Nationalist Myths, National Realities


by Matt Sheedy

While much of the world is aware that today is America’s “birthday,” in commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, considerably fewer know that “Canada Day” was celebrated this past Tuesday, July 1st, commemorating the British North American Act of 1867, more commonly referred to as the Constitution Act.

Like in the US, “Canada Day” is a national holiday and is marked by celebrations and official government pronouncements, along with a flurry of articles and memes that both reinforce and challenge nationalist mythologies.

For example, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper recently released the results of a national on-line survey of the top 10 Canadian “heroes,” which was commissioned for the lead-up to Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. It did not go unnoticed that this list was exclusively male, with only one person on non-European origin (environmentalist David Suzuki, no. 6), and was immediately challenged with an alternative list of top 10 Canadian “heroines.” Likewise, the inclusion of John A. MacDonald (no. 8), Canada’s first Prime Minister, was contested by First Nations groups who pointed out the very active role that he played in the forced starvation (which has been called a form of genocide) of Native peoples as the then-British colony looked to expand its territory to the West.

While some figures on the government’s list of heroes are widely respected, such as Terry Fox (no. 2), who ran 5,373 kilometres (3,339 miles) across the country with a prosthetic leg in 1980, to raise money and awareness about cancer, the inclusion of others seems more contingent on who was asked, how the question was framed, and on what prior assumptions exist in the nationalist imaginary as to what constitutes a “hero.” That retired hockey great Wayne Gretzky (no. 9) made the list likely reflects the preferences of an older, hockey-watching demographic, while astronaut Chris Hadfield (no. 5) only became a household name in the spring of 2013, after posting reports from space on social media forums like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. Prior to that time, very few had ever heard his name.

These same social media platforms that challenged such “official” pronouncements of cultural heritage (in this case, revealing a patriarchal and Eurocentric bias), also reveal the temporal and constructed nature of representations of national identity. While the debate over “heroes” offers a useful example of the contingency of authority, especially when others are able to contest it, can the same be said for less contentious and more ingrained notions of identity, such as the well-worn trope that Canadians are polite? Is this, too, purely a social construction or is there tangible evidence to support such a claim? Is this nationalist myth grounded in national realities?

Discussing this idea on a Facebook thread on July 1st in response to a satirical article, “How to Tell If a Canadian is Mad At You,” I was reminded of the inoffensive nature of the claim. In this sense, even if it is untrue in some or many cases, being labeled as polite does not tend to provoke a quick and heated rebuke.

What also strikes me about this claim is that it is only (or at least mostly) meaningful when spoken about in relation to the US. Putting aside the tricky question of origins—the so-called “genesis” of this idea—it seems to be a commonly held perception among Americans and Canadians alike. While the claim that all Canadians as individuals are polite is logically absurd, as this would ascribe some sort of intrinsic quality or essence to “Canadian-ness,” the idea of the country itself, as a symbol, must surely have something to do with it? As with all symbolic discourses, markers of nationalist identity usually have some basis in social reality, though perceptions are contingent on such factors as the nature of the comparisons being made, along with competing representations and changing conditions on the ground.

Compared to the US, for example, Canadian foreign policy has been relatively tame on the world stage–a perception that has no doubt been enhanced by such factors as Canada’s reputation as “peacekeepers” since the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, by its former policy of providing safe haven for Vietnam war resisters and by its abstention from the Iraq war. Until recent years, it was almost a cliché to here about young American travellers, in Europe and elsewhere, sewing Canadian flags to their backpacks in order to avoid unwanted hostility on foreign soil.

It is also true that Canada did not experience a “tea party” moment or a civil war, quietly breaking (most of) its ties to Britain with the 1982 Constitution Act. Perhaps this history partly explains why there is no strong libertarian movement in Canada and no mythos of “rugged individualism,” which finds its strongest expression in American gun culture, a curious (and frightening) phenomenon to many Canadians.

Perhaps the absence an illegal immigration problem and a relatively successful multiculturalism policy have contributed not only to the perception of “politeness” but also a marked absence of hostility to so-called “foreigners,” at least in comparison to the US?

Unlike the discourse on Canadian “heroes,” whose construction was easily contested by the ability of others to point out these contingent and biased representations, the more subtle and ingrained notion of “politeness” seems harder to shake, despite mounting evidence to the contrary that “Canada” ain’t so sweet.

For example, not only did Canada overturn its peacekeeping reputation by engaging in active combat in Afghanistan, but it also limited asylum to war resisters from the conflict in Iraq, recently deporting Kimberly Rivera in September of 2012 after several appeals to stay in the country. Likewise, Canada’s climate change policies have received harsh criticism internationally as it is routinely ranked among the worst in the developed world.

Like all (national) myths, which Roland Barthes defines in Mythologies as “giving historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal,” (142) their appearance seems to have some basis in social reality, while their endurance is contingent on who is controlling their representation and with what or whom they are being compared to.

While shifting social realities appear to be challenging perceptions of Canadian politeness on the international stage, including an unprecedented uprising of First Nations communities, who have always contested this myth, as long as Americans see Canadians as their quieter, gentler other, I’ll wager that the idea is likely to persist.

And if I’m wrong, my apologies.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Content to Location (?): Academic Publishing and the Problem of Authority


by Nickolas Roubekas

The medium for evaluating the suitability of a future publication is the peer-review process. This is known to the academic world for decades and all junior or senior scholars go through such a process after submitting a paper to an academic journal for consideration. However, the process is often not regulated by what we all understand peer-review to be, especially when it comes to articles that challenge long-established ideas and/or theories. Ever since I obtained my PhD three years ago, I have been engaged – like so many other young scholars all over the world – in academic writing, testing my theories and ideas by submitting them in the form of articles to various journals, in my case in the field of ancient Greek religion and the reception of ancient theories of religion in the early Christian period. In the process I have received peer-review reports ranging from positive to extremely hostile – nothing surprising here; I imagine there is not even a single scholar who has had only positive or only negative (even hostile) reviews. However, what in many cases has struck me is the reluctance of anonymous reviewers to accept a new theory or approach solely on the basis that it does not conform with what is taken to be an ‘authoritative’ interpretation/theory/approach in the field.

Given the anonymity that governs the principle of a ‘fair’ peer-review, the writer has no knowledge whether the reviewers of her/his article are specialists in the respective field or not. However, one can easily discern if the reviewer is making her/his criticism based on solid and detailed knowledge or on a vague idea that s/he has on the subject. In the first case, one can profit from the review, since comments are informed, bibliographically well-established, and pose questions that can indeed enhance the quality of the paper – or even change it considerably if the author is not well qualified. In the second case, however, the review seems like a defense of other theories, most often based on secondary literature. By that I mean that for scholars like myself, who work on ancient sources, reviewers are often not acquainted with the sources at hand and base their own reviews on other scholars whose work they actually know.

To put this in context: In an article on euhemerism I submitted last year and which was eventually published, one of the two reviewers had objections regarding the absence of non-English literature in the paper, and in particular of the following book: Marek Winiarczyk, Euhemeros von Messene. Leben, Werk, und Nachwirkung (2002). Of course, such a comment is welcome in peer-review reports, since further bibliographical references usually add to a paper. Nevertheless, the most striking part of the comment followed right after:

I confess that I have only become aware of the existence of this book recently, and have not yet seen it, while waiting to receive a copy via Inter-Library-Loan. Nevertheless, I would not publish a line on Euhemerus, his theories, and their history (in particular) without consulting this book.

Given the fact that the report of the anonymous reviewer was negative and suggested the rejection of the article, certain issues are raised regarding how much authority one should acknowledge in his/her sources and how much in secondary literature. In the example above, should a scholar working on euhemerism take Winiarczyk’s analysis as ‘the’ appropriate way of dealing with Euhemerus’s theory or should the focus instead be on the ancient sources themselves? In addition, what is it that makes, in this case, Winiarczyk’s positions and arguments a necessity that prohibits scholars to actually publish “a line on Euhemerus” without consulting this book? This tendency, often found in peer-review reports as I have come to realize in conversations with young and senior colleagues, raises another important issue: that of the freedom to review papers even if our field of expertise is partly or entirely different than the focus of the paper we are asked to review. Is a vague knowledge stemming from secondary sources enough for a reviewer to give a fair report on an article dealing with ancient sources that the reviewer has never actually read?

In his How to Talk About Books you Haven’t Read (2007), Pierre Bayard notes that “we have trouble acknowledging even to ourselves that we haven’t read the books that are deemed essential” (p. xv) but, nevertheless, even if we do not know the content of a book we “may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books” (p. 11). For Bayard we (humans) tend to give higher priority to the location of a book rather than to the book itself. But the location of a book is most of the times dominated by authoritative figures that have shaped the way we (academics) tend to approach and interpret theories, approaches, and other previous interpretations. However, how much authority should one acknowledge on the various interpreters? Bayard cites Paul Valéry’s comment on Proust’s works, a comment of high importance for the modern academic community:

In any case, even if I had never read a line of Proust’s vast work, the mere fact that two people with minds as different as Gide and Léon Daudet were agreed about its importance would have been sufficient to allay any doubts; such unexpected agreement could only occur in the case of a virtual certainty. (p. 18)

One could thus argue that it would be inconceivable for Valéry to see a paper on Proust without Gide’s and/or Léon Daudet’s names in the bibliography; or, even worse, Valéry should deem a paper arguing about the low quality of Proust’s work as worthless since such an argument would contradict Gide and Daudet, even if Valéry himself would have never read a line of Proust’s works.

So, where do we go from here? Is every scholar obliged to ‘not write a line’ on a subject without consulting what academia deems as ‘the’ work of art regarding that subject? And is such an argument valid even if the scholars who maintain this position have never read that authoritative work? Of course, it would be impossible for a scholar arguing against or in favor of, say, Mircea Eliade, without consulting his works. But should that article be deemed worthless if among the bibliography one will not encounter, say, Bryan Rennie’s works on Eliade? That would be the case if the author would present an interpretation already employed by Rennie as the major contribution of the paper; but that presupposes that the reviewer is well-acquainted with both Eliade and Rennie. Is the location of a book/idea/theory enough even if we have no detailed knowledge of its content?

Nickolas Roubekas is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria. He’s studied in Greece, Denmark, and Scotland, and his PhD thesis was on Euhemerus of Messene and his theory of religion and myth (which was published in Greece by Vanias Publishers in 2011). He mainly works on euhemerism and is interested in ancient theorists of religion and myth and their reception in later periods as well as the religions of the Hellenistic Period and Christian origins. He currently acts as Book reviews editor for the journal Religion & Theology.

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The First Day in Orientation to the Study of Religion

McClousby Sean McCloud

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

“Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).”

“Everything seems to be up in the air at this time.” –Camper van Beethoven, The Ambiguity Song.

Our undergraduate major in religious studies requires that students take a class in theories and methods within the first year of declaring their major. We call it “Orientation to the Study of Religion.” We work a lot on writing, speaking, and reading skills in it, including how to construct and support a thesis argument, how to cite sources, what questions to ask when reading a text, and how to present research and lead discussions on readings. The class is offered every semester and we have between fifteen and twenty students enrolled. Three or four of us in a department of thirteen tend to trade off teaching the course annually. We have no set canon of readings for the class. Different instructors will have slightly different readings, though there will often be overlap, author-wise. I taught it for the past two semesters, and my reading lists included Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Victor Turner, Bruce Lincoln, Meredith McGuire, Pierre Bourdieu, Sarah Pike, JZ Smith, Robert Orsi, Judith Richardson, and others.

Many, and some semesters most, of our students enter the class having absolutely no idea what it will be about. Many find their way into the major by taking a course with one of our professors, loving it, declaring the major, and the next semester sitting in the theories and methods class. While a few know that this will introduce them to some approaches in the academic study of religion, some students think it will be a world religions course, others that it will be a ministerial practicum (we are located in the American southeast). For the most part, everything seems to be up in the air on the first day. Because of this, I have found it useful to use about a third of the first class meeting (after introducing ourselves, looking at the syllabus, and working in groups on definitions of “religion”—the class meets once a week for two hours and forty-five minutes) discussing four points about the academic study of religion. I should note here that these are my points, and I am certain that some of my department colleagues and readers of this blog will disagree with some things in them. But I ask students to keep these in mind (if not on their desks) as the semester progresses. They are:

1. The academic study of religion is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. It primarily uses historical, sociological, anthropological, literary, and philosophical methods, but others too. In other words, there are lots of ways to study what gets called “religion.”

2. One thing that we do not do in the academic study of religion is theology, in which religion is examined from a particular religious point of view. We may study theologies as primary sources for analysis, but never as a secondary source for thesis arguments. Given this, the arguments scholars make who study religion academically can be equally persuasive to people regardless of whether they self-identify as religious or non-religious.

3. In other words, the study of religion does not involve examining the “truth” of religious concepts and practices, nor does it require the belief, practice, or disbelief in any religions or supernatural being(s). Instead, the study of religion is the study of humans, in groups and as individuals, and what they think and do that they, or we, call “religion.” Our task is to try to figure out what, how, and why they think and do what they do. It means stepping back from our personal preferences, likes and dislikes, and examining the subject at hand.

4. The academic study of religion also acknowledges that there isn’t simply a “thing” out there called “religion,” but rather that religion is a term that has many meanings, is a word that is contested, and that there are many conceptions of religion proposed by both scholars and religious practitioners. A definition of religion can help us focus on certain aspects of the social world, but always at the expense of other aspects.

Do these four points immediately have the effect of explaining the boundaries and approaches we will have in class? Not even close. Each statement needs unpacking, words defined, examples given. It is only a starting point, a broad guide to the semester’s work that must be demonstrated, not just stated. But it is a start . . .

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“Zionism Unsettled” (Holocaust, Heresy & Christian Anti-Zionism at the Presbyterian Church USA)


by Zachary Braiterman

Note: this post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Jewish Philosophy Place.

Published by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church USA, the study guide “Zionism Unsettled” has been very much on people’s mind as they consider the recent vote instructing the Church to divest from three U.S. companies for their ties to the Israel military occupation of the West Bank. A virulently anti-Israel document, the pamphlet was disavowed by the leadership of the Church (here and here) even while it remains for sale at the online “Church Store” at the official website of the denomination. According to the product description at the Church Store, “[Zionism Unsettled] examines controversies about Zionism among Israeli Jews as well as diaspora Jews, and gives helpful guidance on how you and your congregation can contribute to the cause of just peace for the people who share the Holy Land and promote more truthful relationships among followers of the three Abrahamic religions.

One-sided and negligible as a resource with which to study its subject, “Zionism Unsettled” says a lot more about Christian Anti-Zionism and the way in which religion can unsettle political discourse, not just on the right, but even on the left. In this case, the pamphlet-authors press a variegated political ideology and nation state, one founded on principles specific to the history of Jewish secular culture and politics, through the theological lens of Christian doctrine, as conceived by its authors. To prove a pre-conceived point, the narrative-survey and accompanying photographs are dominated by rightwing Revisionists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu and the rightwing religious zealots of Gush Emunim who came to dominate the religious-Zionist camp in the 1970s and 1980s such as Zvi Yehudah Kook, Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat. Maps detail Palestinian dispossession in the State of Israel and in the occupied territories alongside photograph of racist anti-Arab Israeli Jewish graffiti.

The selective history and the choice of photographs are part of the central argument in the pamphlet, which is that Zionism, seen mostly or essentially as a theological doctrine, constitutes the root cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than see its history as a liberal movement or a political movement dominated in its heyday by socialists committed to universal norms and principles of social justice, rather than see the conflict over Palestine in political terms, Zionism is presented as a doctrine of exceptionalism, a “false theology” that is at once political and theological. “Exceptionalism” is defined primarily as the destructive, presumably sinful, notion that one’s own people is unique and special and therefore absolved from universal rules, laws, or principles. Zionism is presented, tout court, as a doctrine which “[puts] believer-insiders above the law they expect nonbeliever-outsiders to obey” (8), as “covenant based,” more sacral than secular (15, 31ff, 56), a form of Constantinian Judaism (16). These are the theological rubrics that are supposed to explain, at root, the allegedly essential and inevitable collision between two national movements, one Palestinian, one Jewish, and the dispossession of the one by the other.

One could overlook as an unexceptional feature of this kind of discourse the failure to consider the violent resistance on the part of Palestinian society as contributing to the hardening of anti-Arab attitudes in Jewish Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s prior to the 1948 War of Independence or in Israel to this day. The sole cause of the suffering of the Palestinian people is ascribed always to others, to Zionism or to the international community, not, in part, as a result of their own political miscalculations, or to the machinations of neighboring Arab regimes. There is one mention of suicide bombers killing civilians during the Second Intifada, used principally to defame by quoting out of context the liberal American-Israeli thinker David Hartman, a thinker who devoted himself to the uphill tasks of promoting religious pluralism and social justice in Israel, but who’s represented here as advancing genocide (p.41). Less unexceptional and more telling of the program to which the pamphlet authors want to commit their readers is the insert by Joseph Massad of Columbia University, suggesting that there is, in fact, no Israel-Palestine “conflict.” Just as was the case in Algeria, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, there is no conflict based on competing national rights, just a form of settler colonialism that must be resisted radically, root and branch (p.47).

In coming to terms with the Holocaust as a buttress of international support for the Zionism and for the establishment of the State of Israel, the pamphlet cites Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic Philosophy at Al-Quds University. By way of shifting attention from the Holocaust, in a section devoted to an “Islamic Theology of the Holocaust,” the pamphlet presents his view that the Qu’ran constitutes an inclusive scripture in contrast to the exclusive nature of Zionism (p.49). The pamphlet supports the apologetic view that when Muslims act unjustly, it’s because they misinterpret Qu’ran, as opposed to Zionism which hinges on the putative tribal elements of Old Testament religion. An “Islamic Theology of the Holocaust” sets up the larger discussion in the chapter, “A Palestinian Muslim Experience With Zionism,” a caption underneath a photograph of a group of Palestinian refugees reading, “Untold numbers of Palestinians murdered during the 1948 Nakba.” Placed immediately after a discussion of the Holocaust, the photograph and caption suggest that Nakba was another form of genocide not different in kind. (One wonders if the children in this photograph were intended to recall the infamous picture from the Warsaw Ghetto of the doomed child surrounded by Nazi storm troopers with his arms held up [p.49]). The photograph with its caption are then followed by an insert including a statement by one Shimon Gapso who in a mayoral run made explicitly racist appeals to exclude Arabs from Upper Nazareth that were deeply reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws. To make the point clear, “Nakba and Shoa” are later described as “twinned catastrophes” in another photo-caption (p.57).

As an alternative to the Constantinian Judaism represented by Zionism, the Jewish theology of liberation on offer in the pamphlet cites Rabbi Brant Rosen from Jewish Voice for Peace. Rosen recommends to Jews that they should not celebrate Independence Day as a day memorializing Jewish national liberation from depredations such as the Holocaust, but rather mark it with soul searching (chesbon nefesh) and repentance (teshuva). But the form of Jewish Liberation at hand turns out to be another form of Christian supersesionism. As presented by the Reverend Naim Ateek of Jerusalem in material extracted from Justice and Only Justice, the Old Testament is understood as composed of three distinct strata. The first is defined by the tribal God, that gives way to a Torah-centered form of Pharasaic [sic] religion, completed by the prophetic universal consummation best represented in the New Testament. In this light, Zionism is “retrogressive,” representing only the most primitive [sic] and exclusive component-segments of the Old Testament (p.33). These theological stakes pounded hard in “Zionism Unsettled” bear around the difference between true religion and false religion. Not quite understanding the terminological difference in contemporary Jewish discourse between “diaspora” and “exile,” what the pamphlet recommends is diasporism, a universalistic religion celebrating Jewish life outside of Israel (pp.48ff), while blaming Zionism for the uprooting of Jewish life in the larger Middle East.

In the same way that Muslim scholars and thinkers are brought in to undercut for Christian readers the narrative of Jewish suffering represented by the Holocaust, Jewish thinkers such as Mordecai Kaplan and Marc Ellis are cited, in one case out context, in the other case not, to make sure the reader understands that Zionism is form of “idolatry” founded on the idea of exclusive chosenness not much different than other forms of racial, ethnic, caste supremacy (p.34). The pamphlet authors of “Zionism Unsettled” are therefore unable to understand that for mid century Protestant liberals, support of Zionism was based on what was considered at the time understood to be prophetic principles of justice and restoration (p.38), and not just by liberal Protestants, but by communists like Jean Paul Sartre and socialists like Pete Seeger. Pushing their own version of Christian supersessionism, the pamphlet authors fail to see this because they have already pegged Zionism as Nazi-tribal, which was definitely not Mordecai Kaplan’s point. In the pamphlet, Zionism and Nazism are both presented as closed systems devoted to blood and soil with no room for prophetic critique (p.38). Refusing to acknowledge the wide support across the larger Jewish community for Israel, considered by the authors to be an idol on par with the Nazi state, the implication is that the Jews, never once described as a people, have their true place out in the world, not in Palestine.

Naim Ateek gets the major last and most important, even extraordinary word of “Zionism Unsettled,” his words used by the pamphlet authors to transform the critique of Zionism as a political ideology into nothing less than a Christian-religious imperative to uproot heresy. His is the view embraced in the pamphlet that Zionism is false theology (p.56), citing “Kairos Palestine –A Moment of Truth” (2009)  in order to make the point that “The occupation of Palestinian land” is a “sin against God and humanity…[distorting} the image of God” in both Palestinians as an occupied people and in the Israeli occupier. One presumes that the term “occupation” refers to any “occupied Palestinian land,” on this or that side of the Green Line, an ambiguity that is no doubt deliberate. But to make sure the reader understands what he or she has just read, the pamphlet authors explain, “The casual reader may miss the severity of these charges. It is the equivalent of declaring Zionism heretical, a doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice. This is the strongest condemnation that a Christian confession can make against any doctrine that promotes death rather than life.” According to the pamphlet-authors, heresy, and nothing less than heresy, is why committed Christians are enjoined to root out the ideology in question (pp.57-8). It’s this that explains why the very last chapter of “Zionism Unsettled” provides suggestions for unbranding biblical references to “Israel” and “Zion” from Christian liturgy, in order to purify the liturgy from politically and theologically noxious content.

So in the end, the Presbyterian Church is supposed to turn not just against Zionism, but against itself, as represented liturgically. I would love to hear how this document, condemned by many Church leaders, has actually circulated throughout the Presbyterian community, and with what response. That this document remains on sale at the Presbyterian Church website itself remains a strange thought. One can only imagine the improbable scene of mainline members of Presbyterian study groups, young and old, sitting down to work through the claims offered up in this teaching resource. Perhaps the picture is intended to look exactly like the photograph, posted above, from the Leader’s Guide section of the pamphlet, in which the authors suggest, “Because of the volume of material provided, the eight-week format…is highly recommended. Your group will want to process what they experience during the sessions and to discern what it is God may be calling them to do after the series is completed” (p.64). Indeed, what does God call me to do? Misleading and ugly, what makes “Zionism Unsettled” a standout offender in the history of Christian-Jewish polemics is the peculiar theological-political motive conflating political ideology with false theology embraced explicitly in terms of an anti-heretical impulse with deep roots in Christian tradition.

Zachary (Zak) Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His work explores the interface between Jewish religion, contintental philosophy, aesthetic theory, and visual culture.

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Teaching Critical Theory Requires No Name


by Dennis LoRusso

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

I must admit that in all of my years of as a student, I never once heard a professor utter the phrase “critical theory.” Perhaps this was merely a product of my chosen fields of study.  As an undergraduate majoring in history with a concentration in the Ancient Mediterranean, I encountered little social theory, and the little to which I was exposed was generally presented implicitly. After all, it proves difficult enough for an undergraduate to grasp the basics of Ancient Greek and Roman political institutions, much less how modern scholars have framed the historical record. Furthermore, religious studies, despite its best attempts to the contrary, tends to more often privilege essentialist perspectives, which emphasize coherence and historical continuity.

Yet, over the years, I nonetheless acquired the habit of practicing “critical theory,” the recognition that the categories by which we organize our world utterly remain products of the time and space in which we are immersed. And it is the practice of critical theory, of course, that touches the central aim in this blog. How do we, as teachers, cultivate the practice of critical theory inside and outside the classroom?

Max Horkheimer suggests that critical theory seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” In revealing our most basic assumptions as historically constructed, we become capable of making different choices and, so the argument goes, can improve our circumstances. However, I want to emphasize that, as instructors in the humanities, we can leverage critical theory pedagogically (without necessarily labeling it as such) to facilitate some of the most effective, nuanced learning moments in the classroom.

For example, as a graduate student in religion, I routinely have taught introductory courses on informal logic for undergraduates. One of the skills that students found particularly difficult to grasp was the differentiating between the “validity” of an argument and the “soundness” of its conclusion. While “validity” merely indicates that an argument is logically correct, “soundness” can only describe an argument that is both logically correct and true.

While the typical instructor will ask students to evaluate a short tract on a topic like capital punishment or abortion, I preferred an alternative tactic. Instead of providing them with some tired essay on what are rather controversial topics, I would have my students read an excerpt from Eric Rudolph’s written statement to the court upon his sentencing. To the surprise of many students, Rudolph, the so-called “Olympic Park Bomber,” demonstrates a remarkable ability to string together “valid” arguments to make his case. Of course, this only implies that some of his conclusions might be inferred from various premises, but for students, the shock that a “domestic terrorist” might exhibit any semblance of mental acuity proves destabilizing enough to make room for a discussion about the assumptions each of us draw upon to makes sense of “reality.”

Not only must we evaluate the “soundness” of Rudolph’s claims, but we also get the opportunity to ask ourselves: what assumptions are we making to declare that his justifications for resorting to violence are, indeed, false? In the end, we find that determining truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or sound from unsound is no easy task, and that it can never be divorced from the social, the historical, and the political location of the key players, including ourselves. This is critical theory.

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Religion as Little Something: Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Theory & Religion Series)

Ordinary Affectsby Donovan Schaefer

* This post is the first in a new feature with the Bulletin where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007), although widely read in affect theory, queer theory, and feminism, has only recently been brought into conversation with religious studies. Like many anthropologists of her generation, Stewart is interested in developing an understanding of culture as what bodies do—rather than as a signifying symbol system or a set of explanatory discourses proposed by elites. Stewart’s contribution, which has been further developed by scholars of religion such as Ann Pellegrini, Kevin O’Neill, and William Connolly, is to direct the emerging discourse of affect theory to an account of culture as embodied. In Stewart’s model of ordinary affects (and Ordinary Affects is clearly a model book, rather than a thesis-driven argument), bodies are always embedded in fluctuating, constantly reconfiguring matrices of affect that condition our everyday experiences and lay the channels for our decisions and biographies.

That said, other than a short tract at the outset, Ordinary Affects is not a work of theory. Rather, it is best understood as a highly accessible, avant-garde ethnography—“an experiment, not a judgment,” she says at the outset. (1) It is structured as a sort of cut-up of short narratives (running from 10 lines to four pages) drawn from Stewart’s fieldwork in Appalachia and the American southwest, as well as her own day-to-day experiences in Texas. The book is, in a sense, a filtering of Stewart’s field notes as an anthropologist and her own life through the prism of an extraordinarily gifted writer and story-teller with a profound thoughtfulness about the circuits of affect ethnographers explore and plug into. “The anthropologists,” Stewart writes, “keep doing the fun things they do together, poking around.” (37) And, like all brilliant story-tellers, Stewart’s narratives come to be about the art of story-telling itself, the affect-saturated bonds between language, bodies, and worlds.

Stewart describes, for instance, the sudden appearance of a memorial shrine on a bridge in Austin—an impromptu altar—made up of a sign with a message to a lost loved one and “yellow ribbons and a Sacred Heart of Jesus votive candle with half-burned sticks of incense stuck into the wax.” The sign, she proposes, “is both cryptic and crystal clear.  Its fury quivers in its wavering letters.  It does not ask to be interpreted, but heaves itself at the world, slashing at it like the self-slashing of people who cut themselves to feel alive.” (39) For Stewart, to take the sign literally—or to understand it strictly as a discursive artifact, is to miss the way it is designed to embed itself into and redirect the flows of our everyday experience. “Its visceral force keys a search to make sense of it, to incorporate it into an order of meaning,” she writes. “But it lives first as an actual charge immanent to acts and scenes—a relay.” (39)

Ordinary Affects offers strategies for producing maps of religious worlds that are not reducible to language. In this, it is aligned with recent attempts to rethink religion according to what Manuel Vásquez has called the “materialist shift.” It offers new resources in advancing the post-Enlightenment shift away from the Protestant roots of religious studies—in the exposition of myths and texts—as well as the post-Marxist ideological critique of religion as a system of domination through deceit. What gets called religion, from the perspective of ordinary affect, is one zone of power among many—one of the many “little somethings worth noting in the direct composition of the ordinary.” (48) Religion is something bodies are drawn to or repelled by, something they build small or large worlds around, pick up and hold close to them for healing, or transform into instruments of violence and control, or simply forget about and move on.

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Teaching Bodies and Embodiment


by Kelly J. Baker

How do we make the theoretical tangible and personal? How do we show the expectations of a gendered being? How do we interrogate embodiment and the expectations beset on bodies? How do we understand our bodies as archives of the cultural and the personal? What do we learn when we turn to our archives? What do we have the ability to discern?

These are all questions that haunt me each time I teach my gender course. Showing how gender is lived becomes the primary way to push against simple views of biology or construction. What happens to bodies weighed down by cultural expectations and the reality of the flesh? The complicated mess of embodiment is essential to exploring how people live, past and present. Where does flesh end and culture begin? Can we even ask that question?

One of the ways I help students think about embodiment is to allow students to allow them to gender me. I stand in front of the class and ask them to analyze how I perform gender. The students, then, get to rate my performance of gender as a way to make the abstract theory real to them. But importantly, this exercise allows me to discuss gender habits, stereotypes, and subversion. I might appear “feminine” but the students pick up on my strategies of subversion too. Gendering me provides a mechanism to ground discussions of Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Lise Elliot, and Joan Scott. How does my bodily performance demonstrate gender? In particular, I want them to think very carefully about the role of religion in our construction as gendered beings:

Religion defines men and women in intimate and powerful ways. But, class debates and my lectures on gender theories don’t always make these topics approachable for students. Gender emerges as something academic and distant rather than something personal and tangible. Ann Braude noted the still potent and important fact “women’s history is American religious history.” But, how can you convince students that gender matters historically and today in interpretations of religion and American culture? … My teaching approach to gender and religion has become much more personal and face-to-face. (Read more here).

I also want them to think about what it means that we are bodies and that we embody. The distinction is important. Flesh and culture make us what we are. They are imbricated and inseparable. We might imagine easy separation, but that is wishful thinking. Both are crucial to understanding how our bodies become archives of individual selves and the social body, more constrained than free. How are we made? This question pushes to the forefront. What makes us?

The body, I explained encouragingly, is a political, social, cultural and religious map. It is physical, material and biological, but it is also the repository of desire, ideology, need, imagination.  It is an object, and it is an idea. The body is the archive of the physical, the social and the metaphysical. It is the site of me, you and us. What do I, this body, in front of all of you, embody? I ask them beseechingly. (Read more here).

Bodies and embodiment become methods to engage critical gender theory. The focus on both allows important discussion of what creates (and arguably destroys) human beings. This process of making/destroying/imagining bodies is never neutral. We need to recognize this and point to the consequences. Our bodies are archives of the all the attempts to craft us. Interrogating our body and what we embody allows us to see the normative and the subversive, affirmation and negation, joy and trauma, and the social and the individual. All enmeshed together to create what we are.

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

Kelly J. Baker is the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America (Kansas 2011), which employs the 1920s Ku Klux Klan as a case study to explore the intersection of Protestantism, nationalism, whiteness and gender. Her recent work includes articles on the Klan’s robes and fiery crosses as material religion, “Rapture readiness” in contemporary Christian apocalypticism and zombie apocalypses in contemporary film and literature.

Posted in Kelly J. Baker, Pedagogy, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Sexuality and Gender, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments