So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Adam J. Powell


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 Adam J. Powell

No, I am not a priest. I’m not a vicar, preacher, pastor, minister, or even a theologian. I am not paid to believe and, despite the admittedly confusing titles of higher education, I am not one who ‘professes’ religion as a vocation. For the laity, this is often puzzling. As Russell McCutcheon’s previous contribution to this series already noted, on these things many of us can agree – and commiserate. However, and following on from McCutcheon in this as well, it is important to mention that my deepest professional frustrations concerning the academic study of religion have so far come from colleagues rather than either the ill-informed layperson or the uninformed undergraduate. What is more, this is not simply because my status as an early career scholar necessitates that I am beholden to more senior colleagues at every turn and, thus, find my pursuits in their hands in way that would never be true for the laity.

In the following paragraphs, then, I want to expand McCutcheon’s notion of colleagues as ‘outsiders’ by highlighting the tacit, rather than the overtly condescending, questions from colleagues. In offering a bit of my personal experience, I hope to explore briefly both the ambiguities and the inclusivity of religious studies as they paradoxically engender regrettable instances of misunderstanding and line-drawing as well as the (arguably beautiful) ‘big ideas’ that can cause the confusion in the first place. In a sense, I want to take a moment to discuss the implied question of what it is that I do/study/research as it emerges in dealings with editors, conference chairs, etc.

In my experience, however brief it has been, many ‘gatekeepers’ have seemed relatively inflexible in their conceptualisations of the field of religious inquiry. However, to some extent, we are all products of a system of higher education which has witnessed systematic, if artificial, disciplinary divisions and the rather inevitable subsequent over-specialisation in each area. Religious studies may see itself as a product of mid-20th century debates concerning religion’s cultural import and the ‘family resemblances’ linking both the phenomenon and the methodological tools necessary to study it (sc., Ninian Smart’s efforts), but it has deeper roots that extend back centuries. Arguably, one ‘family resemblance’ that unifies those roots is anxiety over the value, relevance, and veridical nature of the humanities and social sciences. In my estimation, the same tensions felt by German philosophers 200 years ago as they hoped to justify philosophy’s existence through epistemological debate remain quite palpable among scholars of religion today who hope to cleave off the ‘dead limbs’ they believe they have identified within the guild.

This tension, indeed, seems apparent in our somewhat inconsistent veneration of interdisciplinarity, a value that suddenly emerges with vigour when we spitefully argue for the significance of our work on grant applications. More importantly, a similar strain is noticeable when one’s research areas and competencies span multiple sub-disciplines – for the very question of a field’s purpose or identity assumes a singular answer. By the same token, otherwise laudable adjectives/concepts like ‘expert’ or ‘specialist’ can seem natural claims to authority and, therefore, socio-cultural impact, but they also generate circumscribed notions of legitimacy and scholarship which have as their sine qua non one single phenomenon or approach. After all, to be a generalist is to forgo specialisation, right? It appears to me that our struggle to navigate the trends and pressures of 21st-century life (e.g., the corporate university model, the information age, globalization, etc.) has either numbed us to this disciplinary dissection or convinced us it has not gone far enough.

Yet, I cannot ignore that the body of my scholarly endeavour is comprised of numerous parts: Mormon studies, theories of religion, social anthropology, cognitive science, the history of social science, all combined with a small early dabbling in patristics (of all things!). In other words, I have one foot in sociological theory and the other in studies of Mormonism; I have a hand in cultural anthropology and the other in the cognitive science of religion. I do not want to be split down the middle and, when submitting articles to journals or proposals to conference committees, my reluctance to do so has sometimes been misunderstood. Responses have included everything from outright rejection due to a claimed ‘lack of data’ to positive acceptances in which the term ‘sociology’ was changed to ‘cultural anthropology’ for the same reason: ‘a lack of data’ (data is tricky in religious studies, I admit).

Please note that I am not bemoaning the peer-review process or suggesting that I am any more troubled by critical feedback than the next academic writer. What I am underscoring is that much of what counts as upholding standards of a sub-discipline or remaining faithful to the stated objectives of a publication can be justifiably rearticulated as indomitable hindrances to cross-disciplinary aims. In an age when American presidential campaigns confound ‘experts’ and British referendums catch ‘specialists’ entirely off guard, our academic dismemberment could be lamentable. If, for example, it was de rigueur for political scientists to be conversant in identity theory or sociologists to have some familiarity with theological debates, how might the humanities and social sciences be positioned to impact current events? No, no one person can know it all. Yes, as a collective we have been burned by grand theories born of imperialist attitudes and nurtured by misguided evolutionary frameworks. Sometimes it is wise to amputate an infected extremity. As it turns out, however, the pain can be unbearable when you are forced to sever your own healthy limbs whilst your colleagues watch on.

So, what does all of this mean about what I ‘do’? That isn’t easy to answer when asked by a layperson. But it is likewise nearly impossible to describe concisely what it is that I ‘study’ or ‘research’ when asked by a fellow academic. This is not only because of the ever-swelling number of entanglements (debates, idioms, narratives, power plays, histories, etc.) threatening to rise up and grab ankles with a downward tug every time I engage in conversation with another scholar of religion, but the question is also problematic because – whilst it implicitly acknowledges a variety of possible answers – my research outputs and forms of dissemination are very diverse even if they are united by a smaller number of theoretical concerns. Stated differently, it is sometimes tempting to clarify if one is being asked about what they research or why they research what they research. Either way, thus far possessing broad interests and theoretical pursuits has meant coping with a sort of intellectual homelessness – particularly in the context of institutional differences on each side of the Atlantic. It has meant facing equal amounts of bemusement from those who saw ‘theoretical’ but were hoping for ‘meta-theoretical’ and from those who saw ‘theology’ but were hoping for ‘the truth’. Regrettably, it has meant near indignation – again in equal parts – from those who saw ‘Mormonism’ but hoped it did not mean ‘I am a Mormon’ and those who saw ‘Mormonism’ but hoped it did mean ‘I am a Mormon’.

Luckily, what I study is not what I do. What I do is ask questions of the human experience – past and present – in hopes of rendering our conceptions of ourselves that much more robust. Unlike McCutcheon, I am able to list one primary religious group: Mormons. Like McCutcheon, I am primarily exercised by theoretical questions. That these questions concern everything from traditional western religious beliefs to the role of human cognition in the frequency and nature of auditory hallucinations means that I am engaged in the academic study of religion as it is currently, if amorphously, manifest.

In the end, of course I support ongoing debates over the state of religious studies, arguments concerning for instance its methodological inclusivity in the face of 21st-century burdens on higher education. What I do not support is the contrived segmentation of disciplines (and sub-disciplines) which has left those who resisted the surgeon’s knife hamstrung nonetheless and which, perhaps worse, has positioned colleagues as outsiders to one another.

So if you ask, I may say that I embody our discipline’s inherent anxieties in the service of realising its potentials…or something like that. What do you do?

Adam J. Powell is a COFUND International Junior Research Fellow in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the UK. He was previously and assistant professor of religious studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina and has published on Mormonism, the theology of Irenaeus, and the sociological identity theory of Hans Mol. His newest book Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion is due in early 2017 with Routledge.

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


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 Stacie Swain

When I began writing this piece, I was on a plane ride back to Ottawa for the 2nd year of my MA in the study of religion, after travelling for two and a half months for both studious and non-studious reasons. Constantly switching contexts requires constant acts of identification, description, and explanation – who you are, where you come from, what you do, why you’re there, how you got there, where you were before, and so on.

On this particular flight, I was seated in between two strangers; and, as so many others in this series have noted that they themselves do, I was staring at my laptop, headphones on, hoping that neither of the nice seeming middle-aged ladies to either side asked me what I was doing, writing, or studying. My antisocial tendencies in this case mostly sourced from explanation-exhaustion, in that I was simply tired of the ‘elevator pitch’ that I could recite by rote at this point, sometimes given in layperson’s terms and sometimes not, and the conversations that often (but not always) tread (or trudge) a relatively predictable path.

Of course, as other posts in this series have also pointed out, the extent to which I identify, describe, and explain myself depends upon who they are, where we are, whether or not I feel like talking about it, and the persistence of the person(s) in question. My default reply is my thesis topic flavour of the month, and often (especially if they have that confused face) I qualify the short explanation with a nod to the fact that I don’t study theology, and instead come at things from more of a social sciences kind of perspective.

#notallscholarsofreligion pull this explanatory maneuver of course, but there is a certain amount of baggage (normative assumptions) that we pick up off of the baggage claim when we identify as scholars of religion. Perhaps the issue is even more confused, as some have suggested, by the variety of names for our field – for example, that I’m in a department of ‘Religious’ Studies, and therefore perhaps my studies are performed from a religious perspective.

A case in point of the impression that I, and others, often wish to avoid is encapsulated in this Buzzfeed list, “29 Things All Divinity School Students Will Understand.” Now, I may be in a department of Religious Studies, but I’m not at a Divinity school. I’ll admit that I’m not even entirely sure what they are, but I know that lots of top universities have them – Harvard, Duke, Yale, and Oxford, to name a few. Pop culture as it may be, this Buzzfeed post serves as data in that it identifies and reinforces a boundary between those within divinity schools and those outside of them, a form of inclusion and exclusion based upon those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t.

Even though I’m not attending a divinity school (perhaps I just don’t get it), I can see that the post is demonstrative of the overlap and ambiguity over what those studying religion do or wish to become. Namely, while the tone of the post is overtly Christian and theological (i.e. #8 the Bible is “the text,” #12 “We’re doing God’s work”), you might have noticed that #7 almost literally asks the same question that this series in the Bulletin does: so, you’re not studying religion in a post-secondary institution in order to become a priest/minister/nun/monk, etc.? For my reaction upon seeing elements of this list that cross-apply to me (i.e. #14, a tropical AAR/SBL location) and particularly #7, please refer to the face-palming Jesus statue that serves as the header image for this series.

My point here, however, is not to replay debates within the field regarding the covert and overt theological agendas with which scholars in departments of religion sometimes jostle for space. Nor do I wish to contribute to the debate over which forms of scholarship the AAR should include or exclude (for that see the other Bulletin series, ‘Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme’).

Instead, the Buzzfeed post I cite reinforces what Russell McCutcheon discusses in a recent contribution. While this series asks us how we explain what we do to “outsiders,” McCutcheon draws our attention to how we explain what we do to our colleagues. This brings up the question, just who is an outsider and what makes a colleague’? Where are these boundaries and who gets to draw them?

This question brings to mind a situation I found myself in at this past spring’s Eastern Regional AAR meeting in Pittsburgh. At lunch one day, my co-diner identified himself as a ‘critical theologian.’ As you may have adduced from some of my earlier remarks, I position myself far, far, away – perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is one – from theological approaches within the study of religion. But, as you do, we both gave a version of our elevator pitches, though perhaps adjusted as per the context and according to our understanding of what the other person could and would understand. If we had wished to be provocative (as we all surely sometimes do?), perhaps the version would have included what we thought the other wouldn’t understand or agree with.

To my surprise, or perhaps less surprising given that we were both relatively civil social beings regulated by a conference etiquette, we were able to have a good conversation upon some common ground, even if I can’t remember now what exactly it was. We became Facebook friends, and sometimes their posts make me feel as though I’m peeking into another world, one that I cultivate both a border and a distance from within my own work and how I identify as a scholar of religion.

What then of Ivy League Divinity schools, outsiders, and colleagues? This issue, that of how departments that claim to study religion identify, describe, and explain themselves, is particularly pertinent as I browse various universities’ doctoral programs. For while I think that I’m looking for a context that might suit me – or where and how I situate myself as a scholar of religion – in reality I’m also attempting to determine which department I might suit. In other words, where might I be an outsider versus where might I speak the right language? And how much am I willing to reconstruct what I think I do contingently upon context?

Using a language metaphor for approaches within the study of religion has occupied my mind lately, likely in part due to my summer attendance of a workshop at the Arctic University of Trømso in Norway on ‘Translations: indigenous, religion, tradition, culture.’ Excuse the convoluted phrasing, but what are else are we doing when we describe what we do to whomever we see as outsiders, but performing an act of translation or interpretation of our ‘academese,’ our learned jargon, into layperson’s or alternative terms?

Perhaps I’m also influenced by the fact that I’ve been thinking ahead to the NAASR meeting in San Antonio this year, and trying to think about description, interpretation, comparison, and explanation, not simply as methods but as social procedures, or practices, that constitute our everyday lives – including those parts of our lives in which we become ‘scholars of religion’ in an active, agential sense, such as in the situations that this series aims to address.

NAASR’s program asks that we examine the above four terms as, “key tools that all scholars of religion surely employ, regardless their approach to the study of religion.” This description shows a particular interpretation of ‘method’ as tools we use, but the terms chosen are equally operative in the constitution of our ‘selves’ as scholars of religion. This series, for example, operates largely according to a logic of comparison and need for explanation that is predicated upon a boundary not unlike that in the Buzzfeed list previously cited. (See what I did there?)

To conclude, one might ask – how do we explain ourselves to ‘outsiders’ when our own ‘insider’ status is contestable and contingent? Well, we might select one of the aforementioned tools, those tools that we (theoretically, or according to a particular theory) put to work upon those whom we study, and apply them to ourselves. We might thus consider how we become constituted as scholars of religion – not only as and to ourselves, but also for those to whom we answer the call: “Hey you!” and the ensuing query, “What do you do?”

Stacie Swain is an MA student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Ottawa. She’s interested in how language and language-use impact social and political engagement, particularly when ‘religion’ and similarly problematic concepts do work within hegemonic discourses in reference to minority groups.

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Better Know a Religion Blog: Sightings

In this series with the Bulletin–whose title is a play on Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment, and whose alternate title is “Religious Studies Blogs: What do they talk about? Do they talk about things? Let’s find out!” (from BoJack Horseman)–we ask blog authors/curators to tell us a bit about their blogs’ history, relationship to other blogs in the blogosphere, and typical focus. 

by Brett Colasacco

Can you tell us a little something about the history of this blog?

Sightings began in the mid-1990s as an initiative of something called the Public Religion Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, under the directorship of Martin Marty. When the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion was reorganized as the Martin Marty Center in 1998, the publication of Sightings continued under its auspices.

Articles going back as far as 1999 are searchable online in our archive, and I’d encourage anyone to check them out. They provide a fascinating overview of the ways in which religion has been “sighted” in public life for the past 17+ years, as well as the wide variety of ways in which students and scholars of religion have sought to engage with their wider public(s).

How do you see your blog in relation to other academic oriented blogs that deal with questions relating to religion?

Technically speaking, Sightings isn’t really a “blog”—though there are obvious similarities. What we do is in some ways closer to investigative journalism, albeit in miniature. Our authors typically respond to an event that has recently been in the news and explain how it reflects, or reflects upon, religion. To be clear, we aren’t a wire service; rather, we strive to provide serious yet accessible analysis of the relations between religion and contemporary society.

Sightings publishes two articles per week. Our Monday pieces are authored by Martin Marty, one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Our Thursday pieces come primarily from other academics, but also sometimes from religious leaders or informed citizens. Sightings currently goes out to around 5000 subscribers via email; more people read it on the website. Our articles are regularly featured on sites such as RealClearReligion, and select pieces are also republished in The Atlantic. In short, we provide an opportunity to reach a much wider audience than students and scholars of religion usually do.

What are some of the more common themes this blog takes up?

Given the prevalence of sources now available for coverage of religion in its more easily recognizable forms—here I’m thinking of things like Religion Dispatches or even the Religion section of Huffington Post—I see our single most vital role as that of exposing the less-than-obvious ways in which religion intersects with our everyday lives and social contexts. This means that we focus upon not just the traditional, historical religions, but also civil, secular, or political religions.

Many of our articles touch upon politics in one way or another. For instance, we are now running a series of articles on the Trump phenomenon—or “Trumpism,” if such a thing can be defined—and what it says about the relationship between religion and politics in America leading up to the U.S. presidential election. We have a number of pieces on the horizon that deal with religion and sports, and we are always on the lookout for thoughtful essays on religion and contemporary art, music, theater, film, television, etc.

What kinds of methods and theories do you focus on? Do you have any preferences, requirements, or exceptions to how ‘religion’ can or should be approached?

The more interesting and original, the better. Though of course it’s important to be clear—implicitly to oneself, if not explicitly to the reader—what one’s theory of religion and methodological commitments actually are!

What do you think are some of the advantages of scholar blogging about religion?

Needless to say, in the current climate it’s a huge advantage to any student or scholar of religion, established or aspiring, to do what one can in order to expand the potential audience for one’s work. It can also be incredibly stimulating and rewarding. Publishing your work, even a very short piece of work, in a forum like Sightings can generate a tremendous amount of conversation and often yields very helpful feedback of the sort one doesn’t necessarily find within the walls of academia. I firmly believe it’s something we should all be doing.

Brett Colasacco is Managing Editor of Sightings and a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His main research interests include religion and late nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature; Anglo-American and continental European modernism and the avant-garde; and totalitarianism, fascism, and political religions. His dissertation explores the intersection of these themes in the work of the American poet and dramatist Robinson Jeffers.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Russell T. McCutcheon


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 Russell T. McCutcheon

I think there’s been enough posts in this series to afford me the opportunity to tweak it, just a bit, and update something I wrote a while ago concerning how colleagues react when they find out that you’re interested in not religion but in the very category religion itself.

Writing in the introduction to Manufacturing Religion (published in 1997) I phrased it as follows (p. 6):

For some scholars of religion, such a metatheoretical focus will no doubt be troubling or possibly even perplexing. I say this because, on a number of occasions, I have been asked by colleagues, “But where do you get your hands dirty?” I take it that they are asking me what historical religion, which specific myth, or what particular ritual do I study. No doubt after coming clear as to what the book is concerned to address, some readers will still be asking what I simply refer to as the “dirty hands” question. “All this is fine and good, but what has it got to do with religion?” Another form of the question revolves around talk of hard data: Where is your hard data? Have you been in the field? Where is your ethnographic evidence? The prominence of this sort of questioning in the discourse has direct relevance for the critique I develop, for it presumes that religion, myths, and rituals are simply and self-evidently “out there,” unique and easily identified, like ripe fruit on a tree just waiting to be picked.

I then concluded that making the discourse on religion one’s data “is generally not received very well by some scholars” (p. 7). Hence my choice of a quote from Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus to open the book: “the sorcerer’s apprentice who takes the risk of looking into native sorcery and its fetishes … must expect to see turned against him the violence he has unleashed.”

One of my first experiences of just such a poor reception was when I was first asked that “dirty hands” question: it was during a job interview at the AAR, in one of those curtained hotel ballrooms, for a tenure-track position as Western Michigan (an opening specifically aimed at hiring in the area of method and theory). I was pretty new to the interview game back then and this may have been my first experience with a hiring committee. It was 1994 or maybe 1995; I was an Instructor, back then, at the University of Tennessee, and I was either about to defend or had only recently defended my dissertation up in Toronto. What made all this unique was that Western Michigan was hiring in an area that almost no one took seriously back then—long before all those now mandatory “method & theory” courses were invented in grad schools across the continent and so prior to everyone listing on the CV “method & theory” as one of the competencies. So for that small group of us (many of whom were indeed at Toronto) who identified with what was then a pretty new specialty in our field, it was a little exciting. Jump ahead a bit and we learned that the search was cancelled and (as I recall) re-advertised the following year with “method and theory” now merely listed among the various things the successful applicant might be able to do.

So I’m guessing that, like so many other occasions, “m&t” had been the occasion for an internal arm-wrestling match in the department—it’s a hunch based not just on how the ad changed over the course of a year but also on the evidence provided by that dirty-hands question. For I was asked that very question by faculty who really didn’t seem to get what they’d advertised for—or who were using the occasion of an interview to contest it. “So and so in our department does Japan, so and so does Africa, I do such and such—so where do you get your hands dirty?” was how I remember it being posed to me. My answer concerning studying methods and theories, and thus studying the works of scholars of religions themselves, and doing fieldwork at conferences and in journals, didn’t go over so well, for it just elicited a paraphrase of the same question, asked of me yet again, as if repeating it—much like talking loudly and slowly to a foreigner—might help me to understand it better. Not unlike an interview I had some years later, to be Dean of an honors college, and at which I was asked so many questions about recruiting that I had to pause and ask if this was indeed an interview for the position of Dean, I was then asked so many questions about what religion I actually studied that I paused and, as I recall still, said something like “This is a position in method and theory, no?”

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

While this hardly rises to the level of the violence of which Bourdieu wrote, failing to obtain a way to feed yourself because your interests deviated from the norm is as close as I’d like to come to it in my professional life.

So yes, seated on a plane, trying to explain being a scholar of religion as opposed to a theologian, to your happenstance seatmate, does present some challenges; but I think that they pale in comparison to the difficulties entailed in trying to explain to colleagues—colleagues, which implies that we work together, supposedly share common tools and intellectual interests—that one studies the fact that some people call certain things religious (or not).

Given the ease with which we know that we’re not studying, say, mana, but, instead, studying people who happen to talk about mana—and thus rather easily making the shift to seeing our work as anthropocentric—suggests that, if pressed, our colleagues should be able to figure out that the shift from religion to “religion” is not that difficult to make. For as the case of mana so nicely illustrates, just because people themselves talk about something as a feature of their world does not necessarily mean that we, as scholars, must naively accept its existence and, as the people themselves may see it, its ontological status. After all, there’s all sorts of people who claim to be masculine or feminine but there’s also plenty who are interested in studying gender as an historical phenomenon itself—it’s not that controversial, at least to many scholars (in fact, it’s now even a little passé for some). But tell another scholar in our field that you study the category religion itself and, well, there’s a good chance they’ll roll their eyes, tell you you’re obsessed with the category religion (as someone once did with me, looking over my online C.V. at an NEH event where I was a guest), or maybe, as a scholar more senior than I did just last week, tell you that you’re in a rut. They may even blurb a book in which your work appears and use their few sentences on the back cover as a chance to undermine the point of the essay you wrote for the volume.

Not outright violence, yea, if by that we mean bloodshed, but each is a curious moment of disciplining—each a situation in which your research interests are not misunderstood but actively contested and delegitimized.

The arm wrestling of that job interview never really went away.

So when it comes to making the shift from religion to “religion”—to being interested in the possible motives or effects of using that organizational term in either this or that manner—it’s still pretty controversial work. And that I’ve persisted in this interest makes me a little controversial as well—for example, apart from being told I’m in a rut—could you imagine saying the same to anyone who spends twenty or more years studying, say, religion in America?!—it has gained for me the reputation that I’m out to kill religious studies departments or the field as a whole. In the early years I always thought it was an association that had something to do with my friendship with the late Gary Lease, who played a central role in the demise of the program at Santa Cruz (for more, see his essay in the special issue of MTSR that he guest edited (7/4 [1995]). But since I’ve been working in a Department that has so successfully reinvented itself since 2001 (e.g., we’ve more than doubled the size of our tenure/tenure-track faculty [now at 10] and, given the success so far of our proposal, we hope to begin offering a rather novel MA in the Fall of 2017) it still puzzles me that this impression persists. (Just how much of my work has such a person actually read, I often ask myself.) In fact, people who get jobs working here are routinely quizzed, or so they tell me, by friends who want to know what it’s like working with someone who’s trying to eliminate the field; perhaps it’s because we’ve succeeded by being a different sort of department, and thus the fear these queries signify is for the future of the study of religion practiced as what at least Don Wiebe would simply term a crypto-theological endeavor.

But critiquing that pursuit hardly prevents us from redescribing the field.

So I find that in the midst of conversations with colleagues, there’s a lot of background noise, baggage, or whatever you wish to call it, that impedes a quick description of what it is that I actually study. Defying the boxes into which we usually place ourselves comes, at minimum, with the price of raised eyebrows—it really would be so much easier if I could just say that I study Buddhist rituals or Native American origins stories. But even for those who seem to think they get it, they often assume it’s just the word that we study, as if things have natural lives without words to name them. (Wasn’t that Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s point in asserting that faith predated the so-called cumulative tradition?) “Surely people were religious even if they didn’t have the word religion, no?” It’s a remarkably Platonic approach, if you think about it, one that many would see as sadly outdated if applied to other topics, but this essentialist viewpoint still reigns in our field. “Sure there’s no functional equivalent to ‘religion’ in this or that language,” someone might admit, “but of course those people were religious. They believed in gods, didn’t they?” But what if by words we instead meant the terminological iceberg tips of socio-semantic frameworks that enable us not just to identify something but, as part of that process, to distinguish this from that and then to rank that over this? For then to say that one studies the word religion says far more than some tend to think when they first hear it. Now we study not the term religion, as if it is separate from some pan-human quality, but, rather, we examine the very fact that we (and, yes, sometimes it is all about us) come to know others, and thus ourselves, by applying this word in discrete situations, as if it names something deep in the human heart (or brain, maybe genes). Perhaps it’s a little too grandiose to phrase it this way, but now the study of “religion” is but one way into the study of signification itself, linking us closely to such other cutting-edge fields as semiotics and identity studies.

But that’s just not the right story for those who wish to study the sacred—either to embrace it or debunk it (the two positions that still seem to define many of the debates in the field). This third option—the very ability to signify something as sacred, as set apart, as inviolable, etc.—strikes me as a far more interesting route, ensuring that I have conversation partners all over the university, united not by our object of study but by our shared curiosities and the common tools that we use to satisfy them.

Interdisciplinarity at its best.

But sitting across from those faculty at that job interview, over 20 years ago, or reading that recent email in which I’m told I’m in a bit of a rut, are not examples of such conversations. Instead, they’re somewhat akin to the situations others in this series have recounted: of the seat mate on the long haul flight, who doesn’t quite understand what it is that we do. But the resemblance is, as I say, only somewhat, for I think that the examples I’ve cited are moments where the wrestling match has been quite evident all along, making plain that our conversation partner’s usually unimpeded ability to divide the world (and its people) up in a manner assumed to be natural, has just been curtailed somewhat, and that the very situated interests that animate their system of distinction are showing, just a bit, around the edges.

That’s why they slap back and try to spank you, misattribute things to your work or call it journalism and tell people—right in front of you sometimes—that it’s passé.

The trick is not taking it personally and turning those momentary jousts—whether on a jet or in a conference session—into fieldwork opportunities, seeing them as e.g.s that illustrate how the game is played.

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My Definition of “Theory” in the Academic Study of Religion

by Philip L. Tite

Note: This post originally appeared not the author’s blog.

Over the past few years, I have taught an undergraduate course on “Theories in the Study of Religion” at the University of Washington. Such a course is not atypical for students – at either the graduate or undergraduate level – who specialize in the field of religious studies. Such courses often will focus upon introducing students to a range of approaches or analytical tools in the study of religion. Furthermore, an historical focus on “key thinkers” is a common approach, especially for those instructors using Daniel Pals now classic Nine Theories of Religion (3rd edition; OUP, 2015 [1stedition 1996]).

My own approach to the topic is also historically grounded, but I note a distinction between methodology and theorization. In a sense, the former is a collection of tools offered the student to go “into the real world” to study religion. The latter, however, is far more interesting (to me at least) and challenging (hopefully for students). To theorize the academic study of religion is to look at scholarship as data, data situated within contingent historical and ideological processes. In my Theories course, I try to guide my students to analyze processes of knowledge production.

In our opening sessions, after we have explored definitional approaches to religion, Enlightenment influences upon the taxon “religion”, and geopolitical articulations of “religion” (notably the East/West division arising from European colonialism), I offer the follow “definition of theory” (and like all conceptualizations, this was presented to be theorized itself):

Theorization of religion is less a set of approaches or methodologies for the study of a given data set understood as “religion”, than it is a (reflexive) analysis of the various and sometimes contending positioning acts taken in the very emergence of such a concept.

To study religion theoretically, therefore, is to study the power dynamics by which a constituted “normative” or “commonsense” object (= religion) arises for one set of social actors in relation to other sets of social actors.

In other words, we are looking at the how and “to what ends” such approaches/methodologies arise and are seen by social actors as viable tools for constructing “knowable knowledge”.

As I look over this definition of theory, the following points struck me:

  • A distinction between method and theory
  • Taxonomies establish power relations between social actors (and the roles played out or contested; here I’m reminded of Positioning Theory from social psychology)
  • Theorizing is a reflexive process; the theorist can also be theorized
  • To theorize is to look at normative processes; i.e., how abstract and constructed concepts or impressions are internalized and rendered normative
  • All knowledge (and, by extension, all theory) is historically contingent
  • Knowledge contends with other knowledge, and is often generated or modified within such confrontation
  • To theorize is not to look at what something is, but what it does (and for whom and under what social conditions)

A further view of “theory” for the study of religion was offered by Russell McCutcheon (University of Alabama) in an article that I feel deserves far greater attention in its critique of postmodernism in religious studies: McCutcheon, “‘My Theory of the Brontosaurus’: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26.1 (1997): 3-23.

Professor McCutcheon contends that theories are models built for comparative analysis of power relations, carrying predictive potential, and are falsifiable. Theory is not simply “a viewpoint” or “an idea” – opening the door for relativism and an “anything goes” attitude (e.g., as I’ve often seen when postmodernism is evoked in defense of theology or confessional assertions in the academy). “Religion” (however defined) and “theory” (however constructed) are not benign descriptors for substantive realities, but, rather, are devices used in the production and explanation of contending or conflating realities.

To teach a “Theories in the Study of Religion” course is, in part, to empower students to recognize and analyze processes of knowledge construction.

Posted in Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Feminism and Free Choice in the Burkini Affair


by Matt Sheedy

The image of a woman being forced to remove layers of clothing on a beach in Nice last month by four armed police sparked protest from around the world, and is the latest incident in France’s on-going struggle between so-called secular values and the limits of acceptable public ‘religion,’ which more often than not finds Muslim women as its main target. The garment in question, the burkini, was created in 2000 by Aheda Zanetti, an Australian designer who, in her own words, “wanted to change the Islamic symbol of a veil,” with something that “blended in with the Australian lifestyle.” Given France’s strict laws on veiling and heightened tensions in the wake of the Nice terror attack this past July, the burkini has stood out as a symbol for some who equate (female) Islamic forms of dress with women’s oppression and even terrorism.

While the French courts ultimately upheld a woman’s right to wear what she pleases (or, more accurately, denied the state the right to enforce such dress codes), several French mayors have vowed to keep the burkini ban in place under the pretence of “respecting good morals and secularism.” Just the other day, a local court in the French Island of Corsica upheld the bukini ban in the village of Sisco (in the commune of Bastia), which has seen violent confrontations in recent weeks between villagers and Muslim families.

What I’ve found most interesting in the wake of this incident is how feminist narratives (or, more accurately, liberal feminist narratives), roundly condemned the French government for policing women’s bodies, as seen with a protest outside the French embassy in London, with one prominent banner reading, “Islamophobia is not freedom.” Even J.K. Rowling weighed in on Twitter with the following tweet aimed at former French president and current leader of Les Républicains, Nicolas Sarkozy:jk-rowling-burkini

Whereas Western liberal feminists have often been divided when it comes to the veil, especially those who advocate strong forms of secularism or laïcité, with some viewing it as always imposed rather than (potentially) actively chosen, the image of a women being compelled by force to comply with so-called ‘secular’ law seems to have cut through the usual discourse surrounding the veil as a matter of either free choice or coercion by Muslim men, and linked it instead to a form of patriarchal governmentality—a term coined by Michel Foucault to describe modes of state control over the bodies of its citizens.

One of the more interesting articles that I came across on this affair is by Classics professor Sarah E. Bond, who writes in the conclusion of her piece in Forbes:

As the history of female dress codes in the West reveals, the restriction of what women can and cannot wear is an epic tale that has not yet concluded. Clothing remains an important way for women to express their own personal identity, but, as the burkini bans and ancient sumptuary laws reveal, the institution of dress codes are a time-honored means of using law and order to express an idealized, communal identity. Amid all the debate about what women should or shouldn’t wear, we should perhaps consider what Prof. Seale noted as we ended our conversation: “Let’s keep in mind that it is no more freeing to tell a woman what she can wear than to tell her what she can’t.”

Throughout her article, Bond draws on a number of historical examples in order to trace a brief history of this mode of governmentality. She begins by remarking how odd the burkini affair must seem to Italians and others who are use to seeing nuns wearing a habit on the beach, and goes on to cite on a number of historical examples of similar restrictions on women’s dress, which she sees “as a means of controlling a community’s political message.” From magistrates known as “controllers of women” in ancient Sparta who levied fines against improperly dressed women and removed clothing at their will, to Roman laws under the Justinianic Code, which made it a lesser legal offense to sexually assault a women dressed in the garb of a lower social station, to various European laws throughout the middle ages, there is a long history, Bond reminds us, of policing women’s dress.

I am entirely sympathetic to this argument and am personally encouraged that the photograph from Nice has helped to complicate long standing Western narratives equating the veil with mere oppression, as the work of Leila Ahmed and many others have demonstrated since the publication of her seminal work Women and Gender in Islam (1992). Moreover, I am encouraged by how this reframing has helped to focus attention on a more viable mode of analysis—namely, governmentality through patriarchal domination—than the all-too-common and always racialized appeal to some essential notion of ‘Islam’ as a default explanation whenever the veil is in question. Nevertheless, the old liberal chestnut of “freedom of choice” continues to dominate the conversation where, it would seem, the woman on the beach in Nice has become sympathetic mainly because she is seen as a women being coerced by European men and not because she represents a ‘Muslim’ body whose imagined otherness is the product of a long history of discourse pitting Islam against the West.

Taking Bond’s article as an example, the brief history that she draws upon to illustrate her point unwittingly reproduces a form of modernization theory, which understands certain cultures or ‘civilizations’ to be more advanced than others based on things like economic development, modes of governance, and cultural expression. All of Bond’s examples come from the ancient and medieval world, which I take as an attempt to show a continuity of patriarchal governmentality, from ancient Greece and Rome to modern-day France. Her analogy between nuns in habits and the burkini, however, which is illustrated with an image of Polish nuns playing on a beach in Rio in 2013 (pictured below), suggests a one-to-one comparison between a small minority of women who follow a strict code of conduct, and do not tend to carry an overly negative symbolic valence in the West, with a much larger percentage of women whose modes of dress, while highly varied in appearance and meaning, carry a predominantly negative valence in Europe and North America. Unlike nuns, Muslim women who wear the veil are either accommodated or tolerated under freedom of expression, or reviled as being contrary to secular values, the perpetuation of cultural ‘backwardness,’ and even terrorism.


While it may be overly optimistic to expect mainstream narratives to offer the kind of analysis on veiling and representations of Islam that have come out of more careful scholarship, it is nonetheless important to consider how this attempt to humanize women who veil and draw attention to modes of patriarchal governmentality continues to obscure complex Muslim identities and, in the process, reproduces culturalist ideas of otherness by failing to reflect upon how Muslim women’s bodies symbolize a much larger kettle of fish.

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

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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


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 Anna Cwikla

“So basically I study ancient Christianity not from a ‘Yay Jesus!’ perspective but from a ‘What was up with Jesus and why did so many people end up liking him?’ way. You know, like a socio-historical perspective.”

This has become one of the stock answers/explanations of what I study as a PhD student that I dish out to other fellow bar patrons who ask me what I do for a living. On this night, I hope it is sufficient for the gentleman in his 40s who is also seated at the bar, with two empty bar stools between us. I turn my attention back to the TV overlooking the bar, which is showing the Toronto Blue Jays game. I’m counting on my intense gaze at the TV coupled with the Blue Jays cap on my head to serve as a veritable “Do Not Disturb” sign while I watch the final moments of the game.

From my peripheral vision, I can see the gentleman (henceforth “Buddy” for simplicity’s sake) shift in his seat. He looks at the game, then at me, then back at the game. He takes another sip of his beer. I can tell he already has another follow up question ready to unload. Will it be the “Are you religious?” the “So what are you going to do with that [degree]?” or perhaps I will be treated to an autobiographical account of his “religious” background or worse, a discussion about how religion is to be blamed for all of the world’s problems.

The Jays get the final out of the game and record their third win in a row. I was secretly hoping for the game to go into extra innings so that I would have a legitimate reason to not engage in conversation with Buddy, but no such luck.

I take a big sip of beer and brace myself.

Buddy turns to me and says, “So you study religion but you drink beer?”
That’s a new one. He’s clearly never met any of my colleagues.

“Well, Jesus drank wine, after all,” I retort.

He laughs, and downs the rest of his beer. At this point my gaze is back on the TV, hoping that post-game highlights serve as justifiable distraction from any further conversation.
I see him putting cash on the bar, and he gets up from his stool.

“Well, nice talking to you. Have a good night.”

“Take care!” I reply, while trying to stifle my excitement over his departure.
After ensuring he actually exits, I sit up in my seat so that my head is at least partially visible over the forest of beer taps so that I can get my bartender’s attention.

“Lise? Can I get another when you have a minute, please?”

She smirks, knowing full well what I’m thinking: Buddy has left so I can relax now. She has overheard discussions between Buddies and me over religion countless times. I bet she even knows my repertoire of religious-related jokes as well as I do (e.g., How does Moses make his tea? HE-BREWS it.).

It’s not so much that I mind telling strangers what I do—during commercial breaks, of course. But rather that it is more often than not a struggle to even get to discuss my own specific research. In fact, rarely do I get to use another one of my stock explanations that sets up the segue way to an explanation of my dissertation: “Remember in the Da Vinci Code when they talk about an ancient text that says Mary Magdalene and Jesus used to kiss? That’s from the Gospel of Philip, one of the texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices. Those are the texts I study!”

Before I get to that point, I have to dismantle the Buddy’s presuppositions of what it means to be a student/scholar of religion, clarify the fact that I myself am not “religious,” nor are most of my colleagues in my department. I frequently make use of the school of theology as the “near neighbour” in order to define the “self,” to borrow J. Z. Smith’s terminology. This coincides with the stock explanation that began this piece: the theology school uses the “Yay Jesus!” perspective whereas we use the “What was up with Jesus?” approach in our studies. Of course this is a gross oversimplification of both, but after a few beers and with a limited amount of time, it is a necessary evil if I even want to scratch the surface of what I do to strangers.

If I’m lucky, they will ask thoughtful follow up questions (e.g., When were those texts written? Why weren’t they included in the New Testament), which I’m more than happy to answer.

But most of the time, once they hear “religion” they go off on their own diatribe about religion, usually Islam.

One of the most vivid examples occurred in November 2015. The TV at the bar was on a news channel that was covering the initial reports of the Paris attack. Buddy (no relation to aforementioned Buddy) on my right hand side, after hearing I studied religion, proceeded to spew out some of the most vile Islamophobic rhetoric I had ever heard. My attempts to argue that Islam was far more diverse than he was making it out to be, and that most of his logic was based on polemically laden media reports rather than actual facts did not work. In fact, he became increasingly frustrated with my resistance and opposition to his views that he said:

“I hope you die in a terrorist attack so you can see how much of a problem They are!”
To which I responded, “Well, if I were dead, I wouldn’t be able to see, so…”
The other Buddy to my left agreed with most of what Buddy the First was saying so I ended up literally in the middle of a discussion that eerily echoed those that frequently occurred on Fox News, those that my friends on Facebook are so easily able to identify as politically and fear motivated rhetoric. At this point, I knew that this was a battle I could not win, despite my best attempts at trying to instill rational logic and critical thinking. I even pulled my toque over my face to hide my smirk—the smirk you get when you hear something so absurd from someone who is so passionately adamant about what they’re saying but you yourself could not disagree more with them and all you can really do is smile in disbelief.

It is moments like these that make me wish Jays games would go into extra innings, even when they have the lead.

It is moments like these that make me cringe inside when someone asks what I do/study.

It is moments like these that make me order another beer.

I often wonder, if lied and said that I studied botany or organic chemistry, would I get an equally passionate diatribe about plants or chemical compounds? Probably not. But I am too honest and a terrible liar so it wouldn’t be a feasible option anyway. Moreover, the ubiquity of and the sense of familiarity with “religion” that most people have (however flawed it might seem from our perspective) seem to underlie both the interest and strong opinions that I and so many others experience from “outsiders.”

Reflecting on the larger theme that this piece is supposed to address, namely, how scholars describe what they do to outsiders, I suppose my own approach is threefold:
1) Clarify what religious studies is by explaining what it is not (usually using theology as the “near neighbor” from which I can define my “self” by explaining I don’t use a theological perspective in my work).

2) Use popular culture references as a common ground from which I can then segue way into a more elaborate discussion of my research interests.

3) Utilize my sense of humour to deactivate any presuppositions that the individual might have about me potentially being “religious.” And apparently based on my initial anecdote, drinking beer aids in alleviating these presuppositions as well.

Anna Cwikla is a PhD candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation aims to situate the gendered language in the texts of Nag Hammadi Codex II within a broader ancient Mediterranean context. The goal of her research project is to demonstrate that the frequency with which female characters appear in Codex II is by no means unique nor does it suggest that the writers/readers of these texts necessarily had a more positive view of women than other early Christians.

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