Star Wars and Religion

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“May the Force be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Note: This post originally appear on the Feeling the Force blog.

by Kate Daley-Bailey

If you were to catch the end of any conversation I have with my family, you would hear the above dialogue. Various Christians will recognize the basic structure of this statement… it is a standard salutation among the fold. But with one major difference… “the Lord” has been substituted with “the Force”. For some Christians such a syncretistic blending of religion and popular culture is tantamount to blasphemy but for my family, and judging from this meme many other people, this blending is par for the course. One need only Google ‘Star Wars and Religion’ to be barraged by the plethora of books, articles, websites dedicated to this topic. There are not only laymen and scholars who champion Star Wars as something more than popular culture, there are Jedi Churches in many English speaking countries and, according to a 2001 Census, Jediism is the 4th largest religion in the U.K.

Before you choke on your Wookie Cookies or Hoth Dogs, let me clarify what Jediism is:

Jediism is a modern religion which was born as the result of the Star Wars mythology.  George Lucas, when he created the Star Wars saga, used various aspects of Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Mysticism, and many other religious universal truths as well as a combination of different martial arts and the code of chivalry, in order to create the Jedi and the philosophies behind the Force.  The Jedi are modern versions of the Shao Lin Monk, the European Knight, and the Samurai warrior all mixed together.  The Jedi path has become an inspiration and way of life for many people throughout the world who take on the mantle of the Jedi.  Even though Jediism is a new faith, it is just as real as the ancient faiths and philosophies that it came from… (From The Temple of the Jedi Force website).

So maybe you aren’t buying that idea that Jediism is a ‘real’ religion… but let me use this moment to explore a perennial question in religious studies, what exactly is ‘religion’? In our times, “I’m spiritual by not religious” is a common expression… one which did not exist a century ago. This suggests we might be more comfortable with ‘spirituality’ being unanchored from institutional foundations than we have ever been. We might ask why some ideologies count as full-fledged religions (and receive all the accompanying privileges and protections) and others are dismissed as purely cultural manifestations of popular sentiment. Or, maybe a better question is whose ideologies count as full-fledged religions and why? I am not proselytizing for the Temple of the Jedi Force or Jediism in general. I am actually using this striking example to illuminate some problems in the category of religion.

While many academics argue over disciplinary distinctions, the most divisive ideological battles within the academic study of religion, I have found, are over the most basic questions. The moment the ontological query is posed in regard to religion, ‘what is IT?’; all proverbial hell breaks loose. You might call it a battle of cosmic proportions… and one in which many participants come to their ‘objective’ conclusions long before the first light saber is drawn. And why might this be the case? Religion, as a topic, love it or hate, or dismiss it, is for a majority of the human population a ‘given’ and yet ask a handful of individuals in that same majority to define religion and you will be met with a myriad of definitions and interpretations.

How does this relate to Star Wars again? To give you an example of just how many variations can be generated by such an exercise let’s look at how a handful of writers have defined the ‘religious’ aspects in Star Wars:

Question: Is Star Wars religious?

1. What does the creator say about the ‘religious’ aspects of the series? (The following statements were made by Lucas in an interview with Bill Moyers for Time magazine in 1999.)

So Star Wars according to its originator is not inherently religious. Okay, so that is settled… and yet Lucas goes on to say that he purposely put the Force into the films “in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” So, per Lucas, we have myth, mystery, and God but no specific religious system. Notice that Lucas does not mention a god or gods but God… if he is invoking the so called God of Abraham here, then I would argue is he is pointing to a particular religious system whether he is aware of this or not.

According the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, he “consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs.” Lucas goes on to state that he doesn’t “see Star Wars as profoundly religious” but rather views it as “taking all of the issues that religion represents” and distilling them “down into a more modern and easily accessible construct—that there is a greater mystery out there.”

2. According to Christian Theologian John C. McDowell at the University of Edinburgh, in his article ‘Feeling the Force-Star Wars and Spiritual Truth’ from bethinking.org, there is a link between Lucas’ Force and a Christian view of God.

McDowell presents an interesting argument for the similarities between Lucas’ Force and a Christian understanding of God’s presence when he makes a connection between Obi-Wan’s teaching on the Force and a passage from Ephesians (4:6):

Obi-Wan’s teaching that the Force ‘surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together ‘(ANH) strikingly evokes Pauline imagery of ‘one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

While this connection may be too tenuous for most readers, McDowell presents this interpretation as just that… an interpretation. A more exclusivist rendering of Star War’s ‘true message’ comes from our next author.

3. ‘How ‘Star Wars’ Answers Our Biggest Religious Questions: The Movies take on- and Subvert- Christian Themes’ in The Washington Post by Joel Hodge

According to Hodge:

The Force itself is too abstract and impersonal to equate with the biblical God and is more readily indentifable with concepts in Eastern religions (Lucas came to describe himself as a “Buddhist Methodist”).

While Hodge does acknowledge the moral messages in the series, he insists that it is just a story and admonishes those who might attempt to use it to promote a particular agenda:

To become fixated on the story alone or to use it for a particular agenda- such as trying to create a Jedi religion and have that included in census data or claim ownership of the franchise direction/ meaning- is to ignore the message of ‘Star Wars’ itself.

Ironically, Hodge then claims ownership over the ‘true message’ of Star Wars:

And that is, to go beyond ourselves, and the binaries and limits of our own secular time and compromised identities, to contemplate the mystery of life and become our true selves in the loving fellowship and transcendence of the Force.

So, what is your conclusion? Have these varying answers clarified anything for you about the true meaning (religious or not) of Star Wars? Is it just a story? A modern epic embodiment of the eternal cosmic war between good and evil? An updated repackaging of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal Hero Myth? The celluloid settling of a real and true religious tradition as the Temple of the Jedi would have us believe?

What is going on here? Is Star Wars truly a postmodern enigma that defies definition or is there something else complicating our investigation? All of these answers assume one thing… that we all agree on what religion inherently is… notice none of these explanations tell us what makes something religious/sacred/transcendent or not, they simply assume our definition mimics theirs, and then proceed to enumerate the ways in which Star Wars is or is not religious/sacred/transcendent. So what have these descriptions provided us with? Maybe not with a clear distinction of the religious nature of Star Wars but rather an intriguing glimpse to what these authors deem religious.

For an excellent article on Jediism, read this piece, while other fascinating examples of Star Wars and religion may be found here and here.

Kate Daley-Bailey lives in Athens, Georgia, with her hilarious husband, Josh, and her fur baby, Bodhi. Kate taught university level courses in Religious Studies for over ten years and is currently an academic advisor at the University of Georgia. She has written brief pieces for Religion Nerd, the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, and book reviews for Reflective Teaching. Her relationship with Star Wars has been inextricably linked with her childhood Catholicism. As she describes in her piece Recovering Catholic: Ethos and Practice, when her family went to see Star Wars there was “at least one nun in tow.”

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How to Organize the World Religions Survey (?)

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by Charles McCrary

Earlier this year, during the spring semester, I wrote a post about my teaching world religions and the possibility of using a tentative definition of “religion.” In the post I briefly considered how the course might look as a class on “world religions discourse” itself, including a critical analysis of the textbook:

Should we teach only a history of World Religions discourse itself—a meta-history? This is a viable option. Equipped with histories like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, intellectual frameworks from Wendy Brown and Russell McCutcheon, and maybe a few methodological tools from Foucault or Marx, students can use their textbook as a primary source, historicizing it and interrogating its normative assumptions. This would make for a good class. But I fear I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to accept total failure that this task would require, as I address a room full of students who are not well prepared for critical thinking and quite hesitant to give it a try. (Also, I know that “millennials” are supposedly marked by their ironic self-awareness, but that mood is characteristically absent from large portions of the demographic. My students resoundingly hate anything “meta.”)

For the reasons stated above—and others, such as fear of oversight as the university moves toward increasing standardization of content—I have not used my summer to rework my 1000-level world religions class into such a course. However, I have tried to create a course that incorporates some of the ideas above. Many instructors begin their introductory courses with a history of “world religions” and a critique of the category “religion.” I’ve done this too, but I always felt like I was undermining my own theoretical points. Hence, the previous post about a provisional definition, something to work with. Then, we could move on to specific case studies. This approach is loosely modeled after Bruce Lincoln’s books, which take case studies and analyze and categorize them in order to demonstrate processes of social formation, the maintenance and contestation of power, and so on. An approach like this would be difficult if the world religions course were organized by religious traditions, with a unit each for the five major world religions (and whatever extra categories, like Confucianism or “Chinese religions” or “indigenous religions.”) So, last spring I organized the course by topics, forming mini-units of two to four lectures, with titles like textual authority, revolution, prophecy, and religious freedom. It worked somewhat well, but it was disjointed and not clearly organized.

This fall’s iteration of the class is (I hope) clearer and better thought out. There are five units, each of about equal length, though the first two are a little shorter and might end up functioning more like units 1A and 1B. Students will have a 400–500-word paper due after each unit. I provide an overview of the course and the units on the first page of the syllabus, in the “course description” section. The first lecture—which I’ll deliver after students hold short small-group discussions of Steven Ramey’s recent blog post “The Harm of World Religions”—will be devoted entirely to explaining the section and answering questions about it. Here is that section, verbatim:

This class is about “world religions.” However, we will not attempt to “cover” everything that normally falls under that category. Instead, we will historicize and interrogate the categories “religion” and “world religions” themselves, and then we will use religious studies methods to examine a wide variety of historical developments. Rather than analyzing each religion as an isolated object of inquiry (e.g., an Islam unit, a Buddhism unit, etc.), we will study historical themes like empire, colonialism, and law, noting how religious actors and ideas, as well as the category “religion” itself, intersects with these themes.

The course will be divided into five units:

  1. The “World Religions” Paradigm: A History
  2. A Practical Introduction to Some Theories and Methods of Religious Studies
  3. Empires in the Ancient World
  4. Colonialism, Capitalism, and Globalization
  5. Religious Freedom, Secularism, and Statecraft in the Modern World

Perhaps I’ll do a post in the near future outlining specific lecture topics and how they relate to the units. Unit 3 includes lectures on the Babylonian empire, the Maccabean revolt, Confucian statecraft, and the Roman imperial cult. Unit 4 features a week on European Pacific exploration and colonization, two lectures on Mormon history, and one on Haitian Vodou. The fifth unit focuses on secularism and religious freedom in global perspective, inspired by and drawing from scholars such as those involved in the Politics of Religious Freedom research project (and the now-published resulting book.) I hope this approach will provide students with knowledge of a wide variety of case studies but, more importantly, some useful tools for analysis by which they can understand religions and “religion” today. As religious studies programs (and the humanities in general) must defend their existence, many have appealed to the importance of “religious literacy” in a diverse and globalizing world. As an undergraduate religion major myself not very long ago I often heard faculty from my department recruit students by saying that their courses would help students better understand world events—as well as their fellow students, neighbors, and, as we increasingly must think of college as job training, future coworkers and business partners. I’ve crafted this course with those goals in mind.

I know the issue of teaching world religions after “world religions” has been discussed quite a bit, including on this blog. But I hope my particular solution to the problem is helpful. What do you think, fellow Bulletin readers?

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.

Posted in Charles McCrary, Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theses on Professionalization: Emily D. Crews

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In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Emily D. Crews

Thesis #10. Whether working at a publicly or privately funded institution, professors are comparable to self-employed entrepreneurs inasmuch as they can increase their social capital (i.e., reputation) by seeking out new books to read and review, unique topics on which to research and write, novel and timely courses to develop and teach, and different professional service opportunities to provide them with additional experience as well as new national and international contacts. Graduate students are in much the same position and the additional qualifications that result from their entrepreneurial pre-professional activities can serve to distinguish one job applicant from another. Documentation from such activities, as recorded on one’s c.v., communicate to the hiring committee that one is already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

In #10 of his “Theses on Professionalization” Russell McCutcheon writes that the young scholar entering the job market may distinguish herself from her peers by making evident that she possesses “additional qualifications that result from” her “entrepreneurial pre-professional activities.”

For many graduate students, advice of the type offered in Thesis #10 is both helpful and frustrating. It is immensely useful for us to have any lamp in the dark of the academic job market, particularly one that clearly points us to a course of action. However, to some this particular course of action sounds eerily similar to the unrealistic suggestion shouted down from the ivory towers of our institutions: “Do everything and be good at it all.” I know very few graduate students and early career scholars who are not already engaged in a dizzying array of more-than-dissertation activities. Many of us are teaching, advising, publishing, and working while also applying to fellowships and serving as workshop leaders or conference organizers, all as part of our professional development and in spite of a common pressure to reduce the overall time it takes us to obtain our degrees.

Thus, the advice in Thesis #10 can, for many, incite an overwhelming fatigue: “This again. How can we possibly do more than we already do? And how can we possibly be good at everything in a field that’s littered with speed-reading, twelve-language-knowing demi-gods?” What’s more, many might suggest that it is yet another example of a tenured faculty member perpetuating the crippling indentured servitude of academia through willful ignorance of the toll taken by such demands for hyper-involvement. I understand the impulse to approach recommendations of this type with a defensive posture, and am sympathetic to the perspective that academia continues to suffer from a multitude of crises.

However, I think that to read McCutcheon in this way misses the real point of his suggestion. Instead, it would be helpful to consider that McCutcheon has spent much of his career at large state schools, often serving as a department chair; at Alabama he has been responsible for the growth of a robust undergraduate program in religious studies in an era where many of its kind have shrunk or disappeared entirely.

It is out of this context that McCutcheon offers Thesis #10, which I would argue points us not toward a “do more, be more” philosophy, but instead toward the importance of using our graduate school experiences to indicate that we have been and will continue to be productive members of a community. As university budgets are slashed and the Humanities continue to take heavy fire, it is more crucial than ever that new hires are able to help overburdened departments tackle growing workloads. When there are dozens of things that any given department must be able to do—offer courses; advise students; produce original research; organize job searches, conferences, and publications—asking to join the team means that we must be willing and able to shoulder part of the burden. Candidates who are unprepared or uninterested in doing so would, I assume, be unappealing as future colleagues, and thus less likely to land a tenure track position.[1]

McCutcheon’s thesis leaves me wondering, however: are all types of preparation created equal? If not, what types of preparation are most valuable? What indicates that we are “already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor?” Conversely, are there types of preparation that are a waste of time? Further, from the perspective of members of a hiring committee, where is the line between diversification and distraction? Which types of activities or contributions make candidates seem well-trained and which make them seem unfocused? In the Sophie’s Choice of graduate school, where every moment is precious and each new commitment means the loss of another hour of sleep, what is the wisest investment of our time?

Take, for example, this very exercise. Were I to cite it on my c.v., how would a hiring committee view my having participated in this discussion? Does a relatively casual post in an online forum say much at all? If so, what? Could it read as time I have wasted when I might have been working on my dissertation (suggesting, perhaps, that I might go off course on the road to tenure)? Does it indicate that I am interested in being an active part of a rich community of people and ideas (and that I would be an asset to a department for this reason)?

Or another example: book reviews, an oft-debated topic in my own program. Are book reviews a service to the academic community and an indication of our expertise in a given area, or are they lines on our c.v.’s that potential employers skip over on the way to other, more relevant types of experience? Should graduate students write them or shouldn’t we?

While there are certainly many answers to all these questions, each based on the idiosyncrasies of the particular institution and department holding the search, I wonder if some who are reading this post, particularly those who have experience on hiring committees, might be able to provide a general set of guidelines for reference.[2] This includes a hope for further suggestions from Professor McCutcheon who, both in writing his “Theses” and in so many other ways, has been immensely helpful and generous to early career scholars.

———-

[1] It should be noted that McCutheon’s advice, written before the economic crisis and the dramatic shift in the landscape of the academic job market, is specifically geared toward those who are applying to tenure track positions. How this advice might have changed or lost its relevance in light of the increasingly limited availability of such positions is well worth further discussion, which limited space has prevented here. On this topic, however, I will offer one question: does it make sense to prepare so thoroughly to be part of a department when most of us—well over 70%, according to recent statistics—will end up in jobs that might not even not come with an office, much less full membership in the faculty body?

[2] For instance, I’m sure that the needs and priorities of a large, elite research university differ significantly from those of a small liberal arts college.

Emily D. Crews is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her dissertation examines the religious lives of African immigrants in the United States, asking what role religion plays in the process by which Nigerians create homes in new geographical and epistemological places/spaces. Emily is also the editor of the Religion and Culture Web Forum and an editorial assistant at History of Religions.

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The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position Revisited

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by Matt Sheedy

In August 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Enduring Appeal of the Missionary Position: Some Contemporary Representations of Native-Jesuit Relations,” based on a trip that I took to a well-known shrine and museum in the province of Ontario. I opened the post as follows:

——————–

I recently paid a visit to Martyrs’ Shrine and Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons in Midland Ontario, nestled on Georgian Bay about an hour and a half north of Toronto. The former is one of eight nationally recognized shrines in Canada and one of the country’s most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics, containing shrines to and relics of the so-called “Canadian Martyrs,” (all of whom were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930) including the skull of Jean de Brébeuf, along with several monuments to the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha (aka “Lily of the Mohawks”), the first “Native-Canadian” saint (though some American Catholics claim her as their own as she was born in what is today New York state).

Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons is a reconstructed French missionary village that existed from 1639-1649, and was home to dozens of Jesuits and hundreds of “Huron” converts, the French term for the Wendat people. The village also represents the first known European settlement in what is now the province of Ontario and is the only re-creation of a French Jesuit mission in Canada. It is at this location that Brébeuf and fellow Jesuit Gabriel Lalemant were burned at the stake in 1649 by a group of Iroquois, who were at war at the time with the Wendat/Huron and the French.

What is perhaps most interesting is that these locales, situated directly across the street from one another, operate under different authorities–the Shrine is run by the Catholic Church and the missionary village by the government of Ontario, which was named a National Historic Site in 1920. While depicting related events, the former is not subject to the same criteria as the latter, which falls under the ethical guidelines of the Canadian Museums Association. Yes indeed, tis’ a ripe fruit for comparison!

——————–

Visiting with family in the area once again this summer, I thought it would be interesting to revisit these sites to see what changes have taken place and to consider how the space of two years and the sheer chance of coming on this day instead of that, might call attention to different sets of interest. I was in luck, as Martyrs’ Shrine was host to over 6,000 Filipino pilgrims, while at Sainte-Marie the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, was unveiling a plaque commemorating 400 years (to the day) since the French explorer Samuel de Champlain entered the region for eventual settlement, colonization, and nation-building … though that was not exactly how they framed it.

I was initially compelled to visit Martyrs’ Shrine in 2013 after reading Emma LaRoque’s book When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse, 1850-1990, where she describes her shock as a young Métis woman in 1976, upon seeing a large mural in the church depicting:

[K]neeling priests angelically looking up, hands folded, praying for mercy as open-mouthed, hideously painted, evil-eyed savages tower over them, about to bury hatchets in their skulls. (34)

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I went on to observe that the mural that LaRocque describes was no longer present at Martyrs’ Shrine, and that the church today reflects a more multi-racial sensibility. I also noted how positive representations of Indigenous people at the church (namely Wendat/Huron and Mohawk) were contingent on their willingness to accept Christianity and, moreover, reflected a colonialist discourse of justification, where “good Natives” were those who aided the Jesuit missionaries (e.g., as with the image depicted in the stained-glass window to the right), sent to Huronia by the explorer Samuel de Champlain as a necessary step toward “civilization.”

While this was not at all surprising coming from a Catholic church dedicated to honoring the lives of so-called “martyrs,” what interested me most during my 2013 visit was how representations of Native-Jesuit relations at Sainte-Marie presented a similar narrative, despite clear attempts at a more “neutral” rendering of the past.

For example, I noted how the most prominent book sold in the museum’s gift shop, Images of Sainte Marie (1989), was written by a Jesuit, Jacques Monet, who stressed the courage and virtue of the missionaries, and the eagerness of the Wendat to accept Christianity.  I also noted how Monet’s discussion of Wendat “spirituality” served to legitimate the missionary position by denying voice to Wendat narratives, and neglecting the material interests that guided alliances in the region.

I contrasted Monet’s history with a counter-narrative by Métis scholar Olive Dickason from her book Canada’s First Nations (1992), where she observers how the Wendat controlled upwards of 50% of the fur trade throughout much of the 17th century, while pointing out the material incentives for conversion to Christianity, including the preferential treatment that Christian-Wendat received when trading with the French. (133)

In sum, my observations back in 2013 stressed the lack of any critical or counter-narratives at Sainte-Marie, which I argued served to legitimate a Euro-Catholic rendering of history and provided an example of how popular discourses on competing “religions” will often subsume the identities and experiences of subordinate groups in favor of an irenic portrait of the past that reflects the interests of those who still dominate in the present.

One thing that did not stand out during my first visit that struck me on this occasion like a cat-o-nine-tails was the role of nationalist mythmaking at Sainte-Marie.

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During my previous visit, I had failed to take note of how the favorable portrayal of the missionary-settler position also functioned as a sanitized origins story for the province of Ontario (and of Canada, by extension). By minimizing conflict with the Wendat, and ignoring the genocide and dispossession that followed, the role of Francophone exploration and settlement in region could be reconciled with a modern, liberal sentiment of tolerance and a shared cultural heritage (see image to the left in the near-by town of Penetanguishine).

Upon entering Sainte-Marie, my father and I were disappointed to learn that we had just missed the unveiling of a plaque by the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, which was inscribed with the following lines written by the Premier of Québec, Philippe Couillard:

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Québec and Ontario share a common francophone history dating back to the founding of Québec City in 1608, and to Champlain’s travels in Ontario in 1615.

On the occasion of the festivities celebrating 400 years of French presence in Ontario, this plaque stands as a tribute to the Francophones who have played a key role in the founding of Québec, of Ontario and of Canada.

 

In a similar vein, Wynne tweeted that day (August 1, 2015):

The beautiful plaque unveiled today commemorating 400 years of Franco-Ontarian pride! Merci ‪@phcouillard!

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While traversing the grounds at Sainte-Marie, it was called to my attention that Wynne was also unveiling a large statue of Champlain meeting an unnamed Wendat Chief in the near-by town of Penetanguishine (see image above), which was located in the newly named Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park. Beside the statue, was a description of this alleged meeting:

The Meeting: On August 1st, 1615 French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed on the shores of Georgian Bay where he was greeted by the Chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation. This statue recreates this historic moment of Champlain’s landing in Huronia and the meeting of the two cultures!

While this framing of history as a meeting between two cultures should raise a red flag for anyone vaguely familiar with more critical versions of European colonization in the Americas, what struck me this time around as most interesting at both Sainte-Marie and at my unexpected side-trip to Penetanguishine, were the attempts to include Indigenous spaces and voices amidst the celebration of Champlain’s legacy, revealing not just a colonialist discourse of justification, but also a liberal discourse of toleration and appeasement.

Indeed, unlike my 2013 visit there was a more tangible presence of Indigenous spaces and voices that time around. For example:

* The day’s events included a small roundance at Sainte-Marie lead by people of Wendat and Mohawk heritage, dressed in traditional regalia (see image below right).11896035_10156129763295727_5661092626743686005_n

* There was a temporary exhibit by Mohawk artist Elizabeth Doxtater called Rednaissance!, which was on display in the main hallway at Sainte-Marie, just outside the indoor portion of the museum, with detailed descriptions in small print beside her various paintings and figures made from corn-husks that spoke of maintaining traditional ways and values, of Indigenous sovereignty, residential schools and genocide, and the need for “revillagization” (see image below).

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* Similarly, in Penetanguishine there was a new ceremonial space called Circle of Four Nations in the renamed Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park.

While I don’t want to downplay or predict what kind of engagements may result from these Indigenous spaces and voices, their inclusion was clearly overshadowed by the dominant Christian-settler-colonial narrative, which functions to shape this history and its meaning in and for the present not only by virtue of its dominance, but also by projecting an air of historical neutrality, where the presence of “dissident” Indigenous voices appear to provide a sense of balance, while concealing much of what took place over 400 years and what it is at stake for today.

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A further example of this discourse was on display at a newly unveiled exhibit in the indoor museum portion at Sainte-Marie, entitled Champlain’s Astrolabe: Navigating Culture Contact in a New World, which centers around the mythology of the (highly contested) discovery of Champlain’s astrolabe (an ancient navigational device) in 1867, the same year that Canada was confederated, and its alleged role in Canadian identity. One of the displays (pictured here to the left) describes it thusly:

The astrolabe and its history have continued to captivate Canadians’ imaginations. It has served as a symbol of scholarly knowledge and discovery, as well as of our country’s identity and historical origins. … Commemorations outside of Québec shared the focus on francophone culture while including other claims more closely related to regional identities, as soldier, ‘civilizer’ or navigator. … At times, too, it has become a focal point for contention and protest.

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I must admit that I had never heard of Champlain’s astrolabe as a symbol of Canadian identity prior to this encounter, though it apparently has some historical currency as it features in the city of Ottawa’s coat of arms, circa 1954, was on the cover of the inaugural edition of the Journal of Canadian Studies in 1966, was taken into space (a replica, that is) by Julie Payette on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2009, and is a centerpiece at Champlain-Wendat Rotary Park (see image to the right) in Penetanguishine.

At the museum in Sainte-Marie, one half of one item on display, entitled Controversy and Alternative Memories, provides a brief description of how the astrolabe has “become [a] contested symbol of the place of indigenous peoples in the exploration narrative and in Canadian society,” though without any historical context, nor analysis of why such a symbol might be contested in the first place. Here, as elsewhere, the inclusion of some Indigenous perspectives are presented as an attempt at providing balance, while doing little to unsettle the dominant Christian-settler-colonial narrative.

While it strikes me now as painfully obvious that symbols like the astrolabe and the soft, irenic version of Champlain’s “meeting” with the Wendat function as parts of a sanitized origins story for the province of Ontario, which works to legitimate the dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous peoples in both the past and the present, I find it equally striking to think about how many of our observations and “choices” as scholars depend upon coming on this day instead of that, following a lead, and neglecting another. What adventures lay in the summer of 2016? Stay tuned for the Missionary Position 3.0!

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D 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.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Scholarship on the Road, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Beyond the World Religions Paradigm?

By Philip L. Tite

western_religious_symbolsCurrently I am teaching an undergraduate course, Introductions to Western Religions. This introductory course (along with its companion course, Introduction to Eastern Religions) is a common one in universities across North America. These are the basic “feeder” courses, or foundation courses, that support the religious studies major. Often they are designed to teach the basic content associated with such religions: historical survey, beliefs system, ethics, social/community structure, and (perhaps most importantly) the major religious texts associated with each tradition.

These introductory courses are supported by academic presses, especially those which specialize in textbooks. There is a plethora of textbooks out there on the market that continue to compete for that coveted “intro textbook” status. Many of these books are constantly being issued in new editions, forcing students to purchase expensive books with little opportunity of re-sell. From a purely commercial perspective, there is definitely a market for “world religions” in textbook publishing. And likely this is due to the continued market for such courses – courses that may be keeping some departments above water in an era when the humanities have once again come under fire as students and parents react to the Great Recession and the astronomical cost of higher education (especially in the United States).

The entire approach to the study of religion that is exemplified in such world religions courses (whether covering the major world religions or divided into the eastern and western camps) falls under what has been dubbed the “world religions paradigm” (WRP).

In the past few years, the WRP has been challenged by scholars. Suzanne Owen’s (Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10.3 (2011): 253-68) has offered an excellent analysis of the paradigm, pointing out several problems with the WRP and calling on educators in the United Kingdom (and beyond) to discard it: The WRP largely emerges out of European colonialism; it universalizes and thus essentializes a cultural tradition (a sui generis product that transcends the historical); it obscures the distinctly local cultural practices, thereby decontextualizing those cultural practices while authenticating a constructed “core”; it imposes Western (i.e., Judeo-Christian) models of “religion” that have emerged since the Enlightenment as normative for cultures encountered through colonial expansion and thereby creates and defines that very “other” in terms of the “us” (e.g., religion as a private, internal belief system separate from public or mundane matters); it tends to stop at the descriptive level, albeit with a moral agenda of promoting pluralism and tolerance, and thus avoids – indeed resists – reductive explanatory approaches.

Owen has noted the challenge facing scholars who reject the WRP but are required to teach the basic introductory courses. Many end up teaching these content driven courses, following the standard layout of the world religions textbook. A further challenge I have noticed in North American religious studies departments is the implicit presence of the WRP in those very departments where the paradigm has be overtly rejected. I recall one university I taught at where I was told “we’ve rejected that model” (i.e., the WRP), yet then I saw that they organized their major into eastern and western traditions with the standard “intro to” Judaism, Islam, Eastern Religions (an odd conglomerate of traditions!), etc. So while there may be no “Introduction to World Religions” or “Western/Eastern Religion”, the WRP continued to be the subtext (with all the implicit problems that Owen highlights for us) driving the entire degree program. For me the problem was not only the inconsistency of “rejecting” the WRP while embracing it on the larger structural level of the degree program, but more importantly the blindness in even seeing that they were still following this model. I felt that there was a failure to really challenge the WRP.

Since teaching at that university, I have tried to think through possible ways to teach such required courses in a way that would guide students to not only learn content about diverse religious traditions (I do think we can know something about the world around us), but also, and more importantly, to critically discern and analyze the constructed nature of “religion” and in particular the WRP. This summer I have had the opportunity to experiment with such an approach when offered the “Intro to Western Religions” at the University of Washington.

My basic idea is that we shift our focus away from just studying the major traditions from the West (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and instead look at “Western Religions” as a constructed category that shapes data into commonsense categories. Thus, the very category “Western Religions” (and not just religions of the West) becomes our object of study. My claim is that the intro course can be the site where we deconstruct the very nature of the course we are signed up for. I tend to do this a lot in my teaching; i.e., to take the course title and description and to work with my students to undermine (or to look at the underlying presuppositions of) that very course title. The intro to comparative religion course offers an excellent opportunity to overtly challenge the WRP, not only in scholarship but within the broader, media-driven view of religion that we continually find imposed upon students as the “obvious” construction of reality. By bringing these “Western” religions together in such a course, we can finally look at the underlying power dynamics involved in the construction and internalization of the WRP.

So for my Intro to Western Religions course, we do not use a standard textbook. Rather, we are taking three or four mainstream intro to world religions textbooks that are on the market today and comparing the ways in which the authors construct/present as normative the three so-called “Abrahamic faiths”. The textbooks have become our object of study rather than our guide into our object of study. The idea is that while we are learning “content” (i.e., something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we are also looking at the “spin” given to those traditions. We began by setting the stage for our critical analysis by discussing theoretical problems in the study of “Western Religions”: the definitional problem of “religion” (reading J. Z Smith and incorporating Craig Martin’s insights on the “delimitation” underlying definitions of religion); the WRP (reading Owen); the exclusion of certain “fringe religions” or those cultural processes that are often excluded from the category “Western Religions” (New Religious Movements, Native American cultures, hybridization of African cultures within North American contexts, civil religion, etc); and the entire eastern/western division of world religions. This opening module helped establish the analytical lens by which we looked at the various “narrative mappings” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Certainly we are learning descriptive “facts” about these three religions, but more importantly we are learning how those facts are created and given a spin by each author – and this critical gaze has been applied as well to any lecture I may give (such as an historical overview) or to a documentary (such as a BBC documentary we watched on Andalusian Spain).

So far this has been working in class. It has been fun to identify and compare structural components in the presentation of the “same facts.” For example, Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions (I have the 7th edition published in 2007) begins and ends with a focus on 9/11 and the “war on terror” – a framing mechanism that allows her to try to correct misunderstandings of “authentic” Islam in the wake of 9/11:

In fact, ignorance about Islam and perceived targeting of Muslims in general by the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ have exacerbated a dangerous and growing divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in the contemporary world. Therefore it is extremely important to carefully study the origins, teachings, and modern history of this major world religion (376).

Thus, the construction of Islam in this textbook and importance of studying Islam through such a construct is needed in order to correct misunderstandings of Islam within current geo-political crises. This tells us something about the contingency of scholarship (and teaching!), moral undertones driving pedagogy, and the role of the scholar (at least some scholars/teachers) in “saving” a religion as authentic (e.g., in the close of this chapter, Fisher spends a great deal of time arguing that violent acts by Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda are not authentic or correct understandings of Islam, specifically the concept of jihad). In these discursive moves, Fisher makes a normative claim about Islam, its future hopes (via inter-faith dialogue and progressive ideology), and its inherent goodness.

With a very different “spin”, Warren Matthews makes a different normative claim about Islam. In his World Religions (I have the 6th edition published in 2010), Matthews opens with the following statement:

The ensuing account tries to present the facts of history with respect for the Muslim views that Muhammad’s actions, words, and teachings were inspired by his own religious experiences. Nevertheless, other forces interacted with his recitations of the Qur’an and his actions based on them. In the history of this religion, as I have with others, I try to present a sympathetic, understanding account of the religion’s beliefs about its origins and development  (327).

Rather than authenticating this “religion” via geo-political conflicts currently affecting public perceptions of Islam, Matthews exemplifies the very theoretical approach of the phenomenologist of religion, where sympathy with those being studied stands alongside giving interpretative force to the insider’s private experiential truth claims (which also evoke the notion that religion is essentially a private, irreductive experience that the outsider can only approximate in his or her understanding of the insider’s truth claims).

My students were quick to note that these framing mechanisms were not as overt in the chapters on Judaism and Christianity, where the presuppositions underlying the presentations are more tacit. While the overt articulation of the authors’ agendas were convenient for us in our analysis of the construction of “Western/World Religions”, they also helped us discern something about the target audience (or the assumed Christian demographic of the North American classroom). The other two chapters in Matthews in particular began with historical surveys that re-presented biblical narratives as historically reliable (we discussed some possibilities for such presentation for the likely target/assumed audience of the textbook). The assumption that students entering these courses would have a background in Christian tradition also was evident to me when I read the study questions at the end of Matthews’ chapter on Christianity (e.g., “What major social issues should Christianity address in the twenty-first century?”).

We were also able to note normative – or universalizing – assumptions in the discussion of Judaism. For example, Fisher opens the discussion of Jewish beliefs with the following claim: “The central Jewish belief is monotheism” (271). On the surface this does not seem all that problematic. After all, aren’t we talking about the three great monotheistic faiths? Doesn’t the Jewish Shema embody a commitment to monotheism? But then we looked at what is excluded by such a totalizing, universal claim by Fisher. Not only are possible polytheistic and/or henotheistic aspects in the changing understandings of God within the emergence of Judaism omitted from discussion, but we also fail to include the rise of Jewish atheism and secular Zionism in the 20th century. We also fail to consider the ancient ideas of the manifestation of God in, for example, the Shekhinah, the Kavod, or Wisdom/Sophia (and the whole process of divine attributes being personified extensions of the divine).

At the end of the course, we will come full circle to the theoretical problems with the WRP, the colonial and post-colonial power dynamics underlying that paradigm, etc. My hope is that my students will not only learn something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but will also (more importantly) learn that these traditions are socially constructed, contingently presented and evaluated, and consumed by particular audiences as commodities or products that shape perceptions and social interactions. They are not “things unto themselves” but are built up as “things unto themselves” for particular, underlying agendas to which those constructs serve.

So should we be teaching courses such as “Introduction to Western Religions”? Absolutely. But not in the way that these courses are often taught. I like to see the course as an opportunity to expose my students to the very idea that religious traditions are discursive products; i.e., narrative maps that guide and shape human interactions and social perceptions of reality. Even though an introductory course, I think that we can use such courses (and should use such courses) to encourage critical “looking below the surface” rather than simply stopping at the descriptive level of content to which the student is expected to memorize and re-articulate on an examination. In my own view, that’s what higher education should do, especially within the field of religious studies. Graduates of our programs should not simply have overly expensive pieces of paper declaring that they are culturally sensitive and can ace a trivia game at the local pub (if religious topics ever arose), but rather they should be culture critics. They should be able to discern and analyze the constructed, normative world around them that is often taken for granted. “Religion” – as a discursive object – continues to be one of those very “taken for granted” discursive maps. And our students should not simply be map readers or map makers, but analysts of the purposes, mechanisms, and assumptions in the very production of those maps.

This task does not (or should not) be pushed off to graduate school or even upper level undergraduate courses. This should start at the get-go. My current course is a pedagogical experiment for me. It is an attempt at teaching beyond the world religions paradigm by teaching through the world religions paradigm.

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Theses on Professionalization: Barbara Krawcowicz

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In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Barbara Krawcowicz

Thesis #9. A structural element that must be taken into account is that Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on “fishing expeditions” by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely, such as looking for “the best qualified” applicant (without ever articulating what counts as “qualified”). Making explicit their implicit and often competing preferences may strike members of a Department as being too costly an exercise. It is into this mix of unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries that job applicants can be thrust, affecting such things as how their letters of application are read, their credentials judged, and their performance during campus interviews measured. While one cannot control such factors, when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.

An interesting job advert appeared not long ago on the Higher Ed website:

Untitled SS

Minimum education: no response. Minimum experience: no response. The plethora of information regarding the position contained in the advertisement took my breath away. There is no doubt whatsoever that the hiring department had spent a significant amount of time considering all the important factors before it went public with the search. Imagine those long discussions: we need someone to teach X but it would be great if they could teach Y and Z as well. We could use someone with an expertise in the field of A; that would greatly enhance our program. But it is also essential that the person we hire has experience in B and C because our department really needs that! And also… But as well… And let us not forget about…

Alright, I know, the advertisement was obviously a mistake and thus it cannot serve as an illustration of McCutcheon’s thesis #9. However, every single one of us, (i.e. of people in the trenches of what is commonly known as the job search but feels much more like one of the protracted and exhausting battles of World War I), has seen more than one advertisement that was, to say the least, vague in its description of the vacant position, required qualifications, job’s responsibilities, etc.

As a grad student at Indiana University Bloomington, I attended a workshop where several tenured faculty members shared some of the knowledge they gathered while serving on job search committees. Among many interesting things said, one in particular caught my attention. In response to a complaint that many job descriptions were formulated in such a way that it was quite impossible to decide whether or not one was qualified and should apply for the job, one of the professors replied: well, the truth of the matter is that oftentimes the search committee doesn’t really know what it is looking for. The professor smiled saying this and his words were met with chuckles among the audience. I don’t think I laughed. Somehow it did not seem funny.

On the Chronicle of Higher Education discussion board, there is a long thread entitled Apply For The Damn Job. Am I really qualified to apply for this position? AFTDJ! I’m not sure whether they’re actually looking for someone doing this-and-that. AFTDJ! The description is so broad that I don’t really know if… AFTDJ! You are never going to know for sure. So just AFTDJ if it seems that you may be a good fit. Seems. Yes, that’s all you’re going to know because, sometimes, the search committee itself does not have a clear picture of the ideal candidate.

So we apply for those damn jobs. One problem we immediately encounter is this: how can one tailor application documents to a job description if the description happens to be hopelessly vague? How can I prove that I am the best qualified candidate if I don’t know what counts as qualified (let alone best)? The advertisement says they want a person whose work is interdisciplinary. Ok, great, but what exactly does that mean? Does it even mean anything? Or is only a convenient placeholder instead of which the advert should actually say, “well, we don’t really know what we want” or “we will make up our minds once we see the applications and know who is available”?

That is not all, however.

Not long ago I applied for a job in Europe. The job description in the advertisement was surprisingly detailed. Moreover, there was an even more informative package available through the institution’s online application system. From what was called a job specification I could learn infinitely more than I ever had from any analogous advertisements in the US.

The description was divided into following sections: 1) Job Purpose, 2) Main Responsibilities, 3) Knowledge, Skills and Experience Needed for the Job, 4) Key Contacts/Relationships, 5) Dimensions, 6) Job Context and any other relevant information. The list of knowledge, skills, and experience was divided into two sections: essential and desirable. The former consisted of five points. The latter – of another three.

My goodness, I thought, could one ask for a better job description? Admittedly, parts of it did leave a bit too much room for interpretation. For example, one of the essentials was an “ability to plan and deliver excellent teaching.” One could ask, rightfully, what exactly counts as excellent teaching. Or what is meant by “high level competence in university lecturing,” but then we all know that there are things that are not easily captured within any definite rubric. Especially in a limited space of a job advert.

Either way, I thought I had all the information I needed to prepare an excellent application. And so I did. In my letter I highlighted how I met all the essential requirements and some of the desirable ones. I made sure it was clear that I am capable of successfully discharging the main responsibilities listed.

I was invited for the interview.

The last position on the list of the desirables was occupied by – and here I will allow myself to replace the actual content of the job specification with a bit of a metaphor– an ability to cook vichyssoise. Well, I said to myself, I’ve never actually made this particular soup but I am no stranger to cooking in general and to cooking soups in particular. Besides, it is the very last of the desirables. Obviously it is not as important as the others.

How surprised I was when the interviewing panel presented me with leeks, potatoes, chicken broth and whipping cream and requested that I prepare a delicious vichyssoise right there and then!

Evidently the desirables were considerably more essential than they appeared given the advertisement.

How was that possible, I wondered. Why making vichyssoise was not listed among the essentials? It clearly should have been!

Well, a knowledgeable person told me, probably the committee members were not in agreement regarding this ability’s importance. Or perhaps they changed their mind sometime between the advert’s publication and the interviews. Additionally, you need to keep in mind that in the country where the institution is located, it is often the case that the advertisement is not created by people who later serve on the committee. It is possible that the vichyssoise advocate(s) had less impact on the job description content and more on the actual interview and decision making.

It is not only that, as McCutcheon has written, “Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on ‘fishing expeditions’ by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely.” It is also the case that sometimes they define and redefine the position as the search unfolds.

“While one cannot control such factors” as nebulous job descriptions, “unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries,” McCutcheon writes, “when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.” I’m not sure how this awareness should translate into action. Unless what McCutcheon is saying is simply: AFTDJ!

Barbara Krawcowicz received her PhD in Religious Studies from Indiana University Bloomington and in Philosophy from Warsaw University. Currently, she serves as an adjunct lecturer at the Polish Academy of Sciences. She’s working on a book devoted to Jewish Ultra-Orthodox responses to the Holocaust. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Jewish thought, religious radicalism, gender and religion, as well as method and theory in religious studies.

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Theses on Professionalization: Jeffrey Wheatley

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by Jeffrey Wheatley

In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

Thesis #8: Like all institutions, academia provides a case study in the complex relationship between structure and agency; for, although there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control (e.g., the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department; the number of other candidates qualified at any given time in your area of expertise; the impact of world events on the perceived need for scholars in your subject area, etc.). Success likely requires one to learn to live with the latter while taking control of the former.

Most of Russell McCutcheon’s theses on professionalization provide important suggestions for how young scholars can develop their academic careers. The eighth thesis is a bit different. It suggests that we might do well to embrace on some level the vicissitudes of pursuing an academic career. McCutcheon writes that:

[A]lthough there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control.

However deserving we might think ourselves to be and however much we professionalize and develop research that fulfills our particular field’s current desires, the truth is that academia in all of its institutional, personal, financial, and political dimensions will in all likelihood defy any attempt on the part of young scholars to understand the academic job market fully, much less master it completely. There are always unknowns. The academy is a game of risks.

In some ways Thesis #8 resonates with Tara Baldrick-Morrone’s response to Thesis #6. Regarding the demands of professionalization, she writes that:

[Th]is constant ratcheting-up of expectations does not guarantee us a thing, not even an interview with a third-tier institution. Performing any combination of the aforementioned tasks (or all of them, for that matter) does not equate to a job.

Acknowledging the reality of these vicissitudes does, I think, contribute to the development of a healthier realistic mentality in young scholars. To put it one way: failure to get a secure job does not indicate a failure in effort. But as I consider Thesis #8 and the Theses on Professionalization broadly, I am stuck thinking not about the “additional” skills, forms of consciousness, or exercises that will serve young scholars should they pursue an academic career (even if one of these skills is the acceptance of a lack of control), but, as Tara notes at the end of her post, I am stuck thinking about the responsibilities that the field broadly has toward young scholars. Furthermore, Thesis #8 prompts me to consider the structural forces that are more harmful and open to challenge than the examples McCutcheon provides. So, even as I acknowledge the utility and intent of Thesis #8, I want to use this opportunity to pivot towards these issues.

As a graduate student in the early stages of a PhD program, I cannot lay claim to any direct knowledge of the visceral realities of being on the job market—the ways in which the unknowns play into hiring; the ways in which the ideals of a meritocracy cannot capture the messiness of the whole process. In some ways the academic career market to me remains an abstraction, albeit one whose presence looms. Thankfully, I have been fortunate enough to have graduate colleagues and faculty members who have made frank discussions about the job market a part of academic training and central to my sense of being a member of an academic (and social) community. Furthermore, many scholars have utilized digital spaces to give priority to discussing #altac, the future of tenure, contingent labor conditions, the presumptuous privileging of those trained at elite institutions, and the ways in which gender and race structure academia today. We need to continue to examine and scrutinize these variables and how they influence our relationships, our hierarchies, and our scholarly production. Because of the efforts of these vocal scholars, I and many other young graduate students, it seems, are getting a much better sense of what awaits us and what the costs (and the rewards!) might be should we pursue an academic career.

Some of the persistent “unknowns” in academic hiring are inevitable. In truth, the phrase “the unspokens,” rather than “unknowns,” better captures what I mean in this post. We might do better to accept some of the academy’s “unspokens” as they are. The latter two examples that McCutcheon provides in Thesis #8 qualify for this treatment. However, McCutcheon’s first example—“the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department” as factors beyond the control of applicantsdeserves more criticism. I think hiring institutions have a responsibility to craft pointed and relevant job descriptions that provide as transparent a view as possible to their intentions. Surely, this is a burden on these hiring committees. But I care more about the burden placed on job applicants lured by job descriptions whose authors have not disclosed (or figured out) what or whom they are really looking for. Applying to jobs is a costly and time-consuming endeavor that often occurs during a period in which many young scholars have diminishing or no support from their graduate institutions. We should question and challenge such a damaging “unspoken” variable alongside the ones I list in the previous paragraph.

I use “we” in a broad sense. I use it normatively, with the hope of drawing in scholars at all levels of academia to openly engage these issues. Young scholars have the most reason to be vocal about some of the more problematic unspokens that structure the academy today. Young scholars also occupy a position of vulnerability, which might be exacerbated if they are vocal in challenging the structures of the academy, especially if they are alone in doing so and especially if their social positionality (e.g., gender, class, race) already weakens their placement in the academy. The critique of some of the academy’s unspokens, I would like to think, should be the responsibility of our institutions, not just a burden placed upon young scholars as they navigate the complicated world of the academy. I make this claim not because I think Religious Studies is a site that, because of its objects of study (variously defined), creates a unique demand for ethical practices and responsibilities. I do not. I make this claim because I am invested in these institutions and fields. I care about the knowledges, methods, and theories we produce, and I care about the professional exercises and institutions that undergird this production.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a doctoral student in American Religions at Northwestern University. Jeff holds an MA from Florida State University. He is primarily interested in studying religion alongside politics, race, and imperialism. His current project explores the dynamics of race and religion within US colonial governance of the Philippines. Other research areas include secularism, capitalism, theory and method, and US Catholic history. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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