Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Jay M. Stanton

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by Jay M. Stanton

One of my favorite office hours memories comes from Autumn Quarter of my fourth year. J.Z. and I were splitting our time between reading Linnaeus and discussing my senior project on social aspects of communal prayer ritual. I had to leave early because it was Sukkot, sundown was approaching, and I had not yet shaken the four species. So I apologized to him and said I was running out of time to wave a bull roarer. His eyes widened and he exclaimed, “You’re going to make it rain? Incredible!” In that moment, I had transformed from a student of religion to a native informant. J.Z. was so excited at the prospect! Despite his curiosity, he restrained himself from an ethnographic interview. In doing so, he preserved me as student rather than subject.

In the final years of his career, each of J.Z.’s college courses had one assignment in addition to class readings. He called it a reflective paper: ten pages with no prompt other than to engage with the material of the course. Students were permitted to write the whole paper on one topic or to divide the work into several disjointed sections. Having academics for parents, I initially thought this was a strategy to minimize J.Z’s grading duties. Yet, as I discovered, J.Z. was never one to regard work as something that needed minimizing. The reflective paper was J.Z.’s way of inviting students to present him with those aspects of the material that we found naturally interesting. He used class time to gauge our content retention and our critical views of texts. The reflective paper was an exercise in noticing what fascinated us: aspects of the reading we didn’t touch in class discussion, new or persistent questions, and applications worth exploring. Confident in his ability to teach the most useful concepts in the material, J.Z. tasked students with presenting the most salient ones.

In retrospect, J.Z.’s reflective paper served a dual purpose. First, it communicated the agency of students in the College over our learning. We were not cogs in an academic machine churning out endless arguments about the flaws in Durkheim’s definition of religion or explaining the centrality of the corroboree. We did not need to write a persuasive essay. J.Z. took pains to see that we would not become alienated from our labor of learning in his course. Our learning and our work for him were ultimately ours. Second, the reflective paper was an opportunity for J.Z. to encounter new approaches to texts he held dear. Unlike what the field English calls “a reflection paper,” J.Z. did not expect a narrative of a change in a student’s perspective due to the course. He wanted to know what interested us at the end of the course. In response to the section in my final paper for his course on The Elementary Forms of Religious Life on Durkheim and mathematics, J.Z. wrote two paragraphs about the differences in approach that mathematicians and agrostologists may take in making meaning with Durkheim and their relative advantages in understanding human experience. J.Z. proudly told me of another student’s reflective paper for his comparative mythology course, Thinking with Stories. A creative writing student, she composed a short work of science fiction. I need not worry about my status in his eyes; my work on subversive myth and counterculture was “a close third or fourth,” he said with a smile that indicated his pride. J.Z. both respected and delighted in the creative thought of his students.

The reflective paper is one of many examples of J.Z.’s particular approach to educating college students. He would correct us if we said “undergraduate.” You are an adult in a college; you are not under anyone. His assertion was both hierarchical reality and emotional exhortation. His openness to teach and learn was available to anyone with sufficient motivation to reach him outside class. He enjoyed company on his walks from various classroom buildings back to his office. I quickly learned that signing up for the final office hours slot of the day gained you the privilege of conversing until he felt guilt for keeping his wife Elaine waiting. His office hours were an endless series of back and forth questioning, book recommendations, and inquiries into life and intellectual progress outside of the narrow confines of a course. Whenever I asked a question about one of his published works, instead of answering my question, he would present me with his updated thoughts on the subject. When I casually mentioned an area of interest in which he was not well-read, he would ask me for a starter book recommendation. I learned to be specific: to talk about Buddhisms instead of Buddhism, the Renaissances instead of the Renaissance, and to discuss Bibles instead of the Bible. He claimed that he learned this from his long-standing intellectual friendship with the late Jacob Neusner, but it has every hallmark of J.Z.’s taxonomical ingenuity. In office hours, I learned to use language that allows classifications, maps, and models, language that works well with the tools of comparison and generalization, language that safeguards cultural production against the false arguments of universal authenticity and absolute relativism. In J.Z., I gained an academic guide to a new discipline, a mentor, and a friend.

As one of J.Z.’s last students in Religion and the Humanities, I cherish encountering him in the retrospective phase of his career. His conscious and subconscious efforts were focused in the early 2000s on communicating the continuing relevance of the humanities and its tools, chief among them the project of comparison. I often return to “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” which I take as a privileged example of J.Z.’s comparative efforts for its brevity, clarity, and simplicity. In urging us not to place Jonestown outside the parameters of the study of religion, he ends, “For if we do not persist in the quest for intelligibility, there can be no human sciences, let alone, any place for the study of religion within them.” (Imagining Religion:From Babylon to Jonestown,” 120). But this is the weak form of his argument. I prefer the strong form. If we create a category of the never-intelligible, that is to say, the incomparable, then we sacrifice not only the project of comparison, but also the project of understanding. In J.Z.’s view, as long as some data are made sacred, our approach remains religious rather than scientific.

Jay M. Stanton is an alumnus of the College at the University of Chicago and a student in the rabbinical program at the Academy for the Jewish Religion in New York.

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Scholars Give Advice on Where to Start

Image of an arched doorway through a thick hedge, with bright sunlight on the other side and flowers through the doorway and in the foreground.

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Stacie Swain

Every two years, my university department runs a seminar on “professional development” for first- and second-year doctoral students. The seminar includes a section on pedagogy, and one of our assignments is to make a sample syllabus for a teaching dossier. As I worked on the assignment and typed up the formalities, I found myself wondering where to begin the substantive material – the course description, the assignments, weekly themes, perhaps the readings? I put the question out to my social media network: “When you’re making a syllabus, which part do you start with?” I received a range of constructive advice, which the scholars in question have graciously allowed me to compile here.


S. Brent Rodriguez Plate:‪ A good idea! Seriously, for me it’s like writing a book or essay, it’s got to start with an idea, turn into a thesis, and then figure out how to support that thesis.

Russell McCutcheon: Exactly. A course—unless boringly just conveying information, like names of rivers—is an exercise in persuasion and introduction (i.e., moving someone into a new domain). So, of what are you trying to persuade students…? Into what new environment will your course move them? And then what steps are needed…? What topics will facilitate this…? What resources will help you…? What assignments and administered at what points will assist them to practice what you’re teaching and help you assess them…?

Leslie Dorrough Smith: Another way to think of it—if you had to sum up in a sentence or two what you want students to remember from this class, what would that be? Then I think of how to walk them through the argumentation to establish that point, and I structure the course accordingly.

Russell McCutcheon: As Brent wrote, and as Leslie just elaborated, a course is like an essay—it ought to have a thesis, something at stake, of which you want to persuade students, and then, like an essay, each class meeting is a step toward that…

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson: Yes! I start by thinking about the argument I want to make but I also do a bit of what Donovan describes below when I start to think about readings—especially in MA level courses. I also usually begin and end the course by examining the same material (this year I’m teaching a religion in popular culture class and we will begin and end the course analyzing the same five film clips) with the hope that, having taken the course, the argument I’ve been making and their own learning will become apparent when students see this material in a new light.

Warren S. Goldstein:  The one from last year. No point in reinventing the wheel unless you are making a radically new wheel (which sometimes happens).

Richard Newton: The final project.
[Stacie Swain: Does this make it easier to then figure out how you’d equip students to complete the final project?]
Richard: A lot of times. I agree with S. Brent Rodriguez Plate about starting with a good idea. When it comes to teaching, I tend to be able to come up with some pretty solid ideas about final projects without too much effort. Then I work backwards to determine how to equip them to do them in a given amount of time. One way to determine what constitutes a “good idea” is by playing to your own passions and interests. I say teach from what excites you. This post on backward design gets at this idea in some interesting ways.

Kristian Petersen: Yes to backward design. Set objectives you have for students at the end. Then scaffold assignments so they can succeed.

Donovan Schaefer: Building a list of material that I find fascinating, stuff I’m grateful I’ve read and want to keep thinking with. Everything else is connective tissue to provide context/scaffolding for those texts then link them together.

Ken Derry: For what it’s worth (and as it’s apparent from this thread) I don’t think there are (m)any hard and fast rules for how to design a syllabus. A big part of it is figuring out what kind of teacher you are in general, and what kind of teacher you will be (or want to be) for the course in question. Also, the structure of the course can be as important as the content (in some ways more so). A course that’s meandering and exploratory in format might help students feel more comfortable with that approach to learning, and it might help them think of what they would like to learn about as much as what you would like them to learn. A course that includes material that you’re not an expert on might show students that it’s okay to not know everything—you can literally model how to approach new material as you encounter it with them. It’s fine to make a course that’s like an essay, or that’s fully under the instructor’s control (in terms of both structure and content), but in some ways that approach can also reinforce existing social and cultural hierarchies. And so one’s own identity might be something to consider when constructing courses—it makes a difference in all kinds of ways if one is a middle-aged, tenured, white man or a young, precariously employed woman of colour.

Kenneth MacKendrick: Title. Name. Room. Drop date. Office hours. Library location. Disclaimer about email etiquette. Disclaimer about submitting essays by email. Disclaimer about leaving class early. Course Description with bonus marks for reading this far. Revised Course Description (because the description never quite gets it right), Course Objectives, Required Readings, Recommended Readings, Disclaimer about coming to class not prepared to talk about readings, Course Assignments, Lectures.

And I want to second some of what Russell McCutcheon, Leslie Dorrough Smith, and Ken Derry have written. A course should have a thesis or something of a hook. What’s the point? Keeping in mind that NOTHING has to be taught. As the instructor, you’re creating the canon, recreating the canon, challenging the canon. But a course does need a kind of canon, some required readings, so that there is shared ground – always. A course is a course of study, with a beginning that is unsatisfactory and an ending that is unsatisfactory. I tell my students that they’ve been thrown out of a helicopter into the ocean. There’s reading in every direction. You just have to swim. Maybe not the best metaphor, but sinking is a relatable experience for most students. Maybe I should add that the course outline is a lifejacket. Okay, that metaphor has gone on way too long. One thing I’ve started doing with great success is have the students submit their assignments one by one and then, at the end, re-submit all of them as a portfolio. It gets them to think about their writing as a body of work, the course as an ongoing conversation.

Matthew Baldwin: I like a good portfolio. Assuming you have a good idea of the “thesis” to be covered by the course (usually a title and a catalog description is the starting point), I begin with time and work management issues. Having certain ambitions for my time with the students, or in the neoliberal jargon, certain outcomes I hope we can cultivate, I begin by recognizing the limits of the format.

A course is a period of time of instructors and students interacting with each other and course material. It has “economic” limits that are primarily a matter of time. I start with creating a week-by-week map of the semester, and think carefully about how to manage the ebb and flow of energy over the course of the schedule. When do the tests need to happen? When do the papers and drafts need to happen? How much work can be expected day to day? How many topics can be covered?

Having created “spaces” and a suitably restrained and realistic plan for the amount of work that we can do together, I plug in modules of theory and data… actual topics. Always trying to keep these fewer than last time… because last time there wasn’t enough time.

Author’s note: Just a quick expression of gratitude to those who responded to my impromptu query, and for allowing me to reconstruct those responses here.

Stacie Swain is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Victoria. She is interested in discourses on religion, spirituality, and law within Canadian settler colonialism, as well as Indigenous nationhood and ceremonial self-determination within urban spaces and public institutions.

Image by author, Butchart Gardens, Victoria, B.C.

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Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Matt Sheedy

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by Matt Sheedy

A few days before the death of J.Z. Smith, on December 30, 2017, I was thinking about writing a follow-up post on the comparison between temperatures in parts of Canada and the U.S. with temperatures on Mars, which had resurfaced in the news media amidst the recent Arctic cold front.

Back in January 2014, I had been stuck by the ease with which media commentators had latched-on to this comparison and wrote about it here on the Bulletin blog, using Smith as my theoretical touch-point.

I began by drawing on Smith’s essay, “In Comparison Magic Dwells” (Imagining Religion 1982), where he recalls J.G. Frazer’s distinction between magic and science, noting how magic is classified as “a confusion of a subjective relationship with an objective one.” (21)

Smith then uses this example to talk about a similar error commonly found in the human sciences (including the study of religion), writing:

[C]omparison has been chiefly an affair of the recollection of similarity. The chief explanation for the significance of comparison has been contiguity. The procedure is homeopathic. The theory is built on contagion. The issue of difference has been all but forgotten (21).

With this idea in mind, I argued that drawing parallels between temperatures in parts of North America with temperatures on Mars was an example of comparison by contiguity, where apparent similarities were being used to explain complex phenomena, while ignoring important differences. The differences in this case were rather significant since comparable temperatures were only found on the surface of Mars in a few select areas, as measured by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Moreover, the surface temperature was markedly different than the air temperature, which, back in 2014, reached as low as minus 193f.

Of course the Mars comparison does work as a playful analogy (though perhaps hyperbole is a better term). As someone who traveled to Winnipeg and Toronto over the holidays, two cities gripped in a polar vortex, I get it. The problem arises when analogies like this one slip into common usage as though they are describing something that is conceptually meaningful. This, to paraphrase Smith, is mistaking a map for the territory.

Some examples of this slippage can be seen with the recent spate of Mars analogies in Canadian media (e.g., see this Vice News article, or this satirical piece from The Beaverton). A National Post article dated December 27, 2017, provided a more nuanced use of the comparison, although the title, “Mars and the North Pole are Warmer than Winnipeg,” reinforced the contiguity:

As Alberta was plunged into extreme cold warnings on Boxing Day, it was ironically the mountainous parts of the province that were its warmest. Banff and Jasper both escaped the “extreme cold” label by recording lows of only -19 C. This means that, for a few minutes, all of Alberta was about as cold as Mars’ Gale Crater, the home of the Curiosity rover. Mars is subject to pretty violent temperatures shifts, and Curiosity regularly encounters temperatures below -80 C. But this week, the highest temperature experienced by the rover were -23 C. A Calgary Boxing Day shopper, therefore, might have found themselves getting into a car that was literally colder than a Martian spacecraft. 

Despite the more nuanced description here, this comparison doesn’t do any conceptual work with these important distinctions, and simply falls back on this highly selective instance of similarity in order to claim a general correlation. One obvious problem here is that the comparison is being made to a planet that is inhospitable to human life (just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall) and thus cannot be tested as such. This parallels a familiar problem in the study of religion, where terms like ‘numinous,’ ‘the sacred,’ and ‘religious experience’ have been used as trans-historical and cross-cultural concepts, despite the fact that they lack any testable criteria.

For another thing, it has always been as cold as (the surface of) Mars somewhere on earth. We just never bothered to make the comparison until it began to effect large cities like Chicago in an age of social media, where the meme could easily spread.

Perhaps part of the reason for this meme’s return (at least in a Canadian context) is that it functions as a form of one-upmanship over those cites that can’t seem to hack the cold weather. In this sense, claiming that one’s city is as cold as Mars acts as a symbol of toughness and endurance (esp. when Canadians compare themselves to the US), or, in a Canadian context, of authenticity, where cities like Winnipeg and Edmonton can feel superior when comparatively warmer places like Toronto or Vancouver complain about the cold weather (our minus mercury is bigger than yours, type thing). But I digress.

Something I’ve learned from J.Z. Smith is to pay close attention to the kind of work that comparison does in either reinforcing similarities that tell us very little, or, conversely, in drawing our attention to important differences that can tell us a lot. The latter point is nicely illustrated in Smith’s essay “A Matter of Class,” (Relating Religion 2004), when he writes:

Classification, by bringing disparate phenomena together in the space of a scholar’s intellect, often produces surprise, the condition which calls forth efforts of explanation (175).

In calling forth efforts at explanation, the two or more things being compared are therefore less interesting for what they might share on the surface than for what new directions their differences may provoke, thus unsettling our normal ways of thinking. In one example, Smith illustrates this problem with the term “fundamentalism.” Pointing out its coinage in the 1920s to describe a particular type of Protestant Christianity and its relation to biblical criticism, he observes that “fundamentalism,” when used as a generic category, obscures the particularities of, for example, Islamic versus Christian variations–a distinction that can make all the difference in how we go about explaining things. As he writes in reference to certain “Islamic” varieties:

It would be better to classify these other ‘fundamentalisms’ as instances of ‘nativism’ or ‘revitalization’ movements, thus emphasizing, among other matters, their setting in colonial and postcolonial histories, a setting that is not present in Christian fundamentalism. (175)

One passage from Smith’s work that continues to stay with me, perhaps more than any other, is from his biographical essay “When the Chips Are Down,” where he describes his “early interest in botany and fascination with taxonomy …” (19). I can still remember the light bulb that went off in my head as Smith prodded me to think about religion in relation to biological classification, and the idea that variation—whether we’re talking about reptiles, mammals, Sikhs, Hindus, or Muslims—is all that we have. Noticing these variations, big or small, between seemingly similar groups, or by bringing together disparate examples to call forth a new type of explanation (see e.g., “Fences and Neighbours: Some Contours of Early Judaism”) showed me that the study of religion is a boundless field, limited only by our imagination.

Matt Sheedy (Ph.D) is currently Visiting Professor of North American Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and atheism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native American traditions in popular and political culture. He is currently working on a manuscript that provides a critical examination of Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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American Converts and their Possessions: A Review of Lincoln Mullen’s The Chance of Salvation

Editor’s note: Bulletin Book Reviews is the newly developed book review portal for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, associated with NAASR and published by Equinox. We are interested in reviewing titles of wide relevance to the academic study of religion, particularly those which themselves foreground issues of method and theory in the study of religion or from which such issues can be gleaned and discussed productively. We encourage submissions from doctoral students and established faculty alike. For more information, please visit the page linked above.

Mullen, Lincoln A. The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 384. $39.95 (hardcover).

by Charlie McCrary

These days, Americans choose their religions. Even those who seem to start with a religion, those “raised religious,” must choose to continue to be religious, or to switch religions, or to cease to be religious, maybe become “spiritual” instead, or adopt the label “atheist” or “freethinker” or “agnostic.” Pick one. This imperative, Lincoln Mullen argues, originated in the nineteenth century, during which “Americans came to think of religion as an identity that one could and must choose for oneself” (10). Mullen does not use the language of the “Protestant secular,” but that language might be helpful to describe the model he proposes. Because Protestants—especially the revivalist sort, obsessed with individual choice, the moment of decision at the anxious bench, the desire to be made new—defined the terms of religion, other groups, would they too become legible as “religious,” began to work with the same frameworks. By the end of the nineteenth century, “for everyone,” Mullen argues, “religion was becoming more of a chosen identity, even in a religion [such as Catholicism] marked strongly by ethnicity and inheritance” (267). Furthermore, “the possibility of not having a disposition toward religion at all—of simply not having considered religion one way or the other—was becoming less of an option” (275). In this way, Mullen brilliantly highlights a fundamental irony of American religion: it’s a “marketplace,” a smorgasbord of options, but you must participate, and only liberal subjects get to buy.

Through six chapters, The Chance of Salvation excavates dozens and dozens of stories of individuals, families, and communities changed by conversions. Each chapter—on (white) Protestants and the “sinner’s prayer,” Cherokees, African Americans, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics, respectively—brims with vignettes. In these stories, we glimpse the drama of life: marriage, separation, birth, death, violence, displacement, enslavement. Each chapter rests on a theme and historical argument. For example, Mullen shows how African American Christians narrated their conversions in “eschatological time” as opposed to “human time,” and how the eschatological imaginaries of enslaved Christians differed from those of post-Emancipation African American Christians. The chapters are well constructed and rich with historical details. For the most part, though, the strong theoretical claims advanced in the introduction, the larger argument about the advent of the religion-choosing imperative, leave the text until the conclusion. That conclusion, a fascinating meditation on William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, does not offer neat answers but prompts more questions.

Mullen correctly notes that, although James studied religious conversion to get at something universal and timeless, what he was really doing was reflecting a new turn-of-the-century imagination of religion. But what is Mullen really doing? Ostensibly, he is historicizing, contextualizing, theorizing. But these analyses are always subtle, underdone, hinted more than stated outright. And sometimes Mullen rejects explanations without offering different ones instead. Unlike James’s Varieties, The Chance of Salvation is a history. So, my central question about it is a historical one: What was it about the nineteenth century?

If religion-as-chosen-identity is a nineteenth-century innovation, it might be helpful to analyze it in the context of nineteenth-century conditions. What about capitalism? In a few places, Mullen critiques the common “marketplace” metaphor, most interestingly in the chapter on Cherokees, where the idea does not track with their gift economy. And he mentions money here and there, as when conversions for obvious personal gain come under scrutiny. Concepts like “fraud” come up too. Throughout the text, Mullen dismisses Marxian analyses that might chalk up religious conversion to self-interested, class-conscious ladder-climbing. And religious positions might be connected to economic or political positions, but they are never reducible to them. For instance, after noting that those who converted to Catholicism sometimes did so as part of their rejection of capitalism, Mullen carefully qualifies, “This is not to say that conversions to Catholicism were driven primarily by political or economic concerns; they were not” (233). Then what is it to say? What or who did the primary driving? Mullen does not tell us. The ghosts stay unnamed.

But ghosts always have context, if not names. And even if religious experience is somehow wholly other, outside of time, conversions are still somehow related to material realities. Mullen writes, “For the Cherokee who were asked to choose between conversion to Christianity and renewed zeal for Cherokee cosmology, the choice was bound up with other choices—whether to acculturate, whether to adopt American-style agriculture and market trade, whether to enter into treaties, whom to right in the War of 1812. To choose conversion had different religious meanings over time, but it also had different political, economic, and social meanings” (68). Here, “religious meanings” are a node in a network, or maybe a piece of an assemblage. They connect with but are not the same as the political, economic, and social. Religion is something else.

My question remains: What was it about the nineteenth century? In addition to capitalism, settler empire defined that century. That could be an insightful avenue for analysis. I wonder if this whole business of religion-as-chosen-identity is a product of post-Enlightenment thought forged in the context of settler colonialism. This drive to name and classify, to craft taxonomies of race, sex, plants, worked to naturalize and legitimize hierarchical difference and exploitation, including enslavement. So, in the nineteenth century, identities became fixed. But, unlike race or gender (some exceptions apply!), religion was not totally fixed. It was changeable. Many Americans, influenced by Protestant revivalism, thought of their new religious identities as being “born again,” a “new creation.” They did not theorize religious identity as performative. It was changeable, but these changes were internal, even ontological in their transformations. In this way, nineteenth-century modes of identification and naming depended on colonialist mentalities. This is clear not just in missionizing, converting the heathen, but more broadly in the scientistic obsession with classification. Regarding some queer theorists’ use of the term trans*, Jack Halberstam explains, “the asterisk modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate transition in relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity.” [1] My point is, in Mullen’s book there is no Catholic* or Jew*, but maybe this would be a helpful way to frame conversion. In so many of the vignettes, the convert felt compelled to this new religion. Yet, despite the way revivalist Protestants conceptualized it, as a sudden and definitive event, a moment in time when an individual is made new, the on-the-ground process was messier, more gradual, always social. So, here we might see a colonialist framework—naming, classifying, ranking, fixing, concretizing—creating the possibility of (a certain kind of) religious conversion, even as the converts themselves, and perhaps more so the ghosts and gods compelling them, push against that framework.

How did these two contexts, capitalism and colonialism, converge in the discourse and experience of nineteenth-century religious conversions? It comes down, in large part, to liberal subjectivity. And the American liberal subject was (and is, in many ways) implicitly white. The first three chapters are mostly about Protestants, but the titles respectively indicate “Protestant,” “Cherokee,” and “African American” converts. That first chapter, which is primarily about white revivalists, sets the template for the rest of the book. It’s not just the Protestant secular at work; it’s the white Protestant secular, each of these categories’ pretensions to universality leaving its particularity unmarked. [2] Whiteness peeks through in sentences like “African Americans crafted their own alternative form of Christianity” (119; emphasis added), reminding the reader just who set the terms here. There is no index entry for “whiteness.”

Scholars of nineteenth-century American religion have been preoccupied with questions of agency. While Mullen does not devote much extended discussion to this issue, it pops up repeatedly throughout the text. One reason agency is important, beyond the stilted frameworks of “social control” versus “democratization,” is how nineteenth-century Americans’ concerns with it (not to mention historians’ concerns) betray their indebtedness to mythic liberal subjectivity—and, most relevant here, the ways that the nineteenth-century (and beyond) model of religious conversion supposes and imposes a particular way of being and universalizes it. Mullen’s exploration of this problematic is one of his best contributions. Here again we see whiteness at the crux of conversion as a colonial and capitalist project. In the chapter on Cherokee converts, Mullen emphasizes repeatedly that did not receive Christianity passively but, rather, recrafted Christianity, such that it “became as much a Cherokee religion as was traditional Cherokee cosmology” (67). To “make it your own” (much in the same way that twentieth-century young evangelicals, raised in the church, are implored not to rely on the faith of their parents but instead to “make your faith their own”), to conquer, possess, and (sincerely) hold something, was to become religious. But “religious choice was in no simple sense a new kind of freedom; it is better understood as an obligation” (16). Subjects did not choose religions happily at whim, like selecting breakfast cereal in a supermarket. “Rarely did converts write about their conversion in terms of taking advantage of a religious freedom, though that is often the mode in which scholars write about religious choice. Almost all converts described themselves as compelled to convert” (16). So, to be religious is to hold a belief, but first, something might take hold of you.

The Chance of Salvation offers an exciting topic, provocative set of questions, and a trove of intriguing vignettes. It is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in a long time. I had a hard time figuring out exactly what Mullen is doing. What’s he really getting at? The ambiguity and uncertainty around the book’s central questions, laid out in the introduction but then never quite resolved, make the book all the more fascinating. By writing in the conclusion about William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, Mullen begins to categorize his own work by contrasting it with James’s. So, what kind of book is Varieties? What was James doing, and how might that help us figure out what exactly Mullen is doing? Amanda Porterfield has argued that “Varieties is a modernist collage in which snippets of recorded experience come together apart from their original settings, reframed through James’s canny use of his own subjectivity to showcase contradictory aspirations to wholeness.” [3] The Chance of Salvation is not a modernist collage, but it is not postmodern either. I don’t think Mullen leverages his own subjectivity to achieve a “wholeness.” And he certainly does not extract these narratives from their historical context; his goal is the opposite. He is a historian, and James was not. And yet, recall, Mullen argues that converts were compelled, sometimes seemingly against their own will (to believe). Something unnamed, maybe unnamable, did the compelling.

What should we make of Mullen’s choice not to name the ghosts? We might read this book as a sort of exercise in post-critical “thin description.” Maybe it’s something like “abundant history.” Or perhaps it’s borne of a similar historical methodological imperative to let the subjects speak “for themselves.” Mullen describes his method as grounded in “historical empathy,” as opposed to “a rigid posture of critical distance” (xi). It is not simply letting them speak for themselves, but it’s not speaking for them either. And, besides, if the subjects are the religious converts, their own accounts are not enough, since they usually could not articulate exactly why they converted. And they generally did not historicize or critique or deconstruct their own conversions, so historians cannot look to their subjects to do the critical analysis for them. The historian, then, emphatically contextualizes the converts but does not critique them, per se. The religious converts are not the only subjects, though. What about the ghosts? As I read and re-read this book, I heard their voices growing louder.

We are back, as ever, to the agency question. And I recall the scene in Moby-Dick: Captain Ahab, after years of searching, finally raises a harpoon to plunge into the horrible haunting white whale. And he wonders,

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” [4]

Lots of nineteenth-century Americans converted. We can count them, albeit inexactly. And we can chart an individual’s movements from one religion to another and sometimes back again. We can read hundreds of stories and notice patterns and catalogue them. We can study conversion narratives and show how the templates were replicated. And Mullen does all this, skillfully. And that’s a lot, but it’s not enough, he admits. With his final sentence, Mullen concludes, “The difficulty is not in finding evidence, but in figuring out what it all adds up to” (288). I wonder, sincerely, what that means. Does the evidence, this collection of conversions, add up to some Jamesian “wholeness” after all? If so, what is it? What “nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it”?


[1] Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2018), 4.

[2] Some scholars already have argued that the American Protestant secular is white. See Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007) and most of the essays in Jonathon S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[3] Amanda Porterfield, “William James and the Modernist Esthetics of Religion,” Church History 83, no. 1 (Mar., 2014), 158.

[4] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), chapter 132, “The Symphony.”


Charlie McCrary is a PhD student at Florida State University, where he recently defended his dissertation, “Sincerely Held Religious Belief: A History.”

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Something I Learned From J.Z. Smith: Russell McCutcheon

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

Mid-afternoon today, the last day of 2017, I received word that Professor Jonathan Z. Smith, of the University of Chicago, had passed away the day before (due to complications from lung cancer). You can read the obituary his family has written, which is posted on Prof. James Tabor’s blog.

In the coming days and months there’s sure to be a number of stories circulating about Jonathan — in fact, I’ve already seen many kind remembrances posted on social media. And, like others, I too have a few of my own. But one in particular stood out to me as I sat here, thinking about the sad news that I received earlier today.

Jonathan was the second annual lecturer invited to our Department, back in the very early 2000s — what was then a tiny little Department that had been on the brink of closure and which was then at the start of what would turn out to be a long road toward reinvention. When I contacted him with the invitation to come to Alabama to lecture, I broached the topic of a speaking fee, since I had recently learned just how finicky some academics could be about not just their fees but also the details of their trip. (Did I ever tell you the one about the scholar who would only do two things while visiting — not three and certainly not four — so it’s either a public lecture and a class visit or a meal with students….) So, to my question about whether he had a fee he offered a simple “No,” and then, to my query about what all he might do when he visited our university, he replied:

Use me as you wish; I’m there to work.

That’s exactly how I remember our conversation.

It says something tremendous about him, as a person and as a scholar, that he accepted whatever we offered and — despite his reliance on that tree-trunk of a cane for which he was known later in life — he worked non-stop while visiting with us. He lectured in the evening but visited classes during the day, met with faculty, and was whisked off to a lunch downtown by our undergrads. He even had dinner with our Dean and Associate Dean, the latter of whom was the son of Jonathan’s own first Department chair, whom he remembered as a little boy in Santa Barbara.

Like I said: like others, I’m lucky to have some anecdotes, largely revolving around either seeing him in action at our annual meetings or meeting with him in Chicago. But that memory of learning that the person I considered to be the preeminent scholar of religion in the world had no fee and had no expectations of special treatment when visiting our little Department in Alabama — he was there to work — well…, that spoke volumes to me about what a scholar ought to be.

And so, like others, I feel extremely lucky to have had a part of my career overlap with his.

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Something I Learned From J.Z. Smith: Tenzan Eaghll

by Tenzan Eaghll

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

I never had the honor of meeting Jonathan Z. Smith, and to be honest, I haven’t even had the opportunity to read all of his works yet. However, the publications of his that I have had the pleasure of reading have immensely influenced my teaching style and I am grateful for the critical contribution he made to religious studies. The pedagogical usefulness of his work is quite remarkable. He had the ability to write about extremely difficult ideas in an accessible and even fun manner. Whenever I use his work in my classroom I find students grasp the underlying point very easily and tend to appreciate the candor with which he addresses the topics under consideration.

Without a doubt, the essay of his that I have used the most in class has been “Religion, Religions, Religious.” Originally published in 1998 in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, it provides a brief genealogy and history of the category of “religion,” summarizing its various permutations and interpretations since antiquity. It is written in a way that introduces students to the general history of the category of religion and to the fundamental problematic that underlies the study of religion—‘what is it we are talking about when we are talking about religion.’ The essay is also a bit ahead of its time, for although other attempts to trace the genealogy of religion were written before it, Smith’s broad sweeping historical summary of religion, as well as its naturalization and permutation into the “world religions” paradigm, prefigures full-length studies on the subject like The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa and Before Religion by Brent Nongbri.

The first time I read “Religion, Religions, Religious” was as a graduate student in a method & theory class. Smith’s essay was used as a class primer before reading The Invention of World Religions, and in a way it influenced how I understood the latter. What I learned from Smith’s essay upon this first reading was that it is possible to understand the invention, construction, and naturalization of religion as a positive pedagogical lesson. Though it is possible to see the lack of categorical stability in religious studies as a negative fact about our field—not to mention the nihilistic plight of the religion scholar—Smith encourages us to see it as evidence for what aligns religious studies with other academic fields, and as evidence for the various ways in which humans organize their world. At the end of the essay, after detailing many of the permutations and interpretations of religion since antiquity, Smith states that,

It was once a tactic of students of religion to cite the appendix of James H. Leuba’s Psychological Study of Religion (1912), which lists more than fifty definitions of          religion, to demonstrate that ‘the effort clearly to define religion in short compass is a hopeless task’ (King 1954). Not at all! The moral of Leuba is not that religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways.

When confronted with the reality that religion is not a native category to the world, but is in fact a second order anthropological term used to organize data, one could throw their arms up in frustration and conclude that it is best to abandon the study of religion and switch to history, or even anthropology itself, but Smith encourages us to see this terminological diversity as the very object of our study. What do people say about religion? How do they use it to carve up the world and create maps for the terrain before them? This positive pedagogical lesson influenced my reading of The Invention of World Religions and other genealogical accounts because it led me to see these works not as refutations of the central category of our field, but evidence for its diversity and importance. According to this perspective, what makes religious studies important is not that religion is “sacred” or “special” in some regard, but that humans use it in various social ways to shape the world around them. Moreover, what makes our field fascinating is that what gets to count as religion in the world is always an open and contested possibility.

Last semester I was given the opportunity to teach a graduate method & theory class and I had the honor of introducing the students to Smith’s essay and the positive pedagogical lesson it contains. Much like how the essay was used in the class I took as a graduate student, I used it to prime students for more complex genealogical material. At one point during the seminar, a student asked me what I thought all this material implied about the study of religion: ‘If ‘religion’ is a modern invention with no singular definition to encapsulate its meaning,’ the student questioned, ‘what are we studying in this class and in this college of religious studies.’ I replied that ‘we study how people use and think about religion,’ and that ‘this is an exciting thing because there are an infinite variety of ways this has been done, not just in the past, but right now in our contemporary world. Acknowledging the invention, construction, and naturalization of religion doesn’t mean it cannot be studied, but simply that what we study are these creative acts and their affects.’

I look forward to reading more of J. Z. Smith’s work in the future and learning other lessons from him, but so far, this positive pedagogical point about genealogy and the construction of our world is my favorite.

Tenzan Eaghll completed his doctoral research at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, 2016. He is currently a Lecturer at the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand. His research focuses on the intersection of continental philosophy and method and theory in the study of religion, with a special focus on contemporary French thought.

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Affecting the Study of Religion: Schaefer, Animality, and Affect Theory

The following is the editor’s introduction, written by Philip Tite, to the double-size September-December 2017 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial, which is also freely available from the publisher (doi: 10.1558/bsor.34604), here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin and also to help spark discussion and debate in theorizing religion.


In recent years there has been a rising interest in what is called affect theory. Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution and Power (2015) has brought this new theoretical framework to the attention of religious studies scholars. In this provocative and insightful work, Schaefer argues against a regnant logocentric discourse that gives privileged place to reason as an epistemological foundation for the conception, construction, and theorization of “religion” and, in its place, advocates an appreciation for those affective qualities such as emotion, space, and behavior. Schaefer ties this affective theoretical approach to animality, a point that several contributors to this issue of the Bulletin engage and even attempt to extend.

We are pleased to offer readers of the Bulletin the following panel of papers on affect theory and the study of religion. Contributions by Hollis Phelps, Jay Johnson, Courtney O’Dell-Chaib, and Matthew Hotham, along with the response from Schaefer, arose from a panel at the AAR annual meeting dedicated to “Religious Affects.” In addition to this panel of papers, we are also pleased to include Tyler Tully’s application of affect theory to the study of trauma. Affect theory, in my opinion, has the potential to be one of the most cutting-edge developments in theorizing religious phenomena. Unabashedly self-reflexive, this theory shatters many of the epistemological and cultural assumptions that continue to dominant (Western) intellectual work, even beyond the study of religion as well as among those of us who have been calling for greater self-reflexivity in theorization. Affect theory is also provocative and raises several points for further debate, debates that will likely be sparked by the very claims being made. For myself, I wonder if affect theory risks returning us to a phenomenological approach grounded in sui generis religion, where the emotive, inner world of a social actor becomes the psychological foundation for the essence of “religion”—and in this sense, I am reminded of R. R. Marett’s classic theory of preanimism or Rudolf Otto’s assumption that religion arises from an encounter with the mysterium tremendum. The centrality of nature or animality in Schaefer’s work also raises an important arena of debate currently being played out in our field; i.e., should religious studies scholars and our professional institutions directly engage social activism, such as we have seen with the AAR’s engagement with environmental ethics and global warming? Is there a slippery slope here where we may slip into some form of secularized ecotheology? Yet there are advantages to affect theory, especially in elucidating how social actors create and maintain realities not through ideas, but by mean of action, interaction, and affective reactions. Bodily religion, rather than linguistic articulations, rises to the foreground of the analysis of social actors and community dynamics. As Schaefer so wonderfully puts it, with affect theory we get to explore

a perspective that sees bodies moving through worlds under the pressure of a complex welter of affects, with language weaving between and reshaping those pressures only sometimes—and even then only haltingly and unevenly. Affect theory—examining the mobile materiality of the body—thematizes the ways that the world prompts us to move before the interventions of language. It calls attention to embodied histories that precede the advent of language. (2015, 9)

Ideally, I could see affect theory integrating various other areas of study that stress the bodily or materiality of sociability when addressing the taxon “religion”; be that ritual theories (especially Catherine Bell’s seminal work), cultural geographies (notably when dealing with the geography of bodies), and recent developments in cognitive science of religion (especially in conjunction with cultural anthropology). The articles published in this issue engage, exemplify, and challenge such points. In many ways, they all offer us an opening for debating and refining affect theory for a more sophisticated and non-logocentric theoretical approach to the study of religion.

Beyond the affect theory articles, we are delighted to include in this issue an exchange over the construction of religion within the sphere of popular culture. Specifically, Méadhbh McIvor and Richard Amesbury offer a timely discussion of a new headscarf emoji, an emoji that, for many readers, will evoke a religious signification. Joseph Laycock engages this cultural innovation, thereby opening a debate over various theoretical challenges facing those studying not just “religion” but, more specifically, the construction and utilization of “the religious” on social media. It is our hope that Laycock, McIvor, and Amesbury’s exchange will prompt further discussions and debates over the ever-changing social contexts, especially the increasingly vital online social media outlets, wherein social actors create “religion” in various and different ways: be that in evoking or negating the taxon, the use of digital imagery as text, the dynamics of social interaction, or the competing moments of audience reception.


Schaefer, Donovan O. 2015. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution and Power. Durham: Duke University Press.

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