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


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

I Think I’m Done With Comparative Religions

by Matt Sheedy

My parents were in town last week for a visit and stayed at a bed and breakfast not far from where I live. On their last morning they convinced the proprietor of the B&B to have me over for breakfast, which we shared with two other couples, one from China and the other from Red Deer, Alberta. After some light banter the man from Red Deer asked me what I do for a living, to which I promptly replied, “I’m a scholar of comparative religions.”

I had not been asked this question in some time and was a little caught off guard, opting for an old default term that I had used in the past in the place of “religious studies” or the “study of religion,” which I’ve found most people mistake for theology. The modifier “comparative” seemed, at the very least, to signal something other than Christian apologetics or, as I used to get during my Master’s days, that I was training to become a priest. While the term “comparative religions” is loaded and largely passé for many scholars in the field (though Eric Sharpe’s text of that name is still worth reading), I had still assumed, evidently (if unreflectively), that it would suffice as a stand-in description for a curious outsider to mark my boundary as “other-than-theology.”

In an attempt to relate to my work the man from Red Deer asked me if I was familiar with the writings of C.S. Lewis, of whom he was a fan. This did not strike me as unusual given the popularity of Lewis among both children and adults, though the familiar turn to a Christian apologist did not give me confidence that my self-description as a scholar of comparative religions had done that work that I had hoped it would do. He then asked me if I had heard of Ravi Zacharias (I said I was vaguely familiar), and went on to discuss his work on “comparative religions” with such books as Jesus Among Other Gods, The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha, and The Price and the Prophet: Jesus Talks with Mohammad.

I looked up The Price and the Prophet when I retuned home latter that day and found the following description:

Nothing is more centerstage at this time in world history than the place of religion – its use and abuse. What is Islam? What is the Christian faith? Are these on a collision course? Listen in on a conversation between two young men – one a devout Muslim and the other at a crossroads as he faces the claims of Jesus Christ. Enter into the debate as heart and mind intertwine with the deepest themes of faith and truth. … Can we see the difference and learn to live peaceably with these differences? Read this book as part of the Great Conversations series by Ravi Zacharias as he tackles this sensitive theme in The Prophet and the Prince. It could change the way you think about God and the nature of Truth.

That same evening I was finishing up Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (2015) by Thomas A. Lewis, which ends by offering a critique of Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World (2011). Commenting on the problem of “comparative religions” Lewis writes:

Beyond legitimating certain notions of continuity with origins, conceiving of religions as even roughly cohesive wholes in this manner easily obscures important differences within these traditions. This problem comes out clearly in a work such as Prothero’s God Is Not One. For all Prothero’s attention to differences within traditions, these are clearly subordinated to the differences between the eight different “rival religions” that are presented as the basic alternatives. Yet the point about the occlusion of differences within traditions still lingers in more sophisticated and subtle work in the field (134-35).

Lewis goes on to talk about a similar dynamic at work in the Comparative Religious Ideas Project, which brought together a number of scholars at a series of conferences from 1995 to 1999, and produced three volumes, The Human ConditionUltimate Realities, and Religious Truth. Discussing these themes, Lewis continues:

Each of these scholars focuses on a particular period or even text of a given tradition, and the project is explicit about acknowledging differences and diversity within religious traditions. Despite making these qualifications, the project holds onto the rubrics of distinct religions to structure the project. They identify these traditions as “Buddhism, Chinese religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.” … They define these religious traditions in terms of canonical texts and “motifs,” arguing that despite the internal diversity, these traditions “form around and take their initial identity from these core texts and motifs in such a way that all subsequent developments in each tradition have to come to terms with them.” All Hindus have to come to terms with the Vedas; all Buddhists must somehow engage the Buddha’s teachings and canonical accounts of his life; all Muslims relate to the Qur’an as authoritative; and so forth (135).

In the context of my conversation with the man from Red Deer, what struck me about Lewis’s remarks (Thomas A. not C.S.) was how similar the apologetics of Zacharias was to both Prothero and the Comparative Religious Ideas Project. Granted, the latter do not attempt to legitimate their claims theologically, as advocates of a particular tradition, though they are all led by a concern with reconciling “differences” through favorable comparison in the interest of cooperation and in the service of inter-faith dialogue.

One obvious problem with this model, as Lewis nicely states a few pages later, is that it “reinscribes the notion that relevant differences within Christianity—or Islam, or Buddhism—are less significant than the commonalities” (136). While we could certainly take Lewis’s point further, his basic argument is that the method of comparison in these and related studies begins with the default assumption of some common essence within various identified religions—each of which share certain “truths,” “ultimate realities” and views on the “human condition” that are deemed similar at their core, and where differences can serve as an object lesson for others to learn from (e.g., how to be more “biocentric” like Indigenous people).

While my encounter with the man from Red Deer is anecdotal and by no means a representative sample of perceptions of those from outside of the discipline, it reminded me of how fraught “comparative religions” is as a description of the field, especially for those of us who aim to work with critical methods and theories and to push beyond regnant paradigms. It also reminded me how the term functions as a sign-symbol within a particular economy of meaning, signalling for many (it would appear) other popular “comparativists” in our shared social worlds–e.g., Ravi Zaharias, Deepak Chopra, or the following link (teaser!), which came up fourth when I googled “comparative religion.”

I am not sure what a useful term might be for explaining to outsiders what it is that I/we do, though one thing is for certain: I think I’m done with comparative religions.

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

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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








In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

by Alexander Rocklin

I was on an airplane back home to Chicago from Trinidad and Tobago last summer, after a layover in Miami. Summer is the only time during the year I have to read for pleasure and I was enjoying Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym. In order to avoid distraction on planes I typically listen to music while I read. However, this is often not an effective deterrent to interruption. We were about halfway through the flight when I noticed that the woman sitting a seat away from me was gesticulating and mouthing in my direction “Oh wow! What is that?” She was gesturing toward the inflight entertainment. I removed only one ear bud and holding it up I told her the program was NBC’s obstacle course extravaganza, American Ninja Warrior. She used this moment of at least one unblocked ear canal to start up a conversation, asking the what do you do question.

I don’t typically give much thought in my reply to this question because in my experience people have not shown much interest in what I do (on airplanes at least, not while doing research in Trinidad, where people are curious and confused by a white guy from the US studying things East Indian). When I told her I was a historian of religion who studies Hinduism and Islam in the Americas and was going to start as a visiting professor in religious studies her eyes lit up. She told me she was coming back from a summer mission. Our discussion meandered between her work, American Ninja Warrior, and the book I was reading. I shared with her my plans to go on the job market in the fall and all of a sudden I felt a jolt as she grabbed my arm with one hand, put her other hand on my shoulder, and began to pray over me. She asked her god to help me with my move to Oregon and with my coming job search. I awkwardly thanked her.

When I told her I was coming back from doing research in Trinidad, she said was coming from the Dominican Republic and that she had been to Mexico the year before; that there was a lot of work to be done in the field in Mexico. She informed me that many of the people there had given up Jesus and eternal life to worship Death and Satan! I asked her if she was talking about the Catholic folk saint Santa Muerte. I explained that most devotees of Santa Muerte identified as Christian and did not see themselves as worshiping death. She was for many just another saint, if a particularly responsive but unofficial one. She looked at me as I spoke, but transitioned without comment to tell me about her work in the DR. As she was talking the calendar app on my phone began to buzz. I absentmindedly took the phone out of my pocket and dismissed the reminder. As I did so my seatmate’s eyes went wide again as she saw the background on my phone, an image featuring a glaring demon with protruding fangs from the cover of a late 19th century book on “obeah,” popularly defined as African Caribbean magic.

Obeah image

She immediately went back to her ninja warriors. I looked over at her for a moment and then went back to Pym.

At the level of the airplane conversation (at the least), given how cursory they often are, I wonder how much control we really can have over how our seatmates identify us and understand what we do/say (and vice versa). And our desires and intentions (when/if those can be consciously and coherently articulated and determined) only take us part of the way. Our projects of identity confection are hardly the only things that make us. There are things and bodies beyond what we would call ourselves that get caught up in making us “who we are” in a given context, despite how we construct ourselves. The novel Pym’s protagonist is Chris Jaynes, a college professor who identifies as Black. However, he has very light skin and is identified as white—and his African American associates are taken to be his slaves!—by [spoiler alert] the novel’s titular character. Initially, in Jaynes’ case, it was his skin that Pym assumed told him something important (given his antebellum point of reference). But also the Victorian explorer interpreted him in relation to Jaynes’ travel companions in order to make sense of him. We and our flightmates have a variety of frames that order our interactions, constrain but also make possible some sort of understanding of the world and where we might fit in it. But the various elements can change and shift. I went from anonymous neighbor to fellow worker in the Latin American missionary field to likely worshiper of Death and Satan (!) in the span of little over half a dozen minutes. Or at least that was my take on our interaction. Different people will situate us differently using different things—different bits of our bodies, who and what we associate or are associated with, in their work of identifying us. The information I provided but also the background image on my phone helped to shift the ways in which I was legible for this woman, in apparently startling ways.

Though neither missionary nor obeahman, I will take whichever of these identifications affords me the most quiet time for reading.

Alexander Rocklin is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Willamette University. He completed his PhD in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. His research interests include colonialism and the politics of the category religion, religion and race, and histories of Hinduism, Islam, and Afro-Atlantic traditions in the Americas. His work has appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and the New West Indian Guide.

Posted in Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Ruminations, Scholarship on the Road, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.

by Stacie Swain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Sarah Lynn Kleeb

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow this link.

by Sarah Lynn Kleeb*

About 10 years ago, I was returning home from one of my first big academic conferences. I was in that weird post-conference headspace of feeling mildly buzzed and yet utterly spent, as I entered the taxi that would take me home from the airport. The cab driver was an older man, probably in his 60s, grey hair, bushy beard. He seemed like a kind man, with a genuine smile and courteous nature, and I welcomed his warm and gentle approach after a long day and a long week. I was tired, and very much looking forward to sinking down into the comfortable, plush back seat of the cab, silently watching the world blur past as the driver whisked me home.

The driver, however, wanted to chat. As we merged onto the highway, he asked where I had been, if I was from Toronto, what I’d been doing out of town, and all the standard questions cab drivers generally ask their fares from the airport. I answered minimally, but courteously, sliding down into my seat a bit further and looking intently out the window, hoping he’d pick up on my body language. He did not.

“An academic conference? Are you a professor, a student?” he asked.

When I told him that I was a student and he asked what I studied, I tried to stifle a heavy sigh, knowing that this often leads to a long – and occasionally somewhat frustrating – conversation. As it turned out, there was a massive traffic jam, meaning we’d be in the car together for at least an hour, so I resolved myself to snap out of my little self-centered haze and make myself available to this seemingly kind man with at least a bit of time-passing conversation.

But, then came that important moment: What do I tell him I study? This was still in my early grad school days, and I, like so many of us who study religion in an academic, non-theological context, was accustomed to people assuming I was going to be a religious official of some sort whenever I told them I studied “religion”. I was still searching for a label that would work against such assumptions. So, for what may have been the first time ever, I told him, “I study Critical Theory of Religion”.

My thought process was this: “Critical Theory” means something more specific than most people realize, so he likely won’t precisely understand the reference. But, “critical” should be a broad enough term to express the non-theological/non-apologist nature of my studies. So, out it came, and I anticipated some mildly confused muttering, and – maybe – an awkward silence to follow. I was very wrong.

He looked at me in the rear view mirror with a noticeably arched eyebrow, and asked, “Critical Theory? Does that mean……… [very pregnant pause]……. Karl Marx?”

Aside from the arched eyebrow, his face had been hard to read (especially from the back seat), and I wasn’t sure how to interpret him. He was, of course, quite right – that is pretty much what I’d meant (small-scale, anyway). Marx is, indeed, one of the central figures for this particular school of thought. But, was his moment of recognition about to get me thrown out of his cab on the side of the highway? Was the raised eyebrow cheeky or accusatory? Not everyone responds well to Marx (to put it lightly).

I stammered out, “Uhhhhh….. Well…. Ummmmm….. Yeah, Marx is one of the key thinkers I’m looking at,” in an attempt to both maintain my position, and perhaps soften it a bit, just in case (“one of…”). He didn’t say anything for a moment that seemed eternal, though it was probably only about 10 seconds.

When he did speak, my jaw dropped. To my utter delight, my cab driver was really into Marx, and he was remarkably well-versed in Marxist theory. His hesitation in asking about Marx, he confessed, was due to his own internal monologue, which was similar to my own – i.e., would asking about Marx lead me to react defensively or aggressively? As it turned out, he had fled to Canada from the former Yugoslavia several years prior, and (as I’d eventually learn is the case for so many workers in Canada) he was highly educated, but with degrees that weren’t considered valid in his new homeland. He told me about his amazing journey as a political refugee, about coming to Canada with the promise of work based on his credentials, only to learn – upon arriving – that his options were severely limited, since his education was not recognized. With bright smiles on both our faces, me now sitting on the edge of the back seat, leaning against the front passenger-side seat to get as close to eye-contact as I could, we exchanged off-the-cuff insights about Marx and Feuerbach, and their views of religion. I remember him emphasizing issues of praxis and critique – at the time, I’d figured that this was just because such topics are par for the proverbial course in talking about Marx. Years later, I now realize that he was probably calling back to the Praxis School of Marxian thought, which originated in the former Yugoslavia in the 1960s. We marvelled together at the continued relevance of thinkers like Marx, the extent to which his own critiques – and his calls to continuous, relentless, critique – remain valid even in 2005, even in Canada. We talked about so many things that I can’t even remember now, but it was, without a doubt, the single greatest cab ride of my life. I’ve never been so elated to be stuck in traffic for what ended up being nearly 2 hours.

As we took our leave of each other upon reaching my apartment, we shook hands and patted each other on the back, regarding each other warmly, like instant comrades. I found the unrestrained physical contact between us – he an older man and me a younger woman in my mid-twenties, he a cab driver and me his fare – to be a significant violation of divisive norms, an action so true to the tradition of Critical Theory. He cut my fare to a mere fraction, and I returned the favour by upping his tip tenfold (we both chuckled a bit about this part of our exchange, considering our topic of conversation). We expressed our sincere mutual appreciation of one another and wished each other all the best as we both departed, beaming with delight, heading back into our individual lives.

Thinking through my use of this particular label, “I study Critical Theory of Religion”, my intention was clearly to separate myself from particular kinds of scholarship: theological scholarship, faith-based investigations of religions and religiosities. Recalling this particular story, though, helps to remind me that self-applied descriptors can act as an “in” as well as an “out”. As we define ourselves (in true Critical Theory fashion) as “not-this” and “not-that” with the delimiter “Critical Theory”, so do we enter into a particular community with others, even if we do not realize it or recognize such others at a glance. “Critical Theory” constitutes a “getting away from”, but also a “moving toward”. In this fruitful space of recognition, contingent upon disclosure of the descriptor “Critical Theory (of Religion)”, I was able to experience an unexpected solidarity that relied entirely on the work done by that particular term. Had I described myself as merely studying “religion”, such a connection may not have been so easily and wonderfully formed.

Sarah Lynn Kleeb received her PhD in August 2015, and is an on-the-market scholar currently teaching courses in humanities, academic writing, and religion and media at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Sarah’s doctoral thesis, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Notion of “Liberation” and the Legacy of Marx’s “Ruthless Criticism”, critically examines connections between religious belief and (social, political, economic) dissent, particularly as manifest in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology. Current research interests include the rise of Pope Francis, who frequently uses liberationist language and economic critique in interviews and encyclicals, yet who has long distanced himself from liberation theology.

This post originally ran May 2016.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do To Outsiders: Merinda Simmons

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.

by Merinda Simmons*

Sometimes part of the work in articulating what it is one does intellectually or professionally is figuring out decisively what it is one does not do. As part of last year’s NAASR program on “Theory in a Time of Excess,” I talked about the perils of defining an approach exclusively as a negative (i.e., the critical theory as “not theology” approach). But I do think there is something useful in determining where one wants to draw boundaries around one’s work (and why). Plus, this series is all about how to treat the anxiety or discomfort or annoyance that comes with the task (challenge?) of explaining what we do “to outsiders.” At such times, knowing what we scholars of religion don’t do matters. Why would explaining our work be a task at all? Presumably, because “those” outsiders don’t understand “us.” I get it. I sometimes still find myself gearing up when I hear someone about to ask the “so what do you do?” question—shifting my stance a bit as my brain weighs the advantages and disadvantages of saying simply “I’m a professor in a religious studies department” and letting it lie without crafting a more nuanced or explanatory follow-up. The temptation to explain, I think, comes from our own anxiety over the prospect of being mistaken for theologians.

Funny how anxiety works, though. The more we have, the more we try to draw and police the boundaries surrounding the thing about which we’re anxious. In other words, if we really were confident that what we do isn’t theology, maybe we’d let others’ misidentifications of religious studies as theology roll off our backs a bit more easily. My own suspicion is that the label hits just a little too close to home. It’s easy to get defensive, after all, when so much of the field can still rightly be called theological and when religious leaders in a community are still invited to sit in on academic job searches. This is how I make sense of the fact that the impulse to say I don’t do theology!, while perhaps clarifying in social domains where there is little basis for understanding the nuances of religious studies, still holds so much sway among fellow academicians as well. What this impulse prevents, however, is the ability to think about other kinds of analysis—at times more difficult to discern—from which we might try to steer clear.

I find Bruce Lincoln’s brief “Theses on Method” useful for so many reasons, but one of them is that they articulate nicely what scholars committed to critical inquiry are not doing, and, correlatively, what kinds of tendencies in scholarship prevent us from doing that same critical inquiry. I’m thinking specifically of theses 9, 12, and 13:

9. Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other.

12. Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as “reductionism”. This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion “as religion”–that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status–may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.

13. When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.

Criticism is not cynicism.

Criticism is not religious reductionism.

Criticism is not advocacy or retail (etc).

The title of this series is telling. “Scholars Explain…” The prepositional phrase “of religion” is not needed here because, as we have long discussed and debated, the object of study is more or less beside the point. If I want to identify myself as a scholar, my disciplinary affiliation notwithstanding, Lincoln’s distinctions are the ones to keep in mind—not those between theory and theology. The latter keep the focus on the object of study, engaging in the very theological rhetoric we try so hard to mitigate or deconstruct.

Getting comfortable with these distinctions helps me to let go of trying to shape perceptions of the kind of work I do. My nascent work with archives is a case in point. As I mentioned a few months ago in a Culture on the Edge blog post, I approach historical texts from a perspective akin to what Hayden White outlines in his now-classic Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), keeping in mind the manifold narrative devices present in the presentation of an artifact. So, I’m not thumbing through library stacks in the same way that, perhaps, colleagues in a History department might. This has caused some confusion when I’ve ventured into special collections. When I set out to explore some resources for my current work on the concept of “slave religion,” for instance, one librarian in particular became incredulous as I explained to her my project (one that focuses on the rhetorical and political implications of the category rather than the descriptive history of rituals and belief systems in the 18th and 19th centuries). “But what are you really studying?,” she asked.

Here was the “so you’re not [what I would have assumed]?” moment. She didn’t anticipate priesthood, but she clearly expected me to be something other than theorist. What use would a theorist have for archives, after all?

I take heart in what Jacques Derrida suggests in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression:

…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. (17)

What am I really studying? Processes of production rather than recording. Or, put more simply, I’m interested in how people tell stories. Many of these stories are to do with matters popularly deemed “religious,” but what it is I do, at the end of the day, is read and analyze narratives.

As long as we try to nuance our objects of study, we will continue to confound curious people asking what they think are simple questions about what we do. And being unable to give a simple answer is our problem—not theirs. “I study Christianity, but you know…I mean, I’m not a seminarian, so…” doesn’t cut the mustard. A productive challenge lies in figuring out how to articulate my approach rather than whatever or whomever I happen to be discussing in my work.

There is, of course, a certain arrogance at work in any presumption that people should understand what we do and why it matters in the first place. It can be all too easy to condescend in reply when asked about our profession. Doing so, however, reflects our own expectations and assumptions far more than those of the enquiring minds wanting to know. The defensiveness that pokes fun at outsiders who just don’t get it does not reflect their ignorance so much as our insecurity. Emphasizing the how instead of the what seems one way to make things a bit simpler, and it seems also a way to make our work translate to a variety of different spheres.

Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion vol. 8 (1996): 225-27.

Merinda Simmons is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Both her teaching and research focus on identifications of race, gender, and religion in the Caribbean and the American South. She is the author of Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora (Ohio State University Press, 2014). Her co-edited books include The Trouble with Post-Blackness (with Houston A. Baker, Jr., Columbia University Press, 2015) and Race and Displacement (with Maha Marouan, University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is currently at work on a monograph tentatively entitled Sourcing Slave Religion: Theorizing Experience in the American South.

*This piece first ran in August 2016.

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


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

Small Talk and the “Religious Studies” Professional

by Matthew Baldwin

Mavens of etiquette and custom have frequently criticized the propriety of asking people one has just met “so, what do you do?”[1] Nevertheless, outside of a few localities where an unwritten taboo has caused “the question” almost to vanish from social life (this seems to be true, for example in my adopted home city, Asheville, NC), asking the “what do you do?” (WDYD) question remains a fixture of American small talk. Everyone, including scholars of religion, will face it from time to time.

As I understand its purpose, this series is meant to provide a space for scholars of religion to share our experiences with handling the often-awkward WDYD question. The premise of the series depends on a hypothesis, to wit: that many of our experiences with the question will be similar enough to bear comparison, while remaining diverse enough to warrant repeated acts of description and reflection. Presumably, the intent for the series goes beyond the desire to elicit communal feelings of affinity (and empathy) among “Religious Studies” types. We may also hope that these descriptions can lead to redescriptions. The things we learn from sharing our experiences might lead us to better understand the challenges we face in our shared work and social identity as scholars of religion.

The leading question of the series title, “so you’re not a priest?” suggests a humorous direction for the series, drawing on ancient comic tropes of mistaken identity and anagnoresis. It also foregrounds a certain assumption about what makes our collective experiences with the WDYD question similar and worth comparing. You may never have heard these exact words in response to your own answer to the WDYD question. Yet the title question serves as an icon (or synecdoche) of a certain repertoire of familiar-sounding responses that (we assume) outsiders to religious studies regularly present once they find themselves making small talk with a “professor of religion.” The question “so you’re not a priest?” gives us a pre-existing map, a short-cut for thinking about the most common outsider perspective on our professional identity. We aren’t priests. (Except, let’s be honest: some religious studies scholars are priests.) But many people assume we are. Not every interlocutor we meet will share this straightforward assumption that professors of religion must occupy the same classificatory category as religious professionals. But the mistake is common enough that we seem to already have decided that the mistake constitutes the archetypal version of the public’s misperception of our work and social role.

It may be the contrarian in me that wants to play with the premise and assumptions of the series, rather than to indulge in sharing any particular anecdote from the 24 years in which I have been either a graduate student or a professor of religion. Like my colleagues, I can think of many times when I have encountered other people’s cognitive dissonance and uncertainty once they learn what it is that I say that I do. Memories of many individual situations are percolating in my brain, from the astonished river guide on the Rio Grande (in 1992) who couldn’t believe that a scruffy young man wearing a silver demonic-joker-skull ring was going to be a Divinity student, to the thirty-something father at the Asheville Food Lion Skate Park (in 2016) who thought it was “cool” to meet a college professor who teaches about the Bible. But in truth I’m not a very good storyteller, and I have tended to “forget” the details of such encounters. There have been so many. The scores of times something “interesting” has happened to me following the WDYD question have kind of blended all together in my mind.

So instead, I think it might be more suited to my talents to reflect a bit more deeply on the social function of the WDYD question itself, and to consider taxonomically (or morphologically) how the repertoire of our answers to the question serve to position us within the complexities of the late-capitalist economy, constructing our identities in dialogue with others who bring their various ideas about what our various doings may mean within the world.

Let’s consider the setting in life of the WDYD question. Usually, one should graciously assume that, at least at the conscious level, the question is being asked innocently. We call it “small talk” for a reason. People ask it as though they were motivated by mere curiosity, or by a desire for simple human connection. We are in waiting rooms, on airplanes and trains, at parties, receptions, events, luncheons, mixers, dinners, in audiences, or contracting various services, and this is one of the things you ask people. (“We’re stuck sitting next to each other, so we may as well get to know one another.”)

Yet we are scholars of religion. Our theories (along with our experiences) tell us that nothing is so simple or mere. The query has larger social implications that are hard to escape. Ask a person what they do for a living, and you initiate a dance of mutual self-positioning and posturing. In trading “small talk” about one’s employment one is operationally identifying oneself within a larger system of significance. People who exchange profession-identifiers and appropriate responses are drawing on a symbolic and denotative system that has been shaped within a wider context. The signifiers and labels we use operate within a socially constructed system of classification, the terms and values of which are greater than any two individuals talking about their work.

It follows from these reflections that dealing with the WDYD question is relatively sensitive territory for everyone. Furthermore, many different employment-identity positions available in our economic and social life could involve discomfort, hilarity, or opportunities for faux pas in interactions based on the WDYD question.[2]

The situation in which the WDYD question gets asked is complex. It can be referred to a classic idea of human intercourse suggested once upon a time by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (here I draw on it as reported by Josiah Royce in 1881).[3] Holmes suggests that in any conversation between two individuals, there are actually six persons involved. There are the two “real” individuals of course; but in addition to these two, there are four “imaginary” persons. Each “real” person also harbors two “imaginary” persons: a concept of self, and an idea of the other. Our real speech acts come out of our personal self-imagination and address our imagination of the other. Our speech is then received in a way that shapes the other’s imagination of us, and is taken up into their own self-conception. Our relations are therefore imaginary (and having said that, I suggest we leave behind Holmes and Royce, and embrace the Lacanian resonance of the term).

In furthering the analysis, let’s set some more obvious points on the table. Religious studies professionals do not all have the same real being or self-conception. We are diverse. We do not all have or want to be seen as having the same identity position or social role. We operate in a field where the disciplinary boundaries are shifting and contested. We work in contexts which range from the overtly sectarian and religious, to the secular and public. We pursue different goals in the classroom and in research. We have different kinds of work environments with great variation in the levels of compensation we receive and work duties we perform. Vigorous disagreement can be found among our ranks on basic questions of epistemology, metaphysics, theory, and method. There is wide variation in specialization. There are huge regional, local, and cultural variations in available roles and identities with which we can attempt to identify through our choices of clothing, hair, speech, social activities, affiliations, affinities, possessions, and friendship. So much for our real and imagined selves.

And what about how we imagine those outside of the discipline? Again the obvious points come first. The success of our encounters may come down to how well we read other people. We have no way of knowing other people except by semiosis, that is, by interpreting the signs that they themselves are. Endlessly varied in class, position, and roles, other people are just like us in acting out and projecting their affinities into interactions with others. We are forced to interpret (and imagine) the people we are dealing with based on the signals they send. How we imagine the other person shapes what we tell them about ourselves, and how we receive what it is that they send.

So, how ought we to generalize about what other people think of “us”? How well have we formed our conception of how others conceive of us? What is our data?

We could start by considering the problem demographically. First, it should be noted that religious studies professionals are exceedingly rare in our economy. It is highly unlikely that a person will meet a religious studies professional in the ordinary course of life.[4] To consider only the economy of the United States, in 2015, out of the nearly 149 million employed persons over age 16, only 1.3 million (less than 1%) were categorized as “postsecondary teachers.” But postsecondary instructors in “Philosophy and Religion” (where the BLS categorizes us, not including the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed, and the graduate students) number only 23,820 persons. Translated, that means that less than 2% of college teachers teach Philosophy and/or Religion. Thus, overall, less than 0.02% (2/100ths of one percent) of working people in America do what you do. In comparison, Clergy, Religious Educators, and other Religious Workers (as the BLS categorizes them) make up some 620 thousand persons, making them about 25 times as common as you in this economy (though still rare at around 0.5% of workers).

But surely, maybe you’re thinking, most people in North America go to college or university, and there they will have met some scholars of religion, perhaps in a required general education course? Perhaps they knew some religion majors in college? Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. In 2014, it was estimated that approximately 45% of United States residents age 25-65 held an associates or higher postsecondary degree.[5] Furthermore, it should be noted that students with a major in Philosophy and/or Religion have made up from 1% (in 1970) to 0.75% (in 2014) of degrees awarded, while students in Theology have held steady at 0.5% of degrees awarded from 1970 to 2014.[6]

I have not found data to suggest what percentage of students in college have encountered religious studies courses during their time in school. However, the disparity in percentages of postsecondary teachers in our line of work (nearly 2%) versus the number of graduates with degrees in our fields (less than 1%) suggests that many of us are employed because we are at work in teaching general education courses. But some number of these persons teach philosophy rather than religion, and many teach general humanities at an introductory level. In short, I do not think you can count on most people ever having any prior experience with meeting actual religious studies professionals.

That person who just asked you what you do? You are probably the first (and last) scholar of religion they will ever encounter. (Unless the AAR/SBL is meeting in their town.)

Given such observations, is it any wonder that people have difficulty in categorizing us and situating us in their mental systems of kinds of professions?

As a coda to this set of reflections, let me step back and register a few further notes of perplexity and complexity.

Twice every year at my institution, in early Fall and Spring, the registrar sends out a complete list of every student organized by major course of study (double majors are listed twice). In each list, student names appear together with their ID number, the name of their main advisor, their declared concentrations, and their class level (which is determined by number of credits earned). I normally use these constantly shifting lists of majors in Religion and Philosophy to help manage my program, for example, by creating relatively current email lists, or for planning for which courses need to be offered, or for qualitatively tracking individual outcomes in conversation with my colleagues. But recently, while examining the lists from the past four years, I noticed something that was both interesting and a bit troubling. The fact is that it is somewhat rare for my program to retain freshmen majors. We tend not to see those who had declared a religion major when they matriculated as freshmen in our senior seminars. At least half of our graduates declared the major as sophomores or later. And well over half of those whose names appear on these major lists as freshmen do not stay religion majors (some drop out, transfer, or leave the school; others switch majors). What this suggests to me is that students who come in thinking that they want to “study religion” do not know in advance what this work entails. Possibly, when they encounter our faculty, and our courses, these early declarers discover that “religious studies” really isn’t for them. Possibly, there is a mismatch between their preconceptions and the “reality” that the work presents.

And what about the students that do persist? At my school, around half of them go on into seminaries after graduation, and from there into those vastly more common but still rare jobs that are associated with religious institutions.

And as for us: how many of us trained in religiously affiliated (or historically religious) colleges, seminaries, and graduate programs? How many received M.Div. or M.Th. degrees? How many took ordination? How many belong to churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.? How many do mainly descriptive, interpretive, theological or normative and constructive work? How many write editorials extolling the virtues of public theology, critical engagement, and the profound resources of religion, like “revolutionary love”? How many operate with the idea that religion is a sui generis response to a universal human experience of transcendence?

“So, you’re not a priest?”

“No, let me see if I can explain the difference…”

Yes, let us see if you can.


Matthew Baldwin is Professor and Coordinator of the Program in Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, an historically Baptist undergraduate liberal arts school in Western North Carolina.


  1. A vast literature of blog posts and professional self-help articles examine the socially fraught question “what do you do?” Most advise taking alternate paths for getting to know people. For a relatively recent and frequently linked piece on the topic, see Carolyn Gregoire, “Want to Kill a Conversation? Ask Someone What They do,” Huffington Post The Third Metric (10/30/2013)
  1. “So, you’re a heart specialist? do you recommend eating bacon or not?” “You’re a psychologist? Wow, I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you; are you analyzing me right now?” “What made you decide to be a garbage collector?” “Cool! I’ve always wondered what it is like being a stripper!” “You’re a writer/actor/painter, eh? interesting; but what do you really do, you know, for a living?”
  1. J. Royce, “Doubting and Working,” The Californian 3 (1881) 229–230.
  1. The following numbers are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and reflect fiscal year 2015. See BLS, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” (2/10/2016) For specific data on Postsecondary Teaching, see the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook at and for employment statistic on Philosophy and Religion teachers at the post-secondary level see the BLS, “Occupational Employment Statistics | Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015 | 25-1126 Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary” at
  1. See Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation” (April 2016)
  1. See Quoctrung Bui, “What’s Your Major? 4 Decades of College Degrees, in 1 Graph,” National Public Radio Planet Money (5/9/2014); and National Center for Education Statistics Classification of Instructional Programs at which explains and breaks down the categories.
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A Whole New People of the Book: A Review of Lewis and Lund, eds., Muslim Superheroes

Editor’s note: Bulletin Book Reviews is the newly developed book review portal for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, associated with NAASR and published by Equinox. We are interested in reviewing titles of wide relevance to the academic study of religion, particularly those which themselves foreground issues of method and theory in the study of religion or from which such issues can be gleaned and discussed productively. We encourage submissions from doctoral students and established faculty alike. For more information, please visit the page linked above.

Lewis, A. David and Martin Lund, eds. Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 256. $24.93 (paperback).

by Aaron Ricker

Lewis and Lund’s book is literally one of a kind, which is saying something given the exponentially productive academic field of comics and religion. I was accordingly impressed by the generous research shared by Lewis and Lund in their “Introduction,” and convinced that books like theirs are necessary given the ignorance and hostility that often greets their topic. The facts and figures included here all point in one direction: Muslims are underrepresented in comics, even as villains where their numbers spike uncomfortably. Working with the assumption that the productions of pop culture can reveal important mainstream cultural attitudes and trends (and in turn shape them), Lewis and Lund argue that facts like these deserve more serious attention.

In the volume’s opening essay, Nicholaus Pumphrey addresses the problems of representation and visibility raised by the depiction of Dust, a member of the X-Men who wears a niqab. Though explicit attention to the details and politics of a superhero in niqab makes good sense in a volume dedicated to Islam and pop culture representation, I would like to have heard more about the representational problems of her superpower being the ability to turn into a sandstorm. Would a new Inuit X-Man have the code name Frosty and have the mutant power to turn into 50 distinct kinds of snow? Of course, I’m only assuming that there is a Person-of-Color dimension to Dust’s story because I’m told she’s from Afghanistan, and Pumphrey makes reference to the gaze of white male readers. I don’t actually know what she looks like. In fact, the reader is not referred to any images. Ignoring the image on the page is a common and dangerous habit in comics studies. We academics primarily used to dealing in texts and texts about texts often produce analyses of comic books that sound like the reviews of a film critic who’s only seen the screenplays. At a launch event for Muslim Superheroes hosted at the most recent national meeting of the American Academy of Religion (Nov. 18, 2017), Lewis said he and Lund had been a little confused by the scarcity of images requested by contributors, but felt unsure about how to understand and address the issue. It would have been better if they had pressed the question, though, because the volume suffers as it unfolds from this unfortunately common habit of rushing past the visual. Kevin Wanner’s piece on Faiza Hussain, for example, examines how Muslim superheroes are stuck with Western liberal standards of “good religion” versus “bad religion” (good religion being a personal matter that just happens to encourage mainstream social values), and gives a little more attention to visual cues. Readers still don’t get any analysis, though, of panels or pages or the deliciously smelly cheap printed matter we’d be holding in our hands.

A second troubling habit discernible in Muslim Superheroes is an abiding interest in the question of Muslim superheroes conforming to a given cultural consensus versus Muslim superheroes resisting assimilation into a given cultural consensus. Chris Reyns-Chikuma and Désirée Lorenz argue that Ms. Marvel is not an “assimilationist” work in the way it depicts her Islam as a positive “cultural and “personal” thing that supports positive public values. It feels jarring to try to follow this argument in light of the question just raised: Depicting “religion” as positive if it stays within the private sphere while serving values depicted as universal—doesn’t that amount in itself to a honeymoon with liberal consensus ideas about what religion is? Dwain C. Pruitt’s historical look at how the face of Islam in comics was for a long time black uses the Wise Son series to trace a similar pattern: religion is good provided it serves values assumed to be universal.

Mercedes Yanora’s essay examines the ways in which “good Muslims” in comics relate to American foreign policy, not just “bad Muslims.” Liberal ideas of good versus bad religion once again pass uninterrogated in her discussion of Davood Nassur, who “does not practice his religion overtly,” but is rather a hero who just happens to be a Muslim. The heroism of Ms. Marvel is praised in a parallel vein as “unhindered by Islam” (128)!

Fredrik Strömberg’s contribution discusses genre-bending in superhero comics from the Middle East, paying attention for example to the local expectation that comics will be educational. When Strömberg noted that AK comics were intended to express “universal values,” I wished once more that Wanner could fly in for a crossover cameo, and when Ken Chitwood’s essay discussed hybridity and the postcolonial idea of the “third spaces” created in colonial situations (irreducible to either the colonizing cultures or the colonized cultures involved), I found myself wishing that every essay in Muslim Superheroes had started there. In the essay after Chitwood’s, for example, Aymon Kreil explores the tangled “universalism” found in the Muslim superheroics of an Egyptian woman named Qahera, and the kind of frame just described would have helped greatly in clarifying and guiding the analysis.

The final essay is the second to incorporate images, and Hussein Rashid’s attention is on relating the succession of images to the progression of the stories involved. Rashid suddenly introduces a new focus by discussing comics made about Muslim “super-hero” Ali, the fourth Caliph, without explaining why or how the phenomena involved might relate to the study of Muslim “superheroes” per se. A. David Lewis says in the “Conclusion” that he himself has done such work elsewhere, but this just makes me wonder why Rashid didn’t either engage that work here, or go join Lewis and others there. The rest of Lewis and Lund’s “Conclusion” is as earnest and interesting as their “Introduction,” for example in their point about Muslim superheroes needing to be female to sell—interesting given what theorists of Orientalism have said about the “feminization” of the Muslim other. The notes included on teaching using comics are also solid and appreciated. The scholarly yet readable language of Muslim Superheroes certainly lends itself to such classroom use, as do its bite-sized topics and editorial overviews. I only wish that such ideas had been digested and engaged by all of the collection’s contributors, instead of ghettoized in its editorial bookends. As Lewis himself acknowledged at the AAR launch event mentioned above, Muslim Superheroes is a valuable and “noble effort,” in part precisely by virtue of offering a very imperfect “first step,” and a “blunt instrument” inviting further sharpening.

Aaron Ricker is lecturer in Religious Studies at McGill University. His work can be followed on Academia.

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