Identifying Root-Work in the Academic Study of Religion

Identifying Roots - Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures - Richard Newton

Richard Newton [+-]
Elizabethtown College
Richard Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. He curates the student-scholar media collaborative, Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching (


The final chapter of the book addresses scholarly resistance to theorizing scriptures in terms of “roots.” Like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, many in religious studies appeal to rhetorics of “transcendence” as a quality that distinguishes scriptures from other influential cultural texts. This proves unsatisfying when transcendence is deconstructed or deracinated as the deep-seeded dynamic of people transcending perceived problems. In this chapter, I revisit how minoritized scholars in the late 20th century appealed to Roots in order to legitimate themselves and their erudite engagement with proper scriptures in the eyes of academic guilds like the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. This ironic act of identification should remind scholars why—critically speaking— scriptures is a reference to rootwork rather than simplistic arrogations of rootedness. I begin by presenting W.C. Smith’s influential argument about scriptures as promising yet critically inconsistent. His What is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach (Fortress Press, 1993) begins with an argument for theorizing a relationality of scriptures as the engagement of people with their texts. It introduced a provocative framework that refocused the study of scriptures into an investigation of human activity. But by the end of his book, he amended his bi-focal analysis to qualify his arbitrary attention to the world religion, noting that what distinguishes them is the transcendence infused in the engagement. This move advanced his pluralist agenda within a Calvinist hermeneutics that ultimately restrained his study of scriptures. I then point out how such canonical contests are intimately related to the social politics of the academic study of religion. I appeal to Tomoko Masuzawa’s discussion of the world religions paradigm as a Western exercise in maintaining dominance and demonstrate how W.C. Smith’s reading of scripture complements her argument. I also look at the racial, gender, and religious stratification of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. Thinking with Vincent Wimbush, Merinda Simmons, and Charles Long, I demonstrate how the canons of these guilds illustrate not only what can be studied within them but who can belong within them. The chapter observes the rise of liberation theology and interfaith dialogue as Pyrrhic victories for those on the margins of the guild—particularly African Americans. Through the intellectual pursuits of marginalized communities have found some affirmation, it was not through an embrace of sola scriptura as traditionally conceived. I perform a critical exegesis of works like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her, Cain Hope Felder’s Stony the Road We Trod, and the journal for the Center for the Church and the Black Experience at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminar, among others examples of Roots-inspired religious studies scholarship. Haley’s saga taught a generation of theologians and historians how to recontextualize the racist, patriarchal, and abtract nature of their “sacred” text and claim them as their roots. These enterprising scribes harnessed the success of Roots to legitimate their own vernacular academic musings. The liberationist exemplars explicitly read Roots alongside their Bibles to not only write their stories but to affix themselves as productive academics in good standing. Were we to predicate “scriptures” on an understanding of what Russell McCutcheon terms “religion sui generis,” we would overlook the ways marginalized communities read, write, and redact themselves within the tradition of their dominators to express agency. In separating scriptures from the notion of sacredness, critical scholars can better identify the moves people make with their texts. Refusal to examine “non-religious” examples only effaces the very rootwork (e.g. techniques, politics, contexts) that makes a text into scripture.

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Newton, Richard. Identifying Root-Work in the Academic Study of Religion. Identifying Roots - Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Jun 2019. ISBN 9781781795477. Date accessed: 20 Sep 2017 doi: 10.1558/equinox.31161. Jun 2019

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