Jesus’ Man-Breasts

Jack Nicholson's Man-Breasts

Jack Nicholson’s (Christ-like) Man-Breasts

by Deane Galbraith

In contemporary Western society, an (imaginary) flat “chest” is marker of male gender; and round, spherical breasts are a marker of female gender. In the realm of the symbolic the everyday real breasts of men and women, with their assortment of different shapes and sizes, no longer count. A flat-chested woman (note, not even “flat-breasted“) is a “problem” to be “corrected” whether by push-up bras, digital enhancement or artificial breast implants. And implants are always perfectly round, quite symmetrical, and precisely the same size. So today, the ultimate bodily symbol of the female is artificial (“man-made”). Conversely, a round-chested man is somehow un-male, or inscribes a male with something less-than-manliness. Man-breasts cannot be proudly displayed at the beach or at poolside BBQs, and are usually referred to in sniggering, pejorative terms as “man-breasts” or “man-boobs” or even “moobs”. Unless man-breasts adorn someone rich and famous like Jack Nicholson, they must be hidden from the public. In fact, it is a fine point of law, debated in the highest courts of England, as to whether one can even take a surreptitious photo of man-breasts without being convicted of criminal voyeurism. Such an exposure of the traumatic difference between real man-breasts and the symbolic manly chest of rest-room signage reveals the limit of the binary construction of gender. As Judith Butler succintly puts it in Gender Trouble, albeit not specifically concerning breasts, such transgressions of the imaginary-ideal male and female breasts also threaten “the limits of the socially hegemonic.”

John the Revelator, author of the Apocalypse, was also challenged by man-breasts, it seems – at least according to a short 2007 JSNT article by Jesse Rainbow, “Male μαστοί in Revelation 1.13.” The text in question describes the heavenly figure known as “One like the Son of Man” (i.e. the Galilean formerly known as Jesus). Revelation 1.13 describes Jesus by using the phrase, περιεζωσμένον πρὸς τοῖς μαστοῖς ζώνην χρυσᾶν (“with a golden sash around his breasts“). As Rainbow observes, [in LXX and NT] the term μαστοῖς (tois mastois, giving the English word “mastoid”) “invariably refers to the breasts of female humans (in one case of an animal), but never to a man’s chest” (p. 251). He also notes that the King James Version (1611) elected to translate τοῖς μαστοῖς as the “paps” of Our Lord, to wit:

the Son of man…girt about the paps with a golden girdle.

More recently, notes Rainbow, some translations have even slipped this sash down from Jesus’ man-breasts, translating it as a “belt” about his (implicitly manly) “waist.”

Rainbow’s suggested solution to the unusual reference to Jesus’ man-breasts in Revelation 1.13 is that it relies on a Septuagint translation of Canticles 1.2, where the female speaker refers to her male lover’s μαστοί (“breasts”), in what is a highly unusual translation of דדי (“[your] love”). Rainbow suggests that Revelation is therefore identifying the male lover of the poem in Song of Solomon (Canticles) as the “One like the Son of Man,” and therefore employing the unusual man-breast language in Canticles 1.2 to (again, unusually) describe the man-breasts of Jesus in Revelation 1.13. Read the five-page article for his full argument. An alternative, and much less complicated, explanation for Jesus’ man-breasts is of course that he simply ate and drank too much:

the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ – Matthew 11.19

So when the end-times come, and you find yourself witnessing a glorious figure descending from the heavens amidst a company of angels, check out if he has man-breasts. If he has them, then you will know it is the genuine Son of Man.

See: Jesse Rainbow, “Male μαστοί in Revelation 1.13.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30.2 (2007): 249-253.

Posted in Deane Galbraith, Religion and Theory, Sexuality and Gender | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Notes on the film ‘Teenage’


by Adam T. Miller

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

In “Redescribing ‘Religion and …’ Film: Teaching the Insider/Outsider Problem,” Russell McCutcheon writes: “What makes a particular film a candidate for [religious studies] courses … is usually limited to whether it addresses such grand issues as suffering and evil or such supposedly enduring human values as forgiveness and love.” But if our classes are about “cultivating historical, cultural analysis of complex human behaviors and institutions,” not uncritically reproducing the understanding of religion our students often already have, then perhaps we ought to choose films more suited to our ends.

It is with this suggestion in mind that I bring to the table for consideration Teenage, a film ostensibly having very little to do with the study of religion. Using archival footage and diaries of youngsters living in the United States, England, and Germany between the late nineteenth century and the years immediately following the conclusion of World War II, the 2013 film documents the birth of the teenager. Watch the trailer below:

Although the film could probably be used to raise a few different sets of questions, I’d like to focus on how it might help students in introductory classes begin to think critically about the categories we employ.

Using an example seemingly inconsequential relative to the seemingly ever-serious topic of religion, the film introduces social constructionism and the genealogical method–it traces the development of the category “teenager” (thereby implying that teenagers [as we conceive them today] have not existed in all times and places), and shows how the category has connotations unique and directly related to its development.

“But,” the objection goes, “haven’t there always been people whose bodies have revolved around the sun thirteen to nineteen times (or, if you fancy a longer view of adolescence and young-adulthood, twelve [or so] to twenty-five [or so] times)?” Sure there have. But people with this level of solar-systemic experience–not all of them, of course–were only recently afforded the rights, privileges, and responsibilities (or lack thereof) we today associate with being a teenager. Prior to this gradual bestowal, children became adults as soon as they were able to work. There was no in-between stage characterized by voluntary/optional work, increased (albeit still limited) self-determination, and surplus time for leisure and “self-discovery”. Conceptualized in this way, we can’t sensibly talk about teenagers in contexts prior to the industrial revolution (not to mention some contemporary contexts). But if we take the word and give it a new, limited sense for the purposes of conversation and/or analysis (e.g., if we restrict our usage of the term to refer to people whose bodies have revolved around a certain number of times), such silence is no longer necessary.

Like the category “teenager,” the category “religion” has a traceable history, and it carries connotations today unique and directly related to its development. As Jonathan Z. Smith notes in “Religion, Religions, Religious,” the etymology of the word “religion” is complex, but it gradually came to be employed by Euro-Americans (often in colonial contexts) to describe “human thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior.” In other words, the word became an anthropological category. And, as Craig Martin writes in the second chapter of A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, “[t]he categories we use are almost always directly related to our human interests.” Discussing the human interests that lead to the advent of teenagers as we know them (e.g., the desire to do away with child labor) could be a useful entry point to a discussion of the same with regard to religion. And though perhaps a bit meandering, loosening up the meaning of “teenager” may help students to understand why it is important to begin with theories and definitions when studying religion.

On a related note, the way in which the film seems to disregard empirical differences among its subjects (whose situations and identifications, both self-imposed and otherwise, vary drastically in some instances) in favor of an abstracted essence is reminiscent of the way in which some religious studies scholars (not to mention most students, at least initially) think about religion. The following words from the film’s website illustrate this suppression of difference: “Whether in America, England, or Germany, whether party-crazed Flappers or hip Swing Kids, zealous Nazi Youth or frenzied Sub-Debs, it didn’t matter – this was a new idea of how people come of age. They were all ‘Teenagers.'” The fact that the swing kids defined themselves in direct opposition to the Hitler youth, for example, is inconsequential–or, so the film suggests. But is it really? Can these differences be so easily brushed aside? Regardless of where one lands with regard to this particular question, I think working through it–in conjunction with the first chapter of A Critical Introduction–could open up avenues for discussion about how colloquial uses of words like “religion” group together dissimilar things and not everyone is in agreement about what should count as “religion”–the end goal again being to get students to see the need for up-front talk of theory and definition.

* This post also appear on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Adam Miller researches Indian Mahayana Buddhist literature and history, particularly (at least at the moment) past-life stories and expand to include South Asian Buddhism more generally, early/medieval Chinese Buddhism, Swami Vivekananda, and Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. He received his training at the University of Missouri (MA 2013) and Western Illinois University (BA 2011), and is currently working on a PhD at the University of Chicago.

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Bourgeois Bohemians, Hipsters, and Social Order

How to be a hipster

by Travis Cooper

Not too long ago a friend jokingly suggested via a comment on an Instagram post that my endorsement of a particular quarterly magazine had “crossed the threshold into full on BoBo.” I immediately did two things. First, and if only to confirm my initial speculations, I looked this “BoBo” term up in the linguistic authority of quotidian jargon: The Urban Dictionary. Definition number eleven (ignore the largely unhelpful but laughter-inducing definitions one through ten) for Bobo follows:

French: Short for bourgeois bohème. Describes Parisians who are both upscale and artistic. Similar to the original meaning of the American “hipster,” but generally laced with a uniquely French “Je ne sais quois”.

Il s’agit d’un magasin de bobo (This is a bobo shop).

Second, my friend’s classification of me as a bourgeois bohemian led me to recall one of my favorite contemporary director’s films and the ways in which the filmmaker often plays with such descriptive, socially, and culturally loaded taxons.

Harvard educated screenwriter and director Whit Stillman’s movies are brilliant little social commentaries. Metropolitan (1990) follows a community of young “preppies” in Upper East Side Manhattan as they attend debutante balls and social gatherings. Barcelona (1994) tells the story of two disenchanted American expatriates living abroad in Spain. The Last Days of Disco (1998) returns to Manhattan in its depiction a group of fresh graduates from elite American institutions who frequent popular venues of a rapidly shifting 1980s dance club scene. Damsels in Distress (2011) depicts the educational, extracurricular, and romantic exploits of a collective of college girls attending an East Coast American university. Damsels, by the way, stars Greta Gerwig, filmic “hipster” par excellence, second only to Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls fame. Stillman’s films cater easily to intellectual audiences with frequent nods to philosophical and literary works, self-referencing, intertextually-linked scenes, and segments replete with witty dialogue and dry humor. Many of the movies also include extended conversational scenes on topics of class theory and social and cultural stratification.

Below are short dialogues from two of my favorite films. Note the characters’ deliberative uses of specific terms of social register and classification.

The Urban Haute Bourgeoisie Scene, from Metropolitan:

Charley: “Well, I don’t think ‘preppy’ is a very useful term. I mean, it might be descriptive for someone who is still in school or college, but it’s ridiculous to refer to a man in his 70s like Averell Harriman, as preppy. And none of the other terms people use—WASP, P.L.U., et cetera—are of much use either. And that’s why I prefer the term ‘U.H.B.’”

Nick: “What?”

Charley: “U.H.B. It’s an acronym for urban haute bourgeoisie.”

Cynthia: “Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms or French phrases to make ourselves understood?”

Charley: “Yes.”

Nick: “U.H.B. The term is brilliant and long overdue. But it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it—U.H.B.? Wouldn’t it be better just to pronounce it simply uhb?

Charley: “Well, I didn’t expect it to gain immediate acceptance.”

Nick: “No, no, I think it’s a useful term. The fact that it sounds ridiculous could be part of its appeal.”

Cynthia: “You see the world from such lofty heights that everything below is a bit comical to you, isn’t it?”

Nick, standing up and adjusting his tuxedo lapels: “Yes.”


And here’s the Yuppy scene, From The Last Days of Disco:

Berrie, a disco club owner, to Des, his (now) ex-manager: “You’re fired. And take this yuppie scum with you.”

Des, exiting the club with his cohort: “Yuppie scum? In college, before dropping out, I took a course in the propaganda uses of language. One objective is to deny other peoples’ humanity—or even right to exist.”

Jimmy, Des’s best friend: “In the men’s lounge, someone scrawled ‘Kill Yuppie Scum.’”

Des: “Do yuppies even exist? No one says, ‘I am a yuppie.’ It’s always the other guy who’s a yuppie. I think for a group to exist, somebody has to admit to be part of it.”

Jimmy: “Of course yuppies exist. Most people would say that you two are prime specimens.”

Des: “We’re not yuppies! You think we’re yuppies?”

Jimmy: “You’re seriously saying you’re not yuppies?”

Des: “No. Yuppie stands for ‘young upwardly mobile professional.’ ‘Nightclub Flunky’ is not a professional category.”

Jimmy: “Contrary to popular belief, junior level ad jobs don’t pay well at all.”

Des: “I wish we were yuppies. Young. Upwardly mobile. Professional. Those are good things, not bad things.”

Charlotte: “Where are we going?”

Des: “Rex’s” [a nightclub just down the street in NYC].

Charlotte: “Oh, no.”

Des: “What’s wrong with Rex’s?”

Charlotte: “You can’t dance there. And it’s full of boring preppies.”

U.H.B., WASP, P.L.U., Yuppie, Preppy, and even BoBo or Hipster: The terms proliferate. But do they mean anything? And as Des worries, why, if the descriptions hold some semblance of meaningfulness or function, are they nearly always etic or outsider terms employed in description of some group to which the person does not belong? What do such socio-cultural categories signify and what social purposes do they serve?

These labels do something; they serve indexical and classificatory purposes. The taxons delineate social order and distance some segments or collectives from others. The labels often carry with them negative valences (c.f. the more rural hillbilly, backwoods, or redneck terms). But the terms are also highly polysemous. Even though the terminological components of the yuppie taxon are not inherently negative—and may even be desirable, as in Des’s example above—taken together the acronym carries undesirable significance in terms of self-identification.

The popular site is not, after all, intended to compliment hipster styles and commend the sartorial and sumptuary practices of the (in this context, derided) sub-cultural group. No hipster, it appears, self-identifies as one. “I am not a hipster,” one anthropologist reflects, “at least, I do not think I am. This is not entirely helpful as most hipsters I have met don’t think of themselves as hipsters either.” Another commentator goes even further by denying that the hipster category actually exists in some statistically identifiable or objective sense: “‘Hipsters,’ really, are just boogeymen; they’re a catch-all that contain the cultural anxieties of the moment: about homosexuality (‘they’re all wussy!’), about class (‘they’re all rich and they don’t even work!’).”

“What actually do exist in Brooklyn,” he elaborates, “are young people who make art, who go to see art, who hang out together, work day jobs and night jobs, and/or try to live lives they want to lead as best they can. I know this because I meet these people and talk to them and socialize with them, professionally and personally. Some of them are from other places in America and the world, others from New York City itself.”

This writer, who lives and writes among those classified under the problematic taxon, not only resists self-identification; he wants to jettison the category altogether. The commentator both understands yet doesn’t quite seem to fully grasp that the hipster term exists because society exists and a prerequisite for society is taxonomic, systematic order. “Where there is dirt there is system,” an influential social-anthropologist noted some time ago. To engage in a bit of theoretical conjecture, one might posit that at an earlier time some sort of unnamed, proto-hipster existed as a nebulous and eclectic anomaly in the social system, impervious to taxonomy and pigeon-holing. The present irony is that for all of hipsters’ adamant categorical resistance, they appear to have been reduced to a semi-derogative social category. Hipsters don’t actually exist; hipsters are everywhere.

Such terms are not exclusively derogative, however. An elite group of well-educated urbanites, to return to Stillman’s fictional account, propose the U.H.B. term as a category of self-identification. The hillbilly taxon, a further example, has historically carried offensive meaning. In some instances Ozarks-area or Appalachian people have reappropriated or reclaimed the term in culturally celebratory fashions. In other words, the terms that we’re discussing are highly complex and multifaceted, retaining multiple and sometimes conflicting usages.

All of these dynamics, though, appear to reinforce an axiom of social theory that persons in positions of power (be it educational attainment, political status, socio-economic standing, etc.) maintain societal order through strategic ideological methods of persuasion. Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society (1989) argues helpfully along these lines. Discourse legitimates social and cultural authorities as it simultaneously classifies, defines, and delineates subordinate groups. Classifications—even the most seemingly lighthearted or satirical—play important social roles. Religious studies scholars have an especially important role to play in the study of discourse, myth, and taxonomy, and social rhetoric. Potentially condescending taxons such as fundamentalist or the less subtle but dated Holy Roller come to mind.

The role of the scholar in light of these social categories, however, is less clear. If as academics we study the mechanisms of social order and the processes by which social actors position themselves in their constructed orders, then terms such as yuppie and U.H.B. are tantamount to first-hand or folk (i.e., quotidian) linguistic strategies. We must examine the locations from which the taxonomies are deployed; who, for instance, is doing the labeling? And why? What is most interesting to me, in the end, is that as scholars we are also, not unlike Stillman’s elitists, embedded in complex relationships of power and privilege. Maybe, then, the distance between folk and scholarly categories is not as simple as we might envision it to be; perhaps BoBo and hipster are partly catalogues of our own creation.

Travis Cooper is a PhD student and associate instructor at Indiana University (Bloomington), in the departments of religious studies and anthropologyHis research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, embodiment, materiality, gender, media, critical ethnography, visual culture, and religious experience. Travis blogs informally about his academic work here. Find out more about his research and publications here.

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Almighty God Created the Races


by Craig Martin

Last semester I taught Fay Botham’s Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). I enjoyed teaching the book, and the students reported liking it as well. However, as I organized my lectures on the book, it became clear to me that there might be a tension between two of the book’s central claims. The tension was of interest to me particularly because I think the same tension runs through my own work.

First, the book: Botham looks at legal challenges—some successful, some not—to the United States’ anti-miscegenation laws in the 20th century. Some challenges were made on the basis of the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, which purportedly guaranteed equal protection and due process under the law for all citizens. These challenges typically failed because courts ruled that anti-miscegenation laws did apply fairly to both white and black people: neither a white person nor a black person could inter-racially marry.

However, in 1947 Daniel Marshall came up with a novel legal approach and filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sylvester Davis and Andrea Perez in the state of California. Marshall argued that as Davis and Perez were Catholic, and as marriage is a sacrament in Catholic theology, prohibiting their marriage was actually a violation of their freedom of religion, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. They were successful in their challenge, and the state’s Supreme Court overturned the anti-miscegenation law in 1948.

Along the way Botham explicates the differences between Protestant and Catholic theologies of race and theologies of marriage, and how each ideology contributed to how these things worked themselves out. Botham demonstrates that Marshall’s legal argument would not have worked for Protestants, as Protestants, unlike Catholics, tended to see marriage as primarily a civil rather than a church matter.

Catholic sacramental theology thus raised religious freedom issues in Marshall’s case in a way that Protestant theologies could not (25).

Of particular interest to me was her commentary on how Protestants in the American south read the Bible during and after slavery. During slavery they tended to read the passages in Genesis about Noah’s sons as proof that God had ordained racial differences and had consigned the dark races to slavery. After slavery ended, however, they shied away from the Noah story but nevertheless held on to the tower of Babel story, which they read as implying “that God had created separate and distinct races and intended them to remain that way” (107). So they turned away from the Noah story as a justification for slavery and turned toward the Babel story as a justification for segregation and anti-miscegenation.

And these justifications not only appeared in church—they appeared in legal arguments and judicial rulings.

The Protestant theology of marriage as a civilly regulated matter and a theology of separate races constituted a kind of cultural religion that permeated the hearts and minds of attorneys and judges throughout the courts of the South for a hundred years after the civil war (156).

In fact, this theology or ideology was so much “in the water” in the Protestant south that it was a Catholic judge in the south who penned the infamous line from the title of this book—“almighty God created the races.”

Catholics, by contrast, tended to pry a theology of race out of humanity’s monogenesis in Adam and Eve; if humans were later separated into different racial groups, that was as a result of the fall into sin, and we should be reunited under Christ.

All of this brings Botham to note how incredibly variable interpretations of “foundational” texts can be:

[B]asing one’s beliefs about racial hierarchy or about the constitutionality of segregation, for example, in something as variable as a text—open, as texts are to multiple interpretations—paves the way for the demise of interpretations we sometimes take as ‘certain.’ … [O]ther readers came along and perceived different meanings in the biblical texts that white supremacists claimed as the basis for the separate races theology (178).

Here’s the tension: Botham maintains both that “Christian beliefs were centrally important to the motivations of lawyers and judges on both sides of the contentious issue” (177) and that “Bible readers do, in fact, read their historical context and personal values into their interpretations” (189). The former implies that ideology directs people’s motivations and the latter implies that people’s motivations direct the manipulation of their ideology. Can readings of the Bible be the “basis” of Christian behavior if Christians can make the Bible mean whatever they want it to mean?

I suppose we’re back to the old question of base and superstructure: does our ideology drive our interests or do our interests drive our ideology? It seems clear to me that ideology is in part constitutive of behavior and interests, but also that people retool their ideologies when their behaviors and interests change. Is this a theoretical tension, or just a recognition that the relationship between culture and society is complex?

Either way, Botham’s book is excellent and I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter!

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Theory & Religion Series: Foucault on Historicism, Struggle, and The People


by Jeffrey Wheatley

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, 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.

It might seem a bit silly to dedicate a post to Foucault for the Theory & Religious Series here at the Bulletin blog. Foucault’s influence in many sectors of the liberal arts—including many of those I participate in and, I think it is fair to suggest, this blog—is immanent.

Foucault has been, of course, roundly and rightly criticized from a number of different perspectives, including material studies, postcolonial theory, and so on. Many now approach Foucault through his critics or by simply using some of his elementary concepts such as discourse, genealogy, or relational power. In this brief post, despite a certain amount of redundancy and a number of Foucault’s interlocutors that I could also attend to, I want to explicitly point out some of the ways that Foucault has been generative for my scholarship in terms of thinking about history.

I have been reading Foucault’s lectures that he gave at the College of France from 1975 to 1976. These lectures have been published under the title “Society Must Be Defended” (2003). In these lectures Foucault argued that politics was war continued by other means. Historical instances of warfare were at the root of socio-political differentiation. Knowledge-production has always been intimately tied to these power relations. Of interest to me is his exploration of the relationship between war and history-making. At one rather dramatic point in his account, Foucault began to muse about the anxieties induced by thorough historicism:

No matter how far back it goes, historical knowledge never finds nature, right, order, or peace. However far back it goes, historical knowledge discovers only an unending war, or in other words, forces that relate to one another and come into conflict with one another . . . History encounters nothing but war, but history can never really look down on this war from on high; history cannot get away from war, or discover its basic laws or impose limits on it, quite simply because war itself supports this knowledge . . . (172–173)

Although I would suggest that there is plenty of room to critique the causal primacy Foucault gives to warfare, I find his account generative. History-making necessarily feeds into social struggles whether or not producers of historical accounts make this explicit. Foucault was not simply arguing, however, that a historical account will reflect the social position of its creator(s), but that the act of claiming a history of a people was an important historical development. Looking at aristocratic tactics against monarchical absolutism in Europe around the seventeenth century, Foucault argued that commonalities among a people (say, the idea of a Saxon people over against an inauthentic Norman monarchy) were constructed through historical accounts to produce a type of counterhistory, a genre bent to show how “kings wear masks, that power creates illusions” (72). This struggle was, for Foucault, a race struggle, and the resulting genre was distinct from and in contrast to the previous genre of history, which served to legitimate monarchical state rule.

The concept of a people with a history fed into formations of race, class, and, beginning in the late eighteenth century, the nation-state and its corresponding racism, which reflected the re-entanglement of conceptions of a people and a state through accounts of history. This was to an especially disastrous effect in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (I recommend Achille Mbembe’s expansion of Foucault’s thought regarding biopower and what Mbembe refers to as necropolitics.)

“Religion” is not a term used in these lectures to the extent that it would appear in later published works, but the questions Foucault brings up in regard to the instrumentality of history are easily applicable within religious studies, or at least those attracted to historicism. Who or what has history? Who is included in a history? What markers of commonality are embedded in a history? What types of divisions between peoples do our histories manufacture through presence and absence? Who is the assumed “we”? By what measure might we justify these inevitable divisions?

These are fruitful questions to ask about the contexts that we study. But one of Foucault’s most significant contributions has been to prod scholars to objectify their own knowledge-production in light of these questions. The generative capacity of these types of questions—the questions of a self-reflexivity necessarily produced by Foucauldian histories of “history”—has lasted even as they have become well-worn scholarly tools.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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Death by Area Studies


by Aaron W. Hughes and Randi R. Warne

A worrying trend is gaining momentum in the academic study of religion.  There appears to us to be an increasing tendency toward filling professorial vacancies with individuals with PhDs in area studies (e.g., Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies, East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies).  We say “worrying” due to the changes in academic climate and intellectual agenda this development potentially carries with it.  Specifically, we are concerned that the focus on textual and largely premodern forms of “religious tradition” that characterizes area studies means that individuals within departments, and increasingly departments writ large, will boundary their data in such a way that the “meta-questions” and critical discourses that characterize much of current intellectual discussion, intentionally or not, will be discouraged or overshadowed, much as Christian studies (theology) overshadowed the field in years past.

The result, we fear, will be the gradual diminution and eventual death of the field of Religious Studies. Please be assured that we do not advocate a return to the heyday of phenomenology with its concomitant claims of the “irreducibility of the sacred.”  We are deeply concerned, however, with the history and problematics underlying the creation of “Religious Studies” itself.  Rather than defer to the false inclusivity of area studies, we would like to encourage a collective rethinking of what the discipline of Religious Studies is and, by extension, what its future should be.

To examine some of these issues, let us begin with a couple of anecdotes that we believe are illustrative of the problem.

When Hughes was hired at the University of Calgary in 2001 he was expected, even though he had a PhD in Religious Studies with a specialty in Islam, to be the exact replacement of his predecessor who had a PhD in Islamic Studies (i.e, area studies, not religious studies) from McGill.  Although he knew enough Arabic to read texts (slowly!), he was expected to teach a four-semester sequence in classical Arabic.  He found this very difficult for a number of reasons – he was not an Arabist (nor had he ever, despite the later claims of his colleagues, styled himself as one); and he had many native speakers in his class who knew Arabic much, much better than he did but claimed that they had very little knowledge of classical grammar, though he suspected that they just wanted an easy A.  One thing he was not expected to teach, or supposed to even be interested in, was theory and method in the field.  An Islamicist interested in theory and method – heaven forbid!  He envisaged himself as a religionist, yet his colleagues in the department saw him as an Arabist or as an Islamicist.  These radically divergent expectations – on how he was to succeed personally amongst his coworkers in a department (who would vote on his tenure case) and professionally amongst his colleagues in the larger field (with whom he would establish his bona fides and reputation) – on a young, pre-tenure faculty member were extremely difficult.  Of about 15 or so faculty members in that department (he no longer works there), roughly half received doctorates from fields outside of Religious Studies.  And, despite the fact that the department has seen some turnover in recent years, that percentage of non-religious studies doctorates to religious studies doctorates among the full-time faculty remains.

Warne’s challenges as a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion in its inaugural year were somewhat different, though with similar practical results. In keeping with the times, she brought to Toronto a thorough exposure to Neo-orthodox theology, psychology of religion a la Alan Watts and Esalen, and a complete drenching in Eliade.  That her primary interests were counter/sub cultures and 19th c. questions of faith and atheism was indicative of the composition of Religious Studies departments at the time.  Toronto was not an improvement. Eager to prove its scholarly seriousness to a skeptical Dean, the program emphasized languages and conventional configurations of “traditions.” Much could be said about those years, but two anecdotes will have to suffice: wanting to study Marxism as a religion, she was shuffled off to a few of the theological colleges to do the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology.

Her graduate comprehensive exams reflected the suspicion in which her analytical interests were held: five four hour exams in History of Christianity; Judaism since the Enlightenment; Philosophy of Religion; Social-Scientific Studies of Religion; and Religion in Canada. The Centre’s coordinator helpfully offered the option of doing a comp. in the social sciences (Freud, Jung, Erikson, Weber, Durkheim and Marx) as a substitute for the language exams in Latin, Hebrew and Greek that might be reasonably expected of a student of Christian tradition. The end result of three degrees in Religious Studies (BA Religion and Literature; MA Philosophy of Religion; Ph.D. Religion and Culture) was a candidate allegedly unemployable in Religious Studies due to being a “generalist.”

Tales of woe abound, and we will not belabor them here.  Our concern with the constitution of authorities (i.e. tenured faculty) in Religious Studies is nonetheless genuine. Religionists cannot just write the turn to Area Studies as the idiosyncracies of a particular department or departments. A quick examination of, for example, those departments in Canada with PhD programs in Religious Studies – at the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the University of Manitoba, McGill University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University – reveals something remarkably similar.  This will have, if it has not had already, major repercussions on how Religious Studies is thought about and taught on Canadian campuses.  It will, moreover, have major effects on the makeup of graduate education in the discipline, and hence the character of its continuation.

We would like to raise some questions for reflection and further conversation. First, why have departments of Religious Studies if they are to function solely as an institutional canopy for disciplines in which the category of “religion” is NOT rigorously interrogated?  Presumably, that highly contested subject matter is still of some interest and worth. (As an aside, it is useful to note a veritable explosion of North American scholarly interest in Religion and Culture, evident in conferences, scholarly literature and popular culture venues.)  Yet, despite this growing interest, Religious Studies will frequently hire someone with a PhD in area studies (because it is wrongly assumed that they must know the “area” in question better than someone trained in Religious Studies). The opposite scenario – an area studies department hiring someone with a doctorate in Religious Studies – is rare indeed.

Why should we hire a historian as opposed to a religionist to fill a vacant position?  Why should we hire someone with a PhD in Islamic Studies in a position for a specialist in Islam in a department of Religious Studies?  We might well ask how such individuals will contribute to the general intellectual vigour and identity of the field at the department level, and to the international conversation about the academic study of religion.  If there is to be a serious engagement with religion as a social and cultural construction, what is the point in hiring those whose training is primarily textual and philological, and who have had very little if no exposure to the critical theories and methods associated with the academic study of religion?  We submit that if we are to engage primarily the problematic of “religion” as our object of study we collectively need to rethink our hiring priorities.

Second, if we insist on training graduate students in our departments of religious studies, but then when it comes to hiring decisions choose to hire someone from area studies, what kind of message does this send?  One practical effect is to train a permanent underclass to teach introductory and other widely subscribed undergraduate classes, while reserving secure positions for persons with training in another discipline altogether. Another is to require graduate students engaged in critical discourses in religion to choose perforce their advisor and examining committee from a pool of area studies specialists. If, and when, this is the case, such specialists may well see theoretical questions as actually getting in the way of textual analysis.

The conservative treatment of “traditions” thus comes in the back door and reasserts its pre-eminence. We need to look closely at the politics and processes by and through which a new generation of scholars is being prepared. We are not doing our graduate students any favors if they wish to be employable as full and respected participants in Religious Studies if the departments in which they are supposedly receiving their training neither values it nor teaches it.

Aaron Hughes is professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, Islam, and Method and Theory in the department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), and the forthcoming The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), and Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014).

Randi R. Warne Randi R. Warne is a professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Philosphy/Religious Studies At Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax. She is also a founding member of MSVU’s Cultural Studies program, one of the three free-standing Cultural Studies programs in Canada. Her research interests include religion and culture, gender theory, and the politics of knowledge. Recent publications include “‘Gender’; Making the Gender-Critical Turn” and a two volume co-edited work New Approaches to the Study of Religion (with Armin Geertz and Peter Antes), published by Walter deGruyter.

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“We are there to be there”: More Reflections from Sullivan’s A Ministry of Presence


by Charles McCrary

This post’s titular sentence, quoted in Winnifred Sullivan’s new book A Ministry of Presence, is how a hospice chaplain summarized the purpose of his job (185). Sullivan brilliantly explains how, through legal and cultural history, simply “to be there”—not to convert or preach or even to dole out advice—came to be what is required of chaplains. Kolby Knight has already written an excellent and helpful review for the Bulletin, so I won’t recap Sullivan’s argument or talk much about the book’s contents here. Instead, I offer some brief reflections that I had from the book, and how chaplaincy might help us think about the place of religion in American society in the twenty-first century.

The case that sets the stage for the book is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Nicholson (2008), wherein the FFRF challenged a VA hospital program that measured individuals’ “spiritual fitness.” As Sullivan points out, seeing spirituality as integral to a person—even at the measurable, material level—is not new. She cites, for example, John Modern’s discussion of phrenologists’ invention/discovery of the faculty of spirituality. What is new, however, is the legal context. This type of essentialized spirituality[1] gets around the “high wall of separation” of mid-twentieth-century jurisprudence. If spirituality is natural and part of the human, the state ought to help care for it.

I read A Ministry of Presence in the context of a class I’m co-teaching with Mike Graziano on religion and American law (for more on that course see here and here.) Before this book we read Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology. One of the things that stuck out to me in Urban’s book was that L. Ron Hubbard’s initial attempts to play up, as he put it, “the religion angle” (i.e., self-consciously rebranding their organization as a religion) was not in order to receive tax exempt status. Later, of course, that would be the point, and it led to a decades-long feud between the Church and the IRS, culminating with the Church winning the status (although paying their back taxes) in 1993. At first, though, in the early 1950s, the religion angle was about the FDA, with whom Scientologists were in hot water for using their e-meters to do what was legally the realm of medicine and, thus, subject to credentialing, certification, and so on. If an auditing session were a religious exercise, these restrictions and standards would not apply.

I’m reminded of the recent case in Encinitas, California in which the court’s question was, “Is yoga religious?” The court determined that it is in fact religious but nevertheless legal, since “a reasonable student” wouldn’t perceive it as evincing a “message of eastern or anti-western religion.” So, indeed it is religious, but it is not, to use the language of nineteenth-century school debates, sectarian. In the same way, the chaplain must be religious only in the most general, widely applicable sense. It is not a coincidence, either, that these three examples (“spiritual fitness,” e-meters, and yoga) all have to do with bodily health, which I suspect is due to their supposed pre-discursiveness and universality.

“Religion” in America is in the odd position of being at once eminently special and necessarily ineffectual. It is protected, privileged, and even encouraged by the state. Nevertheless, it is relegated to a place from which it cannot make medical claims or be too particular or proselytizing. This is what it means to be have a “ministry of presence.” Sullivan writes,

It is religion stripped to the basics. Religion naturalized. Religion without code, cult, or community. Religion without metaphysics. It is religion for a state of uncertainty (174).

The chaplain, who is the incarnation of this religion, is “there to be there.” But they also don’t do much other than be there. American religion—supporting some secularization theses and upending others—just hangs around.

[1]: Bulletin readers likely will be interested to know that Sullivan sees religious studies as implicated in this type of “new establishment.” She writes, “The peculiar educational formation and credentialing of chaplains is not driven just by the force of law, the needs of government, and the social facts of religious diversity. That training is also enabled by the success of religious studies in naturalizing its own religious practices. The work done by the religious studies department in many colleges and universities in the United States reflects a broadly irenic and inclusive voice on behalf of Homo religiosus in all his guises” (137–138).

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