Of Gods and beasts and Stranger Things

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by Tyler Tully

Stranger Things, the Netflix television series of the summer, has captivated audiences with its imaginative storytelling and nostalgic nods to the paranormal thrillers of the 1980’s. The show’s originators, the Duff brothers, originally envisioned the series under the title of “Montauk”–a real town in Long Island that coincidentally inspired the fictional location of “Amity” in Spielberg’s Jaws. Montauk, however, is also associated with Camp Hero (aka Montauk Air Force Base) and the Brookhaven National Laboratory; locations that allegedly served as sites for clandestine psychokinetic experiments that involved kidnapped test subjects, according to some. Although the Duff brothers would later change the name and setting of what would eventually become Stranger Things, its plot still involves these eerie subjects.

Like many others, I have been binge watching this superb series as of late, but with a careful eye towards its themes of kidnapping, experimentation, and (yes) even religion. Below I’ll attempt to tease out some of the obvious (and not so obvious) motifs I’ve discovered that revolve around the children of Stranger Things.

After a long night of playing Dungeons and Dragons with his trio of besties, Will Byers (a “sensitive” and “special” boy by all accounts) suddenly goes missing in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. Yet as the series develops, this child seems to represent more than just the missing son of a single working-class mom (played by Winona Ryder). The heart of Stranger Things revolves around its cast of children as they propel the plot forward in their search for Will.

The plotline of Stranger Things is foreshadowed in an early sequence where Will, Dustin, and Lucas are completing a marathon D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) session hosted by Mike (acting as dungeon master) who orchestrates a perilous encounter with a demon known as the “Demogorgon” in D&D mythology. Under pressure from the attack, Will accidentally tosses the dice past the playing board and onto the floor where they fall hidden somewhere within Mike’s basement. The boys scurry about in search of the dice when Mike’s mom suddenly appears to tell them it’s time for everyone to pack up the game and go home.

Childlike wonder and encounters with the supernatural are common throughout the series, where the audience follows along with Lucas, Dustin, and Mike in their search for Will who disappears later that evening. Whether in naming the area near Will’s home as “Mirkwood Forest” or by referring to any turncoat as a “Lando Calrissian,” the show’s three (nerdy) boys often interpret the real world around them using the lens of their “sacred” texts. As children, they are forbidden by adults to meddle in the grander affairs of their world, (e.g. the disappearance of Will) and like mere mortals, the children are mostly powerless in the face of these forces. Yet they are also free to interpret them–to make meaning out of their ordinary encounters with the supernatural world as they understand them.

Encounters with the supernatural abound in Stranger Things.

While the boys are searching for Will in the woods one evening, they stumble across “Eleven”–a quiet and mysterious girl who escapes from the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory (a top secret location run by the US Department of Energy). From the moment she arrives on the scene, it is clear that Eleven is from a different world and completely out of place in rural Indiana. Scared, but in need of shelter, Eleven covertly returns with the boys to Mike’s basement, where she reveals a bit of her true identity. There, she recognizes Will from a photograph and reveals his hidden location to the boys who are eager to find him.

Clandestine government projects, such as MKUltra and those allegedly associated with Montauk, are intimately connected to Eleven’s past. As the plot develops, the audience sees that Eleven was subjected to all sorts of abusive experiments that exploited her paranormal powers. During one such experiment, Eleven punctured a rift in space-time, thereby making it possible for an otherworldly monster to cross into their reality. To communicate this complex situation to the boys, Eleven uses their common mythologies, referring to the otherworldly monster as the “Demogorgon.” Taking the D&D game board and flipping it upside down, Eleven demonstrates that Will has been kidnapped by the Demogorgon and is in hiding in this “upside down” dimension.

“El,” as she is affectionately referred to by Mike (aka Michael = “Who is like El?” in Biblical Hebrew) harbours awesome god-like powers. In the ancient Near East, “El” (or ‘Al) could generally refer to any god or the god depending upon the context. While the “El” of Stranger Things may have a few things in common with the ancient Semitic deity (association with water, mighty powers, and name recognition), both “Els” bring “death” into the world (so to speak) and both do battle with a beastly, “creeping” monster in the “underworld.”

Of interest to me (as it relates to my own doctoral research) remain the similarities between the show’s laboratory exploitation and power broking from a religious studies perspective. According to the ancients, El (and other deities) were associated with the practice of child sacrifice–especially during times of national crisis and war (Cold War anyone?). As Kimberely Patton has pointed out, victims of ritualized sacrifice in the ancient world were chosen as such precisely because of their perceived connection to the holy and supernatural–a theme that is something akin to that popular saying, “only the good die young” (Barb!?!)

All of which brings me to Eleven’s association with Will and the theme of child sacrifice in Stranger Things. El escapes from the lab almost exactly at the same time as Will disappears, even as she disappears near the time Will is brought back. Both are children and innocent, “special,” and “different.” And it is through Will and El that the trio of boys make meaning of their powerless situation even as they are divided in their loyalties to El while searching for Will. Fascinating too remains the ways in which the boys conduct experiments with El, who they cannot manipulate but depend upon nevertheless.

Whether intentional or not, perhaps the Duffer brothers have also taken timeless truths and communicated them to us using our own common (if nerdy) mythologies.

Tyler M. Tully is an American writer, graduate student, and theologue whose work has been featured in local and national news sources including Real Clear Religion and Al Jazeera America. In 2016, Tully was offered the Arthur Peacocke Graduate Studentship in Theology at Oxford’s Exeter College for research at the intersection of science and religion. A graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University with a BA in Religious Studies and Theology, Tyler later earned a Master of Divinity with the Chicago Theological Seminary. Starting in October 2016, Tully will begin the Doctor of Philosophy in Theology and Religious Studies course at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Donovan O. Schaefer. Tully’s research interests are at the intersection of critical theories on race.

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Get a Load of Canada’s “Super Hot” Prime Minister!

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by Matt Sheedy

I recently came across the following political ad (pictured above) from the Conservative Party of Canada in my Facebook feed. The image features a (not unflattering) photo of the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, with a caption reading:

Last seen wandering shirtless in the BC wilderness looking for photo opportunities.

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The immediate context for this political barb comes from two recent incidents, separated by only a few days, where Trudeau was photographed topless among the general public. The first incident occurred in Gatineau Quebec, where a young family out on a hike encountered a topless Trudeau emerging from Lusk Cave while on an outing with his own family. The Prime Minister posed for a selfie-style photo with the couple’s young son (pictured right), which quickly went viral.

The second incident took place on a beach in Tofino, British Columbia, where a smiling Trudeau was spotted standing to the side of a wedding party, which he had apparently stumbled upon while surfing in the area.

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The satirical website The Beaverton (Canada’s answer to The Onion) also made hay of the first of these encounters, with a piece entitled: “Justin Trudeau waits in dark cave for attractive enough family to walk past.” This was followed a few days later with another satirical piece that made light of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s lack of charisma and sex appeal with a headline reading: “Shirtless Stephen Harper photobombs Calgary couple’s wedding: 5 dead.” Not to be outdone, Trudeau posed for a photo atop of Signal Hill in St. John’s, NFLD, with a local comedian standing topless behind him (pictured below).

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I’ve long been interested in the performative nature of Justin Trudeau, who first became a member of parliament in 2008 in the riding of Papineau in Montreal. Before that time, he was a fixture in the national imagination as the oldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was arguably the first celebrity head of state in the county’s history, having dated Barbara Streisand and Margot Kidder (of Superman fame), while his partner, Margaret Sinclair (Justin’s mother), had a well-known affair with Ted Kennedy, The Rolling Stone’s Ron Wood, and possibly Mick Jagger.

In 2000, Justin delivered an animated eulogy at his father’s funeral, attended by the likes of Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro, which gained him praise around the country, with speculation even then that he might become Prime Minister one day. This speculation morphed into a near fait accompli when Trudeau became a member of parliament, where the speculative ‘if’ turned into a question of ‘when.’ Once Trudeau won the leadership race for head of the Liberal Party in April of 2013, a barrage of Conservative attack-ads continued apace until his election, with the oft-repeated slogan, “Justin, he’s just not ready.” In the end, Justin’s charisma and good looks, along with the dynastic narrative that he helped to cultivate, won the day.

In addition to this abbreviated history leading up to the recent topless encounters, some of Trudeau’s better-known viral performances include:

Reflecting on these and other performances by Canada’s “super hot” Prime Minister, I was reminded of an earlier post on this site by Tenzan Eaghll. Entitled, “A Plea to Critique the Pope’s Pity,” Eaghll’s piece opens with the following remarks:

Since the election of Pope Francis I in March, 2013, the media has effectively given the Pope a free pass on account of his acts of pity. Bathing him in unquestioning acceptance, news agencies around the world have whole-heartily embraced the new pious Pope, and it is near impossible to find one critical article on him.

Much the same can be said for Trudeau. Apart from critics within Canada who see him as a symbol for what is wrong with the Liberal Party (e.g., the image of a ‘tax and spend’ ‘bleeding heart’ from many on the right, and as a neo-liberal centrist from many on the left), his reputation on the world stage seems to be one of glowing praise. Unlike Pope Francis, Trudeau’s good looks and charm account for much of his appeal, though his performative acts of compassion or pity seem to make up a significant part of his persona, which leads me to another facet of Eaghll’s argument:

Due to his acts of pity, Francis is presented in the media as a man channeling the sui generis quality of religion that is independent of politics and cultural difference. This is the danger of pity.

In a similar fashion, Trudeau’s media persona helps to channel a sui generis quality of Canada—e.g., as polite, welcoming, apologetic, safe, tolerant, progressive, and peaceful–through the projection of an image that often carries the weight and even the presumed ‘essence’ of those who assume this national identity. Contrapuntal narratives are rarely seen, save for the occasional bit of satire as with the following Beaverton piece, “Reconciliation: Trudeau shares 30 seconds of intense eye contact with every First Nations person.” The post goes on to read:

OTTAWA – After nearly 150 years of colonialism and cultural genocide, Canada is mending fences by granting every First Nations person in the country 30 seconds of intimate eye-contact with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. …

Although the Trudeau government has made relatively few changes to outdated existing Aboriginal policy, sources on reserves say the eye-contact has completely changed how they feel about it.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Trudeau is insincere, as he seems like a decent person whose performances have not only helped to project a more friendly image of Canada on the world stage than in recent years, but have also had tangible effects on certain marginalized communities, as when he lashed out against the former Harper government’s preference for non-Muslims Syrian refugees and their attacks on women who wear the niqab, calling it “disgusting.” Trudeau’s rapid resettling of 25,000 Syrian refugees shortly after assuming office provides an example of rhetoric that was matched by actual policy. There is also an argument to be made that Canada is currently one of the more progressive nations in the West, especially with a spate of far right parties gaining traction in much of Europe, to say nothing of the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. But when it comes to the performance of Trudeau and the image that he projects, questions of sincerity are beside the point.

Assessing sincerity is not, generally speaking, a measurable scholarly aim, at least not for those who are interested in analyzing the social effects of charismatic figures, religious or otherwise, in terms of categories like affect, nationalism, ideology, and identity construction. One again, Eaghll offers a useful point of comparison with Pope Francis:

What is so worrying about this warmhearted embrace of the new Pope by the media is that not 12 months ago the Papacy was awash in controversy and scandal. Twelve months ago, if the Pope was in the headlines it wasn’t for washing the feet of a Muslim woman or an impromptu phone call to his dentist, but due to clerical paedophilia, leaked Vatican documents, widespread nepotism and corruption, or controversial claims about the Vatican’s tax affairs. All that now seems to be forgotten and the Pope’s pity has seemingly rendered these affairs inconsequential, or at the very least made them seem to be a thing of the past.

In a similar fashion, 12 months ago Canada was awash in intense controversy over its then-ruling government’s Islamophobia, its hawkish foreign policy, its secretive and controlling dealings with the media and in parliament, and its pariah status on climate change on the international stage (to name just a few things). All of this, too, seems to be forgotten, or, perhaps, it wasn’t paid much attention to outside of the country while it was happening in favour of maintaining more long-standing myths about Canada, which I’ve written about in a previous post entitled, “Beer, ‘Myth,’ and Canadian Identity.”

What is perhaps most interesting about Trudeau from the perspective of a critical theory of religion, is that he provides an instance of how popular images and representations can do a fair bit of work in projecting a quality or essence about certain nation-states or religious groups, which then comes to function on a affective level that often dominates the discourse about them (think Islam and ISIS) and guides the narratives that shape the boundaries of what see and feel as ‘real.’

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, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Religions, American Religions, the Object of Study, and an Ode to Bruce Lincoln

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by Charles McCrary

This post originally appeared, in a slightly different version, at the group blog Religion in American History.

This year I’ve been teaching “world religions” for the first time. I knew I would be required to do it at some point, and I dreaded it. My position was familiar and wholly unoriginal: Religion doesn’t exist; it has no essence. The word wouldn’t even make sense to any of our non-Western and/or pre-modern subjects. It is a recent invention, a product of what has been largely an imperialist, colonialist, racist project. Less insidious but just as dissuasive, many world religions textbooks are $120 assemblages of Wikipedia articles couched in thinly veiled liberal Protestant theology. At any rate, the discourse of “world religions” is something we can and should study—and, as Mike Graziano recently pointed out, we can study it in the context of American history. But it’s not something we engage in.

Nevertheless, we have classes called “world religions.” Some institutions still call theirs something like “religion in the human experience.” So, how can we teach these classes in ideologically and methodologically responsible ways? 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.”) So what can we do?

Last semester I sat in on a seminar co-taught by Nicole Kelley and Matt Day designed to answer this very question. Is there any responsible and defensible way to talk about “religion” that identifies it, even if hesitantly and provisionally, as a thing in the world? If anyone can do it—and help us do it—it’s Bruce Lincoln. I read Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society in my first few weeks of grad school, and it remains one of the most influential books for my work. What I failed until recently to understand, though, was that Lincoln provides us with a framework for using “religious” as an analytic term (an undertaking of which I was once pretty churlishly dismissive.)

This semester my world religions class began with a close reading of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” and we cribbed from it—supplemented by selections from Discourse and Authority—our definition of religion: “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.” We also find a definition of our job: “History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.” Their first assignment was to rewrite this thesis in their own words. The course has thus transpired, like many of Lincoln’s books, as a series of historical studies of people utilizing religious discourse, with close attention to what is at stake in their use of that discourse.

Aside: Last weekend, we had the pleasure of welcoming Bruce Lincoln to Florida State as the keynote speaker for our annual Graduate Student Symposium, directed by Andy McKee. Because I was nervous and have nothing interesting to say, I didn’t meet Dr. Lincoln, but I’ll remember his visit for a long time. His keynote address, “A Seventeenth-Century Werewolf and the Drama of Religious Resistance,” was an excellent example of the way a close textual reading in context can produce microhistories that demonstrate broader societal trends. He illustrated how “religious resistance” is a particular strategy of the dominated wherein they use the authoritative logic and vocabulary of the dominators, but modify its orientation or moral implications. I could say more about this, but I understand it was recorded and should be available soon. You should watch/listen to it. At a roundtable discussion also featuring Matt Day and Cara Burnidge, Lincoln spoke with an openness and even vulnerability that I have never seen from someone of his stature. It was an amazing display of conceptual precision, methodological integrity, and yet generosity. I’ll stop the ode here, since reverence “is a religious, not a scholarly virtue.”

While these issues have been most apparent for me when teaching world religions, I’ve started to consider their relevance for my own research, too. The problem of world religions extends to “American religions” as well, as Mike Altman argued on the Religion in American History blog last year. While I’m sympathetic to Mike’s point of view (and I did try to offer a solution based on the constitution of publics, but I suppose I ended up taking step one, as outlined here), perhaps Lincoln can help us salvage the project of talking about American religions, not just American “religions.” Of course, we all should be very aware of how the term itself is manufactured, employed, and policed, but if we use Lincoln’s framework, perhaps we can identify discourse and discursive communities that we would deem “religious” in defensible scholarly acts of classification. Surely, ideological persuasion by appeals to transcendent authority has been a common feature of American history. And certainly we can historicize these moves by identifying the various sorts of capital at stake. I think this could be a satisfying theoretical delineation of my field—its “object of study,” religion in American history. I suspect it could help others as well, including those working in the modern West.

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Basic Buddhists, Bad Buddhists

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by Adam T. Miller

A few days back, the Bulletin’s own Nathan Rein asked the hive-mind that is Facebook to fill him in on what it means to be “basic.” In the ensuing discussion, someone shared a link to a Bustle piece titled “How to Spot the Basic Bitch: A Field Guide.” In the article, brief mention is made of the polar opposite of the Basic Bitch–the Bad Bitch, for whom “life is a sport, and she is winning”–but most of the article details the characteristics of the Basic Bitch. Her clothes are safe, mainstream, and predictable; her drinks of choice are pumpkin spice lattes, Skinny Girl margaritas, and diet; her taste in music is determined by whatever is on pop radio. In short, and to be perfectly tautological, the Basic Bitch is basic.

We are left to infer most of the characteristics of the Bad Bitch. But we are assured that she is everything the Basic Bitch is not. She isn’t afraid to wear, drink, or listen to things that make her stand out from the herd. She’s free and independent. She’s self-assured. She’s powerful.

Turning now to late first millennium, early second millennium India and Tibet…

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Buddhist literature that deals with siddhas (adepts), which seems to have been written by siddhas themselves, portrays these figures as completely unrestrained by the conventions of society–be it mainstream or monastic. Siddhas are depicted as being free to eat and drink whatever, free to sleep with whomever, free to live wherever, and so on. This radical freedom is the result of special practices, and it gives them power. According to the Hevajra Tantra:

That by which the world is bound,
By that very thing it is released from bondage.
But the world is deluded and does not understand this truth,
And one who does not grasp this truth cannot attain accomplishments (siddhi).[1]

This same literature depicts Buddhists beholden to lay or monastic vows in less than flattering terms. As John Powers writes:

This attitude [i.e., the siddhas’ attitude] is contrasted with that of conventional Buddhists, who adhere to lay vows or monastic restrictions. As a result, they are bound by their inferior dharma and fail to grasp the expansive vision of the tantras. They remain ordinary and, while they make plodding progress and develop conventional moral qualities and corresponding improved life situations in future rebirths [cf. the last paragraph of the Basic Bitch article], their path is a slow and uninspired one.[2]

13 First Council at Rajagaha, at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti

13 First Council at Rajagaha, at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti

Non-Tantric Buddhists, we’re led to believe by siddha representations, are bound by convention and rules, ordinary, slow, and uninspired. They wear what everyone else wears. They do what everyone else does. They’re basic.

Here I think it might be fruitful to bring Christian Wedemeyer’s Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism and Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion into the conversation. Though they both make larger points with their books, one general takeaway applicable here is that whatever freedom or power siddhas or Bad Bitches might have (or think they have) is made possible by larger norms and in some sense reinforces them. If eating shit and bedding untouchables were not widely assumed to be bad things, it would mean nothing for a siddha to engage in (or talk about engaging in) these practices. If contemporary capitalist modes of production and consumption were not in place and individuality not assumed to be a value expressible in part through purchasing, there would be no Basic Bitch for the Bad Bitch to contrast herself with. (And here it is worth noting, if only parenthetically, that the category basic likely did not emerge among those whom it purportedly denotes.)

The siddha, the Bad Bitch; the conventional Buddhist, the Basic Bitch–worlds apart, but not quite as different as one might think.

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[1] David Snellgrove, ed., The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study (Oxford University Press, 1959), 34; quoted in John Powers, “Buddhas, Siddhas, and Indian Masculine Ideals,” in Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation, ed. David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey (Oxford University Press, 2016), 27.

[2] John Powers, “Buddhas, Siddhas, and Indian Masculine Ideals,” 27.

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Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do To Outsiders: Merinda Simmons

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In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

by Merinda Simmons

Sometimes part of the work in articulating what it is one does intellectually or professionally is figuring out decisively what it is one does not do. As part of last year’s NAASR program on “Theory in a Time of Excess,” I talked about the perils of defining an approach exclusively as a negative (i.e., the critical theory as “not theology” approach). But I do think there is something useful in determining where one wants to draw boundaries around one’s work (and why). Plus, this series is all about how to treat the anxiety or discomfort or annoyance that comes with the task (challenge?) of explaining what we do “to outsiders.” At such times, knowing what we scholars of religion don’t do matters. Why would explaining our work be a task at all? Presumably, because “those” outsiders don’t understand “us.” I get it. I sometimes still find myself gearing up when I hear someone about to ask the “so what do you do?” question—shifting my stance a bit as my brain weighs the advantages and disadvantages of saying simply “I’m a professor in a religious studies department” and letting it lie without crafting a more nuanced or explanatory follow-up. The temptation to explain, I think, comes from our own anxiety over the prospect of being mistaken for theologians.

Funny how anxiety works, though. The more we have, the more we try to draw and police the boundaries surrounding the thing about which we’re anxious. In other words, if we really were confident that what we do isn’t theology, maybe we’d let others’ misidentifications of religious studies as theology roll off our backs a bit more easily. My own suspicion is that the label hits just a little too close to home. It’s easy to get defensive, after all, when so much of the field can still rightly be called theological and when religious leaders in a community are still invited to sit in on academic job searches. This is how I make sense of the fact that the impulse to say I don’t do theology!, while perhaps clarifying in social domains where there is little basis for understanding the nuances of religious studies, still holds so much sway among fellow academicians as well. What this impulse prevents, however, is the ability to think about other kinds of analysis—at times more difficult to discern—from which we might try to steer clear.

I find Bruce Lincoln’s brief “Theses on Method” useful for so many reasons, but one of them is that they articulate nicely what scholars committed to critical inquiry are not doing, and, correlatively, what kinds of tendencies in scholarship prevent us from doing that same critical inquiry. I’m thinking specifically of theses 9, 12, and 13:

9. Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other.

12. Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as “reductionism”. This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion “as religion”–that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status–may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.

13. When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.

Criticism is not cynicism.

Criticism is not religious reductionism.

Criticism is not advocacy or retail (etc).

The title of this series is telling. “Scholars Explain…” The prepositional phrase “of religion” is not needed here because, as we have long discussed and debated, the object of study is more or less beside the point. If I want to identify myself as a scholar, my disciplinary affiliation notwithstanding, Lincoln’s distinctions are the ones to keep in mind—not those between theory and theology. The latter keep the focus on the object of study, engaging in the very theological rhetoric we try so hard to mitigate or deconstruct.

Getting comfortable with these distinctions helps me to let go of trying to shape perceptions of the kind of work I do. My nascent work with archives is a case in point. As I mentioned a few months ago in a Culture on the Edge blog post, I approach historical texts from a perspective akin to what Hayden White outlines in his now-classic Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), keeping in mind the manifold narrative devices present in the presentation of an artifact. So, I’m not thumbing through library stacks in the same way that, perhaps, colleagues in a History department might. This has caused some confusion when I’ve ventured into special collections. When I set out to explore some resources for my current work on the concept of “slave religion,” for instance, one librarian in particular became incredulous as I explained to her my project (one that focuses on the rhetorical and political implications of the category rather than the descriptive history of rituals and belief systems in the 18th and 19th centuries). “But what are you really studying?,” she asked.

Here was the “so you’re not [what I would have assumed]?” moment. She didn’t anticipate priesthood, but she clearly expected me to be something other than theorist. What use would a theorist have for archives, after all?

I take heart in what Jacques Derrida suggests in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression:

…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. (17)

What am I really studying? Processes of production rather than recording. Or, put more simply, I’m interested in how people tell stories. Many of these stories are to do with matters popularly deemed “religious,” but what it is I do, at the end of the day, is read and analyze narratives.

As long as we try to nuance our objects of study, we will continue to confound curious people asking what they think are simple questions about what we do. And being unable to give a simple answer is our problem—not theirs. “I study Christianity, but you know…I mean, I’m not a seminarian, so…” doesn’t cut the mustard. A productive challenge lies in figuring out how to articulate my approach rather than whatever or whomever I happen to be discussing in my work.

There is, of course, a certain arrogance at work in any presumption that people should understand what we do and why it matters in the first place. It can be all too easy to condescend in reply when asked about our profession. Doing so, however, reflects our own expectations and assumptions far more than those of the enquiring minds wanting to know. The defensiveness that pokes fun at outsiders who just don’t get it does not reflect their ignorance so much as our insecurity. Emphasizing the how instead of the what seems one way to make things a bit simpler, and it seems also a way to make our work translate to a variety of different spheres.

Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion vol. 8 (1996): 225-27.

Merinda Simmons is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Both her teaching and research focus on identifications of race, gender, and religion in the Caribbean and the American South. She is the author of Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora (Ohio State University Press, 2014). Her co-edited books include The Trouble with Post-Blackness (with Houston A. Baker, Jr., Columbia University Press, 2015) and Race and Displacement (with Maha Marouan, University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is currently at work on a monograph tentatively entitled Sourcing Slave Religion: Theorizing Experience in the American South.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Sher Afgan Tareen

Jesus-facepalm

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

“What will he become?”

by Sher Afgan Tareen

On most afternoons in West Windsor New Jersey where my aunt resides, apart from grabbing a pear from the kitchen table or scanning all the family pictures in the sunroom for one more time, there usually is not all that much to do. A decade ago, the usual placidity turned tense when my grandmother broached my brother’s career. It had been few months since my brother had informed us that he will apply for graduate school in religious studies and forego his earlier plan of pursuing a career in law or finance. No one raised any concerns. But the silence from our end bespoke a curiosity that had swiftly grown into an unbearably annoying question: “What will he become?” My brother was perturbed. He beseeched everyone to stop bothering him. Back then, I sympathized with him. But as I recollect that afternoon right now, I also erred from blaming my grandmother for causing unnecessary grief. We had not really learned how to react when a college educated boy from Pakistan does not utter Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer or even Cricket player as the career he wishes to pursue. Sure, my grandmother always sounded like an inquisitor when she questioned someone but in that particular moment, she was a hiker who feared getting lost on the trail.

My grandmother had been the one who taught us how to pray and reminded us to fear pork and sexual intimacy. But she belonged to an upper middle class family. Studying religion is not a task expected from folks like us. Our study of religion consists of memorizing the Quran at home with the aid of a poor chap who enjoys the free tea and biscuits he receives in return. In addition, we also take Islamiyat, a class on Islam that elite Pakistanis only mention while recounting the number of A’s they scored in the O’Levels examination. My brother had also been one of those who aced Islamiyaat. But at Macalester College he had enrolled in an Introduction to Islam course, hoping to ameliorate the stress of taking multiple econ courses by balancing them off with a course promising an easy A. But once the semester concluded, an unfamiliar humility subdued his desire to see his grade point average closer to 4.0 than 3.0. He realized that growing up a Muslim does not guarantee an easier route to success in a class on Islam. He gained interest in theory and method of religion and the debates over normative practice of Islam in India during the colonial era. That he could authoritatively describe his research interests however did not parry the question “what will he become?”

My grandmother left us the day he had become. Nowadays, lots of brown folks study and teach Islam. Heck, even Hamza Ali Abassi, a famous actor, hosted a Ramadan television show in which he broached the question of whether a secular state may classify what counts as religion. Someone inform Talal Asad please, if he does not know it yet.

But whereas my brother had to convince his family to remain at ease over a future unknown, I caused unease by resisting the future they have inferred about me.

“A family of PhDs! Wow,” or “So it must run in the family” are phrases I have frequently heard on disparate occasions from people unknown to one another. They deduce the success my brother has had as a scholar of religion as my future. Why wouldn’t they? We share a common past; we are graduates from Macalester College who pursued graduate studies in Religion. Although I have followed his steps, I have felt differently walking on those steps.

Unlike my brother, I did not necessarily pursue a career as a scholar of religion. I was somewhat reminded of having pursued a career as a scholar of religion. During the first week of college, my brother instructed me to take religion courses in a manner as if he was asking me to walk inside a home he once used to live in. He was being nostalgic; I all of a sudden had multiple religion courses on my class shopping list. A year later, I registered for a course titled The Study of Religion or something very generic that I can not recall right now. I attended the first day of class and along my classmates proposed a research topic for the final paper. Later that day, one of my other professors approached me and very nicely suggested I delay taking that class. Only then I realized I had been sitting next to senior year religion majors who were preparing to write their capstone papers, not any final paper. The epiphany embarrassed me; how haughty my professors will think I am! That said, having taken five classes already, I had also secured a minor in religion. That I did not know beforehand either! Upon graduating, I had completed 17 religion courses, falling one short I suppose of a double major in Religion and Religion.

I then applied for a Masters in religion to various schools because applying to schools was the only kind of application letter I knew how to fill out. Two years later I applied for a PhD in religion to various schools because I had not learned how to apply for actual jobs as a Masters in religion either. My cover letter was excellent. I wrote what I wanted to study but did not belabor the specifics because I did not really want to study what I wrote I wanted to study. I did not want to do much at all. I was enjoying playing cricket and was content doing more of that, not contemplating why Harvard Divinity School paid me a monthly stipend.

Conceit, as in I was cocksure one of these programs will surely want me, and an uncontrolled libido, as in I had yet to and therefore really wanted to witness the America they represented in American Pie 2, led me to Florida State University. During the summer between Harvard and Florida State, I did nothing except play more cricket and meet a girl who I wished I had known longer. When I arrived in Tallahassee, I started sleeping on the dining room couch until my roommate grew tired of reminding me I had a room to myself and needed to purchase a bed. I saw in real life the kinds of girls they showed in American Pie 2, but I thought mostly of the olive skinned black haired girl I had met during the summer. The next semester I left school, returned to D.C, dated her, landed a gig as a supporting actor for a Pakistani drama serial, lost it because being two inches taller than the female protagonist was not masculine enough. Six months later, I returned to school. My academic career restarted. My relationship ended. I experienced acute depression and anger. I had started losing myself. I had left my body and my body was searching for me. But religious studies never escaped my grasp. If my arrogance irks people who would in such conditions struggle academically, it should. There is something not on when you do pretty well at something but you are mentally somewhere else.

Nick Kyrgios recently conceded “I don’t love the sport” despite attaining his best ATP ranking. His serve demands attention: seriously fast, but somehow so effortless and unhurried. He also plays video games before a match and once took a power nap between sets at the US Open. Over the years, his mercurial behavior has attracted tremendous criticism. Mark Philippoussis, a retired fellow Australian tennis player, suggested that Kyrgios should forsake his career if he truly does not love the sport. But Kyrgios also stated “I do not really know what else to do without it.” How do you keep doing something you do not love? You ask what else could I really do? If you are Kyrgios, you realize you cannot play for the Boston Celtics and emulate your idol Kevin Garnett. I realized I could not be a Pakistani actor, at least not yet.

Kyrgios and I go about doing what we do but we perpetually get distracted by something completely unrelated to our career and/or something threatening to unravel our careers. We display signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What will we become?

Sher Afgan Tareen is a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. He specializes in Islam in America. His research interests include the politics of religious pluralism and freedom, theories of space and place, and the religious history of out-of-status migrants to America.

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‘Religion’ with a Dash of Kripke

By LPLT - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10331682

By LPLT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10331682

by Adam T. Miller

The ongoing debate about whether the category religion has any analytical purchase is without doubt quite familiar to readers of the Bulletin. And for most of us, due to the lasting influence of J. Z. Smith and others like him, it is an important matter that should always be at the forefront of our minds. From what I gather, there are a couple of ways to deal with this question—in short: to affirm or deny its analytic utility—and I sometimes get the sense that those engaged in the debate talk past each other. In bringing Saul Kripke into the conversation, I hope not only to defuse some of the critiques against the use of the category (because I think it can be used) by offering a clarification of terms, but also to work toward bridging some gaps. In the event that what follows is not persuasive, I hope that my position be read charitably and that it start a fruitful discussion.

I was introduced to Saul Kripke in an analytic philosophy course many moons ago. His thought intrigued me then, and recently, in a paper putting the seventh-century Buddhist philosopher Candrakīrti into conversation with history of religions (random, I know), I had the occasion to visit Kripke again—albeit this time with rather different interests than before. It is my goal to eventually write something for submission to Method and Theory in the Study of Religion regarding Saul Kripke’s relevance for theoretical discussions in our discipline—that is, if I can convince myself that I’m on to something. Any feedback on what follows, cursory as it is, would be greatly appreciated.

To make my point here, I will make reference to two poles of the debate as exemplified by Timothy Fitzgerald’s critique (2006) of Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” (1996) and Lincoln’s response (2007).

From what I’ve read of his work, it seems one of Fitzgerald’s main projects is to jettison religion from our analytic vocabulary, pointing to the sometimes/often pernicious ideological underpinnings of the category’s development and employment throughout history for justification. In the article linked above, Fitzgerald addresses one-by-one each of Lincoln’s theses (bringing Lincoln’s other work to the table from time to time, particularly his definition of religion[1]), arguing that they have the implication of “embedding English language categories as though they are static and eternal verities.”[2] What concerns Fitzgerald here is essentialism—the idea that our word religion reliably picks out some Thing (or Set of Things) that actually exists Out There regardless of whether there are humans around using language in this way.

As I read his reading of Lincoln, however, it seems Fitzgerald is committed to an unnecessary (if the pun may be excused) linkage between a prioricity (a billion-dollar word for when things can be known prior to experience) and necessity. Fitzgerald writes, for example: “Lincoln is a priori embedding in his own rhetoric the problematic that he wants to critique.”[3] And elsewhere he charges Lincoln with “essentializ[ing] and universalis[ing] English language categories as though they are eternal truths fixed in the nature of things.”[4] The link between a prioricity and necessity is never spelled out straightforwardly, but it seems reasonable to infer its presence given his association of the epistemological category and “the nature of things.” It is possible that I am reading Fitzgerald incorrectly—in the event that I am, I would need to modify (perhaps abandon) my position. But from what I can see, Fitzgerald assumes that knowing something prior to experience by definition has something to do with necessity, metaphysics, essences.

It is here that Saul Kripke may be of use. In Naming and Necessity (go ahead and buy it),[5] Kripke (among other things) distinguishes a prioricity from necessity, which had widely been thought to be coextensive since Kant.[6] Against the prevailing paradigm, Kripke contends that there are, in fact, truths that we can know prior to experience, but that are nevertheless contingent.[7] Though he does not dwell on the matter long (and indeed the point he makes with this example is quite different from what I aim to do with it), Kripke spends a couple of pages discussing the Standard Meter,[8] an iron bar of a certain length kept in Paris that served to define the length of a meter from the 1790s until 1960 (when its official definitional duties were transferred in 1960 to a beam of “orange-red light, in a vacuum, produced by burning the element krypton” [pictured below]).[9] The proposition “The Standard Meter is a meter long,” he says, can be known prior to any experience. But at the same time, the truth expressed by the proposition is clearly contingent—for the length of the particular piece of iron that served as the Standard Meter did not have to be what it was necessarily, and indeed the piece of iron could be cut in half and re-christened tomorrow, thus doubling all of our measurements (assuming this to be what defines meter instead of that cool laser beam…I mean look at that thing…it’s sick).

By Copyright © 2004 David Monniaux - en:Kastler-Brossel Laboratory at en:Paris VI: Pierre et Marie Curie, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=295187

By Copyright © 2004 David Monniaux – en:Kastler-Brossel Laboratory at en:Paris VI: Pierre et Marie Curie, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=295187

Nothing in the world comes to us already measured in meters. In order to measure something in meters, we must stipulate a definition and then get to work. Our doing so is clearly an interested activity, yet it does not seem to have any metaphysical implications whatsoever regarding tree branches or boulevards.

If we take religion to be a category of this kind (that is, a contingent a priori category), we have the benefits of constituting a disciplinary boundary and knowing what the hell we’re talking about (yes, prior to experience), while at the same time avoiding charges of essentialism—for it leaves open the possibility of different definitions geared toward different ends. And this is more or less Lincoln’s response to Fitzgerald; he writes: “[W]here Fitzgerald accuses me of proclaiming eternal essences by professorial fiat (as if I or anyone else had such power), I am simply trying to clarify the way I use the terms in question.”[10] Indeed, scholars of religion who focus more on individuals than social groups will likely want to bypass Lincoln’s formulation and stipulate a definition more suited to their analytical agendas. Given that the category is understood not as denoting any essence, but as part of a complex scholarly activity that calls into being certain features of cultures past and present as religious (resulting in religion’s being an object of historical enquiry for us that comes into view in dependence on several contingent factors, among them a priori definition), I do not see why the category can be said to have no analytic value.

Now, I’m not trying to say meter and religion are alike in all ways, or even many ways.  The category meter and the precise length it simultaneously creates and denotes do not seem to have terribly serious implications (though this NPR discussion shows how messy a process it was). Nor am I trying to say that “The Standard Meter is a meter long” and “For my purposes, religion denotes such-and-such” are similar sentences. The former is knowable a priori by virtue of meaning alone while the latter is not. What I am suggesting is that they are (or can be) the same kind of category and that, consequently, theorization does not entail essentialism. If we keep in mind that a prioricity can be distinguished from necessity in this way, then perhaps the conversations surrounding the analytic utility of religion can move in new directions.

[1] Lincoln’s definition of religion, for reference: “1. A discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status; 2. A set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subject, as defined by the religious discourse to which these practices are connected; 3. A community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices; and 4. An institution that regulates discourse, practice, and community, reproducing them over tiem and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.” Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 [2003]), 5–8; Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 75–76.

[2] Tim Fitzgerald, “Bruce Lincoln’s ‘Theses on Method’: Antitheses,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 18, no. 4 (2006), 392–423, at 394.

[3] Fitzgerald, “Antitheses,” 420.

[4] Fitzgerald, “Antitheses,” 395.

[5] Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1981 [1972]).

[6] Kripke writes: “Now, everyone remembers Kant (a bit) as making a distinction between ‘a priori’ and ‘analytic’. So maybe this distinction is still made. In contemporary discussions very few people, if any, distinguish between the concepts of statements being a priori and their being necessary.” Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 34.

[7] He also argues that there are necessarily true propositions the truth-value of which had to be discovered (i.e., their truth-value was not known a priori). An example of this kind of proposition is “water is H2O.”

[8] Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 54–57.

[9] http://www.surveyhistory.org/the_standard_meter1.htm

[10] Bruce Lincoln, “Concessions, Confessions, Clarifications, Ripostes: By Way of Response to Tim Fitzgerald,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19 no. 1 (2007): 164.

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

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