American Gods, Chapter One: Setting the Themes


by Eliza Rosenberg

For other instalments in this series, see here.

[Entries will avoid spoilers for future chapters. The references cited, however, may contain spoilers, whether in discussions of American Gods or of the traditions on which it draws.]


Diving into American Gods proper, the aptness of the title – a working one that was never replaced – is immediately apparent. Critic Heather O’Donoghue observes that “the atmosphere and naturalistic details of the novel’s opening pages are in the distinctive hard-boiled style of American crime fiction,”[1] or what Gaiman describes as “what I thought of as an American style – clean, simple, uncluttered.”[2] Gaiman, an English expatriate, steeps not only his prose but also his settings in cultural peculiarities that lifelong Americans (although not necessarily Shadow, who we soon learn grew up in the foreign service) rarely register as peculiar: points of small-town pride; the idioms of advertising and customer service; patriotic quirks; car culture and the fast food, roadside attractions, and motels attendant on it. Robert Jones even suggests that the importance of dreams in American Gods, in conjunction with “the mythologizing of the American dream” are such “that Gaiman’s text can be read as both an embrace and a challenge to the fundamental building block of America.”[3]

Many, although not all, of gods of the title are equally unmistakably “American manifestations of supernatural figures of the Old World.”[4] One of American Gods’ themes is the power and importance of religious narratives in their own right, i.e., not in terms of what they signify or how they function, but of what they are. Gaiman stressed this theme in appearances and writings leading up to the book’s publication and he reinforces it even in the prefatory material. The formulary legal disclaimer usually found in novels’ copyright pages appears instead as an independent preface: “[A]ll of the people, living, dead, and otherwise, in this story are fictional or are used in a fictional context. Only the gods are real” (xv; “Caveat, and a Warning for Travelers”).[5]

American Gods, then, is interested in the reality of religion, however construed, rather than its metaphors, “[suggesting] that there is something beyond the cultural representations of the real”[6] and “[using] Norse (and other) mythology to explore serious issues of mortality, illusion, and religious belief.”[7] This accords with Gaiman’s stated aim of “find[ing] what it was that I responded to in ancient pantheons and then try[ing] to create a fictive structure in which I could believe as I wrote it.”[8] It is apparent from the first chapter that the “ancient pantheons” are very much alive here as round, relatable, and dynamic characters – and as the characters of often ancient, orally based, and contextually very different texts that can be so bewildering to audiences continents and millennia removed from them. Gaiman’s investment in these sources is apparent throughout, something many scholars seem to have appreciated. As Evans notes, “Gaiman considers the accuracy of his references ‘a point of honor’: the history is ‘good history,’ ‘the mythology is good, accurate mythology’ . . . . [T]his seems to refer to the explicit use of old, traditional stories (legends, folktales, myths, and so on) taken from scholarly sources, to the acknowledgment of these sources, and to the acknowledgment of issues of authenticity with them,” which “become simply another element in Gaiman’s intertextuality.”[9]

  1. American

In the previous entry, I mentioned that American Gods engages with some of the common answers to “What is ‘religion’?” – a staple semi-rhetorical question for the first session of introductory-level religion classes. In reading American Gods with a class, another semi-rhetorical question presents itself: “Is x religious?”, for values of x that do not necessarily strike alumni of post-Enlightenment Western-type education as religious. The first chapter of American Gods presents several values of x that will recur throughout the book (questions that I will address largely in the context of Anglophone North American university settings.) Is the land religious? Is the weather? Is traveling a religious activity? Is “Where’s ‘home’ for you?” a religious question?

After a bit of thought, most beginning religion students will be able to supply affirmative replies. The land itself is sacred in indigenous American religions, someone will usually offer, and many religious traditions identify certain sites as particularly holy. As for the dwellers on the land – here most notably including birds, trees, and the sun and moon – they tend to follow easily enough, as does the weather that affects the land. Some students may be familiar as well with thunderbirds or with storm deities and divine lightning bolts. In all of these cases, the religious character of the subject is something that most students will have encountered as “other,” either because it is not part of their own religious context or because “mainstream discourse” marks it as such. Widely distributed media articles, textbooks, popular culture, etc., do not proceed on the assumption that land, for example, is sacred. They remind or inform their implicit audiences that Native Americans consider it to be sacred (and, of course, mark Native Americans). Some students may have been on pilgrimages or have relatives who have been; most or all will have heard about groups of strangers going on pilgrimages, frequently through disaster reports. A few students may be deeply invested in who is at home in Tibet, Israel-Palestine, or the Americas themselves, but the majority usually will not have strong feelings on these issues, even if they are in some way directly involved with them. And so on.

The religious character of “Where are you?” is not explicit in the first chapter of American Gods, but it is inescapable. When we meet Shadow, he is looking forward to being released from prison, where “he marked off the days on his Songbirds of North America calendar, which was the only calendar they sold in the prison commissary, and the sun went down and he didn’t see it and the sun came up and he didn’t see it” (5; ch. 1, §1). Presumably he does not see real songbirds either, although one of his jobs in the prison shop is “assembling bird feeders, which was barely more interesting than stamping out license plates” (6; ch. 1,§1). These reminders of freedom of movement – the flight of birds; cars – highlight Shadow’s inability to move across or enter the land. It is a fitting irony that his wife is travel agent and has herself arranged for Shadow’s travel, upon his release, to their home town of Eagle Point, Indiana. It is a quintessentially Midwestern setting whose name evokes ambivalent national symbols: the native bird now a patriotic emblem of the land, and the people who were “displaced” from that land by the emblem-makers.

The text highlights Shadow’s own alienation from the land during his imprisonment in other ways as well. The very names of his fellow inmates – Iceman; Johnnie Larch; Sam Fetisher – evoke either the landscape itself or (stereotypes of) religious practices associated with it. In a naturalistic inversion of the pathetic fallacy, Shadow attributes his unaccountable anxiety to the very ordinary regional weather, which in the latter part of November is “oppressive, still and cold. It felt as if a storm was on the way, but a storm never came” (10; ch. 1, §1). Shadow voices his anxiety in a telephone call to Laura, who does not understand his meaning, speaking instead of the better weather in Eagle Point. He finds a more sympathetic hearing in the much older Sam Fetisher, who apparently apropos of nothing warns Shadow, “Big storm coming. Keep your head down, Shadow-boy. It’s like . . . what do they call those things continents ride around on? Some kind of plates? . . . It’s like when they go riding, when North America goes skidding into South America, you don’t want to be in the middle. You dig me?” (13; ch. 1, §1).

The warning comes too late, of course; Shadow is already mixed up in metaphors. He is literally as well as figuratively in the middle of a storm – the upper Midwest’s weather, as observed by an English author, is a character in American Gods – and figuratively embedded in a continent set on a collision course. “[You are] in the earth and under the earth,” the buffalo-headed man in Shadow’s dream tells him, speaking without moving his mouth. “You are where the forgotten wait” (23; ch. 1, §2). The figure’s buffalo aspect, like the name of Shadow’s destination, recalls an iconic native species of the land and, very specifically in this case, evokes the people displaced and destroyed by the stealing of it through the near-extinction of American bison that Euro-Americans prosecuted in the nineteenth century.

Furthering Shadow’s alienation is his disconnection from his own roots. We learn in the first chapter that his wife Laura is his only living relative. We also receive the problematic impression that Shadow lacks a defined ethnic identity, startling in the racially fraught setting of a U.S. prison. While other inmates and prison officials are described in the omniscient narrative or are identified by other characters (including Shadow) in more or less subtly racially marked terms, Shadow is described only in terms of negation, never affiliation. The inference that he “reads as” a multi-ethnic African-American comes from a white guard’s asking Shadow “what [he is]” and proceeding to offer a series of “guesses” in the most racist terms available. Shadow refuses to engage: “Not that I know of, sir”; “Maybe”; “Could be, sir” (4; ch. 1, §1). His more specific replies to a Black fellow inmate, a very different exchange in context and meaning, reveal only through silence: “Sam Fetisher stared at Shadow. ‘Where you from?’ he asked. Eagle Point. Indiana.’ ‘You’re a lying fuck’ said Sam Fetisher. ‘I mean originally. Where are your folks from?’” (10; ch. 1, §1). Shadow’s grounds for choosing Chicago as an alternative answer – his mother spent some of her childhood and ultimately died there – reveal only that he has no sense of his own origins and that no family or community claims him as their own.

In addition to being alienated from land and people, Shadow is alienated from himself (although Gaiman, as Siobhan Carroll discusses at length,[10] spares his readers another American narrative of self-actualization). The book introduces him immediately and in media res: “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.” (3; ch. 1, §1). We are not told why Shadow is in prison, and of his experience there we learn only that his physical strength prevented it from being even more unpleasant than it might have been. We only learn that he loves his wife, so much that she has occupied his mind almost completely throughout their three years of enforced separation. We do not learn Shadow’s last name until he fantasizes that “it was a simple mix-up: some other Laura Moon’s body had been dragged from the highway wreckage.” (20; ch. 1, §2). Laura changed her name when she married Shadow,[11] but it is through his wife’s name that Shadow is identified, suggesting that her taking the name was what made it his. And although Shadow’s real first name never appears in the book at all, by the third page we learn that Laura has given him another nickname, Puppy. Prohibited pets under their lease, Shadow told Laura, “I’ll be your puppy. What do you want me to do? Chew your slippers? Piss on the kitchen floor? Lick your nose? Sniff your crotch? I bet there’s nothing a puppy can do I can’t do!” (12; ch. 1, §1). Unstated in Shadow’s declaration is dependent adoration that puppies develop toward their human caregivers, the attitude behind the mugs and t-shirts printed with “O Lord, make me the person the dog thinks I am.” American Gods does not mark Shadow’s view of Laura as explicitly religious, but she is clearly, as it were, his idol. The psychology of his devotion to her is vivid, one that is familiar to all those who have been young and felt themselves to be in love.

When Laura dies unexpectedly, then, Shadow loses his living deity. His numbness in the wake of her death makes plausible his lack of resistance to the strangeness that subsequently enters his life. Life without Laura, for Shadow when we meet him, is both unimagined and unimaginable. After her death, the merely unbelievable barely seems to register as such. One of the few things chapter one directly tells us about Shadow, in fact, is that he “was not superstitious. He did not believe in anything he could not see” (7; ch. 1, §1). Nothing over the course of the story changes this. Religion in American Gods is not about the invisible, only about the unseen, and even this is left unchallenged in Shadow’s case. He never comes to believe in the unseen. Instead, he begins to see the unbelievable.

  1. Gods

Given Laura’s occupation as a travel agent, it is fitting that her arrangements are what first allow Shadow to encounter Mr. Wednesday. Gaiman’s prefatory disclaimer that “only the gods are real” helps readers avoid the mistake of thinking that the grim-countenanced traveler recalls the Norse god Odin. Gaiman’s concern for “good mythology” is immediately evident. The traits that in Norse texts “obscure [Odin’s] identity within the stories but which would have signaled to audiences his [disguised] appearance”[12] are all present in the initial description of Mr. Wednesday: a grim smile, gray hair and eyes, gray clothing, a “craggy” face recalling (gray) rocks, a false eye, and a silver necktie pin of a deep-rooted tree (26–28; ch. 1, §2). The placement of the pin on Wednesday’s necktie rather than a lapel echoes Odin’s experience with the tree the tie presumably depicts (i.e., Yggdrasil, the world-tree) as the site of his sacrificing himself to himself by the conventional means of hanging. Shadow’s earlier conversation with an old cellmate who laments the lost glories of hanging the convicted from the gallows reinforces the association (4; ch. 1, §1). Asked how he knows Shadow’s name without being told, Mr. Wednesday replies that “it’s the easiest thing in the world to know what people call themselves. A little thought, a little luck, a little memory” (28; ch. 1, §2). This is an apt reply: Norse sources consistently characterize Odin as knowing the names of all things and describe him as having two servant ravens, Thought and Memory. Even the fact that he is traveling, alone and pseudonymously, accords with traditional depictions, although it must be admitted that Odin’s ability to ride on the air offers less impressive material to Neil Gaiman than it did to Snorri Sturluson.

Odin, as presented by the Norse literati or by Gaiman, presents among the first of many opportunities in American Gods to complicate beginning students’ assumptions about how divinity can be conceptualized. Many of the common answers to “What is ‘religion’?” reveal Platonic and Christian neo-Platonic conceptions of divinity and devotion to be as influential today as ever before, although ­– or because – they tend to be received and implicit conceptions. Religion, we often hear (and sometimes think!) is “about” universal truths; about the intangible and spiritual as opposed to the physical and corporeal; about eternity and the transcendence of mortality. Holy persons, whether historical figures regarded as saints or deities whose existence is outside the empirical, are supposed to be role models for believers, to present ideals toward which they should strive, or at least to embody prevailing values and social norms (or occasionally to provide safe outlets for chaotic alternatives to them). Many instructors educated in a Western system, I would venture, can remember being disoriented to learn what they now teach: that the defining trait of divinity can be power rather than benevolence; that the holy can be abnormal just as much as normative; that the “purely spiritual” can be a footnote to the physical; that religion can be about the subjective, the mundane, and the mortal.

It is another fitting irony, then, that one of American Gods’ key images is explicitly Platonic. In the first of his dream encounters with the buffalo-headed man, which occurs immediately before his meeting Mr. Wednesday, “Shadow was in a dark place . . . Firelight flickered from wet cave walls” (22; ch. 1, §2). Both the image and the language will recur throughout the novel, and the very name by which the protagonist goes suggest the reflection visible in that allegorical setting. The novel’s concepts of divinity, however, are far from Platonic indeed, as indeed, Wanner points out, are those that the Norse sources evince.[13] The point continues to apply as Shadow encounters gods with global origins.

I will not try to list here all the ways in which the substance and narrative of American Gods unfold along distinctly non-Platonic lines. I would, however, draw attention to the way the first chapter also subverts generic conventions of modern fantasy epic – and thus, to some extent, the mythic epics on which modern fantasy often draws. Carroll points out that readers familiar with these conventions are “primed to trust Wednesday” as a mysterious, older, and clearly knowledgeable stranger who acts as a guardian of things ancient.[14] By these same conventions, Shadow might be expected to decline Mr. Wednesday’s job offer in favor of family obligations or out of a sense of unworthiness. But Mr. Wednesday, a god, is no match for the likes of, say, Merlin or Gandalf. He is not even the first physically marked, patriarchal source of information and power we meet in chapter one. Instead, he is preceded by a distinctly non-numinous allotype: a prison warden who Shadow has occasionally seen at a distance but never met and who “up close . . . looked worse. His face was oblong, with gray hair cut into a military bristle cut. He smelled of Old Spice [deodorant]. Behind him was shelf of books, each with the word prison in the title; his desk was perfectly clean, empty . . . He had a hearing aid in his right ear” (15–16; ch. 1, §1). When Shadow and the readers first encounter Mr. Wednesday, they already know the type. Those who are familiar with Norse tradition can even see the sadistically amused guard who reports to the warden as a bureaucratized Loki, one who has exchanged his cunning and disguises for a steady job that provides a uniform. Even without the shock of Laura’s death numbing his reactions, Shadow’s first impression of Mr. Wednesday is set up to be one lacking in awe.

Confounding genre expectations even further, nothing really alters this first impression. Mr. Wednesday is no misapprehended Obi-Wan Kenobi. As their relationship develops, he gives Shadow ever more reasons not only to distrust but also to dislike him. Shadow, for his part, never takes up the hero’s task, instead becoming involved with Mr. Wednesday due to a lack of alternatives and with a kind of resigned resentment of the situation. They are far from the epic pair that might have been expected – just as Shadow is no devotee of the god he serving, and just as the thoroughly traditional Mr. Wednesday proves to be a very different model of god.

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


[1] Heather O’Donoghue, From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 181–182.

[2] Quoted in Timothy H. Evans, “Folklore, Intertextuality, and the Folkloresque in the Works of Neil Gaiman,” 68. In Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert eds., The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2016), 64–80.

[3] Robert William Jones II, “At Home in the World Tree: A Somaesthetic Reading of the Body at Home in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 6. Open Library of Humanities 1:1 (2015): 1–18.

[4] Andrew Wearring, “Changing, Out-of-Work, Dead, and Reborn Gods in the Fiction of Neil Gaiman,” 244. Literature & Aesthetics 19:2 (Dec. 2009): 236–246.

[5] Neil Gaiman, American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text) (New York: William Morrow, 2016), xv. In all editions: “Caveat, and Warning for Travelers.”

[6] Rut Blomqvist, “The Road of Our Senses: The Search for Personal Meaning and the Limitations of Myth in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 21; cf. 22, n. 7. Mythlore 30:3/4 (2012): 5–26.

[7] O’Donoghue, From Asgard toValhalla, 182–183.

[8] Neil Gaiman, “Reflections on Myth,” 77. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 31 (Winter 1999): 75–84.

[9] Evans, “Folklore, Intertextuality, and the Folkloresque . . . ”, 71–72. In a similar vein, O’Donoghue, surveying online fan responses to American Gods, notes similarly that one source of its popular appeal is “an air of mystery, of the possibility initiation into academic or pseudo-academic wisdom and learning” (From Asgarad to Valhalla, 183). Mathilda Slabbert and Leonie Viljoen describe the novel as “a melding of mythology, fictional fantasy and reality and explores the mythical underpinnings of story-making” in which Gaiman “devises a refreshing contemporary mythology of his own, and presents a plausible alternative for the reader to the twenty-first century dilemma” of disenchantment and its discontents. (“Sustaining the imaginative life: mythology and fantasy in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 153; Literator 27:3 (2006): 153). Irina Raţă likewise describe’s the book as “Gaiman[’s using] old myths to create new ones . . . introduc[ing] elements from African, American Indian [sic], Irish, Norse, and Slavic mythologies, as well as numerous urban myths, phenomena, and objects of worship” (“The Role of Intertextuality in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 106; Cultural Intertexts 2:3 (2015): 103–112).

[10] Siobhan Carroll, “Imagined Nation: Place and National Identity in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.” Extrapolation 53:3 (2012): 307–326.

[11] Gaiman, American Gods, 325 (ch. 9, §2). Laura’s maiden name was McCabe.

[12] Kevin J. Wanner, “God on the Margins: Dislocation and Transience in the Myths of Oðinn,” 329. History of Religions 46:4 (2007): 316–350.

[13] Wanner, “God on the Margins” 3232–335, 350. On Gaiman’s constructions of divinity, see here especially Blomqvist, “The Road of Our Senses” and Carroll, “Imagined Nation,” passim.

[14] Carroll, “Imagined Nation” 317–318.

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Religion, Sociology, and Identity: The Contemporary Relevance of Hans Mol


by Adam J. Powell 

Over the past five years, a number of academic organisations have expressed growing concern for the state of sociology of religion in the 21st century. Whether from the American Academy of Religion, the British Sociological Association, or the Sociology of Religion research committee within the ISA, the reflections have been univocal: the field of sociology and the sub-field of sociology of religion need to take each other seriously. Furthermore, both need to reclaim theory and explanation as central to the sociological enterprise. In pursuing theory/explanation, of course, it might be tempting to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – especially as we attempt to counter the criticism that our discipline has been too reluctant to move beyond the founding theorists. However, useful analytical tools and theoretical frameworks – building on the classics whilst avoiding the fragmentation of postmodern theory – do exist. One example, of potentially very incisive relevance for contemporary analyses of religion and society, is the theory of identity outlined by sociologist Hans Mol in his 1976 book Identity and the Sacred.

For Mol, religion is not a static cultural object but a social process by which individual and group identities are ‘sacralised’. This ‘sacralisation of identity’ entails four mechanisms whereby identity is buoyed in the face of life’s vicissitudes: objectification, ritual, commitment, and myth. Essentially, Mol believes that both the natural and the social sciences point to a dialectic between stability and change, or identity and forces of differentiation. Religion is, therefore, understood as an interminable balancing act in which systems of meaning that offer stable identities implement the sacralising mechanisms to incorporate forced changes and uncertainties. In this way, Mol connects personal and group identity with a ‘stable niche’ that is cloaked with sacrality in the process of neutralising potential threats to the collective and to the self.

Now, decades later, Mol’s identity theory seems rather insightful. Not only did his concept of religion as any meaning-system capable of conferring and sustaining an identity with associated emotions, rituals, and narratives presciently suggest an alternative to the secularisation thesis back in the 1970s, but it also underscored the indissoluble links between identity, meaning, and transcendence. As religiously-inflected passions and political volatilities collide across the globe (viz., Trump, Brexit, and sundry forms of Islamism), and as social commentators and experts betray their own inadequate understandings of social conflict, it may be of some use to reflect on Mol’s theoretical contributions. Indeed, Mol equates identity not simply with stability but with ‘the stable niche that man occupies in a potentially chaotic environment which he is therefore prepared vigorously to defend’ (my emphasis) (1976: 65). What is more, he emphasises the fragility of identity, hence the beneficial role of religion as it reinforces identity through sacralisation.

Of course, that identity-reinforcing endeavour follows, and implies, a previous transition from an old mode of being, thinking, and feeling to a new mode of being, thinking, and feeling. Mol likens this to the religious conversion and states unequivocally, ‘Detachment from any established identity pattern is painful…’ (1976: 50). If Mol is on to something about the relationship between identity and stability – about the spirited defence of an identity by a group or individual who intuits the potential agony of conversion – perhaps current events should cause less surprise. Indeed, identity may very well be a zero-sum game. When a political ideology or religious worldview impinges on an already sacred identity, we may be witnessing what social anthropologist Douglas Davies has called ‘identity-depletion’, which includes ‘life circumstances…where otherness becomes malevolent and reciprocity constricted’ (2011: 68). For example, the American political scene has witnessed a significant trend toward identity politics (i.e., gender, sexuality, race, and religion) over the past few decades, a pattern that has challenged all three branches of government (judicial, legislative, and executive) to legislate a sort of morality based on liberal values of human rights. In doing so the state seems to have entered the fray of private religious attitudes, challenging (inadvertently?) the supposed private/public bifurcation at the heart of the modern West. More importantly, however, this means that many Americans perceive a pressure to convert to an unfamiliar (but state-sanctioned) identity, or at least feel the anguish of their once-stable identity being depleted. Will individuals and groups not defend against this anticipated pain? Is there a replacement to fill the void? Mol suggests that in such circumstances charismatic leaders emerge ‘as the catalysts for the kind of change that…is already in the air’ (1976: 46). Such leaders may ease the conversion process or help reintegrate the old disrupted identity and, just maybe, such leaders sometimes look like a Trump or a Farage.


Davies, D. (2011) Emotion, Identity, and Religion: Hope, Reciprocity, and Otherness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mol, H. (1976) Identity and the Sacred. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Adam J. Powell is a Junior Research Fellow in Durham University’s Department of Theology & Religion. He is co-editor of Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings: Reflecting Hans Mol (Ashgate, 2015) and author of Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2017). The latter serves as an introduction to Mol’s theory of religious identity for a new generation of social scientists, including both a reappraisal of the original theory and previously-unpublished essays by Mol himself.



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Introduction: René Girard’s Legacy










The following is the introduction to the special double-size September-December 2016 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). The introduction to this issue on René Girard was written by guest editor, Michael Jerryson. Although our publisher has kindly made this introduction freely available, we offer this piece here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin. Again, we wish to express our thanks to Michael for his efforts in bringing this issue together.


Michael Jerryson

Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religious Studies Department, Youngstown State University

In the great Indian epic The Mahabharata, two warring factions seek the throne of Hastinapura. On one side are the Kauravas, one hundred brothers and a sister who were born from a blind king and his pious wife. The Kauravas are extremely jealous of their cousins, the Pāṇḍavas. The Pāṇḍavas are the five sons of Pandu; however, Pandu was unable to conceive children on his own. His two wives Kunti and Madri copulated with gods and gave birth to his children. As such, each Pāṇḍava was blessed with divine gifts. These gifts allow the Pāṇḍavas to accomplish great feats, but they also become a reason for the Kauravas’ resentment.1 Jealousy becomes a prevailing motif throughout the epic, particularly in the relations between the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas. It explains the initial friction between the two sides of the family as well as the ways in which the friction gives way to warfare.

The Mahabharata is not unique with regard to bouts of jealousy and violence. Many epics contain such intersections. However, René Girard provides another layer of analysis for the epic, a pervasive existentialist angst that derives from mimetic desire. Girard argues that humans are plagued by the same jealousy found in the Abrahamic story of Cain and Abel: “Mimetism is a source of continual conflict. By making one man’s desire into a replica of another man’s desire, it invariably leads to rivalry; and rivalry in turn transforms desire into violence” (Girard 1977, 169). In the Indian epic, the Kauravas desired what the Pandavas had; it was the source of their rivalry and the jealousy led to their ultimate destruction in the Kurukshetra War.

René Girard focused a significant portion of his attention on the origins and the pacifications of religion and violence. He found that mimetic desire was a catalyst for violent patterns in societies. Whereas some scholars of religion like J. Z. Smith have focused on the subordinating power of alterity,2 Girard examined the reflexive desire implicit in the construction of the Other. Girard did not linger on the question of whether or not people had mimetic desire. For him, this was an implicit condition of existence. Instead, Girard deliberated on the ways in which cultures address this proclivity for mimesis.

This special double issue is devoted to the work and legacy of René Girard. One of the most prodigious scholars to work on religion and violence, Girard produced scholarship that has stimulated thousands of scholars for over forty years. His work also led to the formation of academic organizations. Perhaps the most notable is The Colloquium on Violence and Religion: The International Association of Scholars of Mimetic Theory (COV&R), of which Girard was the honorary chair until his death. COV&R was founded in 1990, and the organization launched a journal four years later, Contagion: Violence, Mimesis, and Culture.3 COV&R holds annual conferences on Girardian theories and research, the most recent at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne in 2016.4 In addition to COV&R, there are other organizations such as the Raven Foundation, which sponsors the online Raven Review: Social Commentary on Religion, Politics, and Pop Culture.5 Imitatio is yet another academic resource that provides grants for scholarship on Girard’s work and was formed “to press forward the consequences of René Girard’s remarkable insights into human behavior and culture” (Imitatio).

On November 4, 2015, René Girard died at his residence in Stanford, California. He had served as the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization, from 1985–1994 and had continued as professor emeritus of French Language, Literature, and Civilization. One of his colleagues at Stanford University, Cynthia Haven, reminds her readers of the Stanford News that Girard was a member of the prestigious Académie Française and that during his induction into the prominent academy, Stanford University philosopher Michel Serres referred to him as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” (Haven 2015).

While there are scholars who support Girard’s work and see much of his work as a launching point for further work—and carry the reference as “Girardians”—there are notable critics who disagree with Girard, even his most foundational concepts. Regardless of their positions, the advocates and dissenters of Girardian theory evince René Girard’s widespread impact. This commemorative issue hosts a compilation of essays by some of the most influential scholars to write on religion and violence. Some authors advance Girard’s work, some authors critique it; collectively, their work pays tribute.

In “Criticism, Critique, and Crisis in the Assessment of the Work of René Girard” Sandor Goodhart provides a background to Girard and his work. Goodhart locates the “three big ideas” in Girard’s oeuvre: mimetic desire, the management of the sacrificial crisis through scapegoating, and the revelation of these ideas in Jewish and Christian scriptures. He maintains that while these big ideas provide important intellectual trajectories, they have suffered from some common misconceptions. As one of the few scholars of Girard who studies Judaism, Goodhart acknowledges that Girard took the path of Christianity (and that many scholars who have worked on Girardian ideas are scholars of Christianity). However, he argues that a scholar can apply Girardian perspectives without adhering to a particular theological position.

David Frankfurter provides an alternative reflection on Girard’s big three theories in “The Study of Evil and Violence without Girard.” Turning to the issue of methodology, he argues that Girard’s investigation into religion and violence employs an archetypal narrative bereft of historical contexts. A close examination of sacrifices in their socio-historical contexts reveals a very different pattern than Girard’s premises provide. Frankfurter points out that sacrifice is not the central rite of religion and is not explicitly about killing. There are indeed acts of performative mimesis, but these cannot be understood through the narrow definition Girard provides. Moreover, the scapegoating theory simplifies what is a much more complex socio-political and theological dynamics. As such, Frankfurter finds that Girard’s work is not so much a theory, but a legend of a priori doctrine.

In “Something Bigger than Girard,” Jonathan Klawans addresses implicit problems in the pursuit of an origin for religion. Klawans argues that René Girard engages in an exercise reminiscent of Mircea Eliade’s work, one rife with over-generalizations to fit the theory to data and marked by the identification of author as guru. In a contraposition to Sandor Goodhart, Klawans notes that Girard sustains a position that the Gospels and Christianity are ultimately and uniquely revelatory. If a theory is not falsifiable, it is not an academic theory. He recommends that future Girardian scholars nuance their work and reformulate their approach as a hypothetical dynamic.

Vanessa Avery pursues a nuanced approach and ventures into the uncharted regions of Girardian research with “Whither Girard and Islam? Reflections on Text and Context.” René Girard and scholars of Girard have made efforts to connect their work with Islamic thought (and to invite scholars of Islam to their conferences), but there has been a notable dearth of Islamic scholars who have engaged with Girardian theories. Avery contends that perhaps some of this reticence may relate to the different literary structures, with biblical scriptures employing narratives, and the Qur’an’s focus on individual responsibility and the lack of vicariousness.

Martha Reineke builds upon Girard’s work and explores new directions in “The Worm in the Pudding Cup: Violence, Disgust, and Mimetic Theory.” Throughout the article, Reineke pays homage to Girard through her careful bricolage of psychological, anthropological, and theological theories and data. For instance, she connects Richard Beck’s psychology of disgust to mimetic desire in order to explore ways in which cultures enact pollution management. Reineke asks, “To secure the explanatory power of mimetic theory, must blood of the female reproductive system be an instance of violence?” She argues that linking blood with an abject sacred instead of violence strengthens Girard’s theories. Whereas Girard found the notion of twinning as an exemplar of sacrificial violence, Reineke locates ethnographic examples in which twins are not ancillary to violence, but rather act as aspirational and communicative ideals.

Margo Kitts provides an alternative background and context for René Girard in “Mimetic Theory, Sacrifice, and the Iliad?” She locates Girard among several other prominent scholars in the twentieth century who worked on “sacred violence”: Sigmund Freud, Adolf Jensen, and Walter Burkert. Whereas Goodhart extols Girard for his inclusive theories that transcend their Christian origins, Kitts reaches a different conclusion. She finds that Girard’s “mystical Christian foundation” for mimetic desire and scapegoating provides limitations to its wider appeal and relevance. As Girard’s contribution to the discourse is predominantly literary and philosophical, Kitts tests her conclusion through a careful application of Girardian concepts to the violent examples in a pre-Christian poem, the Illiad.

Mark Juergensmeyer reflects upon Girard’s treatment of mimetic desire, sacrifice, and war in “On Girard: Mimesis and Cosmic War.” Juergensmeyer acknowledges the importance of mimetic desire within the study of religion and violence, but questions Girard’s causalities. For Juergensmeyer, mimetic desire is a complicated ingredient. War requires an (often constructed) enemy. Sometimes a war is born out of mimetic desire, but sometimes violence leads to mimesis. Whereas Girard posits that sacrificial rites put an end to the cycle of violence, Juergensmeyer aligns himself with many in the anthropological field in which rituals of sacrifice re-enact the hunt and the physical violence that came earlier. Instead of sacrifice as a purification of war, war of cosmic importance is the means by which sacrifice gains meaning. In this way, terrorists envision themselves in a cosmic war against the United States, one in which the United States is both vilified and admired.

As should be explicitly clear from the brief discussion of the articles above, this issue resists a uniform position on René Girard and his work. Some scholars such as Sandor Goodhart and Martha Reineke labor to advance his ideas; others like David Frankfurter and Jonathan Klawans heavily critique them. In the beginning of this introduction, I argued that Girard’s concept of mimetic desire points to the existential angst inscribed within the divine-mortal tandem of the Mahabharata. The example supports both the supporters and critics of Girard. It displays ways in which Girardian ideas intersect with non-Western religious scriptures; however, it reinforces the point that his ideas lend better to literary references without particular socio-historical contexts. The inclusion of both sides in this commemorative issue pays homage to an academic in the best way possible. The various positions illustrate the ways in which Girard has provoked intense, theoretical, and insightful conversations on religion and violence. Vive la pensée critique!


Buitenen, J. A. B. van, and James L. Fitzgerald, eds. 1973. The Mahābhārata: I. The Book of the Beginning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Girard, René. 1977. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Haven, Cynthia. 2015. “Stanford Professor and Eminent French Theorist René Girard, Member of the Académie Française, Dies At 91.” Stanford News, November 4.

Imitatio. “About Imitatio.”

Smith, Jonathan Z. 2004. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Michael Jerryson (Ph.D. University of California, Santa Barbara 2008) is Associate Professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University, Youngstown OH. He is a specialist in the study of intersection of identity and religious violence, with a particular focus on Buddhism. He is co-chair of the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence group, co-editor of the Journal of Religion and Violence, and is the author or editor of numerous books including Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (Oxford University Press, 2011 and the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (edited with Mark Juergensmeyer and Margaret Kitts; Oxford University Press, 2013).

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 45.3-4 (September-December 2016)










A special double-size issue of the Bulletin has now been published and is available both online and in print. We are pleased to published this special memorial issue focused on a significant, if not controversial, theorist in the study of religion and violence. Last year René Girard passed away, leaving behind him a significant body of work on mimetic violence, scapegoat mechanisms, and the origin of society, myth, and ritual. In many ways, Girard was the last of the great myth-ritualist, a lineage going back into the 19th century to such founding figures as James Frazer. Reactions to Girard have fallen into either extreme criticism or high admiration and (perhaps) mimesis (e.g., the Colloquium on Violence & Religion [COV&R] and its journal Contagion). In order to mark the life and impact of this theorist, Michael Jerryson has guest-edited this issue of the Bulletin, bringing together a number of major scholars that exemplify a range of views on Girard’s work. This issue also includes a “Field Notes” summary of the NAASR annual meeting (Nov. 18-20, 2016) on the theme “Method Today” (see full program here) (and we encourage Bulletin blog readers to attend these exciting sessions in San Antonio!).

 “Theorizing Mimesis, Violence, and Myth: René Girard (1923-2015)”

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 45, Issue 3-4 (September-December 2016)

“Introduction: René Girard’s Legacy” Michael Jerryson (Youngtown State University) – (pp. 3-5)

“Criticism, Critique, and Crisis in Assessing the World of René Girard” Sandor Goodhart (Purdue University) – (pp. 6-15)

“The Study of Evil and Violence without Girard” David Frankfurter (Boston University) – (pp. 17-21)

“Something Bigger than Girard” Jonathan Klawans (Boston University) – (pp. 23-27)

“Whither Girard and Islam? Reflections on Text and Context” Vanessa J. Avery (Sacred Heart University and Hartford Seminary) – (pp. 29-34)

“The Worm in the Pudding Cup: Violence, Disgust, and Mimetic Theory” Martha J. Reineke (University of Northern Iowa) – (pp. 34-46)

“Mimetic Theory, Sacrifice, and The Iliad?” Margo Kitts (Hawai’i Pacific University) – (pp. 46-57)

“On Girard: Mimesis and Cosmic War” Mark Juergensmeyer (University of California, Santa Barbara) – (pp. 59-65)

Field Notes: News and Announcements in the Discipline – (pp. 65-66)


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Building Broad Support (or the Appearance of it)


by Steven Ramey

A New Jersey fundraiser last weekend titled “Humanity United Against Terror” provides an excellent example of one of the tricks of building cooperation. The Republican Hindu Coalition organized the event that featured Bollywood stars and an address by Donald Trump. The event had a range of interesting incongruities, including signs suggesting that Trump would ease speed up immigration  and images depicting Hillary Clinton and Sonia Gandhi (leader of the Congress Party in India) as demonic. My focus, however, is the framing of the event, contrasting the title and general purpose to its content, which in large part served as a political rally for Trump’s campaign.

While others have written about the connection between Trump’s assertions and Hindu Nationalism and the BJP (the party in India that currently controls Parliament and the Office of Prime Minister), the event illustrates nicely the work that it takes to build cooperation and appearances of broad support. In this case, the event title’s opposition to terrorism generated a widely agreeable image, as most people oppose terrorism (calling violence that they support something other than terrorism, of course). Moreover, in Hindu communities, supporting refugees from Kashmir who identify as Hindus is a valued cause. One of the event posters, pictured above, explicitly forefronts the Bollywood stars and the assistance to refugees, diminishing the significance of Trump’s presence. The organizers, however, inserted more specific content, both Hindu nationalist, BJP, and Republican, within this broadly agreeable event. While I do not know the full characterization of the event in the communities who participated (beyond this poster), I suspect that some people who attended were not significant supporters of the BJP or of Trump but found the general cause of the event or the appearance of Bollywood stars to be an attraction. If my conjecture is correct, then the support evidenced by the attendance at the event can easily be misinterpreted as reflective of the support for Trump, the BJP, and Hindu nationalism generally.

This event’s effort to build broad attendance and thus support, of course, is not unique, as it is a common strategy. For example, the language of the US Pledge of Allegiance is general enough that many people can recite it with conviction while filling the generalities with their own content. For example, the concluding phrase of “liberty and justice for all” can connect with support for the Second Amendment, opposition to abortion, and law and order positions of more conservative ideologies or support for gender and LGBTQI equality, legal abortion, and Black Lives Matter positions that we commonly associate with more liberal ideologies. And this liberal/conservative split itself is a false dichotomy, as people can hold any combination of those positions under the terms “liberty and justice for all.”

Recognizing the flexibility of these general phrases that become uniting points for an event or a group or national identification can lead to a cynical response, that everything is simply smoke and mirrors, inauthentic in its vagueness. However, any community, whether local, political, religious, or national, requires this flexibility to generate a commonality that covers over the competing interests and ideas, thus highlighting the necessity of accommodation and compromise. Communities require such coalition-building to function effectively. Intentionally overlooking some of our differences may be the key to strengthen our abilities to function collectively, though we are faced with the debate over which disagreements are too central to overlook. The demands for purity and complete agreement, from whatever source, are not an effective way to accomplish the continual work of building a local community or a nation.

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Better Know a Religion Blog: Religion & Politics


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. Other posts in this series can be found here. 

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

Religion & Politics launched in May of 2012. The online journal is a project of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which opened in 2010 at Washington University in St. Louis. One of the center’s early goals was to launch an online publication that would offer a public space for conversation on these two contentious topics. We feature articles from scholars and journalists who proceed from a single premise: that for better and for worse, religion and politics converge, clash, and shape public life. But as Religion & Politics’ tagline says, we are still “fit for polite company.”

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

We cover anything at the intersection of religion and politics, and we think of these two themes broadly. We have eleven topic categories that encompass most of our articles: bioethics, civil liberties, culture, education, elections, foreign policy, law & order, media, money, science, sexuality & gender, and elections.

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

We actually do not think of what we do as blogging, which tends to be more informal and conversational. Each of our articles is deeply edited, and I work as a traditional magazine editor, helping writers polish their finished pieces. That said, we are asking scholars to write for a general audience and to translate their research in an accessible way. I think it can be a great way for scholars to try out a different genre of writing, to explore a topic, or to navigate conveying ideas in a journalistic format.

How do you see Religion & Politics in relation to other academic-oriented blogs that deal with questions relating to religion?

We are lucky to have a lot of great company in this space, and we were welcomed by the sites that preceded us. Like a lot of them, we are focused on how academic expertise, research, and reporting can be brought to bear on pressing questions in public life. We are a news journal, though, so we prioritize what is happening in the news more so than in the academy.

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?

We are open to numerous approaches to religion. We believe the intersections of religion and politics happen in so many places. We strive to publish a range of views, rather than promoting a specific political perspective. We honor frank and respectful debate. We inform these discussions by taking the long view, providing historical context, critical analysis, and thorough research with compelling writing.

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The Normative Turn and its Discontents


by Travis Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Replies Segundus:

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

The head of table forcefully interjects:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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