Who’s the ‘We’ in ‘Our Whole Society’?

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Justin K.H. Tse

The conference, Our Whole Society: Bridging the Religious-Secular Divide, took place on March 22-24 at the University of British Columbia’s campus at Robson Square in the downtown of Vancouver, British Columbia. The conference organizers pulled together a variety of civil society groups, academics, and government officials to deliberate on postsecularism, public policy, and the common good in Canada.

It is usually considered in bad taste to wax critical of the common good. But as the introductions began for the ‘Our Whole Society’ conference on March 22-24 in Vancouver, BC, it hit me that it was hard to understand to whose commons the ‘common good’ refers. Who are ‘we’? How many of ‘us’ are there in ‘Our Whole Society’? Are we basically all ‘liberals,’ signing off on a mythological social contract that states in the fine print the overlapping consensus we call ‘Canadian values’? As I hope will become clear, my critical questions have a theoretical aim, which is to say that it’s irrelevant whether I liked or disliked the conference because it will become apparent by the end that I got a lot out of it and that I’m glad I went.

To put it candidly, I’m glad I went because being at Our Whole Society required a tremendous amount of intellectual labour on one question: who are ‘we’? As a conference, we were told that ‘we’ had been discussing the contributions of faith groups to the ‘common good’ since 2013 at McGill University. What the ‘common good’ meant was that we were not going to engage in the dichotomies of “religious” versus “secular,” “good” versus “bad,” “public” versus “personal”’ (the last of which struck me as oddly conflated with ‘private’). We were going to have a different kind of conversation, one where faith groups were part of ‘civil society.’ The task was urgent: Truth and Reconciliation’s Marie Wilson told us that religion informs the process of reconciliation because ‘values are spiritual in nature,’ a ‘collective vocabulary.’ It was also primal: Rabbi Yosef Wosk said that we had to get to the ‘sacred geography’ that lies behind Canada to rediscover the foundations of Canadian society. The idea of Our Whole Society was to bring the various sectors of civil society into the room for a ‘deep, very deep’ discussion about religion, which the think-tank Laurier Institution (our hosts) reminded us remained ‘divisive’ because of the proliferation of faith convictions across our society. ‘We’ were expected to be the representatives of civil society – faith groups, academics, think tank members – to bring about a new Canadian consensus about religion from below, as it were.

The thing about civil society, though, is that – at least in both the classical Aristotelian, Hegelian, and even Habermasian senses – it’s supposed to denote a metaphorical kaleidoscope of societal groups that push up against the power of the state from below. There’s supposed to be a line between civil society and the state: on one side are Canadian citizens while the government is on the other side, and there’s a productive tension between the two.

This is where the ‘we’ gets confusing. Regent College’s John Stackhouse argued that Canadian secularism was a ‘pragmatic secularism,’ a ‘secular act of nation-building’ that began with Confederation in 1867, forming a new nation to ‘let Britain off the colonial hook and keep the Americans and their Civil War out.’ To form a nation, standards – albeit lowest common denominator ones – needed to be set, especially the standard that the various ethnic factions of Canada needed to ‘tolerate’ each other. Tolerance, then, is (for Stackhouse) a bona fide Canadian shared value, an abstract concept that holds Canadian society together. This means that if religious communities are teaching their members to be intolerant, their activities could be construed as seditious, threatening the Canadian body politic that thrives on tolerance. What’s more, as Stackhouse’s co-panelist Rabbi Lisa Gruschcow added in the question-and-answer period, such language was justifiable because citizens in a society are part of something shared, which is why governments evaluate immigrants before they are allowed to be part of this shared society – something that, though neither Stackhouse nor Gruschcow actually said it, resembled a social contract.

Here, though, we have moved quite a ways away from civil society. Sedition, social contract, Confederation, body politic: this is the language of the state. Are we in fact the state?

It seemed like we were. Both the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd and the Canadian Council of Women’s Alia Hogben called for what amounted to the work of the police state to regulate religious communities that opposed international standards of human rights. University of Winnipeg’s James Christie not only pointed out that Canada had been racist, but took to task a member of the state, Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett, for representing his ‘political masters’ as exemplars of religious freedom when the Prime Minister had made snide comments on the niqab back home. We may have been civil society, but we were also constitutive of a liberal state, even (mis)represented by a religious freedom ambassador. We may have been representatives of our various factions and identities in Canadian civil society from the bottom up, but we were also representing the state from the top down.

What accounts for this paradox?

It turned out that what was fudging the boundary between civil society and the state was the presumption that we who were gathered in the room were all liberal. From Rabbi Grushcow to Catholic theologian Shawn Flyn to the University of Victoria’s Paul Bramadat, the common sentiment was that we were the usual suspects, the people who would most likely gather at these interreligious events to complain about the conservatives in our own tradition. This was not the first time we had gathered; we have all seen each other and our counterparts in other rooms at other dialogues thinking about how we can make our whole society. The Orthodox Jews, the evangelicals, the conservative Sikhs, Muslims, and (dare I say it) even Buddhists seldom showed up.

And the acknowledgement of that – that, finally – was what was productive about this conference. While there were the usual suspects who celebrated the palpable liberalism in the room, a number of participants lamented that room had not been made for the conservatives within each religious tradition. Indeed, that was the most productive questions of the conference because it ignited the discussion that there is possibly another ‘we’ in the room, one positioned firmly against the fudging of the boundary between state and civil society. Rabbi Grushcow spoke of it when she claimed common ground with the Orthodox Jewish colleagues she debated in the newspaper, knowing that they read the same Torah and prayed the same psalms. Shawn Flyn spoke of it when he cited the Second Vatican Council, arguing for attention to how ecclesial policy gets unevenly applied among Roman Catholics. The Hudson Institute’s Paul Marshall spoke of it when he talked about the origins of secularism in church-state relations, acknowledging that the word ‘secular’ has an uneasy fit with so-called ‘religions’ that don’t share the same historical genealogy into medieval Christendom. The World Sikh Organization’s Balpreet Singh spoke of it when he showed that his organization’s legal activities for religious freedom are based on Sikh understandings of the person. Ambassador Andrew Bennett spoke of it when he disclosed his own Eastern Rite Catholic proclivities and said explicitly that his actions as religious freedom ambassador are rooted in the Christian understanding that the incarnation of God as a human being clarifies the dignity of every human person.

It turns out, in the final analysis, that there is a liberal ‘we’ that fudges the boundaries and a religious ‘we’ that works from particular, situated rootedness. There is, in short, a we who is not the state. That was why, at the end of the day, the final speaker, the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation’s Doug White, was so cathartic. He told his own story of starting out as a liberal indigenous lawyer, believing the myth that ‘our whole society’ meant that he had equal rights to upward economic, political, and social mobility. All of this was shattered, he says, when he met a ‘real Indian,’ someone so traumatized by the history of indigenous oppression in Canada that he refused to acknowledge people without the same amount of Indian blood as him as a member of the band. It turns out that the liberal ‘we’ is, at the end of the day, an exclusive ‘we,’ one that pastes over histories of oppression – histories that perhaps may account for the conservatisms excluded from the liberal ‘we.’ As I also noted in my workshop on Charles Taylor, this means that I am not here to represent an identity for this liberal ‘we’; I am here to talk about Canada – not to construct a new overlapping consensus and a fresh identity with abstract Canadian values, but to tell its stories truthfully. That’s what Doug White did: he told the truth that accounted for both the exclusions of liberalism and the proliferation of conservatisms.

That is why he got a standing ovation. It’s also why I’m glad I went to this conference.

Justin K.H. Tse is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He works on religion and the public sphere in Asia-Pacific and Asian North American contexts.

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NAASR Annual Meeting, Atlanta, 2015

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NAASR’s 2015 program, which will take place in Atlanta, GA (with most panels on either Friday November 20 or Saturday November 21—though scheduling is still to take place), is intended to create opportunities for specialists from across our field, all of whom are at a variety of different career stages, to investigate what it means to “do theory” in the study of religion today.

For although the terms “method and theory” can now be found in course titles, curricula/degree requirements, area/comprehensive exams, and listed as competencies on the C.V’s of scholars from across a wide array of subfields, and while a variety of groups at annual scholarly conferences now regularly itemize theorizing among the topics that they examine and carry out, it seems that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s). So, despite the appearance of tremendous advances in the field since NAASR’s founding 30 years ago as the lone place for carrying out theory in the study of religion, it can be argued that little has changed, for the term theory is today so widely understood as to make it coterminous with virtually all forms of scholarship on religion. Spending some time re-examining just what we ought to consider theory to signify therefore seems to be a worthwhile focus for our annual meeting.

The program is divided into two parts: 1) four main, substantive papers (each of which will be pre-circulated to NAASR members by October 1), examining what it means to “do theory” in the academic study of religion today, that will be summarized briefly at a session devoted solely to one main paper, followed by three brief invited responses and then an extended discussion with all attendees. All four sessions will be chaired by NAASR’s Vice-President, Aaron Hughes, who will also edit the book (to be published with Equinox Publishers) in which the 2015 program’s content will appear; and 2) the traditional Presidential Panel, chaired by NAASR President, Russell McCutcheon (described below) but featuring papers by two other scholars.

Note: There will be a meeting of the NAASR Executive Council on the Friday morning prior to the first session & the business meeting will take place roughly at noon on the Saturday. More details will be announced once the schedule and room booking has been finalized.

Although this is not necessarily the order in which they will be scheduled, the four main sessions/papers plus the respondents for each are as follows:

1. On the Restraint of Theory, Jason N. Blum (The American University in Cairo) 

According to some, theory ensures the integrity of religious studies as an academic discipline: it is the development and application of theory to explain religion that distinguishes critical scholarship from the apologetics of theology (and, allegedly, the covert apologetics of phenomenology of religion). I acknowledge the necessity of theoretically-grounded explanation of religion, not as a levy to be paid for entrance into the academy or the public university, but as an essential dimension of the task of analyzing the collection of phenomena that we, for better or worse, call religion. Theories are, in short, a good thing. Acknowledging the necessity of theory, however, does not tell us when and how theory should be deployed. I argue that just as theory should be deployed in the task of explaining religion (briefly: identifying the causes, origins, and/or functions of religion), it should be withheld in the task of interpreting religion (briefly: identifying the meaning of religion for the religious subject). If, as many have argued, it is true that interpretation entails explanation, then understanding the religious subject’s perspective on, or experience of, religion necessarily means unearthing his explanation of religion. And if this is true, then the interpolation of the scholar’s own explanatory theory as an interpretive tool almost certainly obscures or eisegetically reshapes the subject’s perspective; in other words, it corrupts the data. Theory must be restrained in the interpretive phase of the analysis of religion, or else the scholar risks losing the very phenomenon she seeks to study. The legitimacy and integrity of research in religious studies therefore rests not only on the proper application of theory, but on the proper restraint of it as well.

Respondents

Michael Altman (University of Alabama)

Tara Baldrick-Morrone (Florida State University)

Richard Newton (Elizabethtown College)

2. What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not), Claire White (California State University – Northridge)

Over the past decade or so there has been an exponential growth in research in the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). Yet despite this, there continues to be a lack of understanding, and sometimes blatant misunderstanding, about what characterizes the field. This state of affairs is due, in part, to the reluctance of those within the field to commit to a precise definition. CSR is a broad in scope. It is also a relatively young academic approach to the study of religion and consequentially, is ever-expanding and often in a state of flux. Scholars have often characterized CSR by what it is not rather than what it is. In this paper, I argue that at heart of CSR is a theory that human cognition is necessary (but not sufficient) to explain the presence, persistence and prevalence of human ideas and behaviors deemed “religious.” It is thus distinguished from its often-atheoretical academic counterparts in the study of religion because of the attempt to explain, rather than describe, religion and because of the centrality of the role of the human mind in this explanation.  Finally, I demonstrate the fruitfulness of this theory by presenting selected case studies of what CSR has actually explained since its inception.

Respondents

Monica Miller (Lehigh University)

Matt Sheedy (University of Manitoba)

Brad Stoddard (Florida State University/McDaniel College)

3. Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom, Matt Bagger (Auburn University)

The chief glory of the Study of Religion is its theoretical eclecticism. As a field it should resist programmatic theoretical approaches. Its use and development of theory should be driven by specific questions that arise in particular studies of religious phenomena.  Metatheoretical reflection should generally be closely tethered to works of first-order scholarship. The use of Robert Brandom’s analysis of existential commitments to illuminate so-called narrative theology illustrates these claims and bears implications for the cognitive science of religion.

Respondents

Rebekka King (Middle Tennessee State University)

Dennis LoRusso (Princeton University)

Robyn Walsh (University of Miami)

4. The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study, Merinda Simmons (University of Alabama)

Something struck me in my shift from the disciplinary training of my Ph.D—literary theory—to the discipline in which I now teach and write—religious studies. When I was working through my graduate studies and developing a research specialization in postcolonial and feminist theories, it seemed common knowledge that the only way to engage in a serious consideration of power dynamics and the ways in which race, gender, sexuality, capital, and other identifications intersect with those dynamics was to utilize “critical theory.” Specifically, what that moniker referred to—and what I still take it to mean in my own work—is a brand of inquiry following from Frankfurt School analysis that invites structural social critique rather than phenomenological or explanatory description. Where my own locus of identity studies and literary theory were concerned, this meant taking seriously the post-structuralist tools operationalized in the late 1960s and refusing to take for granted a natural or obvious relationship between the labels or concepts we use and what we take them to mean. What now seems to dominate identity studies in the academic study of religion, however, is that very explanatory description from which critical theorists have tried to turn away. In so many cases, scholars seem to suggest that a serious engagement of power dynamics and identity is, in fact, predicated upon a rejection of post-structuralist critique so as to take stock of “lived experiences” of marginalized groups. What accounts for this inversion, I suggest, is the relationship between scholars and their object of study. It is this relationship that I aim to explore in my paper.

Respondents

Jason Slone (Georgia Southern University)

Martha Smith Roberts (University of California – Santa Barbara)

Thomas Whitley (Florida State University)

Presidential Panel

In consultation with the program committee and Craig Martin (NAASR Executive Secretary/Treasurer), Russell McCutcheon has invited Greg Johnson (University of Colorado – Boulder) and Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University) to address us concerning where NAASR has been and what, at this particular moment, ought to be our focus when trying to continue pressing the field in novel, rigorous, and interesting directions. As preparation for this particular panel all attendees will be asked to have already read Don Wiebe and Luther Martin’s co-written but as yet unpublished essay on NAASR’s history (posted as a PDF on the NAASR website’s “About” page).

It is not apparent that all members necessarily know the ground covered by NAASR but it is also not necessarily apparent that past is always prologue. (Don and Luther’s paper was written after NAASR hit the 20 year mark and we are now, in 2015, hitting our 30th.) So we’re inviting Greg (himself a former Department Chair, a former member of NAASR’s exec council, and the current Program Unit Director for the American Academy of Religion) and Leslie (a grad of the UC Santa Barbara, in the study of religion, who also directs Women’s & Gender Studies on her campus and who works on religion in the US, with an eye toward studying scholars as well) to help us think through where the cutting edges may now be in the field.

This session will take place after our other 2015 panels and will surely dovetail nicely with their topics. Greg’s and Leslie’s papers will be presented in person (i.e., not pre-distributed), but we aim for only an hour of presentations at this session (up to 30 min each for their papers) reserving at least an hour of open conversation, to ensure that all attendees at all of our panels get a chance to voice their thoughts as well—which will assist the program committee to conceptualize the shape of our 2016 sessions.

Co-Sponsored Session with Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship

Panel: When Is The Big Tent Too Big?

This NAASR panel is co-sponsored with the Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship Program Unit of the Society for Biblcial Literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the “big tent” philosophy that governs much of the disciplines of religious studies and biblical studies as represented in many academic societies, the publishing industry, and many colleges and universities? This “big tent” mixes etic and methodological naturalist perspectives with emic, confessional, and theological approaches to religion along with opportunities for interfaith dialogue. This panel addresses the impact the Big Tent has on the secular study of religion and sacred texts and its status within the large world of secular disciplines of the humanities and social sciences.

 Panelists

Stephen Young (Brown University), “Is the Tent So Big that It Hides Ideology?”

Ipsita Chatterjea, “Big Tent, Smaller Tents, Blue Tent, and the Specter of the Red Tent: What Do We Do and Does Anyone Outside of the Tent Know We Are Doing It? ”

Pat McCullough (University of California—Los Angeles), “On Not Letting Confessions Tell Us What to Do: Reading New Testament Texts without ‘Origins’”

Sarah Rollens (University of Alabama), “Tents and Canopies: When the “Big Tent” Becomes a “Sacred Canopy” in Biblical Studies”

Responding

Ed Silver (Wellesley College)

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Do You Believe? A Film Review Essay

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by Matt Sheedy

This past weekend I caught the newly released Pure Flix Entertainment feature Do You Believe? at my local cinema, which marks the third “Christian drama film” to grace the big screen in the last year or so—the fourth if you count Son of God, produced by Lightworkers Media.

Intrigued by the spate of religion-themed films in 2014, I previously wrote review essays for Noah, God’s Not Dead, and Heaven Is for Real, noting in the latter piece:

What I find most interesting in all of these films is not their “religious” content per se, but in looking at the ways in which cultural norms, values, and preferences intertwine with biblical narratives in order to gain legitimacy for particular group identities, while at the same time appealing to outsiders in the interest of winning converts (to either a group or a particular theological interpretation) and cashing in at the box office.

Whereas Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was a conscious effort to re-imagine a biblical narrative in the director’s own image, which he likened to a Midrash on environmental stewardship and the balance between justice and mercy, 2014’s other biblical epic, Exodus: God’s and Kings, presented a less partisan narrative, and was critiqued not so much for its biblical interpretation, but for its use of white actors to portray non-Europeans.

Films like God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Do You Believe? are clearly of a different genus—e.g., they are set in the present-day, are generically evangelical, and are backed by various insiders (actors, directors, production companies, church groups, etc.) whose habitus tends to reflect the cultural sensibilities of conservative (white, American) Christians. In this sense, these films are made by and for insiders, with the aim of creating palatable narratives for the purpose of proselytization; in modeling arguments that can be used against various outsiders (e.g., as with those against the atheist philosophy professor in God’s Not Dead); and in reinforcing the idea that certain groups and institutions—e.g., academia, the “liberal” media, unions, humanists organizations, “secular” law, etc.—are not on their side.

Riding on the coattails of the surprising box office success of God’s Not Dead, which grossed over 60 million domestically in the US, Do You Believe? has been marketed as a follow-up of sorts, and was co-written by the same writers, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon. As Pure Flix producer David A.R. White put it in a recent interview:

“‘God’s Not Dead’ resonated with audiences because it explored and validated the existence of God,” “‘Do You Believe?’ takes Christianity to another level…the Cross.”

Opening with a quote from James 2:17, which states, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself,” this other “level” that White alludes to sets the tone for a pan-Evangelical narrative about faith through good works, especially charity and forgiveness in the face of “sin,” as means towards personal salvation.

The film weaves together 12 different story lines, which, as commentators have pointed out, mimics the Oscar-winning film Crash, in an attempt highlight a certain providence at work in the lives of different and disparate people. Spurred by pastor Matthew’s “revelation” to pass out small crosses to his parishioners as a symbolic gesture of the need for a more active ministry, the characters are divided between the saved and the unsaved, where the former must step up their game and the latter must come around to Jesus, which is the only thing that can save them. Among the saved include the pastor and his wife, who have been unable to conceive a child; an elderly couple who lost their only daughter to a drunk driver; a former convict-turned parishioner who is dying of cancer; and a couple embroiled in a court case over their livelihood after Bobby, who is a first responder, places the cross he was given by pastor Matthew in the hands of a dying man while on the job. Among the unsaved include a mother and daughter who have been made homeless; a pregnant teen living on the streets who has refused to abort her unborn child; a (Latino) war vet suffering from PTSD; a suicidal young women estranged from her father; an atheist lawyer and her doctor husband; and a pair of (black) brothers who come into conflict with one other after one them attempts to leave the life of crime after finding Jesus.

Although the film is, as one critic put it, “more professionally produced and acted than the indiegelical norm” and has tapped into the appeal of hiring well-known Hollywood actors turned (evangelical) Christians, with performances by Mira Sorvino, Cybill Shepherd, and Sean Astin, it does not appear to have the legs of its predecessor, having only grossed a little over 7 million to date. While there are likely numerous reasons for this, I suspect that part of what made God’s Not Dead so successful at the box office was that it presented a narrative centered on the defeat of one of conservative (evangelical) Christianity’s strongest cultural adversaries—so-called “secular liberals.” The multi-story form of Do You Believe? is thin by comparison, as none of the sub-plots are well-developed, relying instead on half-baked providential encounters and a series of miracles to mark the film’s end.

Since offering up a stylistic and thematic critique would be like shooting Jesus fish in barrel, I leave it to others.

On the question of race and atheism:

This is the kind of movie in which white characters get deathbed miracles, while most of the people of color get to die to teach white people life lessons. The good Christian white people, that is; the non-believers are, to a person, supercilious smug jerks, including a doctor (Sean Astin) and his lawyer girlfriend (Amanda Logan White).

On the film’s ideological framing:

“Do You Believe?” instead spews its venom upon trade unions, the medical establishment and the American legal system — all variously depicted as secular strongholds hostile to anyone who dares to reveal him/herself as a true believer. … [It] is agitprop plain and simple, less interested in varieties of religious experience than in proffering the old televangelical/tent-revival assurances that faith will not just save your soul but also cure cancer, PTSD and whatever else ails you.

Surely the first critic is correct: the film uses non-white bodies more as props and cautionary examples, whose inclusion is subordinate to the centrality of white characters and white culture. Likewise, atheists (as opposed to those who do not identify as such, though are not yet saved) are depicted as smug in the face of believers and ultimately angry at God. (e.g., in the case of Sean Astin’s character, Dr. Farell, he is frustrated that God gets the credit for his medical work)

The second critic, Variety’s Scott Foundas, puts his finger on three of the four main institutional adversaries depicted in the film, (the other being the American Humanist Association) classifying it as televangelism, where miracles and a simplistic theology stand in place of his own preference for addressing the “varieties of religious experience.” While it is not hard to sympathize with Foundas’s preference here, this argument is not all that different in kind from other theologies of a more liberal variety. For example, as Sr. Rose Pacatte writes for the National Catholic Reporter:

As I have said before, Sunday-school movies that preach good messages are fine, but they are illustrations of faith. They tell you what to do. I am interested in films that tell stories about the rest of the week for the rest of the audience, films that artistically engage my humanity, spirit and imagination, films that trust me to make my own meaning and not have it imposed, however nicely wrapped and tied up with a bow and accessorized by a cross. 

What the culture needs are great stories about humanity told in compelling ways because, to paraphrase the Second Vatican Council, what is truly human is truly of the Gospel and what is truly of the Gospel is truly human.

What interests me about this film as a scholar of religions is not its believability, logical consistency, or cultural politics per se, but rather in what it reflects (and aims to reflect) about certain contemporary Christian identities. Here we might ask, for example:

* How might it be classified in relation to other “indiegelical” films?

* What might it suggest for the public modelling of (white) American evangelical Christian sensibilities?

* What is the function of non-white bodies in such films?

* Why do “Christian drama films” appear to be getting more mainstream attention in recent years?

* Is the apparent surge in popularity of such films dependent upon the ferocity with which they take on certain adversaries (e.g., abortion, evolution, homosexuality, God in schools and in the workplace, etc.) and thus stake out a firm line in the so-called “culture wars”? In other words, what’s marketing got to do with it?

* How do they shape the use and understanding of particular biblical narratives and thus come to influence, reaffirm, or even constitute certain Christian identities?

Matt Sheedy recently defended his PhD in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. 

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NAASR Notes: Sean Durbin

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NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field.

by Sean Durbin

What am I working on? A few things…

I am currently working on securing a contract for my first book, which is a study of a contemporary Christian Zionist organization in the US. Broadly speaking, the book examines the way mundane or “profane” activities are reconstituted by Christian Zionists into something that is said to be extraordinary, or “religious,” therefore protecting their political activities from critical scrutiny, while simultaneously enabling them to recast opposing views as either misguided or inherently evil. Essentially, it draws on a variety of the issues and social contests the group is involved in and examines the rhetorical practices that are often used as a way to both naturalize and sanctify these activities, often by recasting these activities as a form of typological reenactment of either biblical or extra-biblical historical events that the subjects of the book constitute as examples of God’s use of human instruments to work out his will in the world.

While the book is ostensibly about American Christian affinity and support for Israel, my hope is that it will have broader appeal in the field, whether or not folks are specifically interested in the subject matter. The reason I say this that although the chapters attempt to provide both emic and etic description and explanation, they also function to comment on some wider issues in the field. So, for example, while a chapter on the “history” of the organization describes, on the one hand, the formation of the group, it also closely examines the way their own foundational narratives function as a form of modern myth-making (in the sense that Bruce Lincoln describes it as ideology in narrative form). So I don’t take what they say as simply a reflection of reality, but instead examine it as part of rhetorical strategy to place themselves in a position as part of a long line of what they call “righteous gentiles”—that is, Christians who have helped (to use an emic description) fulfill God’s work in the world through support for Jews or Israel. In terms of the theoretical scaffolding of the book, if I had to guess, I’d say the work of Bruce Lincoln, Roland Barthes, as well William Arnal and Russell McCutcheon’s most recent book receive the greatest number of citations and were the most helpful for me in terms of making sense of my data. Additionally, the work of Susan Harding and Sacvan Bercovitch were also very influential.

In addition to this, I was fortunate enough to be part of a NAASR panel organized by Jennifer Eyl and Erin Roberts last year in San Diego on “Strategies of Mythmaking at Christian Tourist Attractions.” It was a great panel, and Erin and Jennifer are in the process of collecting all of our papers as well as some others from scholars working on similar topics for an edited collection, which I am quite excited about.

I also recently became one of four editors of the journal Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception. It’s a great journal, and I think we’re getting some really interesting stuff. Best of all it’s open-access. At the moment we’ve got Eric Ziolkowski acting as guest editor for a special issue on “Editing Encyclopaedias and Handbooks in Religious Studies in the Twenty-first Century: Aims and Challenges” which is also derived from a panel he organized in San Diego last year. I will use this space to shamelessly plug the journal, in case anyone reading has something they would like to submit. I think one of our other editors, Deane Galbraith, put it best in an email to me the other day: “We need lots more religious studies stuff, too. Reception studies in respect of Christianity is almost all origins-worship. But anything to do with how religious traditions change, develop over time is what reception history should be.”

One final collaborative project I am involved in is editing a five-volume collection on “Religion and Radicalism” with Roland Boer. In this sense “radical” is understood as a challenge to the status quo, whether that is reactionary or revolutionary. We recently signed a contract with Palgrave Macmillan for the first five volumes, and it has now turned into a formal series at Palgrave. The first five volumes are derived from conferences that Roland organized over the past few years, in Australia, in various locations across Europe, and in China. So we have a wide range of contributions from scholars from all over the world, at various stages in their careers, which I think will provide an interesting addition to scholarship on historical and contemporary political movements that invoke religious themes as inspiration for their activities.

In terms of my current reading, I have to confess it’s been pretty limited to stuff that I’ve been using in the classroom. I started a one-year contract as a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Newcastle earlier this year, and since this is the first time I’ve convened and designed all my own courses, that’s taking up a fair bit of my time. I would like to mention one reading of particular relevance to NAASR that I’ve found has helped me start thinking about a new research project, though. In one of my classes called “the Many Faces of Jesus” I had students read the introduction of William Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus to help them understand how we would approach Jesus as a cultural symbol that can be put to all kinds of contradictory uses. Naturally I had to re-read it along with my students. One of the things that Arnal writes concerning Jesus that stuck out to me, is his point that “Jesus means so much, so differently, to so many people, that it is almost impossible to say anything about him without engaging people’s most deeply cherished feelings…” (7). And a bit later, he suggests “a statement about Jesus … is always a statement about something else, rich with implications” (7).

The reason this resonated with me is because it got me thinking about my own research on Christian discourse on Israel, and I realized that if I were to replace “Jesus” with “Israel” in those passages, they would be just as true. Whether it is pro-Israel Christians, or critics of pro-Israel Christians, what they say about Israel generally tells us much more about their own political or theological concerns than it does about Israel itself. So right now I’m beginning to brainstorm a bit more about how to broaden this next project in a way that not only considers the various overtly Christian attitudes towards Israel as a particular site in which Christian identities are worked out, but also the way in which broader public discourse on Israel has a particular mystifying element to it. The 2012 Republican primaries were a pretty good example of this, with each candidate trying to portray him or herself as more pro-Israel than the other, while also making sure that Obama is cast as the most anti-Israel president of all time, which to my mind became shorthand for a whole host of other issues concerning their religiosity, as well as military and economic concerns. And I suspect that the upcoming primaries will yield even more useful data, so it will be interesting to see what direction the project goes.

Sean Durbin received his PhD in 2014 from the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He is currently lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Newcastle. More information, along with his recent publications can be found on his academia.edu page, here.

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Religion as Commodity and the Deification of Beer

By Philip L. Tite

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I must admit that beyond the beautiful mountains, lush green forests, and interwoven water ways, one of the things I love most about the Pacific Northwest is the plethora of amazing beers. Being raised on the east coast, I was never a beer drinker before I discovered British ales and pubs – and when I moved from the UK to the west coast, I was delighted that there were some amazing breweries producing delicious stouts, porters, and ales.

As a scholar of religion, however, I am fascinated by the presence and dissemination of religious motifs in supposedly non-religious contexts, yet socially engaged contexts nonetheless. I continually run across video clips (such as on YouTube) that evoke religious concepts (typically in humorous parodies, such as Eddie Izzard’s treatment of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Javier Prato’s Jesus musical short (to the music I Will Survive), or a “shared” Facebook image either challenging or affirming insider truth claims (it seemed like an avalanche of these during the last Presidential election in the United States). In many cases, directly engaging a religious tradition seems to be secondary (if important at all), with the emphasis falling on simply evoking laughter or reflection.

At least two breweries in Seattle tap into ancient mythologies to brand their products. The Elysian Brewery tends to label their products with Greco-Roman mythic motifs, though occasionally they have tapped into Norse myth. And in one case, they have used the Devil (a Christian mythical entity) for their red ale. Another brewery that I only recently discovered, the Odin Brewery, uses Norse deities to label their brands: Odin (amber ale), Thor (Belgian-style dark ale), and Freya (golden ale). By tapping into such mythologies, the question arises as to how is “religion” (or perhaps more clearly in these cases, “myth”) being constructed and utilized, for whom, and to what ends?

IMG_0383In thinking of these empty bottles of beer on the wall, I was reminded of the metaphor of the “marketplace” that arises as a social model for, especially, North American religions. And the idea that “religion” (as a discursive product that is received and contested as an object of study) is a “commodity” that is created, exchanged, and imbued with value all came to mind. Yet unlike a graphic novel expounding on some sacred text (such as the narrative presentation by Virgin Comics of Hindu gods a few years ago), or a bumper sticker that makes a declaration of faith or aligns the driver with a particular cosmogony, the presence of Norse, Greco-Roman, or even Christian myths on the labels of locally produced beer does not seem to imbue the producers – nor the consumers of those products – with a confessional stance. Rather, the discursive value seems to be in the light, hoppy context of social engagement, where laughter intersects commodified practices and encoded normative structures.

The consumer culture of “religion” – or “religion” as one of many goods produced and exchanged within consumer culture – offers moments of interactive alignment for the consumer. Perhaps the goods used serve as means to express, modify, or disrupt those social narratives by which identities are aligned with others. The beer bottles selected for this blog evoke archetypal or stereotyped ideals that perhaps contribute to the broader interactive engagement. The products serve as venues for defining or re-defining the consumer through a conflation of consumer with product. Specifically, these beers each seem to encourage an intersection of the “heroic” with the product (and thus the consumer).

IMG_0385Note the Odin Brewing Company’s statement: “Great beer designed with great food in mind.” The Elysian red ale intersects the Devil with the “Men’s Room”. In both cases festive consumption – a participatory interaction between social actors – underlies the manly or heroic values that seem to function as a subtext. The Odin Brewing Company’s website highlights such values as an exploratory spirit, traditional styles, and “the beer experience” as  “integral to the dining experience” – all of which their line of beer is designed to pay homage. If we were to expand our analysis, we would undoubtedly compare these beer labels with the growing fascination with Norse mythology in North American popular cultures – from comic books, to films, to knitted hand puppets, to playful t-shirts – where mythological figures such as Thor, Loki, and Odin have become commonplace even if transgressed or transformed to fit our cultural expectations in diverse yet still commodified ways.

IMG_0388For the Men’s Room ale, the heroic aspects attached to the Norse images may not be at play. For me, this label raises interesting questions about the role of the Devil (and demonic figures generally) within modern popular cultures. What is it that makes the Devil cool and perhaps even a festive figure? Could it be the idea that all the fun people, and thus the best parties, are hosted in hell? Does such humor carry a tacit rejection of established religious traditions?

But surely this talk of a “beer experience” is a light and playful advertising gimmick. Myth is literally consumed with a wink not a protest or a mission or a calling. It’s just another round of pints for one’s mates. It’s not really religion, now is it?

Or maybe it is something more than just pints that we are consuming. Perhaps the dismissal of beer bottles that have mythic images as unworthy of study tells us more about our perception of religion – as something disconnected from commodified or economic exchanges; i.e., “religion” as sui generis, a protected object of private belief – than it does about actual practices and structures of consuming seemingly trivial mythical motifs within broader systems of exchange, exchanges that shape those interactive narratives within which identities are generated, played out, and rendered normative.

If my hunch is correct that the presence and dissemination of religious motifs in supposedly non-religious contexts (such as with these beer bottles) demonstrates one kind of commodity utilization of “religion” in popular culture(s), then perhaps the importance of such anthropological evidence is due our scholarly gaze, even if to only illustrate presuppositions underlying such terms as religion and myth.

Regardless of the theoretical implications my examples may evoke, I think I’ll continue my field work – Another round, please!

Author Bio: Philip Tite is co-editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

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Theory & Religion Series: The Americanization of Religious Minorities

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by Rebecca Barrett-Fox

In The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order, Eric Michael Mazur (now the chair of Judaic studies and a professor of American studies at Virginia Wesleyan College and the author of some other terrifically useful texts) points to a gap between two foundational religious texts in U.S. history, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Article 16 and the First Amendment, and their application in the lives of actual people. The freedom of religion guaranteed in these texts is, says Mazur, “the gift with the greatest potential to be given by this country to the world.” However, the “gift” of religious freedom has never been fully realized; rather “it is a promise that, like the messiah, is always coming but never here” (ix).

Mazur examines three cases of religious minorities interacting with the American constitutional order: Jehovah’s Witnesses (mostly 1930-1950), Latter-Day Saints (mostly in the second half of the 1800s), and Native American religious traditions (from the early 1800s to the 1990s). Each experiences congruence (the Witnesses), conversion (the Mormons), or conflict (Native American religionists) with the constitutional order, for “if the central functions of the order are challenged, the competing system must be either realigned or destroyed” (134). Mazur does not provide deep legal analysis but rather compares across cases to demonstrate patterns of engagement “in light of their symbolic impact on cultural dominance and religious hegemony” (xvi).

His first move is to posit the engagement not as state versus minority religion but as two competing religious communities: American Protestantism and religious minorities—interestingly, all indigenous in their own ways. When such minorities are “unable to find themselves reflected in the cultural presuppositions of the legal system,” they have limited choices as they can “neither simply accept the system as it is nor live freely denying its applicability” (xxii). Mazur’s cases illustrate the adaptability of religion in the face of the order of things even as that order changes with U.S. demographics and law (though Mazur notes that the situation for minorities “has not necessarily improved with the wane of Protestant cultural hegemony” (xxv)—perhaps best exemplified by the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision delivered in 2014 by a Supreme Court that, for the first time, lacked a Protestant.)

Mazur’s comparisons also highlight the risk of marginalization that those who reject the authority of the legal system face and the risks that they may pose to the nonviolent coexistence of religious adherents (and not) of various stripes. The potential for danger emerges when religious nationalists—who “aggressively oppose… the movement of modern nation-states toward an increasingly secular identity” (138)—feel hopeless to change the constitutional order and either disengage or strike back. Within the U.S., this has included groups like Christian Identity, which influenced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, but the comparisons that Mazur was unable to make in the late 1990s keep the citations to The Americanization of Religious Minorities coming, more than 15 years later.

Indeed, the foundation that Mazur lays in The Americanization of Religious Minorities makes the book, which is relatively short, teachable and useful as a model for further scholarship. Since 1999, the number of hate groups has increased dramatically, and many ground their ideology in religion. “Lone wolf” actors engage in domestic terrorism inspired by religious fervor, from Army of God hero Scott Roeder (who murdered abortion provider George Tiller in Tiller’s Lutheran church one Sunday) to Frazier Glenn Miller, a neopagan Odinist who killed three people in an anti-Semitic rampage in Overland Park, Kansas, on April 14, 2014, the first day of Passover. But one does not need to look as far as extremist violence to find recent examples of conversion, congruence, and conflict between the American constitutional order and U.S. religious minorities. For example:

* Members of Christian Exodus began to encourage “personal secession” after its efforts in the early 2000s to encourage mass migration of Christian patriots to South Carolina failed. It is currently working to build networks of like-minded individuals who reject, as far as possible, government intervention in their lives in California, Colorado, Panama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

* Since the Great Recession made visible structural changes in the U.S. and global economies, new questions emerged among the Amish about their rejection of unemployment insurance benefits. As Amish move into industries in which they are in direct competition with English (non-Amish) workers, such as construction, there are calls to reconsider the Amish’s exemptions from social security and unemployment insurance taxes, which may make bids from Amish contractors more competitive than their English counterparts.

* In 2008, Texas law enforcement and child welfare workers raided the Yearning for Zion ranch near rural Eldorado, Texas. Home to several hundred members of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints sect, the ranch was the suspected site of underage marriage, bigamy, and the sexual abuse of children. Though public backlash to the raid was widespread when images of FLDS mothers and their children circulated publically and Oprah Winfrey visited the ranch to speak with mothers about the overzealous removal of children from their homes, multiple convictions were achieved through the raid, including further convictions for FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

* In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in support of the wildly unpopular Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket funerals with their message of God’s hatred for America.

* Conservative Christian commentators continue to recommend civil disobedience, predict mass social disorder, and to even advise listeners to “prepare for martyrdom” if the same-sex marriage is further legally recognized.

* This April 15, thousands of American would-be taxpayers will voice their religiously-justified opposition to military spending by refusing to pay taxes, withholding a symbolic amount of their taxes to register their dissent, or redirecting taxes that would go to support war to social justice causes.

In other words, every day we see new examples of how useful Mazur’s framework for understanding church-state conflict is. The book remains vitally relevant in understanding these potential conflicts, congruencies, and conversions.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religions Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999).

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University, where she teaches courses in the sociology of religion and sexuality. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Proteus: A Journal of Ideas, Radical Teacher, The Journal of Hate Studies, and The Bulletin for the Study of Religion as well as Religion Dispatches. Her first book, an ethnographic study of Westboro Baptist Church, is forthcoming from the University Press of Kansas. She wishes to thank Sherry Wright for assigning Mazur’s The Americanization of Religious Minorities in REL 602: Religious and Legal Issues in US History at the University of Kansas. She welcomes conversation at rbarrettfox@astate.edu.

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“We’re here to talk about religion”: A Few Examples for Teaching Classification

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by Charles McCrary

This post’s titular sentence was spoken Friday morning by a student during first lecture of the semester. It was a protest, playful but betraying frustration. She was sitting in the front row of a packed classroom, spending fifty minutes of her day on a class called “Religion in America.” But, ten minutes into class, she and her classmates were working to come to a collective decision as to whether or not a platypus is mammal. The main point of the lecture, like the point of most first-day religious studies lectures, I assume, is to argue that classification is not inherent. Nothing is intrinsically “sacred” or “secular.” Acts of classification are political acts, etc., etc. This point isn’t new, of course; it’s the cornerstone of religious studies, or at least a certain kind of religious studies. I think students can grasp it pretty easily. Many of them believe “religion” is so personal and individual that a sort of relativism about it doesn’t bother them. In the lecture, though, I did not talk much about things normally called “religious,” lest they think the point applies only or especially to “religion.” So, instead, I used a few examples from that supposedly unconstructed realm, “science.”

The first exercise was to place animals into categories. I showed a list of animals—alligator, marlin, box turtle, gray whale, sperm whale, platypus, jellyfish, fur seal—and asked for classification suggestions. The first was “land” and “sea,” so I made a T-chart on the board and we divided them up thusly, with alligator and fur seal triggering some ambivalence. The next suggestion was “mammal,” “fish,” and “reptile,” which raised not only the exasperating platypus question but also highlighted the curiosity of the jellyfish, whose name makes an unfulfilled promise of easy classification. The final suggestion was “big” and “small,” which is a fascinating choice since they’re thoroughly comparative categories, dependent entirely on the data in the larger set. I followed this exercise by describing the 1818 case Maurice v. Judd, drawing from D. Graham Burnett’s entertaining and excellent book Trying Leviathan. The trial hinged on the classification of whale oil as fish oil and, thus, the question, “Is a whale a fish?” The judge, after hearing a variety of testimony from naturalists and other experts, sided with common sense and popular opinion that the whale was indeed a fish. Some of the students seemed disconcerted by the notion that Jesus seems to have classified whales as fish (see Matthew 12:40).

The last anecdote I used is about James Dwight Dana and nineteenth-century American geology. I became aware of Dana only recently (my main sources here are Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory and the sixth chapter of David Igler’s recent book, The Great Ocean, both of which I read over winter break), so the example is a new one, but I will use it again. Dana was a scientist on the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), and he was particularly interested in volcanic activity and erosion in the Pacific. He wrote a number of books based on his research on the Expedition, including Geology (1849).

In his work, he relied on an oceanic-centric geology and discussed California as a part of the Pacific. By the 1850s, American geologists, including Dana, were much more interested in continental geology, situating California as part of the North American land mass. Why? What changed? For one, California became a U.S. state. During the Expedition it was part of Mexico. But why did it become a state? The answer, of course, is gold. Dana’s works from the 1840s never mention gold, nor do they show much interest in North America. By 1855, though, Dana gushed over the North American continent. He lauded its remarkable simplicity and symmetry, contrasting it with Europe, “a world of complexities,” “one corner of the Oriental Continent—which includes Europe, Asia, and Africa,” mapping geology and patriotism onto each other seamlessly.

“What is California?” The land itself was mostly unchanged—at least in geological terms—between the 1840s and 1850s, but the way geologists studied it changed dramatically. The question “What is California?”, like the question “What is religion?”, is not a question worth asking in a history course. We’ll do better to ask what’s at stake in a definition of California or religion or America or the good life, how those definitions have changed over time, who gets to decide, and so on. It is in this way that we study verbs, not nouns.

The lecture’s final PowerPoint slide, titled “religious things and secular things,” is just a list of things—Morality, Incense, George Washington, Crying, Cows, The Book of James, Oprah Winfrey, A Christmas Tree, Science. By the time we get to this slide, students (are supposed to) see the potential of studying acts of classification, as well as the lack of self-evidence for those categories themselves. Thus, “We’re here to talk about religion” is exactly the sort of claim whose employments we’ll be studying, because, well, that’s what we’re here to talk about.

Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. He is writing a dissertation on the cultural history of sincerity and belief in 19th-century America. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.

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