The Normative Turn and its Discontents


by Travis Cooper

In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a 2015 BBC miniseries, an omniscient narrating voice opens the story as the camera hovers over an early modern British town and zooms in to focus on a public house:

Some years ago, there was, in the city of York, a society of magicians. They met up on the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. They were gentleman magicians, which is to say they had never harmed anyone by magic. Nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell. Nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust alter its course or changed a single hair on anyone’s head. With this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

The camera now enters the pub. One Mr. Segundus lists his credentials and affinities as a burgeoning student of magic, after which he submits a hesitant inquiry to the senior scholars:

I have recently begun to wonder why the great feats of magic that I read about remain in the pages of my books and are not seen on the street or on the battlefield. I have begun to wonder why modern magicians are unable to work the magic that they write about. In short, gentlemen, I wish to know why magic is no longer done in England.

The table of magicians murmurs anxiously in response to the newcomer’s provocation. Then the head of the table responds:

It is a wrong question, Mr. Segundus. Magicians study magic, the history of magic. We do not perform it. You don’t expect an astronomer to create stars, eh? Or a botanist to invent new flowers, eh?

Replies Segundus:

It is a child’s question, I appreciate, but no matter—

The head of table forcefully interjects:

Practical magic, sir, is not a thing for the gentlemen of this society. Nor any gentleman. I do hope that you have not been trying to cast spells, sir.

Laughter, again, ensues. The humbled Mr. Segundus sits down, having been temporarily beaten in the discursive spar of authority. The scholars win the opening scene, but in the longer visual narrative, these “gentleman magicians” are made mockery of by Strange and Norrell, iconoclastic aspiring magicians who seek to revive applied English magic. In the filmic arc of the story, the scholars of magic are dull frauds who have only to put their knowledge into practice and action to correct for their deficiencies. As the last scene of the series suggests, this is exactly the case. Having been banished by Mr. Norrell, the revoked credentials for magic are restored, provided that the once disinterested theorists of magic both study the magical arts and practice them.

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to apply this situation from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to a recent impasse in religious studies with regard to disciplinary boundaries. There has been recurring contention in the academic circles about the relationship between religious studies and theology. Although the conversation tends to address the seeming differences or similarities between religious studies scholars and scholars engaging in theological inquiries, underwriting such deliberations are questions about the normativity, objectivity, subject positions, and biases of scholars intent on studying the odd nebulae of phenomena typically marked as “religion” or “religious.” Jonathan Z. Smith averred that theologians and other experts in constitution theological canon were of primary interest for study by religion scholars. Donald Wiebe posited that religious and political agendas compromise the serious and critical study of religion. Against urges to distinguish between alternative methodologies within the study of religion, a more recent camp hailing from the philosophy of religion has problematized any easy distinction between theology and religious studies. The philosophers have gone as far as calling for scholars in the anti-theology collective to own up to the normative stances and agendas implied even in their own social scientific approaches. For Kevin Schilbrack, religious studies ought not to force a distinction between theological and social scientific, descriptive, or historical study but should employ a tripartite program of study that conjoins description, explanation, and evaluation. For Thomas Lewis, religious studies scholars, no different than theologians, make evaluative and normative judgments in their programs of study. Schilbrack and Lewis redefine in an increasingly inclusive manner the boundaries of the religious studies tent. Rather than exile theologians from the academy, these scholars insist, only those voices who obscure their normative stances, biases, and subject positions ought not to be counted within the fold of authorized study.

Responding to the so-called “big tent” initiatives of recent normativist voices, other scholars have pushed back. Finbarr Curtis wonders whether allowing theological inquiry within the religious studies discipline will only legitimate certain types of theological stances—namely, those preferred liberal ones with which religious studies in the United States has been influenced—while excluding those we do not. Craig Martin admits that all scholars have biases and implicit normative agendas that define and delimit their work, but similar to Curtis’s worries counters that we need a more critical and rigorous account of “normativity” itself. In other words, not all forms of normativity and stancetaking are in equal standing. On Martin’s view, the normativist pressure to readmit theological inquiry into the discipline of religious studies throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. For my own part, I’d force the question in the other direction: Objectivity is currently unpopular in our hyper-reflexive, postcolonialist milieu, but are all appeals to neutrality of equal value? Is not the collapse between all sorts of value registers disingenuous? Might not some sort of weak, mitigated, or perhaps even symbolic objectivity necessary for teaching religion in public school classrooms?

I admit that my thoughts in these matters are less than determined. On the one hand, I view my work as diametrically distinct from that of theologians that I know. On the other hand, I have good friends trained in theology or even ethics, scholars I wouldn’t in the least bit mind sharing an academic department with—and not simply because that means my data as a religion scholar will now conveniently work just down the hall. To be clear, I have mixed feelings on the subject. Further compounding an already complex situation, as a student of the history of anthropology, I’m not certain religious studies will ever be free from theology. Could it be that we need the theologians? Could it be that, as in the formational years of the discipline of anthropology, theology is to religious studies what missionization was to anthropologists? Religious studies emerges, after all, out of the theological sciences. Perhaps theologians are as much necessary, inescapable foils as they are methodological ancestors.

However ambivalent I am about the current contentions, I think what we’re seeing in religious studies, especially as orchestrated by reconfigurations within AAR leadership, is a veritable consensus shift toward the inclusivity of overt normative stancetaking within the boundaries of the discipline. The examples abound. Thomas Tweed stresses that everyone makes normative judgments by way of implicit values and calls for more discussion about values—whether they be shared or distinctive—within religious studies. Race Mochridhe argues that authorizing and evaluating religious groups that are not one’s own is a societal obligation and requirement. Constance Furey endorses a qualified form of teaching theology in public university classrooms.

To return to the Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell illustration I opened this post with, the historians of magic do not fare well. The scholars come off as foolish proprietors of worthless knowledge. The distinction between disinterested study and applied practice hits eerily close to home in terms of resistance to the programs of distinction proposed by critical scholars. Are religion scholars historians and archivists of esoteric magical texts or active practitioners in the dark arts? Must one make the choice between study and practice? Whatever the solution to this impasse in the study of religion, it may require a magic spell or two to get past it.

Travis Cooper is a PhD student and associate instructor at Indiana University (Bloomington), in the departments of religious studies and anthropologyHis research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, embodiment, materiality, gender, media, critical ethnography, visual culture, and religious experience. Travis blogs informally about his academic work here. Find out more about his research and publications here.

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American Gods, Part 1


by Eliza Rosenberg

[Note: This is the first in a series of entries on Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. The series will consist of chapter-by-chapter discussions of the book from a religious studies perspective, each avoiding spoilers for future chapters.]

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was well poised for prominence when it was first published by William Morrow in 2001. Gaiman’s best-selling and award-winning graphic novel – or, as he prefers, comic book – Sandman, published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint between 1989 and 1996, had been instrumental in pushing the medium toward mainstream respectability. His next major work, the text novel Stardust (William Morrow, 1999), sold successfully and received a Locus Award nomination and a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. American Gods sold even more successfully and collected Bram Stoker, Hugo, Locus, Nebula, and SFX Magazine awards. The Starz network will be releasing a televised adaptation under the direction of Bryan Fuller in 2017. Anyone in religious studies who has not read the book has probably been asked why at least a few times. Even if the Starz’s series does not achieve Game of Thrones-level popularity, I would venture that its likely audience, including the new readers it brings to the book, overlaps considerably with the pool of undergraduates enrolling in religious studies courses.

The reason American Gods is effective in communicating its many ideas about religion is that it’s worth reading in its own right: an engaging story about interesting characters. The finer points of those are best left to literature specialists – or to general readers with no particular interest in religion, many of whom seem to have enjoyed the book very much. (I would note that American Gods’ ideas are as much about race and colonization as about religion as a “separate” subject, although for the moment I will limit the discussion to the “primarily religious.”) Although I will be avoiding spoilers, I think it is safe to summarize the premise as follows: A man who has found himself in some hard circumstances receives an unsolicited job offer from a stranger, a grey-haired man with a missing eye who wears a silver ash-tree pin and who asks the protagonist, since the day on which they meet “certainly is my day,”[1] to call him Mr. Wednesday. Intrigue ensues.

Most people in the discipline would probably skip past the question of who Mr. Wednesday is, and the story dispenses with it quickly as well. Even before it answers the question of his identity for the readers, however, it introduces another question that will inform the rest of the narrative: What, exactly, is “religion”? We raise this old saw in the first session of every introductory class, and American Gods wisely declines to offer another insufficient definition. Instead, the protagonist’s experiences are ones that resonate with a classroom full of curious and frustrated students who have been struggling through an impossible task. His perspective on wake he attends will seem familiar:

The atmosphere in the room was religious – deeply religious, in a way that Shadow had never previously experienced. There was no sound but the howling of the wind and the crackling of the candles . . . “We are come together, here in this godless place,” said [one attendee], “to pass on the body of this individual to those who will dispose of it properly, according to the rites. If anyone would like to say something, say it now.”[2]

The liturgical echoes (“We are come together in this place”; proper rites) evoke the atmosphere of explicit religion – a funeral mass; the dharma and the li of attending to finalities. That it is evoked in a “godless place” – the text is quite specific as to why it is godless, and what this means ­– reinforces the tendency of religion to defy categories. This is a theme that Gaiman reiterates, beginning, for example, a key section of narration with the caveat that:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all . . . [They are] places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the word . . . So, none of this is happening. Such things could not occur in this day and age. Never a word of it is literally true, although it all happened, and the next thing that happened, happened like this.[3]

The irony inherent in the text emphasizes the importance of another common answer to “What is ‘religion’?” namely that it involves sacred narratives, i.e., myths. The field of religious studies has paid this subject less attention in the past two decades or so than it did previously – not due to any oversight in the discipline, I think, but more owing to the abundance of earlier work on myth and the imperative to consider long-neglected issues related to the vital contexts of myths (e.g., social locations). The point, though, is so foundational that it can become lost in the layers of specialization that sometimes distance students from their instructors: Religious narratives have power. Their potency comes not only from what they mean but also from what they say. We often remind students that the content of a religious narrative is inextricable from its socio-historical matrices. American Gods gently but memorably reminds us that the reverse is equally true – were it not, the narratives themselves would have no resonance in their contexts.

Another common answer to “What is ‘religion’?” that has retreated lately from the scholarly limelight and that American Gods re-engages is that of belief. Gaiman introduces the theme even before he introduces Mr. Wednesday. Shadow has the first of a series of recurring dreams that find him in a subterranean space with a buffalo-headed man who tells him, “If you are to survive, you must believe . . . Believe everything.”[4] The buffalo-headed man’s advice holds for religious studies as much as it does for Shadow. For too long, the discipline operated on a religion-as-sincere-belief model that filtered the totality of religion through the lens of Western Protestantism. (This tended to be true regardless of whether the scholars in question were themselves Western Protestants!) As anyone in the field now acknowledges, of course, religion is “about” social location, routine, liturgy, sensory experience, materiality, ethics, culture, etc. just as often as it is “about” belief or myth. Trying to identify any single controlling factor as the controlling one is usually a fool’s errand. Nonetheless, religious studies is no less prone to overcorrection than any other discipline: Belief is often an important part of religion, although not always in the same way. Adherents do not maintain or adapt religious practices, interpret experiences as religious, etc., either arbitrarily or as socially programmed automatons. What it means to “believe in” something varies as much as the object of that belief, the motivations for it, and the enactment of it, but in addition to being performed, communicated, enforced, enacted, tasted, contested, embodied, and legislated, religion is narrated and believed in.

Questions of method and approach aside, American Gods provides another point of entry at which to meet students: its gentle amusement not only at the tropes of the discipline, but the foibles of those in it. The novel features periodic “Coming to America” interludes, stories of how many of its titular characters wound up so far away from their original soil. Gaiman presents these interludes as the compositions of one these characters, an undertaker called Mr. Ibis who “[speaks] in explanations: a gentle, earnest lecturing that put Shadow in mind of a college professor who used to [know Shadow] and who could not talk, could only discourse, expound, explain.”[5] I suspect that even most first-year students will share their instructors’ laughter of recognition. I also suspect that I am in good company among instructors who find Mr. Ibis a reminder of what we fear becoming – and find in American Gods an affectionate tribute to the Mr. Ibises we have met along the way.

Eliza Rosenberg received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McGill University in 2015. She is currently Adjunct Professor of Religion at Eastern Kentucky University.


[1] Neil Gaiman, American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text). New York: William Morrow, 2016, 31. (In all editions: chapter 1, section 2).

[2] Ibid, 565–566; chapter 14, section 17

[3] Ibid, 643; chapter 18, section 1.

[4] Ibid, 22–23; chapter 1, section 2.

[5] Ibid, 243–244; chapter 8, section 1.

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The Hegemony of Normalcy and the Academic Study of Religion


by Daniel Jones

“The hegemony of normalcy is, like other hegemonic practices, so effective because of its invisibility.”-Lennard Davis

“We must… take account of the persistence of a model of interpretation and the inversion of its sense, if we wish to engage in a genuine critique of critique.”- Jacques Rancière

For those of us involved in the critical study of religion, we often find ourselves embroiled in debates about what the object of our study actually is. For we are a tribe of diverse scholars with diverse methods. I, for one, cherish Bruce Lincoln’s “anti-disciplinary” sensibilities, and nomadic approaches to scholarly inquiry (think BraidottiDeleuze/Guattari).

How we each “find” data depends on the relationship between what we see and the discourse that precedes (and thereby makes possible) our observation. It shapes our view of “religion” as observational data—what it is, does, or where it might be absent or found.

A recently re-posted 2012 book review nicely represents how particular ways of speaking of religion—analysis, defense, observation—are, in fact, entangled with particular ways of seeing or perceiving it as an object “in the world.” That is to say, that when someone speaks of an object that they understand as religion, in both academic and poplar discourse, they produce an image reflecting what constitutes, for them and their group, an authentically shaped object of religion. This production inherits, and benefits from, previous discursive forms of religion with which they are already familiar. Following Bourdieu, we often reproduce, unwittingly, social forms by which actors behave strategically.

In the review in question, entitled ‘A Philosopher Defends Religion,’ what struck me was the very normalcy by which its language of religion, conceived in a rather narrow and thus traditional form, went uncontested. That form favored particular theological commitments present in ecumenical, liberal Protestant, and in Evangelical discourse, both of which have been influential in the trajectory of the shaping of religious studies scholarship in “Western” academia. The book under review, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, authored by noted philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, was presented as a defense of “religion,” though qualified as “theistic.” The review’s author, NYU emeritus professor of philosophy, Thomas Nagel, was seemingly content with allowing Plantinga’s to define the terms of theistic religion, and in doing so dictating the characteristics which shaped the object by which a taxa of religion was defended as compatible with modern science, over and against philosophical naturalism. Nagel, a self-identified atheist, therefore does something interesting by accepting these parameters and engaging the book as a defense of “religion”: he reinforces the hegemonic normalcy by which one looks for and finds certain forms of “religion.” The version we find here is common enough: it is primarily about beliefs and/or faith (Plantinga splits the two), includes a theos/God, and resulting in a very particular cosmological textual traditions.

Nagel may therefore be doing more than he realizes when he quips that Plantinga’s “religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual Deism that gives God nothing to do in the world.”

For by not challenging Plantinga’s very Christian, very ecumenical Protestant synecdoche for “religion” (even for what constitutes “theistic”), Nagel, though an atheist, reifies a hegemonic way of seeing religion. Doing so, I would argue, masks very important historical empirical data, as well as political dynamics that are present, though now undetected in, Plantinga’s work. This de-historicized vision of religion as an object to defend serves—at least for those critical scholars of religion interested in studying social facts—as valuable data, but not method. That this is a very normal way of speaking about religion in scholarship, however, is worth studying, not reifying. At the very least, it provides an example of the very different labor that some philosophers of religion do from many of us in the Religious Studies. Those who appreciate Lacanian Gaze Theory might posit a form of Protestant Gaze which has affected how scholars often look upon their data, even if they reject the authority and identity of Protestant theology.

Now, of course Plantinga is free to defend and follow what he wishes as a follower of a system of beliefs like that which he is defending.


If we are to be engaging in the academic study of religion, no matter the discipline, we must be attentive to the implicit theories of religion created by academic discourse. How language is employed in theorizing human activities and “experiences” across time and space should be subject to the politics of recognition.

To rephrase my point, I am left wondering why this review wasn’t called “A Philosopher Defends a Particular Theology” as opposed to the usage of the term “religion,” since (as is sometimes the case in the philosophy of religion) when the terms are so clearly defined by a particular type of Christian discourse. I might therefore ask what the term “religion” does, how it functions. But, I am also left with another question: how does the tyranny of normalcy in the academic discourse on “religion” contribute invisible limitations on how we frame what we observe?

Daniel Jones is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. His research focuses on critical discourse analysis of the intersections of religion, nature, science, and humanity.  His research interests also pertain to theories of religion, culture, communication, and anthropology.

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Theory in Unlikely Places: Tim Kinsella’s Lyrics


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask readers and contributors to share some reflections on unlikely places (i.e., non-stodgy-academic-prose) where religious studies theory and method show up for them–be it in song, poetry, literature, television, film, or anything else. 

by Adam T. Miller

A while back, Russell McCutcheon shared a brief note about a poem titled “Geography” recently published (in a larger collection of poetry) by former Alabama religion major, Madison Langston. The poem is short, but not at all simple. It’s nostalgic and self-aware about the conditions of its nostalgia.

It caused me to think about a place where theory often shows up to me–not academic prose, but music. More specifically: the lyrics of Tim Kinsella, singer and lyricist for Owls and Make Believe, two of my favorite bands. Owls’ first album (s/t) was released fifteen years ago; their second album (Two) was released two years ago, after a long hiatus. Make Believe released three full length albums (Shock of Being, Of Course, and Going to the Bone Church) between 2003 and 2008. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they reunite for at least a show, if not another record.) Both groups (and other projects their members are in) have attained a kind of cult status; their records are not often met with much critical acclaim (see, e.g., Pitchfork’s review of Shock of Being).

I’ll here provide the lyrics of three songs in full–two from Owls’ Two, one from Make Believe’s Shock of Being–followed by brief reflections.

A drop of blood in water appears to blossom.
That thing I know that I can’t say is all I want to say.

I’ve never once asked for advice and I’m not starting now.
I’ve offered you ritual. I’ve offered you surprise.
I dropped a thing and then it knocked over another thing.

But I keep a couple wrong things around because I know that I’ll need them for perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection.

A drop of blood in water appears to blossom.

In these lyrics, we are given a glimpse of a conflicted and constrained subject, desiring what it cannot have, doing things it thinks it should do but with unintended results. But the overarching point of the song, or so it seems to me, is what we might call the basic insight of poststructuralism: such things as values comes in pairs. In the absence of imperfection, what could it mean for something to be perfect?

Why oh why must other people’s stuff always seem just kinda dirty? That guy applied that Lost-and-Found Chap Stick. A waiter with bad breath–he dropped your chilled pickle in hot sand.

I want you to do what you want to do. It’s cute how you assume your experience of the world is the world.

My oh my I’d smear your love-muck into my hair and face, sniff my fingers all day. The Stop sign’s white looks green next to fresh snow and I need to eat your goo. My horoscope always trumps world news.

I want you to want what I want you to do. You’re stupid to assume questions assure answers.

Admittedly, I have never read Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger in its entirety. But this song has always reminded me of the portions I read in my first theory course. Bewildering as it was, and so long ago, that connection might not be so strong as I think. But take the first paragraph as an example–the disgust in these scenarios (caused by the mixture of clean and dirty) is palpable.

The third paragraph illustrates the comparative method–which suggests that situating two or more things next to one another can cause new things to come to light about the things being compared (not to mention the people doing the comparison)–albeit in a rather odd way. The first line is a juxtaposition of romantic/erotic sentiment and perhaps a bit off-putting descriptions; the second an observation about how different contexts cause some things to appear other than how we think they are.

I’ve also had the sense several times that the second and fourth little paragraphs are all about ideology and how it causes worlds to appear uncreated and as if they function on their own, how it interpellates subjects in terms appropriate to those worlds, and how it subtly molds those subjects from the outside-in so that the inside-out feels right without any hesitation.

My Buddy Trouble Anna had a punk band named Bananas / She’s a tornado with teeth and she needs a place to sleep / There’s friendly ghosts below her belt inside her belly when she sings

And Love and War are either / either or or / or And Love and War are either / either or or / or

Under hot lights of open mic night / She’s with Christ against all the stupid Christians / Bananas fell apart and Anna finally got her start / Anna made out like a bandit

And Love and War are either / either or or / or And Love and War are either / either or or/ or

Singing in her own strange laughing language / She’s with Marx against all the stupid Marxists / Singing ‘Babies and Old People Look the Most Like Monkeys’

This song doesn’t give us too much theory to chew on (though there is a lot of odd stuff going on), but what it does offer is interesting. And what I’m referring to, of course, are the lines about Christ and Marx. What we see in action here in both cases is a rhetorical move likely familiar to many readers of the Bulletin: an appeal to origins/founders as a way not only to distinguish oneself from others, but also to privilege one’s own position as authentic over and against said others. What exactly Trouble Anna’s views regarding Christ and Marx are, we can only speculate. But rhetoric like this shows up quite frequently in the kinds of material we are inclined to study, and these two lines illustrate quite nicely/explicitly the kind of work it often seeks to do.

The moral of the story? Well, it’s like McCutcheon said when sharing his thoughts on “Geography” on Facebook–“you don’t have to use prose to do theory.”

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, he specializes in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: James Crossley


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 James Crossley

Do you want to hear my anecdote about my favourite experience along the lines (though admittedly not the same as), “So you’re not a priest?” Of course you do. I was reading a book on the development of the study of Christian origins in the nineteenth and twentieth century (Ward Blanton’s Displacing Christian Origins) in a dentist waiting room and I was asked by the receptionist what I was reading. No-one wants to engage with fellow human beings and I did keep the cover deliberately obscured (great book though it is) but I nevertheless tried to explain what I hate explaining. Yet it turned out to be a humbling experience because she responded by telling me that she hoped rich people would burn in hell, starting with the Rolex-wearing dentist who underpays his staff. I could only agree with the sentiment.

Most reactions to what I do (assuming I tell the truth) to people outside universities are usually unsurprising ones of indifference or bafflement. Countless times colleagues have spoken about the question, “So you’re not a priest?”, or variations on the theme. While not professing to know what people think, I tend to assume cynically that the question often functions as code for, “look how obscure I am and our little group I’m a part of is!” Maybe I’m wrong in plenty of instances and I actually do like the idea of valuing things deemed obscure, useless, and without obvious economic value. And, in fact, one reason I value such things is because in my previous academic experience there was pressure on my economic valueless subject which was therefore not deemed worthy by influential figures in management. Put another way, my embarrassment outside the workplace is the opposite of my proudly self-identifying with biblical studies against certain universities who treat such a subject with contempt because it does not bring in much money.

Let’s take a look at these two tendencies and some of their ramifications.

Category One: being embarrassed outside university about the subject we study. I always struggled understanding why I am (and others are) socially awkward when it comes to discussing what I/we do. I have always known that it would be deemed weird to admit my interests but I would also read things like the majority of people identifying as “Christian” in answer to the question, “What is your religion?” According to Census 2011, this figure was 70.7% in my hometown of Barrow (a little higher than the national percentage, though notably down from 81% in Census 2001), and might be compared with 22.1% identifying as “No Religion”. This surprised me because I do not seem to know anyone in my hometown who goes to church and very few who care about what I do. I have also read articles and books arguing (not always unreasonably) that the past forty years may have seen a sharp decline in identification with a church but yet people identify as “religious” in a host of different ways. This seemed a little closer to my experiences but still: why would my job be embarrassing in these context if lots of people were now claiming to be SBNR (Spiritual, But Not Religious) or whatever? Well, questions and answers in the context of e.g. the Census only tell a story in one particular context. The British Social Attitudes survey asked a different question (“Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?”) and it suggests a national and regional decline in identification with Christian churches (especially the Church of England) and a rise in those identifying with “No Religion” (44.2% in the North West of England, slightly lower than the national percentage). I am not suggesting that one question is necessarily better or worse but rather both provoke different answers and identity performance in different contexts. One seemed to be a little closer to helping me understand my anxieties but, ultimately, I wasn’t too much the wiser.

Over the summer I decided to find out more about this in Barrow and in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. I asked about thirty people what they thought of the following from the now former British Prime Minister, David Cameron:

[From] human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy…the first forms of welfare provision… language and culture… [T]he Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy…[They form] the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women… Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none.

The reactions were telling. Certainly there were constructions of, and assumptions about, what the Bible and Christianity is (e.g. a morally decent something corrupted by later interpreters). But the near-universal response was disbelief that a politician would dare justify political views with the Bible or Christianity which were deemed largely irrelevant. In contrast to immediate answers about politics, almost all participants were puzzled, baffled, and paused for some time to think, and some thought that I even invented the quotation from Cameron (I didn’t, incidentally). Several answers mocked the perceived hypocrisy and stupidity, as well as using industrial language to describe Cameron for doing this. There was little in the way of hatred for what they assumed the Bible or religion to be though little in the way of nostalgia for a lost past either. One of the few generalisations possible is that there was that shoulder-shrugging indifference about something that might once have been influential. I looked at hundreds of related examples in the context of social media over the summer and there were only occasional examples that might commonly be categorised as “religious” of “biblical”. This is, of course, only one town with its own peculiarities. But at least it seemed to confirm some of my own suspicions and experiences (on all this, the article is freely available for download here).

Why might this be relevant? This brings us to Category Two: we demand religion and the Bible be studied, not because we are necessarily wanting to be priests but because it’s all very important. A standard justification (at least in the UK) for a field or fields feeling under threat is to say that the Bible has had a hugely important influence and continues to have a hugely important influence. But what if the puzzlement about the priestly question, the common anxieties biblical studies types talk about, and the sample of people I interviewed and looked at, reveal something more worrying for the future of the field than being red faced? Might it reveal that there are a lot of people for whom the Bible or religion isn’t as important as some scholarly rhetoric would have us believe? Might it reveal that the Bible and religion is actually important for people who think a bit like the academics who insist that the Bible and religion is important, whether in terms of theological commitments or aesthetic tastes? All this could provoke questions and explanations as to why. Yet the claim of cultural importance isn’t exactly wrong either. It is easy enough to find the Bible and understandings of religion present among politicians, on TV, in music, and so on. This in turn might lead us to complicate the standard claim that “the Bible and religion are very important” and think more about these disjunctions and why and for what reasons is the Bible cited as a higher authority or used in the name of subcultural chic when plenty of people don’t care or notice. In the case of political discourse, why is the Bible invoked when the British electorate, as Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell speculated, do not “want their politicians banging the Bible [British English equivalent of “thumping the Bible”] all the time. They hated it, I was sure of that’? (Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years [Hutchinson: London, 2007], pp. 111-12].

That answer is for another context but clearly such questions that complicate the case for importance. Yet the argument of importance has a pragmatic function. I know I am not alone in having experienced a university management who likewise have no interest in the Bible and religion, and some such figures push certain negative subtexts that sometimes lurk behind the question asked in this series. This is starting to have ramifications for degree programs and, most worryingly, jobs in the UK, some of which are being lost. This is where the “importance approach” can be significant, at least if allowed to be put into practice, and at least for those who want the field(s) to survive. The UK model of the study of religion is (largely) tied in with subjects having discreet departments with their own courses for student recruitment. The increasing neoliberalization of universities (especially since 2012) has also contributed to the anxieties about the future of the field(s) based on income. While complicity with (what to some of us is) an unfortunate economic turn would be inevitable for those who wish to continue in the conventional university setting, there are still ways of surviving. By embedding the subject in other academics fields (e.g. English, History, Anthropology, etc.), scholars of religion can put the “importance argument” into practice and help with staff-student ratios for colleagues in other departments and faculties. This might not be as pressing for North American colleagues but there is an intellectual argument that might be of relevance. It seems clear enough (to me at least) that in some areas of the humanities and social sciences there is little knowledge of the deconstruction and genealogy of discourses about “the Bible” or “religion” and too much work which assumes some peculiarly essentialized notions. But so does a great deal of biblical studies and religious studies, you might respond. Certainly. But that does not mean limiting debates and intellectual engagements. On the contrary. There is an opportunity to embed the subject(s), inform other subjects, and learn from other subjects.

So, if anyone is working in a context where the priestly question (particularly when spoken with a derogatory subtext) is too easily assumed, answer: “Not necessarily. Now, sit back, relax and let me tell you all about it…”

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Pope Francis’s Gender Trouble


by Matt Sheedy

The other day I came across a short article on Facebook entitled, “Pope says gender theory part of ‘global war’ on marriage, family,” which I promptly shared on my wall.

The Reuters News Agency piece recounts comments made by pope Francis while on a trip to Georgia last week (the country, not the state), where he warned that “traditional marriage” and the family were under attack from the twin threats of gender theory and divorce.

Quoting Francis, the article reports:

Today, there is a global war out to destroy marriage,” Francis said. “Not with weapons but with ideas … we have to defend ourselves from ideological colonization.

This notion of “ideological colonization,” as the article further points out, is a phrase that the pope has used in the past to criticize rich countries for tying aid programs to policies that favor things like contraception and gay marriage.

It is also noted that Francis has been more accepting of homosexuality than his predecessors, while maintaining the sanctity of heterosexual marriage as “the most beautiful thing that God created.”

There is much that could be unpacked for analysis in this news brief, from shifting notions of heteronormativity within the Catholic Church (however glacial the shift may be … probably not the best metaphor in an era of rapid climate change, but you get my point), to the pairing of gender theory with divorce, the rhetorical inversion of “ideological colonization” to criticize socially liberal policies, the theologies that lay behind such an exalted view of marriage, to a comment appearing below an embedded video link, which reads, “Orthodox shun pope’s mass in Georgia,” signaling divisions between Roman and Eastern Orthodox factions.

Like most news items that aren’t in-depth articles (and Reuters prides itself as the first agency to report breaking news from around the world, so it ain’t The New Yorker) there is little to be learned here unless one has prior knowledge of some of the issues at stake. Despite the dearth of information, however, I often find such articles to be a goldmine in the classroom for illustrating how ideology works in subtle (and not so subtle) ways to shape how we perceive the world around us as natural and given.

Take, for instance, the way that Reuters characterizes gender theory in this piece:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

On the one hand, it is somewhat refreshing to see the inclusion of ideas most commonly associated with brainy books and university classrooms appear in popular media, though what this brief definition suggests about “gender theory” is, to quote Slavoj Zizek, “ideology at its purest” (I bet you said it with the accent, no?).

Despite the appearance of seemingly neutral language, this idea reflects a particular understanding of biology along an XX-female XY-male axis, obscuring more nuanced analysis of intersex variations that destabilize this binary as a neat and universal form of biological classification. The emphasis on “rights” is also telling as it reflects the rhetoric of individualism, commonly associated with liberal and neo-liberal ideology, where freedom is imagined in relation to the ability to choose one’s own identity. Among other things, this classification exalts the idea of free choice while placing it in the hands of individuals (the “all about you” language of contemporary marketing), rather than signaling the ways in which ideological apparatus’s construct gender identity in the first place, to which people are force to interpellate and adapt to in some way.

Seeing as this article is produced for an English speaking audience in the United States, we might surmise that the description of gender theory is meant to appeal to these common liberal sensibilities, which hold a fair bit of currency within contemporary American society. Like so much else in popular media, however, the symbolic power of language shapes the world for us (I should have called this post “Reuters Gender Trouble,” but that’s not as sexy, right?) in ways that often go unnoticed, unless theory steps-in to trouble our neat little categories.

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

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The Problem with the Primacy of Primary Sources


by Andie Alexander

Note: This post originally appeared on the Studying Religion in Culture blog.

Over the past few weeks I have heard repeated talk of primary sources vs. secondary sources, privileging the former over the latter in every case. The argument that was made in these instances is premised on highlighting the legitimacy and groundedness of the primary sources, as if they focus on something “real,” (such as religion on the ground, or “real world” examples). These are then juxtaposed with the secondary sources, which are seen as subsequent discourses on primary sources, mostly concerned with meta-discourses — regarded mainly as “thinking about thinking” or “talking about talking” — which are given that secondary ranking because they aren’t talking about something “real” or answering the reader’s question (in fact, often they leave them with more questions than answers, whereas primary sources are all about answers). In some cases, these secondary sources are dismissed with a “So what?” I say “dismissed” not with a negative connotation, but with a sense of such indirect relation to the “real world religion” that the “meta-discourses” are seen as not worth the same time and engagement as their juxtaposed primary sources.

What strikes me as interesting about this distinction between primary and secondary sources is that the use of that very language largely relies on some essentialized notions of religion, as if it exists authentically, apart from subsequent claims about it.

For, to me, sources and claims about sources are much the same (they are all instances of human discourse), so to see so-called primary sources as anything more than yet another discourse taking place, is to miss the mark. Primary sources certainly do not represent or depict the “real” any more than the secondary sources. For, inasmuch as we presume them to be human artifacts, primary sources have an argument and methodological approach that is necessarily rooted in certain perspectives and biases.

Consider archaeologists working at a new dig site. How do they begin to determine what is an artifact worth studying and preserving and what is just simply dirt or unimportant material? There is an active decision in the process of setting one broken shard of clay apart from another — that itself is meaning-making. There’s no telling how many pieces of broken pottery one might run across in this process. But what is set apart now becomes a relic. How old does it have to be? Does it have to have a certain shape? These questions are just the beginnings of the active critical work necessary to studying ancient artifacts (as opposed to dirt).

So just because primary sources work with case specific data they are not consequently mirrors of “reality” or religion on the ground. Yet many seem to assume that primary sources are more rooted in reality, a view that necessarily relies on the notion that religion is a “real” thing and is inherently interesting in and of itself. One can certainly find religious practices interesting (or should I instead opt for the more active verb “make”?), and no doubt they are of great importance to their practitioners. But relying on the assumption of importance qua importance seems like shaky ground on which to do productive scholarship (for it means our work is based on obviousness, suggesting that such don’t really have any particular skills other than an ability to recognize what others claim as important).

If we take seriously the argument that religion is not essentially anything — something you’ll hear in a Dept. of Religious Studies ad nauseam — and therefore is malleable socio-political rhetoric, then why do we fall back on these essentializing discourses to distinguish the sources we study from those that we produce? For, as Merinda Simmons aptly argues,

But that fact is too often forgotten, it seems, even now in this academy wherein talk of “critical theory” proliferates but wherein its implications are curiously absent. Scholars thus do themselves… no favors by… professing their love for it, and calling that progressive academic work. What we are left with, in that case, are dueling essentialisms in the service of respective passions.

While Simmons was referencing the AAR’s 2016 theme of Revolutionary Love, I think the argument applies quite well here. There is always much talk of applying “critical theory” but I rarely see evidence of it when it comes to how we do our own work. Instead, there is a brief acknowledgment of the necessity of so-called critical approaches in scholarship before moving on to studying the “real” stuff.

This way we can have our cake and eat it too — and thereby prevent our critical theories from being a little too critical.

I was recently jokingly chastised for not finding my area of work inherently interesting. Having made the comment that my topic was no more interesting than anything else, I was asked why I was even in the field of religious studies. But the point of my comment was not that I found my work uninteresting — quite the opposite. What I meant to highlight in that remark is that no area of study is inherently or self-evidently interesting. For example, I didn’t choose my thesis project because it is self-evidently interesting, but I instead found that it was a great way in which to explore identity politics, issues of globalization, and the practical effects of classifications — all those meta-discourses that are seen by some as secondary to our “real” work. But wait: if not for those second-order discourses, I would have no way to even begin talking about my research project, much less identify something to study and then develop and carry a project through to fruition. For, arguably, it is these second-order discourses that allow any work to be done. Given this position we’d claim that there is no way to study (much less represent) any sort of data without employing some sort of theoretical approach to that topic. Description is therefore theory — it’s embedded in assumptions. Without them, there would be nothing to describe, much less analyze. So whether one is engaged in rigorous critical analysis or what one might portray as disinterested descriptive work then one is equally engaged in, and producing, secondary sources.

So you can understand why seeing primary sources as somehow different from secondary sources is, to me, a bit puzzling. Case specific data does not equal “real” religion or actual experiences — it is just one of many ways in which those specific data sets can be identified and then discussed.

What’s more, if we recognize that we cannot have the data without the theory, then we might ask what this dichotomy of primary and secondary sources is doing? The way I see it, it allows us to feel like were talking about something real, studying real issues as opposed to acknowledging how unequivocally rooted we ourselves are in these theoretical discourses. However, if we take a step back and instead of essentializing these primary sources, acknowledge that they, too, are just as much discourse on discourse, then we can shift the conversation more to the implications of these discourses rather than their origins, ground, or sources. Rather than teaching data as the product of disinterested description only to then change the game by teaching the complexities of how we only later talk about religion, why not instead start from the latter position and examine how our assumptions make things into religion (or not)? For if — as so many claim — they do not agree with essentialized notions of religion, then why do we still continue to rely on them and teach them in our classes? While it is certainly simpler, I go back to what I said in the start of this piece: relying on the assumption of importance qua importance, seems like shaky ground on which to do productive scholarship (and I’ll add pedagogy here as well.)

Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is completing her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

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