NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field.
by Sean Durbin
What am I working on? A few things…
I am currently working on securing a contract for my first book, which is a study of a contemporary Christian Zionist organization in the US. Broadly speaking, the book examines the way mundane or “profane” activities are reconstituted by Christian Zionists into something that is said to be extraordinary, or “religious,” therefore protecting their political activities from critical scrutiny, while simultaneously enabling them to recast opposing views as either misguided or inherently evil. Essentially, it draws on a variety of the issues and social contests the group is involved in and examines the rhetorical practices that are often used as a way to both naturalize and sanctify these activities, often by recasting these activities as a form of typological reenactment of either biblical or extra-biblical historical events that the subjects of the book constitute as examples of God’s use of human instruments to work out his will in the world.
While the book is ostensibly about American Christian affinity and support for Israel, my hope is that it will have broader appeal in the field, whether or not folks are specifically interested in the subject matter. The reason I say this that although the chapters attempt to provide both emic and etic description and explanation, they also function to comment on some wider issues in the field. So, for example, while a chapter on the “history” of the organization describes, on the one hand, the formation of the group, it also closely examines the way their own foundational narratives function as a form of modern myth-making (in the sense that Bruce Lincoln describes it as ideology in narrative form). So I don’t take what they say as simply a reflection of reality, but instead examine it as part of rhetorical strategy to place themselves in a position as part of a long line of what they call “righteous gentiles”—that is, Christians who have helped (to use an emic description) fulfill God’s work in the world through support for Jews or Israel. In terms of the theoretical scaffolding of the book, if I had to guess, I’d say the work of Bruce Lincoln, Roland Barthes, as well William Arnal and Russell McCutcheon’s most recent book receive the greatest number of citations and were the most helpful for me in terms of making sense of my data. Additionally, the work of Susan Harding and Sacvan Bercovitch were also very influential.
In addition to this, I was fortunate enough to be part of a NAASR panel organized by Jennifer Eyl and Erin Roberts last year in San Diego on “Strategies of Mythmaking at Christian Tourist Attractions.” It was a great panel, and Erin and Jennifer are in the process of collecting all of our papers as well as some others from scholars working on similar topics for an edited collection, which I am quite excited about.
I also recently became one of four editors of the journal Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception. It’s a great journal, and I think we’re getting some really interesting stuff. Best of all it’s open-access. At the moment we’ve got Eric Ziolkowski acting as guest editor for a special issue on “Editing Encyclopaedias and Handbooks in Religious Studies in the Twenty-first Century: Aims and Challenges” which is also derived from a panel he organized in San Diego last year. I will use this space to shamelessly plug the journal, in case anyone reading has something they would like to submit. I think one of our other editors, Deane Galbraith, put it best in an email to me the other day: “We need lots more religious studies stuff, too. Reception studies in respect of Christianity is almost all origins-worship. But anything to do with how religious traditions change, develop over time is what reception history should be.”
One final collaborative project I am involved in is editing a five-volume collection on “Religion and Radicalism” with Roland Boer. In this sense “radical” is understood as a challenge to the status quo, whether that is reactionary or revolutionary. We recently signed a contract with Palgrave Macmillan for the first five volumes, and it has now turned into a formal series at Palgrave. The first five volumes are derived from conferences that Roland organized over the past few years, in Australia, in various locations across Europe, and in China. So we have a wide range of contributions from scholars from all over the world, at various stages in their careers, which I think will provide an interesting addition to scholarship on historical and contemporary political movements that invoke religious themes as inspiration for their activities.
In terms of my current reading, I have to confess it’s been pretty limited to stuff that I’ve been using in the classroom. I started a one-year contract as a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Newcastle earlier this year, and since this is the first time I’ve convened and designed all my own courses, that’s taking up a fair bit of my time. I would like to mention one reading of particular relevance to NAASR that I’ve found has helped me start thinking about a new research project, though. In one of my classes called “the Many Faces of Jesus” I had students read the introduction of William Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus to help them understand how we would approach Jesus as a cultural symbol that can be put to all kinds of contradictory uses. Naturally I had to re-read it along with my students. One of the things that Arnal writes concerning Jesus that stuck out to me, is his point that “Jesus means so much, so differently, to so many people, that it is almost impossible to say anything about him without engaging people’s most deeply cherished feelings…” (7). And a bit later, he suggests “a statement about Jesus … is always a statement about something else, rich with implications” (7).
The reason this resonated with me is because it got me thinking about my own research on Christian discourse on Israel, and I realized that if I were to replace “Jesus” with “Israel” in those passages, they would be just as true. Whether it is pro-Israel Christians, or critics of pro-Israel Christians, what they say about Israel generally tells us much more about their own political or theological concerns than it does about Israel itself. So right now I’m beginning to brainstorm a bit more about how to broaden this next project in a way that not only considers the various overtly Christian attitudes towards Israel as a particular site in which Christian identities are worked out, but also the way in which broader public discourse on Israel has a particular mystifying element to it. The 2012 Republican primaries were a pretty good example of this, with each candidate trying to portray him or herself as more pro-Israel than the other, while also making sure that Obama is cast as the most anti-Israel president of all time, which to my mind became shorthand for a whole host of other issues concerning their religiosity, as well as military and economic concerns. And I suspect that the upcoming primaries will yield even more useful data, so it will be interesting to see what direction the project goes.
Sean Durbin received his PhD in 2014 from the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He is currently lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Newcastle. More information, along with his recent publications can be found on his academia.edu page, here.