prayer mapping uses ritual to impose order onto space, polities, and time simultaneously.

In his book on exorcism, the former Jesuit author Malachi Martin wrote that there is a “puzzle of spirit and place” that cannot be explained but must be accepted as a fact of exorcism. The exorcisms in Oklahoma City and Liberia provide an insight into this puzzle. Foucault noted that, “Space is fundamental in any exercise of power.” This is especially true of sacred space. In his essay “The Wobbling Pivot,” J.Z. Smith observed that sacred space—created through ritual––serves to demarcate where the profane ends and the sacred begins. The exorcisms examined here suggest that sacralizing space allows religious communities to impose further order onto the cosmos. George Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” At least for the exorcist, we might say that: “He who controls the space controls the past.” While the effort appears to be to control demons, the demons are merely a means to an end.

Joseph Laycock is n assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

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Juggling It All: Tips on Research and Writing, Part 1

buried in books

Craig Martin: I find myself to be a creature of habit when it comes to the spaces in which I do work: I write on my couch at home, read on the back porch, grade papers in the dining room, write lectures in my office, etc. Usually, once I’m in that space I habitually turn toward the task at hand. Unfortunately, this can also be debilitating, e.g., when one needs to work in another space. I can’t write worth a damn unless I’m on my living room couch; that’s a problem when I need to write but I’m not at home.


Ryan FicsI have found color coding to be a beneficial tool for organization. For example, I designate particular colors for certain ideas and tasks when taking notes. Each color not only acts as a reminder, or a kind of memory trace that you can follow through your own notes (for example, making notes in green pen which correlate to a section in a book you have underlined in green), but also I find it is helpful for maintaining a codification system. Sticking to a color code system so that I do not mix what was written in green with what was written in red, blue, or black, helps me navigate through my own notes quickly when needed. On days when I find it hard to write, I find this system to be effective because while reading if I come across something important, it forces me to get a certain color of pen and begin taking notes which can lead to a short blurb, or section where I hash out a sketch of a rough idea. I’ve also found that if performed digitally, keeping colors in line with what they are used for in terms of different interests and ideas (especially in PDF) allows for a certain kind of repetition to take place. You can have several versions of the same document, with different color code schemes that represent different research projects/ideas. I have found that color coding documents on my computer can help unfold connections between texts and my own writing that I would not normally make, in a variety of ways. Happy studies and organizing!

Donovan Schaefer: Getting to a point where I was regularly in the habit of writing everything down and also had an efficient “filing system” for organizing those notes was key for me. An idea that seems blazingly obvious to you while you’re sitting on a train or washing dishes or lying awake at 2 AM may be totally gone 6 hours later. And the memory of something you’re reading today that you suddenly realize could be foundational to your next project may be faded by the time you turn your attention to that work. Capturing the little points of contact I map out during the day and then collecting them in centralized locations–I have one big file internally divided by various upcoming projects that I add a few lines to every other day–not only helped me work more efficiently, it highlighted for me how writing is always a sedimentation of different strands of thought and research spanning my academic and non-academic lives.

Travis Cooper: Since a large portion of my research is “digitally ethnographic,” as it concerns blog posts, news articles, church facebook pages and discussion forums, online book reviews, etc., the simple webpage bookmarking function, via Internet Explorer, works wonders. One can title bookmarks appropriately and then manage and organize them using topical folders and search options. For broader research, though, I’m finding new software programs such as NVivo productive. One can store any and all information in the program–websites, book and article bibliographic information, article PDFs, and so on–and then highlight and code information on said artifacts through a complex and interconnected node system. NVivo is expensive but quite impressive in its information organization skills and cataloguing abilities. It also keeps all of one’s information for multiple, ongoing projects, all in one place.

Kenneth MacKendrick: Most of us are under the impression that we can’t get anything done unless we have gigantic blocks of time, at least a good four hours or so just to get things started. This is an illusion. With some foresight and a bit of planning, you can get a lot done in 15 minutes. Putting yourself on a timer to respond to emails or write lectures or structure a short piece of writing can save a lot of time. This isn’t a useful strategy, in fact it’s a pain in the head most of the time: I make all my notes for writing in the margins of the books or articles I’m thinking of using for a given project… which means that I when I go to write I essentially need to surround myself in stacks of books.

Sarah Rollens: Someone once told me that she couldn’t start writing until she’d done all of her research. For me personally, I have no idea what “being done” with my research looks like, so I’ve tried to cultivate the habit of writing—even if it’s just a paragraph or something short—as I read, even if I’m not sure how it will fit into a larger project. It’s easier for me to edit or excise later on, but far more difficult to generate thoughts based on things I’ve read months ago. Also I’ve found that the most useful way to go about my research is to learn to recognize my own habits. Some days I write a lot; some days I write nothing. On the days where I write very little, I try to shift my attention elsewhere: translating tasks, bibliographical entries, catching up on reading some articles, etc. When I was working on my dissertation, I had a few spells where I tried to achieve 1000 words per day. That was reasonably successful since my writing style is to over-generate content and then edit for quality.

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God and the State: How Bombing IS(IS/IL) Gets Justified (Biblically)

Prime Minister David Cameron Makes His Speech At The Conservative Party Annual Conference

by James Crossley

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Harnessing Chaos: History, Politics and Critical Biblical Studies.

An old anarchist critique of the state and its institutions is that its power depends on the idea of God or a higher authority. This was a criticism I hadn’t previously taken too seriously when looking at contemporary politics but there are certainly instances where this critique rings true, or at least can be modified. No contemporary politician can invoke God too much but grounding political views in a vague, and not overtly supernatural, understanding of ‘the Bible’, ‘religion’, or ‘Christianity’ has been carried out by Prime Ministers and leading mainstream politicians over the past 40 years. Indeed, Thatcher has been the most consistently explicit figure in recent English politics. She was convinced that the Bible and Christianity were at the heart of specifically Anglicised capitalism (along with, she argued, a specifically Anglicised view of democracy, human freedom, charity, individualism etc.) which has set the West apart from Communism and Soviet Russia (along with, she argued, tyranny, oppression, excessive state support, collectivism etc.). There are a number of parochial and localised reasons for politicians using the Bible (e.g. to risk getting a good press, not to annoy Christian voters unnecessarily, to keep certain pressure groups happy etc.) but there is no serious ‘Christian vote’ in the UK yet it is a constant feature of Prime Ministers such as Thatcher, Blair, Brown, and Cameron to have their core political beliefs somehow grounded in the Bible. And a reason for this is that it gives their views an authority and justification that they might otherwise lack.

Let’s take David Cameron’s recent speeches (one transcript is here) concerning IS(IL):

For clarification, in what follows I am obviously not arguing what is, or is not, ‘true religion’, ‘true Christianity’, ‘true Islam’ or the like but, rather, what I am trying to explain are some of the assumptions underlying such essentialist language in political discourse and what these assumptions are masking and obscuring.

Cameron’s speeches contain all the usual clichés about what religion and Islam really ‘is’ or ‘are’:

They are killing and slaughtering thousands of people—Christians, Muslims, minorities across Iraq and Syria. They boast of their brutality. They claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims, they are monsters.

It is fairly obvious what Islam must not be for Cameron (and virtually every major politician in the UK). So if IS is not True Religion or True Islam then what is it? It is a ‘fanatical organisation’, a ‘warped ideology’. For Cameron, the emergence of IS also represents a battle between Islam (‘on the one hand’) and ‘extremists who want to abuse Islam’ (‘on the other’). In fact, Cameron argues that it is ‘vital’ that ‘we make this distinction between religion [Islam] and political ideology’ [‘Islamist extremism…often funded by fanatics…who pervert the Islamic faith…’]’. Fairly obvious too is what True Islam should be for Cameron: ‘Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. It is a source of spiritual guidance which daily inspires millions to countless acts of kindness’. In fact, this binary of violent and brutal versus peaceful and being kind is important for Cameron (and virtually every major politician in the UK) when it comes to how they categorise religion and the state. This is confirmed by what Cameron thinks ‘we’ are: ‘We are peaceful people. We do not seek out confrontation’; ‘Britain is an open, tolerant and free nation’; ‘adhering to British values is not an option or a choice, it is a duty for those who live in these islands’.

But what happens when a British national behaves how they ought not? Cameron presents this as a shock, as much a deviation from True Britishness as it is from True Religion:

People across this country would’ve been sickened by the fact that there could have been a British citizen—a British citizen—would could have carried out this unspeakable act. It is the very opposite of everything our country stands for.

But already Cameron’s construction is starting to get complicated. ‘We’ too are prepared to use violence but do so when provoked and in a ‘calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination’. Here the subtle invocation of Christianity (assumed to be about ‘peace’) becomes important. Cameron mentions the persecution of ‘minorities, including Christians’ and brings in an allusion to the Good Samaritan (rather than to Dionne Warwick):

…but we cannot ignore this threat to our security…there is no option of keeping our heads down…we cannot just walk on by if we are to keep this country safe…we have to confront this menace…we will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination.

Underlying this is a long political tradition of the Bible being assumed to be part of ‘our’ tolerant, democratic heritage. Cameron uses Christianity and the Bible to his bolster his assumptions about who has the legitimate monopoly on violence. Little wonder that Obama played the game of flat contradiction in claiming that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a State, with assumptions including that which is deemed to embrace True Religion and those which are deemed to be non-rogue states being the ones that may use violence:

The driving narrative is of further importance when the opposition is categorised in metaphysical or fantastical terms. For Cameron, IS are not Muslims ‘they are monsters’ and IS are ‘an organisation which is the embodiment of evil’.

There is going to be a sympathetic audience for this rhetoric, particularly given the beheadings which are brutally horrific just to comprehend. But this simplistic notion of the world of True Religion versus Evil has another function: it covers over the complexity of the situation. There are all sorts of reasons which would help us understand the rise of IS (‘evil’, incidentally, is not one of them), such as (among many) the decline of secular nationalism in the Middle East and North Africa, the rise of slums and population growth, the role of oil in economic growth and crashes, a range specific issues (e.g. ideological, material) relating to Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath (which, tellingly for someone invoking ‘evil’ and a ‘warped version of Islam’ as an explanation, is denied as a ‘source’ or ‘root cause’ for the rise of IS by Cameron). Moreover, George Monbiot has recently pointed out that if we followed the logic of the rhetoric of morality in foreign policy, we might find ‘ourselves’ bombing quite a lot of people, including ‘our’ allies:

Let’s bomb the Muslim world – all of it – to save the lives of its people. Surely this is the only consistent moral course? Why stop at Islamic State (Isis), when the Syrian government has murdered and tortured so many? This, after all, was last year’s moral imperative. What’s changed? How about blasting the Shia militias in Iraq? One of them selected 40 people from the streets of Baghdad in June and murdered them for being Sunnis. Another massacred 68 people at a mosque in August. They now talk openly of “cleansing” and “erasure” once Isis has been defeated…What humanitarian principle instructs you to stop there? In Gaza this year, 2,100 Palestinians were massacred: including people taking shelter in schools and hospitals. Surely these atrocities demand an air war against Israel? And what’s the moral basis for refusing to liquidate Iran? Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged there last week for making “innovations in the religion” (suggesting that the story of Jonah in the Qur’an was symbolic rather than literal). Surely that should inspire humanitarian action from above? Pakistan is crying out for friendly bombs: an elderly British man, Mohammed Asghar, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, is, like other blasphemers, awaiting execution there after claiming to be a holy prophet… Is there not an urgent duty to blow up Saudi Arabia? It has beheaded 59 people so far this year, for offences that include adultery, sorcery and witchcraft. It has long presented a far greater threat to the west than Isis now poses

So why really choose IS here and now and not others? Why not explain why IS came to be in a way other than just ‘evil’ or a ‘warped ideology’? Whatever the reasons, the implicit authority for such simplifications, and ultimately for carrying out violence, is grounded in, and justified by, a given politician’s construction of, and assumptions about, the Bible, religion and Christianity. A higher authority, it seems, is still needed in political discourse.

PS: If you want to witness competitions based on similar assumptions about whether IS is or is not Islamic, or just a nice piece of data for the critical study of religion, try this debate from Fox:

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Religion Snapshots: Aslan on Islam


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially topics relating to definitions, classification, and method and theory in the study of religion more generally.

Editor’s note: This snapshots feature is based on a recent interview on CNN with Reza Aslan on the topic of Islam and violence. The interview opens with the following statement: “Defenders of Islam insist it is a peaceful religion. Others disagree and point to the primitive treatment in Muslim countries of women and other minorities.” Aslan is introduced as a scholar of religions, professor at UC Riverside and the author of Zealot. The interviewers’ lead with a clip from Real Time’s Bill Maher equating Islam with violence, citing examples of circumcision for women and not respecting gay rights, and a caption is displayed throughout much of the interview reading: Does Islam promote violence? The following are four commentaries on Aslan’s reply.


Carl J. Stoneham: Aslan needs to check his figures on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the idea of ‘100%’ gender equality in Indonesia (and it wouldn’t hurt him to look up the actual definition of ‘bigotry,’ either). He’s made some good points, but obscured them with hyperbole, half-truths, and outright false statements.

In his zeal to highlight the fact that Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, treats women far better than Saudi Arabia does, Aslan quantifies equality by stressing that women in Indonesia are “absolutely, 100% equal to men.” Setting aside my main concern that this whitewashes important issues concerning women’s equality in Indonesia, I’m bothered that a self-identified religion scholar is trotting out what are demonstrably false claims (e.g. the World Bank rates Indonesia at 91 out of 144 countries for women’s equality). Why not just state “Indonesia is way ahead of Saudi Arabia when it comes to treating women as equals?” This would maintain the comparison without stumbling over a fiction. What did he hope to gain from using this sort of hyperbole to defend a comparative truth? Still, it is Aslan’s point about FGM that strikes me as more troubling.

In response to Bill Maher’s comment that FGM is “a Muslim country problem,” Aslan responded, “that’s actually empirically factually incorrect. It’s a Central African problem.” (Note: “Central Africa” is the wrong region. He should have referred to the Sahel, as in a “Sahelian problem”). As support, he offered Eritrea and Ethiopia as Christian examples, stating that (in reference to Somalia) “nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.” But this simply isn’t true. One, Somalia is far from the only Muslim-majority country in Africa where FGM is practiced. Two, if one maps FGM in Africa to the religious majority in each country, it is clear that it is primarily Muslim-majority countries that do practice FGM. While this does not mean that FGM is an inherently “Islamic” practice, it could mean that Islam, writ large, offers a frame to justify such cultural practices. All four of the primary Sunni schools of jurisprudence look on female circumcision (known to the West as FGM) as *at least* neutral (mubah), with the Shafi’i school going so far as to declare it obligatory (see link at the end). The reasons for this are mostly rooted in a certain respect for local tradition that comes with Islam (which is a good thing in other cases), but it does not change the fact that it is stated as an *obligation* incumbent upon Muslims in at least one of the four major schools of jurisprudence, with the others considering it either recommended or permissible. Granted, there is always more complexity to be had here, but if we’re painting with a broad brush, as Aslan is, his supporting argument does not pass muster. Perhaps he has gotten caught up in his own brand of polemical apologetics?

In his zeal to undermine (rightly) the use of “Muslim country” in popular media, Aslan offers half-truths and outright falsehoods as support for his position. Are we OK with a sort of “I got the big picture right, even if all the supporting facts are wrong?” As a public scholar who, quite literally, banks on his academic bona fides, is Aslan getting away with something a grad student could not? What’s more, has he pre-emptively discredited his excellent point about “Muslim countries” because his supporting arguments are either hyperbolic or outright false? For viewers skeptical of his position on “Muslim countries,” would a little bit of Googling undermine his thesis? Judging by the comments section, Aslan won this debate hands down, but surely his is an example of something we as scholars should avoid doing when presenting complex ideas, especially in popular fora.

*For a quick Internet link on the Shafi’I school of jurisprudence and female circumcision, see here:

Dennis LoRusso: I find several things interesting here. First, Aslan and the interviews almost seem to be speaking different languages. When Aslan interrogates the assumptions in statements like “Muslim countries,” his interlocutors respond with questions that simply reproduce these same problematic categories. In general, I have not been overly sympathetic to Aslan as a public scholar in the past (especially towards his tendency to protect certain versions of religious traditions as more legitimate than others), but I do think, at least in this instance, he draws attention to the political and contingent quality of concepts like “religion.”

However, even though he acknowledges religion as an unstable classifier, Aslan inadequately addresses the problem. By preferring to characterize female genital mutilation as a “central African” problem rather than a “Muslim” problem, he fails to explain why “Central Africa” serves as a more sufficient frame. Do our geographical maps somehow capture the territory better than our religious ones? Both strategies prove reductionistic because they feign objectivity, where in fact, none can exist.

It is through these kinds of moves that we can see Aslan’s apologetics at work. A “religion,” as he says, can never be the cause of either peace nor violence, but his audience should uncritically accept that cultures, nations, politics, or societies (all constructs of an order similar to religion) are the “real” agents, who only use religion as their veneer to account for their modes of action.

A more intellectually responsible way for Aslan to address these issues with a public that lacks the scholar’s theoretical (sometimes haughty) background would be to not only combat the reductionist rhetoric of “religious violence,” but also to point out why all such claims are not helpful. In drawing attention to how discourse, identity, and action are tied to historical change, the public scholar illuminates our collective complicity in these acts of human suffering.

Matt Sheedy: Despite problems that I have with Aslan’s narratives about religion in general and Islam in particular, I do appreciate his willingness to not soft-peddle his position and call out “stupidity” (he politely goes there) where he sees it. I think this speaks to Dennis’s point about “speaking different languages,” where the short term interests and “sound bite” nature of prime time often requires a radical break with the standard narrative (e.g., the common assumption that “religion” or “Islam” is a causal force, and the follow-up move of distinguishing good/correct versions from bad/incorrect deviations) in order to re-establish the discussion on more fruitful ground. Being generous to Aslan, we might grant that his generalizations that Carl points out may be conditioned by the medium (e.g., using hyperbole to make a point), though this seems to go against the more nuanced analysis and careful attention to language that he’s calling for in this interview. I also find his assertion that it’s “people” who are violent and not “Islam” to be problematic. He follows this up with the caveat that it “depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way that they see themselves.” Earlier in the interview he had mentioned that Islam is neither violent nor peaceful, which is the correct rhetorical move, though his attempt to change the narrative by pluralizing Islam and adding the politics of nation-states into the mix remains trapped in an similar framework, where the criteria for “bad religion” is now Islam + authoritarian regime. A better move, it seems to me, would be to discuss the identities of distinct groups that identify as Muslim thereby showing how multiple theological world views get caught up in shifting historical conflicts and tied to various political, cultural, and ethnic constellations, etc. In this sense “Islam” is always a variable (and one without a stable meaning!) that can never be determined in advance.

Zeba Crook: I thought the interview was fantastic. I loved that he can spar with the talking heads without losing his cool, that he can be so aggressive (“Did you hear what you just said?!”) while smiling in a friendly way. I think what is most important about his interview is his point that Islam is not anything (peaceful or hateful). Islam is what people do with it, it is not any one thing. That the CNN commentator had so much trouble following him (evidenced by her continual return to “But isn’t it the case that Islam…”) shows how important it is to make that point, and I thought he made it well. His other main take-away point is that one cannot take Saudi Arabia and Iran as representative of a global religion with over a billion members. Indonesia and Turkey are not like Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can’t generalize about a global religion based on two extreme examples. This gets to the problem of totalizing and reifying religion: Islam is mean to women, or Islam is peaceful. The point he made again and again is that “Islam is nothing” and it was both made well and worth making.

Posted in Carl Stoneham, Dennis LoRusso, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Religion Snapshots, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edge of the Button


by Eleanor Finnegan

Note: the following is a commentary on the Reflections on Islamic Studies series, which appeared on the Bulletin blog earlier this year.

My department has gained attention on campus for giving out buttons. A recent example boldly read “This is not a button” in the center, with fine print around the edge that said “This is an ad for the Department of Religious Studies.” These buttons were a hit, prompting responses from an enlightened “oh” to laughter. Besides serving as advertising, we wanted these buttons to help students begin critically thinking about the role of swag on campus and our departmental decision to advertise.

I would like this blog post on Islamic studies to function like the text on the edge of our buttons. I want us to pause to consider how the conditions of academia (a need to build a career, a rise in adjunct faculty, disappearing tenure track lines, elimination of departments, the cost of academic publishing etc.) might shape debates, the sides we take, and the time that we take on those debates within Islamic Studies. How do conditions influence how we attempt to argue and whom we attempt to discredit? How do we help construct or shape them through our own choices?

In his post, Edward Curtis explained that “so many different people and institutions with so many different goals . . . have something at stake” in constructing and policing the category Islam. We, as scholars, are just as interested as any other group in defining Islam. In constructing our field, we have something at stake – livelihoods, sense of self, academic reputation. In our competition for resources – funds, citations, student credit hours, tenure, additional faculty lines, etc. – as well as our desire/need to build a career, we make choices that perpetuate issues of urgency and discourses about the exceptional nature of Islamic studies. We are not only responding to political situations or inheriting definitions of Muslims. Instead, we are also actively engaging in our power as scholars, who have institutions that legitimize our claims and access to venues and audiences for our ideas. To help us shape, work within, and utilize the theoretical tools of our field, the discipline of religious studies, and academia, we must examine these conditions and choices.

In this series of blogs, scholars are explicitly and implicitly making arguments about the relevancy of our field. We argue that our field is important, in part because we believe it provides helpful ways of understanding, but also to build a career and to claim its worthiness for resources. Within the field of religious studies, studies of Islam are no longer justified by arguments that religion is necessarily sui generis. Instead, some scholars argue that Islamic studies is unique, because it is a discipline within the humanities. They argue that studies of humanity require special care, because people cannot be reduced to mere data. This argument can be found in other areas of study and is likely shaped by the rise in rhetoric that challenges the relevance of the humanities, but it also opens the humanities to ahistoricism and obscures scholars’ assumptions. Some argue that Islamic studies is distinctly political. All scholarship is political, and all scholarship will be used for normative ends (sometimes regardless of the intent of the scholar). However, labeling scholarship as political or normative does open work to particular markets and audiences.

Competition over resources can influence the style, as well as the type, of arguments that we make. Theories that undermine claims about the exceptional nature of a field are often vigorously attacked. In religious studies, theories (like that of social constructionism) are often robustly debated, in part because they are seen as undermining the relevancy or necessity of religious studies as a field.

Our embrace of new media, such as blogs, also shapes our field. We seek out various areas of teaching, writing, and speaking in order to influence people and their ideas, gain recognition, and create demands for our work. Many scholars are using blogs to address issues within academia. Some attempt to use it to bring their research to the public sphere – responding quickly to current events or publishing in a format that is affordable for those without access to a university library. Some use it as a way to publish ideas without the politics sometimes involved in academic publishing or as a way to get feedback more quickly. These are all ways to build an audience, a scholarly reputation, and hopefully a career.

Yet blogging has problems as well. It may reinforce issues of power and access within academia. Blogging requires access to technology and space on the internet. Scholars with academic affiliations often have these resources provided. Senior scholars are often the ones invited to write for more prominent blogs, and their posts are frequently circulated more widely. Junior scholars and graduate students may have less time to blog, because they need to worry about the weight of various types of publications. As a result, blogging can end up magnifying the more powerful voices in academia.

The format of blogging allows scholars to analyze current events, but it also contributes to a sense of urgency (which Ruth Mas highlighted as a problem in post 9/11 scholarship) in our work. The format of blogs is different than articles or books. They are usually short, only allowing for the introduction of an idea or two and hardly allowing space for citations. Without citations, posts can become confusing or completely inaccessible to those outside of a specific discipline or area of study. If reality television has taught us anything, it is that it becomes very difficult to follow onscreen fights about events that happen off-screen. With these limitations or problems in the format, blogs run the risk of becoming the new forum for sound bites on Islam – intentionally or unintentionally presenting certain interpretations of the Islamic tradition as authoritative.

Without considering our choices as scholars (about the medium and message of our work) and reflecting on the conditions of our work, we can end up reifying Islam or reproducing dualities of “good” and “bad” Muslims. We may magnify the voices of “good” Muslims or, equally problematic, what we present as the right interpretation of Islam. These practices limit the debates that we can have within Islamic studies, bringing identity politics to the forefront and retreading debates concerning normative versus descriptive or critical versus caretaking work.

Eleanor Finnegan is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama. She is working on a monograph, focusing on the formation of identities and  communities on American Muslim farms, that challenging assumptions about the construction of the categories of Islam, American, and environmentalism, as well as the role of worldviews in shaping environmental action.

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Religion Clichés #3 and #4


by Tenzan Eaghll

Note: This post is the second in a series that seeks to summarize some of the clichés associated with religion. It is framed as a critique of a 1972 article by Ninian Smart. For the first post and a definition of cliché see here.

#3 True Religion is about Peace and/or Religion is Inherently Violent

Did you know Carpocrates, a 3rd Century Christian Gnostic, suggested that sex orgies could help one attain salvation? That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints did not allow African Americans to be priests until 1978 (because people with dark skin had formerly rebelled against God)? Or, that one of the female heroines of the Mahabharata, Draupadi, was married to all five brothers from the Pandava clan? Or, how about that, in Exodus 32, Moses orders the slaughter of thousands of Jews for not being sold on monotheism? What do these random facts imply about the nature of religion? Do they show how religion is inherently violent, peaceful, racist, or immoral?

The dual clichés that true religion is about peace and/or religion is inherently violent form a binary of idiocy that are routinely debated in the blogosphere. The positive version of this cliché grew in popularity in the wake of 9/11, when defenders of a “moderate Islam” tried to distinguish their interpretation of the Qur’an from radical groups such as Al Qaeda. By calling Islam a religion of peace these interpreters attempted to differentiate authentic acts of Islam from acts of terror. Former President Bush used this cliché on several occasions and in a recent speech President Obama used a version of it when discussing the group known as “Islamic State” (ISIL), suggesting that the group has nothing to do with Islam. The negative version of this cliché—that all religion is violent—has also grown in popularity over the past decade, particularly among self-identifying atheists. Some of those who hold to the negative version of this cliché, such as Bill Maher or Sam Harris, argue that most religions, and Islam in particular, are violent to the core.

To be clear, to suggest that any religion is either peaceful or violent is to engage in a game of definition that not only reduces history to a series of stereo-types, but assumes that there is a truth about religion. Anytime someone makes an argument that religion is about X (i.e., peace, truth, power, violence, etc.) and then lists a whole host of historical facts to support the association between religion and X, you can be sure that certain aspects of history are being privileged to further a particular agenda. What is important is not what religion is or is not, but how the term is used to carve up and define space.

4. Religion has dimensions

Next up on the chopping block is a cliché started by Ninian Smart. As a phenomenologist of religion with popular works such as Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology, Smart was one of the leading 20th Century popularizers of the comparative approach to the study of religion. Whether a religion was theistic or non-theistic, monotheistic or polytheistic, he suggested that it could be broken down into its fundamental aspects and studied. What Smart called the dimensions of religion is a classification schema that organizes religion according to its doctrinal, mythical, ethical, experiential, ritual, institutional, and material elements. As Russell McCutcheon notes, Smarts definition organizes religion according to “aspects or family of traits that typified religions.” (Studying Religion, 172)

This definition of religion is a cliché because it doesn’t actually say anything about religion, but merely passes the buck, so to speak, and assumes that religion is produced by a series of traits that are defined as religious. The logic here is tautological because the various dimensions of religion necessarily produce religious experience (i.e. that which causes religion (myth, narrative, doctrine, etc.) is assumed to be the ‘same/common’ as the source.

The underlying assumption of this expression is that by piecing together all the dimensions of the sacred the scholar is able to describe the nature of human experience. What is fundamentally at stake here is an uncritical acceptance of the correspondence theory of meaning. By organizing religions according to textual, sociological, psychological, anthropological, and historical dimensions it is assumed that we attain access to the essence of a culture. Smart thought that these dimensions provided a “psychology of spirituality” because they give us a glimpse of how human experience and institutions give rise to worldviews that organize the deepest aspects of society. However, by framing community according to a relativist logic of worldviews, or enclosed totalities, this definition merely provides an essentialist way of thinking about community and ignores the arbitrary nature of its classification schema.

(Note: I am not suggesting that the dimensions theory of religion needs to be rejected outright but that it needs to be used with a grain of salt. If it is employed as a tentative classification model then it can be a useful pedagogical tool. On the other hand, when it is used to provide a clear and distinct presentation of some religious or cultural essence it is a cliché.)

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

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Dominant Ideologies, Neoliberal Jesuses, and the Academic Study of Religion

Cover Shot 1The following is the editorial introduction to the September 2014 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Philip L. Tite


Over the past month, my students and I have worked through a good portion of the Guide to the Study of Religion (Braun and McCutcheon 2000). This is an amazing collection of essays that both reflect upon a wide range of trends in the field of religious studies and mark out a theoretically and critically mature path for future scholarship. A running theme throughout the collection is a distinction between theories that focus on substantive approaches to religion (i.e., what religion is) and more discursive approaches to religion (i.e., what religion does). This theme is prominent, for instance, in William Arnal’s excellent overview of definitional approaches as well as in Russell McCutcheon’s engagement with the category “myth.” Often substantial approaches tend to focus on internal sui generis characteristics, thereby essentializing the object of study—and thus render it an object for study—so that a normative, universal reconstruction emerges under such labels as religion, myth, gender, ethnicity. Such normative products are often dissociated from not only cultural institutions (within which the object functions) but also—perhaps more so—the social and political circumstances of intellectual inquiry (within which the object functions for scholarship). More often than not, many of us who work within the academic world are unable to see the contemporary ideological influences at work within our guild—or in our own scholarship. And while concern over content certainly has its place within religious studies scholarship, it is always helpful to enter into reflexive modes of theorization so that we can discern such ideological uses of the very content that we create during our ordinary, scholarly activities.

This issue of the Bulletin offers a panel of papers on a specific arena of research in which such ideological influences are vividly at play in research. James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism (2012) is a provocative history of scholarship on historical Jesus research (HJR). Building on his previous book, Jesus in an Age of Terror (2008), Crossley explores the dominant ideological, political, and economic trends at play within modern (largely Euro-American) HJR. Rather than exploring shifting methods for explicating the historical Jesus, Crossley’s history situates HJR within the context of neoliberalism. This is a work that is undoubtedly one of the most theoretically sophisticated works in HJR. Rather than offering scholars more tools to reconstruct the historical Jesus, he offers a mirror for HJR scholars, thereby demonstrating that HJR (and religious studies scholarship more generally) is just as historically, culturally, politically, and even economically situated as our supposed object(s) of study.

We are delighted to include in this panel three responses to Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism. Each response offers a distinct perspective for the conversation that Crossley launches. Justin Tse’s expertise in geography of religion adds to the theoretical spectrum of the conversation, while Ian Henderson offers a discerning viewpoint both as a teacher and a HJR scholar. Finally, Roland Boer deepens the conversation with a debate over critical theory. Crossley’s reply to these papers continues the conversation, thereby challenging his respondents and readers to keep pushing along these necessary lines of critical inquiry.

This issue also includes two articles outside the Crossley panel. Gregory Fewster reassesses the discourse of “authorship” in biblical debates over Pauline pseudepigraphy, while Erica Martin’s contribution to our Tips for Teaching section challenges us to rethink how we, as teachers, can effectively engage both introverted and extroverted students. Closing off this issue, we have a set of Field Notes – specifically, the IAHR’s call for papers and the November programs for NAASR and SORAAAD. As always, we welcome news and announcements for both Field Notes and the Bulletin’s blog.


Braun, Willi, and Russell T. McCutcheon. 2000. Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell.

Crossley, James G. 2008. Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century. Sheffield: Equinox

_____. 2012. Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology. Sheffield: Equinox.

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