What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Joseph Laycock


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

by Jospeh Laycock

Every semester I teach world religions at Texas State University. Originally known as “Southwest Texas Normal School,” Texas State has undergone explosive growth in the last few years. It now has over 36,000 undergraduates including many first-generation and non-traditional college students. I love working at Texas State, but the campus is not without its controversies. Every day I walk past our “free speech zone” where self-described “confrontational evangelist” “Brother Jed” can often be seen trading insults with students. Turning Point USA, the conservative group behind the “Professor Watchlist,” sometimes has a card table near the free speech zone too. (They gave this professor a free “I Heart Capitalism” button!) Under Greg Abbot’s “Campus Carry” law, my students can bring concealed handguns to my class if they have the right license, so my syllabus includes a class policy in the event someone’s gun becomes “unconcealed.”

Texas State also made national news the day after Trump’s election when childish signs were glued to a men’s room mirror calling for “vigilante squads” to “arrest & torture those deviant university leaders responsible for spouting off all this Diversity Garbage.” These are strange times and some of my students have expressed that they fear for their safety. But I also feel that what I do in the classroom matters––especially in the world religions class. One student told me after the election, “I think it’s more important than ever to study world religions . . . while we still have a world.”

I have two main goals for the course: First, I want the students to be conversant in world religions. Second, I want them to understand that “religion” is a second order category and that a lot is at stake in how this category is defined. I want students to be able to achieve these goals even if they are entering college with deficient academic skills. But I also want my exceptional students to be challenged.

My textbook is Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One. This is supplemented with selections from religious texts and current news articles. There’s a lot to recommend about this book. Some of my students don’t have much money and God is Not One costs $2.99 on Kindle. It’s also available as an audiobook, which matters for my students who commute to campus. I like that Prothero’s writing comes across as a real person making arguments rather than an impersonal assemblage of information. The first day of class, I like to show Prothero’s interview on The Colbert Report. Students seem more interested in the book when they’ve seen the author’s face. Colbert’s satirical questions also model engaging and arguing with Prothero’s thesis rather than memorizing the data presented.

Finally, Prothero’s rejection of perennialism comes as a great relief to my evangelical students who are often wary of religion professors. (One freshman explained that her parents made her watch God’s Not Dead before the first week of college.) I tell students that, if anything, comparing religions will give them a greater appreciation for how unique their own religion is.

Of course, God is Not One has no shortage of critics. When my students are ready, I like to discuss some these critiques openly with the class. For example, the problem-solution model is useful for thinking about the differences between Christianity and Islam for the first time. Later in the course, I ask my students whether this model fits the Yoruba tradition or Judaism as neatly as it did Christianity.

Assessment consists of a mid-term, a final, and weekly writing assignments. I always give feedback on the writing assignments. I try to impress on students that thinking like a religion scholar is a special skill that they are cultivating. Through the writing assignments I am coaching them in a new skill.

Four of these writings assignments deal with the definition of religion. I want students to understand the history of the category “religion” and how this history relates to colonialism and other issues of power and politics. But I prefer to explain this history through lectures rather than assigned readings. Some of my students don’t know much about major historical developments like the Protestant Reformation. Lectures let me probe to see what they already know and fill in gaps as needed. (Also, one clip from the cartoon “Metalocalypse” is especially useful for beginning a conversation about religion as a second-order category.)

After we have studied Islam and Christianity, I ask students to create a definition of religion and show how their definition applies to these traditions. What do Christianity and Islam have in common that makes them “religions?” How do they meet the criteria of religion outlined in the student’s definition? We do this again after we study Confucianism. This time, I also ask students whether things like nationalism or science count as religions under the definitions they created. And if they do, is this a problem? We do this exercise a third time near the end of the course when they have studied most of the eight religions included in God is Not One. For the final exercise, we consider a case involving whether a high school girl who is a member of the “Church of Body Modification” can claim a religious exemption to the school dress code. The students have to create a definition of religion and say whether the Church of Body Modification fits the criteria in their definition or not. If they argue that it is a religion, they are required to show what The Church of Body Modification has in common with the other traditions we have studied. If they argue it’s not a religion, they are required to explain what the Church of Body Modification lacks that the other traditions all have.

Of course, the object of these exercises is to wrestle with the questions, not necessarily to produce a flawless answer. (One student complained that defining religion gives him a headache. I told him that was the point). Some of my students go on to take advanced classes in religious studies where they can explore theory further. But I know that for many of students this will be the only religion class they ever take. My goal is that when they graduate and encounter claims like “Islam is a hate group, not a religion,” they will be able to discern the interests and rhetorical mechanisms at work. If I do my job right, students understand the difference between having a new analytical skill and “Diversity Garbage.”

Posted in Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better Know a Religion Blog: Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching


In this series with the Bulletin–whose title is a play on Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment, we ask blog authors/curators to tell us a bit about their blogs’ history, relationship to other blogs in the blogosphere, and typical focus. Other posts in this series can be found here

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

Richard Newton: Sowing the Seed began as a personal research journal for a project I started when beginning my Master’s in 2006. I wanted to refine scholars portrait of class in modeling the historical Jesus. I set out to construct an anthropological hermeneutic wherein I’d compare the concerns of contemporary Yucatec Maya with the archaeological record of first-century Galilee and bring about a more astute exegesis. I blogged throughout my work at an ethnographic field school in Mexico, an archaeology dig in Galilee, and writing my thesis.

The site has since changed in relation to my professional interests, but its always been inspired by the famous Jonathan Z. Smith quote regarding “religion as solely a creation of the scholar’s study.” I’m particularly fascinated with the idea of the scholar’s study as both a place and activity. Sowing the Seed is just that: it’s where you can see me doing the teacher-scholar thing. And I’m at my best when I’m doing that with others—students and professional scholars alike.

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

RN: The blog’s unifying theme is the notion of difference-making. Our eyes are trained on the fine lines people draw between making difference and making a difference in the world. That tension opens up opportunities for us to not only consider discourses (e.g. religion, culture, race), but also the sites where they take place (e.g. the classroom, the public square, holy ground, bully pulpit, the judge’s bench).

BSOR: What do you think are some of the advantages of scholars’ blogging about religion?

RN: Blogs make scholarship and the scholarly process more accessible. Lots of our readers are adjacent to the academy as employees or admirers, so that issue of accessibility is always at the fore for us. A number of our contributors have remarked that they’ve made more collegial connections through the blog than through their traditionally published scholarship. I’ve seen this for myself at professional conferences. How many in-person introductions are preempted by the reveal that you follow each other’s blog, podcast, or video channel?

There’s also something to be said about blogs as a critique of academic tradition.

Academe needs a peer-review process, but our scholarly societies have spent way too much time balkanizing us into slow-moving, sub-disciplinary peer groups. Blogs offer a needed corrective to this. Scholars no longer need to wait on the political and logistical logjam that can stymy scholarly publication. We can publish immediately, and we can have an actual dialogue about the limits and merits of our work. I’d venture to say that the impropmptu carnival around Teemu Taira’s Religious Studies Project episode is perhaps more rigorous than the standard revise and resubmit process feigned at a lot of journals. The difference is that the reading public was able to learn from the back and forth. That’s what our work can be about.

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

RN: Sowing the Seed definitely has cousins in different parts of the blogosphere. I got the idea of publishing undergraduate, graduate, and professional scholarship from the Studying Religion in Culture blog hosted at the University of Alabama and Emory’s Sacred Matters. As curator, I try to connect thinkers at different career stages in an effort to present religious studies scholarship as an activity rather than a credential.

When I saw the work being done by people like Anthea Butler and Sarah Posner during the early days of Religion Dispatches, I began to appreciate the potential for having a critically-inclined forum that drew experts from a wide range of social locations. I wanted my students and I to be a part of an exchange where our unspoken assumptions would likely be challenged. So if you take a look at our contributors list, you’ll see that our authorship is noticeably diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. We have twice as many women writing for us as men.

Going back to the scholar’s study idea, we try to be conscientious of how we imagine the persona of the scholar and how that relates to definitions of worthwhile scholarship.

Sowing the Seed probably departs from other religious studies blogs in that it places so much of an emphasis on teaching and professional development issues. I’ve had my Elizabethtown College students publish pieces in dialogue with other scholars. This semester, students from Baker University and Williams College will be publishing with us. And because of the positive feedback we have received on our pedagogy pieces, I’ll be doing an advice column on teaching.

BSOR: 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?

RN: I use the terms “religion,” “culture,” and “teaching” as ways to germinate ideas about difference-making. From there I try to be pretty hands off on laying out approaches. My posts tend to focus on the development and application of an anthropology of scriptures. I try to showcase what happens when we investigate the story behind the texts we read and that also seem to read us back. Beyond identifying legacy texts, I challenge our audience to consider what we do with these texts for ourselves and to others.

Posts are usually 750-1000 words. I don’t provide any hardline rules except that I want contributors to wrestle with the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion and I want them to write so as to not have the last word. These guidelines have helped us surface difficult issues among mixed company. Our contributors come from a host of disciplines—including religious studies, sociology, ethnic and women’s studies, musicology, criminology, and history—so anything can happen.

If you or your students are interested in contributing to Sowing the Seed, follow the link to our Join Us page.

Posted in Interviews, Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theory & Religion Series: Foucault on Historicism, Struggle, and The People


by Jeffrey Wheatley

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

It might seem a bit silly to dedicate a post to Foucault for the Theory & Religious Series here at the Bulletin blog. Foucault’s influence in many sectors of the liberal arts—including many of those I participate in and, I think it is fair to suggest, this blog—is immanent.

Foucault has been, of course, roundly and rightly criticized from a number of different perspectives, including material studies, postcolonial theory, and so on. Many now approach Foucault through his critics or by simply using some of his elementary concepts such as discourse, genealogy, or relational power. In this brief post, despite a certain amount of redundancy and a number of Foucault’s interlocutors that I could also attend to, I want to explicitly point out some of the ways that Foucault has been generative for my scholarship in terms of thinking about history.

I have been reading Foucault’s lectures that he gave at the College of France from 1975 to 1976. These lectures have been published under the title “Society Must Be Defended” (2003). In these lectures Foucault argued that politics was war continued by other means. Historical instances of warfare were at the root of socio-political differentiation. Knowledge-production has always been intimately tied to these power relations. Of interest to me is his exploration of the relationship between war and history-making. At one rather dramatic point in his account, Foucault began to muse about the anxieties induced by thorough historicism:

No matter how far back it goes, historical knowledge never finds nature, right, order, or peace. However far back it goes, historical knowledge discovers only an unending war, or in other words, forces that relate to one another and come into conflict with one another . . . History encounters nothing but war, but history can never really look down on this war from on high; history cannot get away from war, or discover its basic laws or impose limits on it, quite simply because war itself supports this knowledge . . . (172–173)

Although I would suggest that there is plenty of room to critique the causal primacy Foucault gives to warfare, I find his account generative. History-making necessarily feeds into social struggles whether or not producers of historical accounts make this explicit. Foucault was not simply arguing, however, that a historical account will reflect the social position of its creator(s), but that the act of claiming a history of a people was an important historical development. Looking at aristocratic tactics against monarchical absolutism in Europe around the seventeenth century, Foucault argued that commonalities among a people (say, the idea of a Saxon people over against an inauthentic Norman monarchy) were constructed through historical accounts to produce a type of counterhistory, a genre bent to show how “kings wear masks, that power creates illusions” (72). This struggle was, for Foucault, a race struggle, and the resulting genre was distinct from and in contrast to the previous genre of history, which served to legitimate monarchical state rule.

The concept of a people with a history fed into formations of race, class, and, beginning in the late eighteenth century, the nation-state and its corresponding racism, which reflected the re-entanglement of conceptions of a people and a state through accounts of history. This was to an especially disastrous effect in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (I recommend Achille Mbembe’s expansion of Foucault’s thought regarding biopower and what Mbembe refers to as necropolitics.)

“Religion” is not a term used in these lectures to the extent that it would appear in later published works, but the questions Foucault brings up in regard to the instrumentality of history are easily applicable within religious studies, or at least those attracted to historicism. Who or what has history? Who is included in a history? What markers of commonality are embedded in a history? What types of divisions between peoples do our histories manufacture through presence and absence? Who is the assumed “we”? By what measure might we justify these inevitable divisions?

These are fruitful questions to ask about the contexts that we study. But one of Foucault’s most significant contributions has been to prod scholars to objectify their own knowledge-production in light of these questions. The generative capacity of these types of questions—the questions of a self-reflexivity necessarily produced by Foucauldian histories of “history”—has lasted even as they have become well-worn scholarly tools.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?


by Matt Sheedy

This semester I’m taking my first stab at teaching a class dealing with issues in science and religion. Although this is familiar terrain, I’m yet to go through the process of trial and error that teaching any course entails, and I’m hopeful that my first blush attempt will hit the mark that I’m aiming for. Here is the course description:

This course begins with a look at Thomas Dixon’s Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2008) and ends with Denis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (2009). The first book presents us with a standard introduction to the topic, touching on common themes such as religion and reason, creationism and evolution, and questions of morality and the human mind from a largely Christian and Euro-American point of view. The second book provides a first person narrative account of Christian snake handling practices in the Southern United States, and shifts our attention away from standard science and religion questions that prioritize doctrines and beliefs toward what religious or ritual practices do to human bodies interacting in relation to a particular community. In between we will be looking at essays that historicize religion and science within particular contexts, with examples from Buddhist, feminist, queer, and Indigenous perspectives, and close things off with essays dealing with popular atheism and theories of ritual and embodiment.

In designing the course I was well aware that this sub-field leans toward a binary view of “science” and “religion,” focusing primarily on contests that have played out since the 16th and 17th centuries between Christian authorities and a variety of philosophers over things like the correct interpretation of doctrine, naturalism vs. biblical revelation, etc., where figures like Galileo, Newton, and Darwin are typically positioned as heroes helping to drag medieval worldviews into the age of reason. Occasionally, more detailed analysis will go back to the ancient Greeks in order to show how the influence of Plato, Aristotle, and others were central for Christian heavyweights like Augustine through to Aquinas. Likewise, these histories occasionally provide a nod to the role of “Muslim Spain” in preserving and advancing scientific reason, as seen in David C. Lindberg’s book The Beginnings of Western Science (2007), where he has a chapter entitled “Islamic Science.” Dixon’s book does a nice job of summarizing this history and giving students a feel for the terrain (it’s also super cheap, which helps!).

My next move is to open students to how we might historicize these debates, with a chapter from Peter Harrison’s fantastic book The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), which locates the concepts “science” and “religion” as modern developments over the last 300 years. Among other essays and book chapters that we’ll be using in the course, I came across two useful chapters in Bellamy et al. Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism From Antiquity to the Present (2008), where they shift the standard frame to focus on materialist philosophers—Epicurus, Marx, Darwin, and Freud—who have been key targets for various advocates of intelligent design in the contemporary U.S., as seen most notably with the Discovery Institute’s 1999 Wedge Strategy document. While Bellamy et al. are clearly opponents of intelligent design, their sociological and Marxian approach offers an alternative perspective to the more analytic philosophical positions of many thinkers in the sub-field of science and religion.

A few other essays of note:

  • Pairing Donald Lopez’s essay “Buddhism” in Science and Religion Around the World (2011), with the Dalai Lama’s “The Buddhist Concept of Mind” (2012). Here the aim is to get students thinking about how essentialist claims about religion, however appealing to liberal ears (as in the case of the Dalai Lama), are influenced by things like, to quote Lopez, “efforts to counter the colonialist claim that the Asian was prone to fanciful flights of the mind and meaningless rituals of the body,” (225) which he argues spurred figures like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts to claim that Buddhism was in fact a forerunner of modern science (e.g., by linking the concept of emptiness with quantum physics, and meditation with cognitive science).

Before turning to Salvation on Sand Mountain, which will serve as the final essay project, I have students’ read Constance Furey’s “Body, Society, and Subjectivity in Religious Studies,” and Susan Friend Harding’s chapter “Speaking is Believing,” in The Book of Jerry Falwell, where she details her ethnographic research as a participant-observer in Falwell’s former church in Lynchburg, Virginia. The idea here is to get them thinking about theories of embodiment, language, ritual, and affect and how social scientific analysis of what language and rituals do to minds and bodies within particular communities can help problematize those commonplace science and religion questions beyond the familiar battle between faith and reason.

It is at this point, I hope, they’ll be ready for the snakes!

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Pedagogy, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Privilege, Religion, and Identity Markers

Benefits - Ring Binder on Office Desktop with Office Supplies. Business Concept on Blurred Background. Toned Illustration.

Benefits – Ring Binder on Office Desktop with Office Supplies. Business Concept on Blurred Background. Toned Illustration.

by Philip L. Tite

Last semester I taught two sections of a course on the topic of religion and violence. A key theme in the course is that violence is not simply a set of actions or the application of force. Rather, violent acts are related to social structures (systemic violence). As a way into that theme, we began by looking at Robert McAfee Brown’s well-known discussion of structural violence in the opening of his Religion and Violence (2nd edition; Westminster Press, 1987). All societies have and are perpetuated by social inequality. But I wanted my students to look beyond just acts and structures. I wanted them to study worldviews, ideologies, and conceptual frameworks. I told my students at the beginning of our course that nobody kills or is willing to be killed for an idea, but rather they are willing to die or kill for a conviction. This led us into a discussion of affect theory, socialization processes, the interrelationship between belief, structure, and action.

Over the past few months, given the political and social upheavals that we have seen and experienced in the United States in connection to the general election, this approach in our course inevitably began to explore hate crimes, racial injustices, and the power relations played out through social scripting and counter-scripting. We had already been dealing with many of these concerns, especially with an emphasis being placed on intersectional identity and how intersectionality plays out in narrative social interaction.

Privileged status became a hot topic in November. In response to my students’ interests and the challenges facing campuses across the country that my students and colleagues were struggling with, I decided to put together some of my thoughts on privilege and present those (very basic) insights to my students in an ad hoc lecture. I wanted to encourage my students to not simply react to the conflicts around them, but to theorize those conflicts, to better explain the discursive processes at work within and through the current American identity crises (and there are numerous crises at play at present, each vying for normative status as to what constitutes “authentic America”).

What follows is a bit of what I presented (and later summarized for one student when ask for clarification of my ideas) on privilege. In reflecting on that exchange, I thought it might be of value to share my ideas with a broader audience. Thus, this blog post.

What I’ve noticed is that most people treat privilege in a very simple way, without recognizing the role of intersectional identity. Typically, we think of privilege as unearned advantages over other people (e.g., hiring practices due to race or gender). This is certainly an important part of privilege, but it fails to note (1) that not everyone with such an advantage benefits from that advantage, and (2) that people have multiple identity markers (too often discussion of privilege falls on a flattened identity, rather than recognizing the range or layering of identity markers in the establishment of privilege for one set of social actors over another). This disconnect is what has led to accusations of reverse racism in public debates, for example.

So what I proposed is that we break privilege down into three components or steps.

First, there is advantage (or disadvantage). These are unearned. We are just born with them: body shape, race, age, gender, orientation, disability, language group, etc. They may also work in tandem with other advantages that are earned, such as education, though even the ability to obtain certain earned advantages may be affected (enhanced or negated) by unearned advantages.

Second, there is benefit—the “cashing in” on the advantage. This is “getting the job”, not being sexually harassed or assaulted, not being racially profiled, receiving a promotion, being assessed better grades, being treated better within the judicial system, etc. The benefit arises from the advantage.

Third, there is the context of activation—not everyone with an advantage will “cash in” on that advantage; or, perhaps more accurately, they will “cash in” within one set of circumstances, but might not in another set of circumstances. The context of the job interview, the promotion, border crossing, walking down the street, etc. is what has the potential for “triggering” an advantage to result in a benefit.

As an example, I have never been racially profiled at the border, though I’ve seen others profiled, detained, and treated with suspect and disrespect. I’m a white, English-speaking male. I have unearned advantages and, in that given context, my privilege is “activated” with the potential of gaining benefit. These unearned benefits on occasion being enhanced by the earned benefit of being a scholar and professor. The same is true for when I’m walking down the street at night. I am less likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted than a woman (only once have I had someone try to mug me at knife-point, though the incident did not go well for them, but I have never been sexually attacked). The context of being on the street sets the stage for privilege activation and potential benefit acquisition. Note that a white woman in the first scenario may have the same potential for benefit that I have, whereas the second scenario she is at greater risk due to being female. The advantage/disadvantage plays out differently under different contexts of activation. Similarly, an African-American or Arab-American male may have a greater likelihood of facing discrimination at the border, at a job interview, or on a flight than I would face, but we may both have the same benefit potential walking home late at night.

In class, I added another aspect to this three-fold breakdown in order to address this polyvalent social dynamic, that is intersectionality. We are more than just a racial group, a gendered or sexed identification, a linguistic group, a body type, an age bracket, a social class, etc. We are all of these and much more. Human beings are complicated collections of identity markers that overlap, intersect, and affect each other. In a sense, our very “self” is nothing more than a contingent layering of identity markers within diverse social interactions.

In some cases a person has an advantage that could be activated, depending on context, whereas in other ways that same marker could be a disadvantage. I remember a friend and colleague, at a conference session I organized on the topic of marginality and the public intellectual, indicate that in one sense she is “marginal” in that she is a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, and studies religion and Queer theory (potential “marginal” academic fields of study), but, she went on to clarify, she is also privileged in that she is white, highly educated (Ph.D. from one of the top universities in the world), upper middle class, and a university dean. This complexity was a learning moment for me back in the early 2000s. The layering or select identity markers—and the obscuring or repression of other identity markers—can have a profound effect on privilege. I also noticed that intersection of not only identity markers of unearned advantages, but also identity markers of earned advantage.

So let’s bring this back to our three-fold breakdown. Under certain conditions (e.g., a border crossing or receiving a speeding ticket or a job interview), and certain social settings, some identity markers will serve as an advantage that is activated giving the person a higher chance of gaining benefit (the “cashing in” on privileged status), whereas in other contexts those identity markers may lie dormant/not come to the foreground or they could even be a disadvantage (i.e., not “cashing in” or even “going in debt” on privileged/not-privileged status). Thus, a black male may be discriminated against while driving through a particular county (and yes I’m recalling an incident from the 1990s when I lived in the Midwest), but have an advantage over a woman at a job interview. More than one identity marker can also be at work (remember that intersectionality is the layering of identity to create unique experiences). Therefore, people may have privilege in some general sense, but don’t have benefit from that privilege due to not being in a context where that privilege—or combination of identity markers—triggers potential benefit, yet they might gain benefit (even with those same identity markers) in another context that activates a different set of identity markers in a different way leading to potential benefit. An important point here, however, is my qualification “potential”. Even when in a context of activation, a person or group may not receive benefits. They still have privilege, however, in that they have a potential for benefit that another person or group lacks simply due to having a given set of advantages within a given context.

Now to add to this whole discussion of privilege, let me share something that we did not cover in class, though I did share it with some students after class. Specifically, when discussing benefit, we can break it down with greater nuance by looking at sociological studies of inequality. As I mentioned, all societies have inequalities and, I would argue, depend on those inequalities to survive. This is true not only of societies with slavery (variously constructed, sometimes along racial lines, sometimes not), but also feudal systems and capitalist economies of wealth production/consumption. There are those who are the means of production and those who acquire/consume wealth. This process need not be a sharp dichotomy, of course. The rise of a middle class (or the burgesses) adds a level of fluidity to the dichotomy, yet inequalities of varying levels still exist and, indeed, are necessary.

It is within such inequalities that different kinds of benefits can be acquired (all culturally framed, of course). I was reminded of this point recently while re-reading an older, yet standard introductory sociology book by Tony Bilton et al. (Introductory Sociology, Contemporary Social Theory; Macmillan Press, 1983, especially p. 44ff). Bilton notes three types of benefit arising from inequality:

(1) Enhanced life benefit (material benefits that extend or enhance one’s life, such as food, shelter, safety, etc.),

(2) Social benefits (prestige, how others view us within our social hierarchies and relations), and

(3) Political benefits (who gets to have decision-making power within the community, be that on a national level or a local level).

One type of benefit will usually dominate and the other two follow along, arising from and/or enhancing the primary benefit. As we explored hate crimes and racist reactions to the American general election (in class we spent half an hour analyzing the religious elements in a three-minute pro-Trump hate speech delivered to a white supremacist audience in Washington D.C.), it is helpful for us to recognize different benefits that are being sought after—be that primary benefit or secondary/supportive benefit. Even when looking at privilege beyond hate groups, we need to consider the kinds of benefit potential that advantages may allow under a given context of activation.

As I reflect on these musing over privilege, I am wondering about the role of “religion”, including perhaps the very construction, definition, and utilization of the taxon itself. In one sense, religion can be an identity marker, a marker that one can evoke (for benefit potential) or have imposed on them (to undermine benefit potential). Yet, religion can also serve as a social setting for activating one set of identity markers over against other sets of identity markers. The power dynamics at play within religious identity construction have served to establish (or negate) social prestige—at least for particular social groups—, while in other instances (or in combination) have resulted in political benefits. The rise of the Religious Right in American politics since the late 1970s is a case in point.

There is another side to this discussion of benefit, of course, and that is to use a given political context for the sake of claiming benefit through affiliation. I think this kind of benefit acquisition is what we are seeing with, for example, the pro-Trump white supremacist movement both before and especially after the election. Such Christian groups may not have been endorsed by or embrace by the Republican nominee or party, though we could argue that these groups were not placed at much of a distance during the election, but these groups have claimed an affiliation or identification with a specific political figure that they see exemplifying of their own values and vision for the nation. In this sense, these groups are striving for political benefit by aligning themselves with the social benefit they assume is held by Trump so as to attain or protect what they perceive as threatened life enhancing benefit. This is one, perhaps extreme example of religion as a component of privilege.

Anyway, those are my basic ideas on privilege. It’s not overly complicated, but I think it helps us move beyond simple a correspondence of advantage with benefit. Privilege is a process of social engagement, power alignments, identity politics, and social conflict. It is centered on the crux of identity markers layering, intersecting, obscuring, highlighting social actors as they contend through networks of inequality and benefit competition. Indeed, this very process of social interaction is a factor in the very creation of social actors, perhaps in part due to establishing mutually identifying “individuals” (the individual, of course, being a product of modernity) with fluid aligning survival units (and here I have in mind Stephen Mennell’s excellent discussion in his “The Formation of We-Images: A Process Theory,” in Social Theory and the Politics of Identity, ed. By C. Calhoun [Blackwell, 1994]).

It is my hope that my students will have walked away with not just a better grasp of “religion and violence” (as a topic), but will now try to theorize violence by exploring and thus explaining the links between action, structure, and concept or belief. And in looking at privilege, such an approach is needed in order to fully understand and explain the power dynamics at play within identity politics.

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A Merry Muslim Christmas!

droge-quranby Philip L. Tite

So as it is Christmas Day — and for the first time in three years I’m actually celebrating Christmas (long story) — I wanted to share “other” Christmas stories. The New Testament has two Christmas stories (Matt. and Luke), both of which radically differ from each other but are often conflated in Christian traditions, and a more cosmogonic account in John’s gospel. But there are lots of Christmas legends, accounts, or stories that have arisen and been enjoyed over the centuries. Many of these so-called apocryphal Christmas stories (e.g, the Proto-Gospel of James) have had just as great an impact on popular images of the Christmas tale as the so-called canonical accounts.

Today, I’d like to share one Christmas story that most people are unaware of, perhaps because it’s not a Christian account (!); rather, this is the Muslim Christmas story! Yes, the Qur’an has the birth of Jesus (or in Arabic, Isa) (and John the Baptist), and even has an entire Surah named after Mary (the only one named after a woman!). Although there is more to the story than I’m copying here, specifically about Mary, John, John’s parents, etc., this is the basic Jesus story. There was even a beautiful film made of Mary’s life based on the Islamic tradition.


A few things to note (i.e., the differences from the NT accounts).

(1) There are strong parallels to apocryphal gospels, such as the Proto-Gospel of James (likely second century CE) and (with the mention of turning clay birds into real birds) the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The Qur’an is a strong witness to the importance of these Christian legends/texts within the Near Eastern world of the 7th century.

(2) The first miracle of Jesus is his words, first to Mary and then, most stunningly, to the villagers who believe Mary has shamed the community. This is an important Christological element, because Jesus, like other prophets, is a voice for revelation or recitation (of the word of God, i.e., the “Qur’an”). Thus, unlike John’s gospel, where Jesus’ first miracle points to his Passion through Eucharistic symbolism, the Qur’an presents Jesus as the messenger of God, a prophet for calling the people to “the straight path”.

(3) There is no Joseph. This character is totally absent from the Qur’an, which is stunning given that he plays a prominent role in the Proto-Gospel of James. But what this does is clearly stress the miraculous and virgin birth of Jesus. Removing Joseph clarifies that the scandal assumed by the villagers is undoubtedly misguided. Also, with the absence of Joseph, the Qur’anic account nicely characterizes Mary as completely alone. There is a strong pathos element to the Qur’anic account. The suffering and struggle that Mary faces is accentuated in the Muslim tradition, far beyond what we read in the New Testament accounts. For those looking for tales of strong female characters in religious traditions, the Islamic portrayal of Mary is certainly an exemplar to embrace. The entire narrative venerates Mary in ways that are rare in parallel Christian traditions.

(4) Note the corrective in the Qur’an as to the relationship of Jesus to God. Yes, Jesus is born miraculously. And the eschatology (“end time”) role of Jesus is very significant–and he is certainly one of the most important prophets in the Islamic tradition. But Jesus is not God for Muslims. Portrayals of Jesus in the Qur’an stress this point, pointing out the error of Christians while preserving a pure monotheism. This final point is perhaps the most divisive point between the Christian and the Muslim Christmas stories.

So Christmas is not only a Christian tradition. It is something that extends not only beyond the biblical accounts, but even the Christian tradition(s). Each account of the Christmas story, of course, is a unique presentation–though often intertextually related to other tales–and perhaps the best way to appreciate (and even enjoy!) each tale is to read it on its own terms, to recognize the creative dynamics that people have played with over the centuries on such formative stories of myth and wonder. So here is the Muslim Christmas story.

Have a Merry Muslim Christmas!


Qur’an 3.42-51 (Transl. A. J. Droge)

And (remember) when the angels said, “Mary! Surely God has chosen you and purified you, and He has chosen you over all other women. Mary! Be obedient to your Lord, and prostrate yourself and bow with the ones who bow.” – That is one of the stories of the unseen. We inspire you (with) it. You were not with them when they cast their pens as lots to see which of you would take charge of Mary. Nor were you with them when they were disputing. – When the angels said, “Mary! Surely God gives you good news of a word from Him; his name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, eminent in this world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near. He will speak to the people (while he is still) in the cradle and in adulthood, and (he will be) one of the righteous.” She said, “My Lord, how shall I have a child, when no man has touched me?” He said, “So (it will be)! God creates whatever He pleases. When He decrees something, He imply says to it, “Be!” and it is.

And He will teach him the Book and the wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel. And (He will make him) a messenger to the Sons of Israel. “Surely I have brought you a sign from your Lord: I shall create for you the form of a bird from clay. Then I will breathe into it and it will become a bird by the permission of God. And I shall heal the blind and the leper, and give the dead life by the permission of God. And I shall inform you of what you may eat, and what you may store up in your houses. Surely in that is a sign indeed for you, if you are believers. And (I come) confirming what was before me of the Torah, and to make permitted to you some things which were forbidden to you (before). I have brought you a sign from your Lord, so guard (yourselves) against God, and obey me. Surely God is my Lord and your Lord, so serve Him! This is a straight path”

Qur’an 19.16-36 (Transl. A. J. Droge)

And remember in the Book Mary; When she withdrew from her family to an eastern place, and took a veil apart from them, We sent to her Our spirit, and it took for her the form of a human being exactly. She said, “Surely I take refuge with the Merciful from you, if you are one who guards (yourself).” He said, “I am only a messenger of your Lord (sent) to grant you a boy (who is) pure.” She said, “How can I have a boy, when no human being has touched me, nor am I a prostitute?” He said, “So (it will be)! Your Lord has said; “It is easy for Me. And (it is) to make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. It is a thing decreed.”

So she conceived him, and withdrew with him to a place far away. The pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, “I wish I had died before (this) and was completely forgotten!” And then he called out to her from beneath her, “Do not sorrow! Your Lord has made a stream beneath you. Shake the trunk of the date palm toward you, and it will drop on you fresh ripe (dates). Eat and drink and be comforted. If you see any human being, say; ‘Surely I have vowed a fast to the Merciful, and so I shall not speak to any human today.’”

Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “Mary! Certainly you have brought something strange. Sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man, nor was your mother a prostitute.” But she referred (them) to him. They said, “How shall we speak to one who is in the cradle, a (mere) child?” He said, “Surely I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed whenever I am, and He has charged me with the prayer and the alms as long as I live, and (to be) respectful to my mother. He has not made me a tyrant (or) miserable. Peace (be) upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive.”

That was Jesus, son of Mary – a statement of truth about which they are in doubt. It is not for God to take any son. Glory to Him! When he decrees something, He simply says to it, “Be!” and it is. “Surely God is my Lord and your Lord, so serve Him! This is a straight path.”

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Calling All Concepts! New NAASR Book Series

By K. Merinda Simmons (University of Alabama)

There’s a new book series you should know about. I’m very happy to serve as editor of the Concepts in the Study of Religion: Critical Primers—an Equinox Publishing series, published in association with the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

As the title suggests, volumes in the series will serve as critical primers: primers inasmuch as they will offer brief (c. 50,000 words) introductions to and overviews of the scholarly treatment of a particular concept in the study of religion, and critical inasmuch as they will outline their authors’ own suggestive claims about the stakes present in such scholarly treatments and about where these discussions might go moving forward.

bookseriesimageThe timing of the series corresponds with NAASR members’ considerations of how the frequently invoked but infrequently examined “method and theory” pairing can be reconsidered and productively utilized in religious studies (begun with the 2015 NAASR program on “Theory in a Time of Excess”). In fact, two of the volumes already forthcoming—on Comparison and Explanation—stem from presentations in the 2016 program on the methodological approaches many scholars use in the field. Comparison: A Critical Primer, by Aaron Hughes, will kick off the series and is currently in production. In it, Hughes considers what constitutes the act of comparison, who engages in it, how and why. He draws upon his own work on Judaism and Islam to examine the specific conditions that, he argues, make comparison a useful method.

Such discussions are significant for the field for several reasons, as they provide nuanced considerations of basic concepts and their histories for students and early-career scholars, and they also offer productive opportunities for self-reflection to advanced scholars who have made long use of the concepts they take up. Most important, perhaps, is that they productively challenge the analytical dichotomy of “theology v. non-theology” that can otherwise and unfortunately dominate discussions about the kind work scholars do in academic studies of religion.

Other volumes contracted for the series so far include books on Evil, Gender, and Tradition. As outlined in its description on the Equinox site (linked above), the series is a good prospective home for critical examinations of any mode of analysis, tool, or analytic term itself within the discourse of religious studies. Sometimes, the best contributions to the field come with simple, thoughtful considerations of a particular concept.

Do consider submitting a proposal! I would be very happy to hear your take on a concept important to the academic study of religion and/or to answer any questions you might have about the series.

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