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


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

by Adam J. Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Adam Miller

The goal of this series is to collect Bulletin reader-contributors’ reflections on how they describe what they do to those outside the discipline, drawing on one or two anecdotes. So far, we have seen just this from Matt Sheedy and Sarah Lynn Kleeb with their posts on the aftermath of their somewhat ad hoc self-identifications (the latter a truly charming story about a chance encounter with a comrade cabbie—well, depending on where one’s sympathies lie, I suppose). After these two inaugural posts, Matthew Baldwin mixed things up with an interrogation of the assumptions underlying the prompt itself—an always fun, thought-provoking move.

By slight contrast to the initial two posts, and in some ways building on the third, I’d like to draw attention to how the insider-outsider encounter (if we can use that language) is not always a one-off thing—that is, the “outsider” is not only the person sitting next to us on airplanes, standing behind us in line at grocery stores, and so on, whom we may never see again. Sometimes it’s a close friend (new or old), sometimes a partner, sibling, or parent.

None of us is born a scholar of religion. It’s a gig we kind of half fall into, half want to do, half get molded into, half work toward. (I never said I was a scholar of math.) In much the same way, people close to us half fall into, (probably don’t) half want to, (probably would rather not) half get molded into, (probably aren’t) half working toward being some kind of “outsider” to us. All we can hope for is that they humor us from time to time. Well, at least that’s what I feel like sometimes. Luckily, in my case, there’s a good deal of laughter—by which I mean: serious, engaged conversation that forces me to know what the hell I’m talking about and why it matters.

My dad (a railroader who all along knew I wasn’t a priest) is my anecdote. Well, he isn’t…our conversations are. How many nights have we stayed up way too late talking about what I do (often over cigarettes and whiskey, at least in more recent years)? I’ve lost count. I do know that they started a long while back…back in high school, when I wasn’t even on any official path to this profession. It continued through community college, through college, and through my first round of graduate school. It continues today.

For years, my pop has resisted becoming an “outsider” to what I do. He’s read a good number of the books that have had significant influence on my thinking—among them (if memory serves), J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion, Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and Gods and Demons, Craig Martin’s Critical Introduction and Capitalizing Religion, parts of Russell McCutcheon’s Critics Not Caretakers, Daniel Boucher’s Bodhisattvas of the Forest, Charlotte Eubanks’ Miracles of Book and Body, etc.—and has acquired through our conversations a working familiarity with folks like Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. Why has he done this? I’m sure it has something to do with me being his kid and all. But perhaps it has something to do with the dialectical nature of our exchanges, which have become more nuanced and complex over the years. Perhaps through a combination of offspring- and content-interest, my dad has compelled me to make what I do—which ranges from terribly arcane (involving, as it does, Sanskrit and Tibetan sources) to not clearly having anything to do with religion (any Death Grips fans in the house?)—intelligible, relevant, and worth all the time and energy (not to mention money) I’ve poured into it and not something else.

This might seem like a post written in homage to my father. In a sense, it clearly is. But I hope it also gives us reason to think critically about insider/outsider language—as it’s clear to me that some people are neither fully inside nor fully outside. (And here I—for what it’s worth—, not some institution or another, answer the question: Who counts as insider and outsider?) It may not be a parent. It may be a sibling, cousin, friend, or child. It may be the cashier at the local grocery store you frequent and with whom you have long been on a first-name basis. It could be anyone, really—relationships come in degrees. As such, from a certain perspective, the boundary dividing “insiders” and “outsiders” is more like a hill than the Wall.

All that’s to say: Sometimes people aren’t “insiders” strictly speaking (strictly = in terms of institutional credentials), but that does not mean we cannot engage in dialogue, sharpen our answer to the “who cares?” question, and learn from people beyond our institutionally defined in-group. Think back to when you were a kid on the playground. Did you ever ask some other kid from your class to play a game with you? It’s kind of like that…

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

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


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

by Anna Cwikla

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

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

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

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

I take a big sip of beer and brace myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: William O’Connor

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by William O’Connor, with the editorial input of Karla Heuer

“The human sciences try to increase surprise, unlike the natural sciences, which try to decrease it. They don’t have much new data; they have to find new ways of looking at the familiar.” – Jonathan Z. Smith

My class on Shakespeare’s tragedies begins next Tuesday. The first thing I will ask students to do is take out a sheet of paper and write down their answers to two questions: Who was Shakespeare? and What is tragedy? On the last day of class, 16 weeks later, the topic for discussion will be the revised versions of these 1-page papers which I will have asked them to prepare. We will see what they have learned in the course of the semester and how their thinking has changed. This is an exercise I learned from Jonathan Z. Smith, one of the most remarkable teachers—and human beings—I have ever encountered, and whose death last month is a deep loss for anyone who knew him, but also for the academic enterprise as a whole. Mr. Smith lived up to an ideal of scholarship few could hope to achieve and possessed learning of a depth and breadth that is rarely seen today even in the most intelligent scholars. That these qualities were mixed with a sense of humor worthy of the Algonquin Round Table is another wonderful thing, in its strict sense—something to be wondered at—and another reason to lament his passing.

I’m not an historian of religion, to say the least. I’m a teacher rather than a scholar. I teach drama as an adjunct, mostly to students who are going to become actors, designers, directors, and so on. When I was a student I was obsessed with the ancient world, especially Greece. I took a course with Mr. Smith in grad school and was so impressed with his learning and his wit that I took every other course I could with him while in school, and heard every public speech he gave, years after finishing. I am still working my way through the bibliographies he provided in class, some written on the board, as many former students have noted; others, long lists of books typed up, Xeroxed by Mr. Smith (at the local Office Depot, where I saw him standing at the copier more than once checking each copy), and passed out to us. He spoke of this insistence on doing things himself, not trusting his documents to either an assistant or a machine, in a long interview with Supriya Sinhababu in the Maroon in 2008. I thought it was remarkable that a professor at the University of Chicago would do this; yet I thought it was perfectly natural. I was seeing in the flesh something Max Weber had written about the demands of scholarship: “One cannot with impunity try to transfer [small] task[s] entirely to mechanical assistants . . . .” His standards for reading authors one will teach, and for reading journal articles which Mr. Smith described in his autobiographical essay “When the Chips Are Down” (q.v.) are of a piece with his Xeroxing. I could never live up to them, but merely knowing that that ought to be the standard, makes me a more responsible person and gives me a sense of appreciation for what humans are capable of. Keeping Mr. Smith’s standard in mind has only done me good.

Mr. Smith’s courses were lessons in intellectual maturation: one began by thinking one was going to get “the truth” about awfully important matters only to learn that Smith thought the search for origins in religion was fruitless, and that the important thing was what each retelling of a story could teach us about it, its teller, or society. He was a living example of how useful it could be to learn to think like Durkheim. There were lots of demythologizing facts. He suggested that burial in the fetal position may not denote belief in life after death, but only make digging easier due to the need for a smaller hole. In the ancient Near East, where writing could take over two decades to learn, one only wrote things down which were economically justifiable. Thus over 90% of our records are business documents or legal decisions. In my notebook, I wrote “Writing brings its own sort of pragmatics—we know the names of flowers that have uses as medicine, but not those that smell good.” He warned us that we’d have to learn to read Jacobean English subtly if we wanted to avoid misinterpreting the KJV. That creation ex nihilo is a later, Greek idea not found in the Hebrew Bible, where “‘creation’ is always out of something, a re-organization.” To the question, why the Sabbath, the answer may not have been only “God rested,” but also, “The Egyptians wouldn’t let us, so we’ll go them one better.” Is Leviathan kosher? Some rabbis say yes, some say no. For the former, “when the Messiah comes, we’ll all eat a piece of pickled Leviathan.” When we read Enuma Elish, Mr. Smith said, “Marduk builds a frame and dumps dirt in it, like a sandbox.” He is building a dam. He asked us what kind of dam. Silence. Then my friend Karla Heuer said, “A god dam?” And J.Z. cracked up and told her she would be getting an A for the quarter, which in fact she did earn.

He introduced me to the study of the history Indo-European languages, and the work of Georges Dumezil, Walter Burkert (“the greatest living scholar of Greek stuff”), F.M. Cornford and the “Cambridge school,” and Cassirer’s Myth of the State. The combination of big-picture, structuralist thinking, and tiny, particular cultural and textual detail, is what I take Wilamowitz to have meant when he spoke of the need to see both the forest and the trees. As someone who deals with dramatic literature from an historical perspective but also for the stage, what I learned from Mr. Smith about both context and close reading have been invaluable.

I happened to be among a group of students at the Billy Goat Tavern on lower Michigan Avenue with Mr. Smith and another professor, who had himself been Smith’s student, shortly after the death of Princess Diana. Letting my youthful, vulgar Marxism show, I said I was surprised by all the weeping and gnashing of teeth at the pop-up shrines, by people who hadn’t known her, and suggested that they had been sold a bill of goods. Smith and his colleague then had to remind me of Durkheim’s “social fact” (I had read Elementary Forms with his colleague) and the discussion that followed had an immediate and permanent maturing effect on the way I think about social phenomena. (His essay on introducing Durkheim, and all his writings on pedagogy, have improved my own teaching as I’ve read, reread, and shared them over the years.)

Smith used to tell a story about lecturing at UCSB and strategically putting in jokes to make the content of the lectures memorable. He was later disappointed to discover that the jokes were all some students remembered, some even calling it a great night club act. But of course, the jokes were not all we remembered.

It was delightful to meet someone who seemed to genuinely know everything and yet was so down to earth and friendly. Years after class, running into him buying his cigarettes at Harper Market down the street from my apartment would make my day. I can still see him in his overcoat and the fishing hat he wore in the rain (the kind McClean Stevenston wore on MASH), with his famous cane. Seeing him in the Coop buying Leonard Barkan’s Unearthing the Past made me begin reading Barkan myself, and gave me a sense of how widely outside his “field” he read. It was Mr. Smith’s mention of John Livingstone Lowes’s Road to Xanadu that sent me running for that book too. His knowledge of drama and of literary studies was striking to me as a student of both. It was from him that I first heard Terence’s “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I thought the line was great, a sort of motto for the Renaissance, or the academic outlook, something one should try to live up to. When I read the play from which it comes, Heautontimorumenos, I was both crushed and tickled to learn that it is said by a nosy neighbor merely justifying his nosiness. That dual quality of profundity and lightheartedness seems in keeping with Mr. Smith’s outlook.

I write this simply because there are many of us who are not scholars of religion whose lives (both intellectually and humanely) were changed for the better by Mr. Smith and his example and who have continued to tell stories about him, read his work and work that he made us aware of decades after having studied with him, and despite knowing him only distantly, as members of his class rather than his real graduate students. We are grateful to have learned from him and to have benefited from his example. We extend our sincere condolences to his family and friends.

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Colloquium announcement and call for papers: Religion & Theology Colloquium “Towards a Different Reformation”

Date: Wednesday 29 – Friday 31 August 2018

Venue: Council Chambers, University of Johannesburg

The Reformation in Europe that started with Martin Luther nailing his “95 theses” to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, unleashed (arguably) the second big split in Christendom, and fractured the loose confederation of polities that constituted Western Europe and Western Christendom. The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 coincided with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, as well as the centenary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Within political theory and history, Protestantism has often been seen as crucial to the development of capitalism as the dominant economic and political form in the 18th century. Consequently, the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital and the centenary of the Russian Revolution afford a unique opportunity for scholars of religion and theology to recalibrate the way in which the Reformation and the origins of Protestantism are conceived, understood, and theorized. Whereas the history of Christian theological thinking casts the Reformation often primarily as a religious and theological event, we propose, rather to consider the Reformation as an iconic event, as discourse, as a series of contested social and ideological formations. As embedded in and as an epiphenomenon of shifts in Europe from the High Middle Ages to the Early Modern period, the Reformation is not to be understood as a singular event. From the vantage point of a materialist framework we consider the reception history of the Reformation as an idea and concept through the long duration of performances of the Reformation, such that the colloquium not only considers it as an event in the past, but also considers the Reformation as a continually imagined cypher in service of various kinds of interests.

To get the question of the social, political, and theological force of contested inheritances of iconic events into greater focus, the colloquium is specifically not taking place in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation but in the year following, so as to emphasize that reflection on the celebrations of the anniversary is itself part of our rethinking the Reformation.

In doing so, we draw on theories of religion and the social that are significantly informed by concepts of discourse. Discourse is understood here as the production of (religious) expressions and artefacts as well as the scholarship on such (religious) expressions as operations embedded in the field of discourse, that is, products of and producers of sets of representations (which range from the spoken word, text, gesture, ritual, religious spaces, and the rhythms of life as hidden persuasions), including the social locations that form the originary matrices for the particular inventions of these sets of representations. Thus, discourse includes, as well, the social interests encompassed/encapsulated in and giving rise to these sets of representations, in addition to the logic governing the interrelations between these factors or aspects. Discourse also encompasses the institutionalizations of such “domained” representations in canons of tradition, schools of thought, habitus as habituated action, social formations, cultural and socio-political-economic conventions, that is, as discursive formations.

Papers are invited that investigate the Reformation as historical event (especially addressing the question: what is an event?); and theorizing the Reformation as a discursive event; re-embedding the Reformation (and its reception or effective history) into trajectories of social redefinitions, economic interests, and politico-cultural formations. Papers should particularly consider the imagined Reformation as it continues to inflect contemporary constructions of Christian discourses and identity formations (including reflections on the 500th anniversary celebrations themselves). The emphasis will fall on the human agencies and the various power plays and power effects that underlie the construction of the historical process named the Reformation. In addition, papers should investigate the technologies of discourse production underlying these social redefinitions.

Selected papers from the colloquium will be published in Religion & Theology. A Journal of Contemporary Religious Discourse (Brill).

Conrad Grale: Göttlicher Schriftmessiger, woldennckwürdiger Traum, welchen der Hochlöbliche…Churfürst Friedrich zu Sachsen…3 mal nacheinander gehabt…
A broadside on the centenary of the German Reformation and a prophetic dream of Friedrich III of Saxony; showing on the left Martin Luther writing with a large pen on a church door, the end of his pen poking through the ears of a lion, knocking off the tiara of Pope Leo X; with engraved German and Latin title and text above and below, and extensive lettering throughout the image with quotations from the Bible, and identifying key figures (missing the letterpress text in German and Latin, 1617).

Conference fee: ZAR 800.00

Practical arrangements, accommodation, etc.: See the information attached.

Due date for proposals, abstracts: Friday 6 April 2018

Contact: Prof. Gerhard van den Heever or Prof. Maria Frahm-Arp

All inquiries and submission of proposals:

Accommodation close to University of Johannesburg – Aucklandpark

* Rates are subject to change.

Most guest houses have transport and some of them are in walking distance. Transport can be arranged, however, at an additional cost.

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Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Vaia Touna

by Vaia Touna

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

It is really difficult to choose just one thing that I’ve learned from Jonathan Z. Smith, though I have learned from him that “less is more,” for example when one is putting together a syllabus for one’s own course. But let me start from some beginning.

I don’t really remember when I first encountered J.Z. Smith’s writings, likely sometime during my Master’s degree, but I do remember vividly when it was suggested to read his book Imagining Religion (1982)—which I got a hold of in May of 2008—with the advice “do not get lost in the details of his descriptions but look for the moves he makes.” At the time, given my training (specializing in classical Greek history, religion, literature, etc.), I’m not sure I understood what that even meant. How could I possibly pay attention to something other than his rich knowledge of the examples he was writing about, his insightful, rigorous, and articulate descriptions and analysis? In retrospect, though, that was the best advice I received, so I would like to pass it on. Because I think it is exactly those moves that are more important in J.Z. Smith’s writings, even more important than the examples he sets one’s hand to, and therefore the thing that he taught me most.

I’m not sure I’ve written a paper without quoting J.Z. Smith or without going back and reading and consulting the two books that became part of my own intellectual canon. Imagining Religion (1982) and Drudgery Divine (1990). Both copies of these books are filled with highlights, my margin notes, and arrows that marked something as NB (i.e., Nota Bene [take special notice]), and so, with his moves in mind, I would like to share some of those NB quotes.


As I already said, it is difficult to choose the one thing that I’ve learned from J.Z. Smith, or from my professors who, themselves influenced by his thought, guided me to his work. Nevertheless, choices are an important endeavor, as J.Z. Smith taught me in his chapter “The Bare Facts of Ritual” (Imagining Religion 1992: 53-65). Reading that chapter one learns a great deal about hunting and rituals but, as always the case with J.Z. Smith, there’s an implicit “more than” meets the eye when one “looks out for his moves.” Although the chapter appears to be about ritual and hunting, it is just as much about choice; how scholars make choices to compare things that seem incomparable, how they manage and control reality. A ritual, as J.Z. Smith writes, is “a controlled environment where the variables (i.e., the accidents) of ordinary life may be displaced precisely because they are felt to be so overwhelmingly present and powerful.” But isn’t that also a scholarly endeavor where “contingency, variability, and accidentality are factored out”? And, well, something to seriously think and reflect upon?

In his book Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, one can easily be lost in the detailed, rich descriptions of both Early Christianities and the religions of Late Antiquity, but for me it became a book on what a scholar of religion should pay attention to, because in part it is a book about the divine drudgery of our work, of scholarly comparisons and what they entail. Although many things can be discussed from this book, there are two things I want to bring attention to.


When it comes to comparison there is the problem with describing things or referring to things as being unique. Smith writes:

“The ‘unique’ is an attribute that must be disposed of, especially when linked to some notion of incomparable value, if progress in thinking through the enterprise of comparison is to be made” (36).

Why I find the idea of uniqueness as something very important to guard myself against is because even though I haven’t really referred to something in my writing as being unique, prior to reading J.Z. Smith that is, I think that I might have thought of my examples in those terms. The problem with something being considered unique and thus with some kind of (what J.Z. Smith describes as) “incomparable value,” as I see it now, is that once you approach your data like that, you lose the opportunity to engage in discussions with other scholars who work in other data sets, for now you are confined and isolated to your scholarly endeavor, unable to make connections, to see similarities and differences operating elsewhere, and prevented from gaining from the insights of your colleagues who made progress in their work in other data sets. Although I’m not sure if that’s what J.Z. Smith had in mind or counts as the kind of progress he wanted to see, once I dropped the whole idea of uniqueness I was able to make progress not only in the enterprise of comparison, that is, in bringing together side by side things that seemed completely unrelated, but also in my work in general; for I was able to see the inter-connectedness of practices and ideas that at first might have seemed unrelated and incomparable. Of course that was the result also of the second thing from this book that I wish to talk about.

Tertium quid

If I was really to be forced to choose one thing that J.Z. Smith taught me, the most important for me (the one thing that always operates at the back of my head, like the lyrics of a background song, every time I start a new project or every time I start writing something), is the: “with respect to” or the Tertium quid or Τρίτο Γένος (as J.Z. Smith translates it “a third something” [83]). For in regards to the enterprise of comparison J.Z. Smith writes:

That is to say, the statement of comparison is never dyadic but always triadic; there is always an implicit ‘more than’, and there is always a ‘with respect to’. In the case of an academic comparison, the ‘with respect to’ is most frequently the scholar’s interest, be this expressed in a question, a theory, or a model (51).

So, it is always with this ‘with respect to’ that I begin a project. In fact, as I’m currently starting a new research project, I ask myself why do I want to put the happenings of an archaeological dig next to the happenings of a church? Sure both e.g’s are important for all sorts of reasons, but what is the theoretical question that I want to answer by looking at them, that is, what is the third something, the “with respect to” that I wish to draw my readers’ attention to? It is a question that, as Smith writes, “is different from that to which it is being applied,” in other words, although my project will be, on the one hand, about people connected in some way or another to archaeological digs (whether archaeologists or visitors) and, on the other hand, church goers, there will also be an implicit “more than.” It will be about something that, quoting Smith once again, “is the scholar’s intellectual purpose—whether explanatory or interpretative, whether generic or specific—which highlights that principled postulation of similarity which is the ground of the methodological comparison of difference being interesting” (53).

Although, it might be appropriate to end this post with J.Z. Smith’s own words, I’d like to end on a more personal note. I met J.Z. Smith in 2008 at the annual SBL conference held in November of that year in Boston, MA, back when I was a recently graduated Master’s student. I was among the lucky and very privileged ones—and now immensely grateful—to be invited to his Presidential Festschrift Dinner at Hamersley’s Bistro. I travelled to Boston from Greece carrying one book with me, Imagining Religion, with the intention (and hope) that he would sign it. I remember spending most of that night at the dinner thinking that it was my last chance to get his signature but also terrified with the idea of bothering him with such a, perhaps, silly request, and I was even more terrified in the prospect of being denied. At the end of a lovely dinner—a dinner that was to become one of my most endearing memories of J.Z. Smith, of hearing stories of other scholars talking about him—when most of the guests had left, I gathered all my strength, and politely asked if it would be too much trouble for him to sign his book. With his unique, or better put individual and distinct, voice he said that he’d be happy to, and I was struck by how humbled he seemed and appreciative at my request to sign: “With gratitude for meeting in Boston.” So there it was, the most important scholar of religion had gratitude for meeting me?! How isn’t this humbleness also one more thing to mark as another NB (i.e., Nota Bene) in the margins of a scholar’s life book, as another lesson learned.

I would like to thank Matt Sheedy for inviting me to reflect upon the work of J.Z. Smith, and contribute to this wonderful blog post series.

Vaia Touna is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She is author of Fabrications of the Greek Past: Religion, Tradition, and the Making of Modern Identities (Brill, 2017). Her research focuses on the sociology of religion, acts of identification and social formation, as well as methodological issues concerning the study of religion and the past in general.



Imagining Religion:

Drudgery Divine:

Fabrications of the Greek Past:


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Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Brett Colasacco


This is part of a series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by Brett Colasacco

  • This post originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Z. Smith, the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the Humanities at the University of Chicago, passed away on December 30, 2017.

I first heard about Jonathan Z. Smith on the second day of my second quarter as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. A dormmate had rushed back to Snell Hall to tell my friends and me about his new Self, Culture, and Society professor: a tall old man in a vintage suit, with shoulder-length white hair, a beard, and an ancient-looking walking stick. Gandalf the wizard, only with large glasses and a less pointy hat. More striking even than his appearance, it seemed, were his wit and erudition—about such texts as Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life or Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind and virtually any topic tangential to them—and for the next ten weeks the same friend would frequently regale us with retellings of J. Z.’s latest anecdotes, bon mots, and other recent happenings from class.

Needless to say, I knew that I had to take a course with this professor.

The following autumn, I enrolled in Introduction to Religious Studies. It was Smith’s first time teaching that course, which he would go on to do several more times before his retirement in 2011. On the first day he asked each of us to write down, on a sheet of paper, our best attempt at definitions of (a) “religion” and (b) “the study of religion.” Then we handed in our sheets. On the second day he presented an incredibly detailed typology of the definitions we had submitted, which would go on to play a crucial role in the final paper assignment for the course. Immediately, I gained through first-hand experience what countless students of religion have acquired from Smith’s many classic essays: an intense admiration for his rigorous commitment to problems of definition, classification, theorization, and comparison, and his understanding that these “second-order” problematics are the very essence of a scholar’s work.

The first time I failed J. Z. Smith was in a course he offered in spring 2005 on Mircea Eliade’s Patterns in Comparative Religion. As Smith observes in his extraordinary “bio-bibliographical” essay, “When the Chips Are Down” (from his 2004 collection Relating Religion), his reading of Patterns—and subsequent exploration of Eliade’s exhaustively footnoted sources—constituted his education in the field of the study of religion. Suffice to say that my study of Smith’s analysis and interpretation of Patterns constituted my own true introduction to the field. He began each class by filling the chalkboard with a remarkably comprehensive bibliography of texts relevant to the day’s assigned chapter from Patterns. He then commented at considerable length on these texts, and instructed us—if we were moved to seek out any of these materials in the library—to read not only those books, but also the five books to the left and five books to the right of every one. It’s a goal I have often aspired to, but rarely met. But that’s not how I failed J. Z. Smith.

Integral to the course was the role of “discussant.” Each student had signed up to be responsible for a particular chapter of Patterns, and on the day for which that chapter was assigned, Smith engaged in a brief, Socratic exchange with the discussant, which led into a broader class discussion. I was responsible for the very last chapter, “The Structure of Symbols.” That day, Smith initiated the exchange with a question I will never forget: “What’s special about Jacob’s stone?”

I said nothing.

Seconds passed. Maybe a minute. It felt like hours. In college, I sometimes struggled with speaking up in class. Yet never to this extent of total paralysis. I knew the answer. Eliade stated it explicitly in the first sentence of the second paragraph. I had read and reread the chapter, annotated it. I had underlined that sentence. Still, in that moment, I couldn’t muster up the courage to say it. Eventually, another student chimed in with the awaited response. The discussion proceeded as I sunk into my chair.

Graciously, Smith allowed all of this to transpire without comment or intervention. He had been looking me straight in the eyes the whole time; not in judgment or in anger, but in what appeared to be curiosity. He never once confronted me about it. When I went to his office hours he quickly took control of the conversation and steered it such that I never had the opportunity to apologize or try to explain myself. We just talked. He talked mostly, while I listened and laughed. Later on, after many more memorable visits to Smith’s office, I became one of the last two students to graduate with a concentration in Religion and the Humanities, the now defunct undergraduate program Smith had created and coordinated since 1973.

The second time I failed Smith was when I asked him for letters of recommendation for graduate school. Nervously, I took the elevator up to his office in the west tower of Harper and told him I intended to pursue a career as a scholar of religion. As anyone who knew Smith knows well, he claimed never to want his undergraduate students to follow so closely in his footsteps. He approached college teaching and mentorship as the impartation of essential skills—good reading, good writing, good thinking—which would be and should be transferrable to any and all walks of life. The specific subject matter (e.g., religion) mattered not. He professed especially to take pleasure and pride in those of his students who absorbed his lessons on classification and comparison and applied these in entirely different contexts. More than once I heard him refer to those of his students who went on to become religion scholars as his “failures.”

Of course, I was never good at getting Smith’s jokes. An example: Once, in the Eliade class, he brought up Charles de Brosses’s Du culte des dieux fétiches [The Cult of the Fetishistic Gods], a 1760 text which Smith argued was the most important of the early, foundational works in the discipline of the academic study of religion. He said he kept a copy of it above his desk, so he could take it down from time to time, just to stroke its cover. The joke was lost on me. I went directly from class to the library, searching the stacks for a copy of the book that I could touch myself.

So I suspect that Smith’s periodic swipes at those of us who went on from his college courses to do graduate work in religion may have been, at least a little bit, tongue-in-cheek. I needn’t have been apprehensive to come forth as one of his “failures,” and he had nothing but encouragement for me in my chosen path. The point of it all, I now believe, was that the study of religion is no different, fundamentally, than any other intentional human activity. It is an opportunity to examine the astonishing fecundity of the human imagination in its interactions with its variegated cultural and (culturally postulated) superhuman environments. It is an occasion for thought, and for play. For having fun—while undertaking intellectual labor of the utmost seriousness. Religions, and the study of religions, can be mysterious, terrifying, and fascinating. They are also thoroughly, confoundingly human.

There are others who can attest, better than I can, to Smith’s influence on our field. I can attest to how he changed my life. Today, in addition to the grief and sadness I feel at the news of his death, I feel grateful beyond words for being able to count myself among the failures of Jonathan Z. Smith.


McCutcheon, Russell. “Let’s Get to Work.” Studying Religion in Culture. December 31, 2017.

Shimron, Yonat. “Religion historian Jonathan Z. Smith dies.” Religion News Service. January 2, 2018.

Sinhababu, Supriya. “Interview with J. Z. Smith.” The Chicago Maroon. June 2, 2008.

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

Tabor, James. “Jonathan Z. Smith Has Died.” TaborBlog. December 31, 2017.

The University of Chicago Divinity School. “The Dean’s Craft of Teaching Seminar, Winter 2013, with Jonathan Z. Smith.” YouTube. July 16, 2013.

Brett Colasacco, is a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the editor of Sightings.

Image: Jonathan Z. Smith as dean of the College (1977-1982) | Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-07712, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

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