On the Compositional History of Melania Trump’s Plagiarized Address


by Philip L. Tite

This post initially appeared on the author’s blog.

CNN: Comparing the Speeches

This week the 2016 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland OH made headlines with a controversial, and somewhat amusing, speech by Melania Trump in support of her husband’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. Immediately following this speech, commentators quickly noted the very clear parallels between this 2016 speech with a similar speech delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008. There have been several synoptic comparisons of these two speeches in both video and text formats (click on the link above for a video comparison). One of those images that hit my Facebook feed sparked some satirical comments by several scholars, including, perhaps most notably, biblical scholars well familiar with research on the Synoptic Problem (i.e., accounting for the literary relationship between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke from the New Testament). One colleague, in presenting this image, commented that this case of plagiarism illustrates why studying the Synoptic Problem is helpful. Others have made similar comments, including an occasional tongue-in-cheek nod to the hypothetical gospel source Q (from the German Quelle for “source”; i.e., the shared material between Matthew and Luke not in Mark, assuming Markan priority).

My own reaction was a bit more convoluted, better illustrating the complexity of gospel studies and, in reverse, the painfully speculative nature of such an hypothesis. Still, what I offer is a satirical, playful analysis of the relationship between Melania Trump and Michelle Obama’s (respective?) speeches. Enjoy!


The analogy with Synoptic Gospels studies can be extended much further than has been recognized. Indeed, Melania Trump’s plagiarism is the product of a long, complicated set of textual influences, redactional activities, and underlying hypothetical sources. Let’s look at an extract (floating around social media) from these two sources in a synopsis:


In comparing these two speeches, note the following elements:

     (1) word-for-word quotes (thus a direct literary relationship),

     (2) material that is similar but a bit different, and

     (3) unique material for each speech

Obviously, this is not a case of simple cut-and-paste plagiarism. This case is far superior to any plagiarism that any of my students have tried to get by me. Indeed, I’m impressed with the challenge offered by Melania or her speech writers. Yes, there is a clear literary relationship indicating direct dependence. Even the general structure of both speeches indicates a direct relationship. But more is going on. Drawing upon my immense analytical talent and modest training under the tutelage of the greatest minds in biblical scholarship (at least that’s what they told me), I would hypothesize, therefore, [btw, notice the complexity of this insane sentence, thus demonstrating my acumen] that we may be dealing with an underlying source (let’s call it Q for argument sake), no longer extant, [notice how the sentence just continues on] but obviously comprised of a simple set of sayings (logia) arranged into a basic structure—a structure that we will find in both the Melania’s and Michelle’s speeches (for convenience let’s call them, respectfully, MT [= Melania Trump’s speech] and MO [= Michelle Obama’s speech]).

Alas, this underlying source does not account for elements 2 and 3. Thus, we need to explore our compositional history further, as there is clearly “unique traditions” for both MT and MO. Thus, we must hypothesize that we have two set of underlying unique sets of source materials, which we could label MTS (= MT Source Material) and MOS (= MO Source Material). So far we have a clear and clean compositional relationship, but we need to consider redactional activity occurring in MT’s use of the Q material. Notice, for example, in the paralleled text given above that we see an editorial transformation of material so as to render the material more ideologically acceptable to the “right” (assuming MO better preserves Q than MT, otherwise the redactional shifts are to the “left”). For instance, the shift from “height” to “strength” could reflect a policy shift from class conflict/inequality toward a call for solidarity through a strong national defense. Similarly, the editorial change from “and all children” to “to follow” likely reflects a rejection of socialist policies—such as dedicating public funds toward education and child care—toward a value of maintaining hierarchical unity so as to reinforce the establish power structures of the elite in American society (e.g., in giving tax breaks to the 1% and their corporate empires).

So it seems that MT may have had access not only to Q, but also an earlier version of MO, let’s call that text Proto-MO. Such an underlying compositional layer for MO would be necessary in explaining the compositional relationship between MT and MO if we look closely at the minor disagreements. The principle of simplicity (so vital for tracing the direction of redactional tendencies in biblical studies) seems to indicate that an earlier version of MO is preserved in MT, a version that was embellished and supplanted by MO, even though MO is chronologically older than MT in final form. Note the following parallel:

MT: “pass them on to the next generation”

MO: “we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow”

In this instance, MT’s saying is less developed and MO adds “to follow”. There is no ideological reason for “to follow” to be edited out by MT. Consequently, we likely have a Proto-MO that would have had the simpler version of the saying, later expanded to the more convoluted saying.

Finally, given that MO has circulated widely prior to the production of MT, it is also possible that MT went through a final revision in light of the extant MO—suggested by the external witness of some level of influence by speech writers on the final draft—, though, unlike the rest of my proposed compositional history, this final component—designated as MT2(?)—is certainly speculative.


So what does this wonderful—and, if I may say, brilliant—compositional history of Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarism offer us? First and foremost, it should make us laugh. Satire should be amusing, even if political figures are anything but amusing. But we also learn something else. Here are my thoughts:

(1) Biblical scholarship, which I love and identify with of course, is filled with speculation, hypotheses, and wild guesses based on very well argued readings of texts. But they are also just that: smart people’s guesses. Sometimes such guesses work, sometimes they don’t. Scholarship is about plausible solutions, not definitive answers. Hypotheses are helpful, but they are always open to challenge.

(2) Despite what I just said, we can learn a lot from over a century of scholarship debating the Synoptic Problem. I have always wanted to teach the Synoptic Problem by having students compare different news accounts, to apply the same analytical methods used in biblical studies to elucidating the redactional tendencies of each instance of a news story. Redaction criticism is more than just identifying editorial activity. It is also an exploration of the tendencies or agendas that may underlie such activity. In other words, what is the “spin” in the Matthean or Lukan use of Mark (assuming Markan priority, of course)? This lesson can be applied to media accounts—including material cycling through social media—where the “facts” are not in dispute but rather the “spin” is being analyzed.

(3) The silliness of my compositional history of the plagiarism by Melania Trump, and I do think it an act of plagiarism and thus (intellectually) unethical, should raise the question: Is this worth our effort, at least beyond the entertainment value of such a news story? In this election cycle there are so many serious issues that need to be debated. Candidates need to be challenged to address serious problems facing society, such as gun violence, racism, sexism, homonegativity, international threats, socio-economic inequality, outrageous educational costs, and political corruption. A poorly delivered speech that lifts from a very well delivered speech from eight years ago, while a delight to make fun of, is really not at the heart of this election, or at least it shouldn’t be. But at least it allowed me to play with compositional histories. And who knows, maybe there really existed a Q, MTS, MOS, and Proto-MO (potentially even an MT2(?)!) underlying MT and MO.

Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, including co-editor with Bryan Rennie of Religion, Terror and Violence: Religious Studies Perspectives (Routledge, 2008).

Posted in Philip L. Tite, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

To Celebrate or Protest? Some Reflections on Pride Toronto 2016


by Matt Sheedy

On July 3rd I attended the Pride parade in Toronto, which drew increased media attention this year in light of such things as its proximity to the Orlando massacre, a terror threat on a “German-language ISIS fanboy channel,” and the announcement that Canada’s Prime Minister would be marching in the streets. As with other events that I’ve attended or places that I’ve travelled to, I went with the idea of writing a post from the field (e.g., see here, here, and here). In my experience, this prior intention not only makes the events or places more interesting, like a sleuth looking for a lead, but also helps to hone one’s scholarly chops by forcing attention to the relationship between theory and practice. For example, it highlights how authorship is always a selective process of inclusion and exclusion since personal tastes, one’s subject position, and the fact of sheer chance (i.e., noticing this instead of that) cannot ever be avoided. Beyond these autobiographical dimensions, the role of discourse is also of central importance since it conditions the way popular narratives are framed and what gets called to our attention in the first place. As Hayden White has observed, all narratives are fictions that depend upon the various discourses that bring them into existence.

One leading contender vying for my attention was the highly publicized appearance of Justin Trudeau, and not only because he was the first sitting Prime Minister to ever march in a Pride parade, but also because his youth, charisma, good looks, and flare for political theater have lent him a global celebrity status rarely seen among Canadian heads of state. Not surprisingly, a sea of cameras and screaming onlookers snapped photos as he passed (see image below), which prompted the satirical website, The Beaverton (Canada’s answer to The Onion) to post a headline the following day reading, “Pride Parade Joins Justin Trudeau’s Walk Down Street.”


Among other things, Trudeau’s celebrity status offers a fascinating case study for those interested in the role of charisma and performance in shaping the identity of social formations (such as the nation-state of Canada). This is particularly evident when placed against the near-decade of neo-conservative rule that preceded him (2006-2015), which went largely unnoticed in most Euro-Western countries, and has seemingly been forgotten in favor of a triumphalist discourse of Canada as a progressive bastion of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Far and away the most provocative act came at the behest of Black Lives Matter activists, who staged a sit-in at the intersection of Yonge and College Streets that delayed the parade for approximately 25 minutes, and included speeches on the struggles of black transgender and queer folk and their on-going marginalization. The sit-in ended when the head of Pride Toronto agreed to and signed a list of demands, including a commitment to hire more black trans, queer, and Indigenous people on their planning committee, and the “removal of police floats/booths in all Pride marches/parades/community spaces.” Not surprisingly, it was this latter demand that generated the most controversy and backlash, along with complaints over the sit-in itself during what many argued was supposed to be an “inclusive” and “celebratory” event. Although some BLM activists were interviewed after the event and given space to explain their reasons for staging the sit-in (e.g., the on-going history of racism between law enforcement and people of color in and around Toronto, including much higher rates of random street checks or “carding”), this tended to be obscured by a narrative of disruption and unreasonable demands.

Behind these various rhetorical moves are competing ideological views between those who understand and identify Pride as a “celebratory” event based on “liberal” principles such as equality, tolerance, and inclusion versus those who aim to highlight more “radical” elements and their marginalization (e.g., Dyke, Trans, bi- and pan-sexual identities and their relative erasure), along with the exclusion of queer people of color, and what many criticize as the mainstreaming of white, gay males as the prototypical queer, often placed in hetero-normative frame (e.g., married, monogamous, middle-class). For scholars of religion, these examples offer a useful point of comparison with how narratives about religion, from both insiders and outsiders, function in relation to things like power dynamics, authenticity claims, and contests over legitimacy and representation.

There were also a few adversarial representations at the parade, as seen with the various signs pictured below (the one cut off to the back left reads: SATAN RULES OVER ALL THE CHILDREN OF PRIDE). As luck would have it, a contingent of “Ismaili Queers” passed by as I was snapping a few pics of these signs, providing a rather interesting juxtaposition between common representations of a more tolerant “Christianity” and an intolerant “Islam,” while also calling to mind the role of chance in making such a comparison in the first place.


One of the more interesting things at Pride Toronto that did not receive much media attention was the presence of LGBTory—Tory being a British designation for “conservative” used in commonwealth countries like Canada—as a contingent in the parade. Formed in 2015, the group describes itself on its webpage as follows:

We are a network of LGBT Canadians from all walks of life and diverse identities, but we all share a belief in the fundamental conservative principles of individual liberty, personal responsibility, reward for hard work, a free-market economy and democratic government. Our goals are to provide a forum for Canadian LGBT conservatives to gather and share ideas, to act as a voice for our members and supporters, and to lobby for policies that advance the conservative philosophy while standing up for the democratic rights of minorities. We also aim to show that the LGBT community is not monolithic in its support for left and centre-left political parties.

Significantly, LGBTory has lead lobbying efforts to get interim leader Rona Ambrose to reverse the party’s official stance opposing same-sex marriage (*there is no word on any move to change the group’s name in light of the insertion of “Tory” in the place of Transgender), which was overturned at the Conservative national convention this past May. This move lead Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to both applaud the shift, while also getting in a few jabs at the Conservative’s positions on a variety of issues:

“Our Conservative friends are also meeting this weekend. They’re in Vancouver where, among other things, they’re debating the merits of marriage equality – in 2016. More than a decade after we made same-sex marriage legal in Canada,” Trudeau said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

“Ten years from now, they might finally be willing to admit that climate change is real. Or realize that tax cuts for rich people don’t help the middle class. Or that government shouldn’t be allowed to legislate what women can wear on their heads.”

I found these comments to be particularly interesting for thinking about long-standing ideological positions that are seen to be the sine qua non of a particular political (or religious) identity, as well as for examining the kind of rhetoric that is used to justify significant shifts in official party policy. For example, a 2015 article quotes LGBTory (which is no longer found on their home page) describing themselves as “conservative LGBT activists who want to break the left’s monopoly on the LGBT community.” Although it is certainly understandable that people who identify as queer and conservative would want to end discrimination in their party’s official platform, the rhetoric being deployed here suggests a strategic appeal, where fellow conservatives are encouraged to get with the program lest the loose votes to other parties. Here we see an example of how changes in material conditions, such as the legalization of gay marriage in Canada in 2005, and the increased presence of queer narratives in pop culture and news media, have led to ideological shifts that had previously appeared to be unshakable, often justified in (mainly Christian) biblical terms and represented as timeless values.

One further example that helps to historicize such shifts in official policy and the attending ideological justifications that follow can be seen with the gap between the former ruling Conservative Party’s affirmative position on gay rights abroad, while at the same time opposing same-sex marriage (along with trans rights, and a host of other policies) at home. In this instance, a hawkish ideology on foreign policy saw a strategic advantage in calling out abuses against queer folk abroad in order to demonize a perceived enemy (almost exclusively in relation to Muslims and Muslim majority countries), which may have ironically helped to shift conservative perspectives at home on domestic policies like gay marriage.

While I don’t want to undercut the central role of activists and queer folk in general in helping to shift public sentiment on these and related issues, paying attention to how changing material conditions can provoke a shift in policy (and hence ideology) helps us to conceptualize the ways in which both efforts for social change (such as gaining legal rights and challenging binary classifications on gender and sexuality) and the perceived interests of certain groups (such as the Conservative Party’s anti-Muslim agenda) function together to shake up what once appeared to be timeless and eternal values.


One possible answer to the question that I posed in the title–“to celebrate or protest?”–is of course both, depending on things like one’s subject position (e.g., ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, etc.), and current political-ideolgical understanding. The rapidly shifting discourses on race (e.g., the influence of Black Lives Matter), and sexual identity (e.g., transgender identities and actions), enabled largely through a social media environment that provides non-dominant voices a platform like never before, suggests that the ideologies and purported values of various self-identified groups (e.g., political and religious) are being forced to re-imagine, discard, or double-down (e.g., “All Lives Matter”), on their previously held positions, thus highlighting both the resiliency and malleability of social identities, as well as their fragility in the face of material change. Paying attention to how such battles play out on the plane of queer politics, as with contests over representation at Pride parades, is, I would claim, a valuable and important site for analyzing how social change functions, where identities and ideologies flow in multiple directions in response to the world around them.

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, Religion in the News, Sexuality and Gender, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Imagined Communities: Theory & Religion Series


by Kate Daley-Bailey

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

Perhaps one of the most instructive texts I have utilized for teaching a religious studies course is, oddly enough, not about ‘religion’. If fact upon picking up the booklist for the course (Religion and Media), I am quite sure a few of my students had reservations about this text’s inclusion. The text was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. My initial reading of that text was quite fortuitous… I stumbled upon it and read it as a kind of ancillary text to the ‘religion’ books I was reading. Then the opportunity to teach a more theory based course arrived and I thought it would provide an excellent test case for the course. (I did begin to doubt my choice but luckily my choice was reaffirmed by an esteemed colleague who nudged me forward, you know who you are.)

While not about ‘religion’ proper, Anderson’s text provides readers with a historical and theoretical exploration of an equally nebulas topic… ‘nation-ness’ which he describes as “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3). Try to unthink the concept of nation as you look at a map. Try to think of the world in pre-nation times and steam will burst forth from your proverbial ears. Why? Because the concept of ‘nation’ is not so much a subject one studies, but rather a mode or method through which one studies the world.

So much like the concept of ‘religion’, researching the concept of the ‘nation’ according to Anderson, comes replete with three paradoxes:

(1)   “The objective modernity of nations to a historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.

(2)   The formal universality of nationality as socio-political concept–in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender–vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, ‘Greek’ nationality is sui generis.

(3)   The political power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.” (5)

Can any scholar of religion look at these paradoxes and not see them reflected in their own inquiries or at least in the field at large? Do these paradoxes not span the spectrum of views we cover when we talk about ‘religion’?

While it took some of my students till midpoint to recognize what I was doing… covertly teaching them about the complexities of studying religion in the guise of teaching them about the complexities of studying nationalism… most of them picked up on the context clues fairly early on in the semester. The way I figure it, sometimes, the best way to get students to think about something differently is to pointedly and deliberately require them to think about something different.

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Interpellation in The Splendid Vision


by Adam Miller

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

The French marxist Louis Althusser theorized interpellation as “the process by which ideology addresses the individual.” Or, put differently, interpellation is the way a dominant ideology constructs the human subject in its terms. This theory has been criticized for “minimiz[ing] the possibility of individual agency and control in the process,” and perhaps rightly so. But I am not sure this is what Althusser was trying to get at. On the basis of admittedly very limited reading of his work, it seems to me he was trying to think about how ideology works, not how people negotiate identities within an ideological system. In any event, I found a particularly wonderful example of interpellation in Richard S. Cohen’s translation of The Splendid Vision (I won’t provide the Sanskrit title…it’s way, way too long).

His translation reads:

If somebody has not planted any roots of virtue, or has not seen a tathagata, or has not received a prophecy of future buddhahood, then he will fail to hear this dharma discourse. Likewise, he will fail to respect, worship, learn, copy, have copied, or place his faith in it. He will also fail to honor, respect, or worship dharma preachers. Wherever this dharma discourse goes…it will play the role of the tathagata.

Later the text goes on to enjoin anyone who hears the sūtra to “[p]rovide the dharma preacher…with whatever he needs for complete happiness.”

This text calls out anyone listening as a buddhist subject. And though the idea of buddhist subjectivity is quite complicated in philosophical circles, it seems to me that part of what it means to be a buddhist in the world is to make sure the dharma-preachers are comfortable. Indeed, the text promises that a person who reveres the sūtra and the expounder of the sūtra will amass more merit than the Buddha did through his extreme acts of giving in his former lives. Further still, anyone who hears this sūtra is already on the way to becoming a buddha.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Oh wait…you don’t have a choice.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholar Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Natasha L. Mikles


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 Natasha L. Mikles

Due to a spate of research travel and international conferences, I have spent a lot of time in airports over the past year. Maybe it is because I am a woman, but people (usually men) seem to take this opportunity to speak with me, ask me about my work, where I am going, and my reasons for going there. When I explain that I am a doctoral student in a religious studies program, my interlocutors overflow with questions—not about the mundane things that occupy my time like writing papers, teaching courses, and advising students. Rather, these inquisitors generally aim higher and want to know what it means to call oneself a scholar of “Tibetan and Chinese Religions.”

I usually stumble through some answer that is surely unsatisfying, and I have come to realize that I often find myself unable to answer the question of what we as scholars of religion do because I have a hard time explaining to myself what exactly it is that I do. Of course, my colleagues and I have our areas of research which have been neatly defined as discrete sub-fields by the American Academy of Religion Program book: Buddhism Section, Popular Culture and Religion Section, or—my personal favorite—Religion and Food. We all have prepared course syllabi and personal teaching expertise. We all speak our own set of research languages, study our own core texts, and perform our own methodologies. I understand what I do in the day-to-day flow of work and I know what I do to produce research within a collaborative space with colleagues, but what does it mean at a broader level to be a “scholar of religion”? What is the difference between me and a historian or an anthropologist or even an East Asian cultures scholar? Is there a difference at all?

I recently attended the International Association of Tibetan Studies conference in Bergen, Norway; over six hundred of the world’s Tibetanists joined together to attend five grueling days of conference with eight concurrent panels ranging on everything from the economic life of Tibetan monasteries in the early modern period to the disappearing linguistic diversity of contemporary Tibetan nomads. The evenings were spent discussing the day’s papers and carousing with far-flung colleagues over glasses of wine. While it was invigorating to attend a conference where one could hear a metaphorical Tower of Babel’s worth of research languages being spoken in the hallways, I found myself—in a way difficult to put a finger on—feeling a little like a stranger, despite the obvious overlap in everyone’s topics of research. The creeping sensation of dissimilarity was made particularly pronounced one evening when a colleague working in an East Asia studies department explained her research by stating to the table, “I just want to understand the history of this one monastery!” The operative word “just” struck me as significant for revealing the difference between scholars situated in the field of religious studies and those outside of it. In an effort to uncover the truth of the matter at hand, “just” limits acceptable modes of knowledge in ways that silence historical and contemporary voices who may speak about gods, demons, ritual power, and other things one cannot prove. While scholars in other disciplines are selective in listening to voices so that they may uncover historical and cultural realities, religion scholars are interested in listening to as many voice as possible to understand the heart of the matter.

This interaction reveals that we as “scholars of religion” are not defined merely by our topic of study. This is in part because the category of “religion” is an invention of western discourse. Tomoko Masuzawa demonstrates how the idea of “world religions” as a topic of study developed only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the stratification between local folkways and “world religions,” which featured core texts, beliefs, and a focus on individual achievement.[1] Brent Nongbri and others have built on this argument to push the relatively recent invention of “religion” even earlier as a product of European colonialism and a counterpoint to the developing notion of the “secular.”[2] Religion is a constructed category unique to the modern age with roots in western imperialism, but so is the field of religious studies itself. Bruce Lincoln traces the history of the American Academy of Religion from its birth in the National Association of Bible Instruction and has argued that among academic disciplines, religious studies is unique because it is “a discipline consciously designed to shield its object of study against critical interrogation.”[3]

Because of this constructed quality to our field and even our topic of study, scholars of religion are doing something different than historians, sociologists, or anthropologists. In thinking through my encounter with my colleague “just” studying monastic history, I contemplated the two recent books of religious studies theory that have most struck me as evocative calls to our field’s potential. On one hand is Encountering Religion by Tyler Roberts—a book that presents a model for the humanistic study of religion based upon “treating the humanities as a site of ‘encounter’ and ‘response’.”[4] Studying religion—particularly the religions of others—allows us to suspend our own deeply held convictions and for a brief period “encounter” that which is different—ultimately arriving at a perspective in which “difference is not otherness.”[5] Seemingly in opposition to the pluralistic message of Roberts, is Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars by Bruce Lincoln—a book that seeks to demonstrate how the academic study of religion must dismantle the ideology of institutional religious narratives to reveal their role in maintaining a hegemonic discourse that benefits those in power.

What the methodologies of these two books share in common—what is unique about scholars of religion—is that our research has at its foundation a form of deep listening to people and the texts, rituals, and institutions they create. It is listening to communities make statements and claims about things they could never prove, and taking them seriously regardless. Our best listening encompasses the multivocality of voiced and unvoiced statements, remembering that every speaker by necessity silences another who might have spoken. This foundational methodology naturally leads in two directions: we listen to understand and we listen to analyze. Listening prompts the sort of understanding seen in Tyler Roberts, where we seek to encounter the worldview of another and place their statements about un-provable things in contexts that reveal how they create significance for the speaker. Listening also prompts critical analysis of the sort seen in the work of Bruce Lincoln: an analytical questioning of who benefits from and is harmed by the recitation of these unprovable statements and, ultimately, how their un-provableness is hidden. Both of these methodologies rest on first inviting every voice to speak rather than—as my colleague studying Tibetan monastic development seeks to do—to shut some out as mere distractions from the “truth.”

So, for all the men in airports who talk to me and ask me what it is that I do, I’m listening—to you and your puerile theories on Richard Dawkins, to the writings of early twentieth-century Tibetans who found epic literature a particularly evocative voice in religious discourse, to nineteenth-century Chinese priests attempting to navigate a changing landscape of religious patronage. I’m listening.


[1] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

[2] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

[3] Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demon, Scholars and Priests. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 134.

[4] Tyler Roberts. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) 16.

[5] Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Natasha L. Mikles is doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia researching the relationship between Chinese and Tibetan popular literature and religious reform. She is the recipient of the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.

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Windows and Mirrors: Texts, Religions, and Stories of Origins

BSOR Cover June 2016 Edited 2The following is the introduction to the June 2016 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Philip L. Tite

Although the science of religion in the nineteenth century is often critiqued and mocked today for its fixation on origins—whether such a search is grounded in a social or biological evolutionary model, evokes orientalist values of the exotic other, proffers a grand theory explaining “religion” cross-culturally, or romanticizes the homo religiosus—the centrality of “stories of origins” remains firmly fixed in our scholarly imagination, especially when we study cultures and texts of antiquity. This issue of the Bulletin looks at one prominent origin story, namely, the discovery and preservation of the fourth-century Nag Hammadi codices from the late 1940s up to the 1970s. The key “storyteller” of the find has been James M. Robinson, whose final grand telling of the discovery was published in a massive two-volume work just prior to his death (Robinson 2014a and 2014b).

Stories of origins are tantalizing tales that we use in our classrooms to entice our students to fall in love with the materials that we hold so dear. They are tales that have been passed on to us by our mentors. Stories are legacies, and legacies are not easily challenged. In recent decades there has been a flurry of “discoveries” that have stirred up our imagination. The Nag Hammadi find in Egypt—with all of the delightfully dangerous heretical texts coming to light—was second only to the Dead Sea Scrolls in public controversy. More recently, Codex Tchacos got the buzz going once more when it was first released to the public in 2006 and 2007, given the “discovery” of an apocryphal Gospel of Judas (though oddly the other three texts in that codex are generally ignored). Just a few years ago the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife sent the academic Internet aflame with controversy over what looked like either a modern “forgery” or a challenge to accepted—“authentic”—narratives of formative Christianity. And the Secret Gospel of Mark is a well-known example of possible forgery or discovery (see especially Burke 2013).

But origin stories of ancient texts often focus on the modern discovery of those texts. And such origin stories of texts can be enchanting for our imaginations, such as the 1886-87 discovery of the Akhmim fragment of the Gospel of Peter, supposedly in a monk’s grave: a discovery that sent scholars of that generation into a frenzy of activity. Sometimes these stories are fantastical, centered on exotic details of blood feuds, murder, black market deals, shadowy figures, destruction of ancient materials by “primitive” locals, and intense detective work by the Euro-American scholar, such as Robinson, to “save” these ancient treasures for posterity. Thus, these treasures are transformed into our heritage, safely secured from the exotic yet uncivilized people currently occupying these ancient lands. Even in bringing such treasures to the academic public, the stories are better than any dime novel (and here the Berlin Codex comes readily to mind). These are academic detective stories that we love to read alongside our Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But unlike the famed detective of 221B Baker Street, London, our academic detectives are real, and their tales are accepted by many as fact. In a way, that aspect of reality makes them all the more worthwhile for our consumption.

Such origin stories of antiquities, however, are no less mirrors than the various anthropological origin stories of Müller, Tyler, or Frazer. Like the Victorian anthropologists, we treat our origin stories as windows into ancient worlds, into the life experiences of once living people, and into the broader cultural forces that we are so fixated on. And perhaps, at some level, that is what they are: windows into the past. But they are also mirrors for the present. They refract and reflect our own discourses, our modern concerns, debates, and self-authorizing worldviews. When we look into our mirrors, we typically see distorted aspects of ourselves embedded within our narratives, often because we fail to see that they are our narratives. Often the stories of antiquarian discoveries evoke persistent colonial and orientalizing attitudes that we in the “West” continue to internalize (even if unconsciously). In this sense, David Chidester’s comment on Müller is apt:

Müller knew that those raw materials had to be extracted from the colonies, transported to the metropolitan centers of theory production, and transformed into manufactured goods of theory that could be used by an imperial comparative religion. (Chidester 2000, 431 emphasis added)

It is this very process of extraction, transportation, transformation, and utilization that is served by such origin stories, such as what we see with Nag Hammadi. And the persuasive force of story should not be overlooked. Stories contain, normalize, and perpetuate such processes while obscuring their very presence. Even the storytellers may not be (fully) aware of these processes. And there may even be facts underlying those very narratives. They, like any story, may be true, they may be windows—but they are also mirrors that we, as both storyteller and listener, gaze into believing that we are at the window. In the end, we may see our origin stories telling us more about modern scholarship than ancient cultures and textual productions.

This issue of the Bulletin centers on two significant articles that have challenged the “authentic” tale of the Nag Hammadi discovery. Mark Goodacre (2013) and Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount (2014) have raised serious questions about the widely accepted account of the Nag Hammadi discovery. Denzey Lewis and Blount, in particular, have offered an alternative tale for us to hear, one that strives to move away from orientalist discourses of the exotic savage and the civilized scholar. It remains another tale, another mirror perhaps. But it is also an invitation to continue to weave stories, while challenging underlying presuppositions of such stories. Contributors were invited to respond to these two seminal articles, to respond to these works in constructive and critical ways, yet also to extend our discussion beyond just Nag Hammadi. Following the reactions by Dylan Burns, Brent Nongri, Eva Mroczek, Tony Burke, and Paul-Hubert Poirier we are pleased to include a response from Denzey Lewis. Both Goodacre and Blount declined our invitation to also write responses, though Goodacre was pleased to see the conversation being extended beyond the initial two articles. In facilitating this conversation within the pages of the Bulletin, it is my hope that scholars of the academic study of religion will take this conversation as an entry point into exploring the mirrors and windows that we—as scholars—internalize in our treatment of our sources, be those textual, material, or ethnographical data sets.

Beyond our main set of articles, we are also pleased to include a “Tips for Teaching” piece by Justin Tse on guest lecturing as a mode of conversation with students. Justin’s reflection arose from two guest lectures he recently gave on geography of religion theory, one being in my own theories course. We are also pleased to publish an interview with Donovan Schaefer on his recent and provocative book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (2015), a book where he applies affect theory to the study of religion and thereby raises several major theoretical challenges in how we study religious phenomena. I wish to express my appreciation to my associate editors, Nathan Rein and Matt Sheedy, for such a fascinating discussion with Donovan’s work on affect theory.


Burke, Tony, ed. 2013. Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery: The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate. Proceedings of the 2011 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Chidester, David. 2000. “Colonialism.” In Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, 432–37. London: Cassell.

Denzey Lewis, Nicola, and Justine Ariel Blount. 2014. “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133: 399–419. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1353/jbl.2014.0017.

Goodacre, Mark. 2013. “How Reliable is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35: 303–22. http://dx.doi. org/10.1177/0142064X13482243

Robinson, James M. 2014a. The Nag Hammadi Story, Volume 1: From the Discovery to the Publication. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 86. Leiden: Brill.

Robinson, James M. 2014b. The Nag Hammadi Story, Volume 2: The Publication. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 86. Leiden: Brill

Schaefer, Donovan O. 2015. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822374909.

Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 45.2 (June 2016)

BSOR Cover June 2016 Edited 2The June issue of the Bulletin has now been published and is available both online and in print. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes a panel of papers engaging two seminal articles challenging the standard “story” of the discovery/origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices (by Mark Goodacre [2013] and Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Blount [2014]). Scholars were invited to engage these two articles, exploring the theoretical aspects of such “origin stories” while testing the alternatives set forth by these respective articles. In addition to this exchange, we are pleased to publish an interview with Donovan Schaefer (Trinity College, Oxford) on his recent and provocative book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Duke University Press, 2015). Finally, Justin Tse offers a reflection on guest lecturing within our “Tips for Teaching” section.

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 45, Issue 2 (June 2016)

Editor’s Introduction: “Windows and Mirrors: Texts, Religions, and Stories of Origins” Philip L. Tite (University of Washington) – (pp. 2-3)


“Telling Nag Hammadi’s Egyptian Stories” Dylan Michael Burns (Free University of Berlin) – (pp. 5-11)

“Finding Early Christian Books at Nag Hammadi and Beyond” Brent Nongbri (Macquarie University) – (pp. 11-19)

“True Stories and the Poetics of Textual Discovery” Eva Mroczek (University of California, Davis) – (pp. 21-31)

“What Do We Talk About When We Talk About the Nag Hammadi Library?” Tony Burke (York University) – (pp. 33-37)

“The 70th Anniversary of the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices: A Few Remarks on Recent Publications” Paul-Hubert Poirier (Université Laval) – (pp. 37-39)

“Rethinking the Rethinking of the Nag Hammadi Codices” Nicola Denzey Lewis (Brown University) – (pp. 39-45)


“‘Trauma Makes You’: An Interview with Donovan O. Schaefer” Matt Sheedy (University of Manitoba) and Nathan Rein (Ursinus College) – (pp. 45-55)

Tips for Teaching: “Guest Lecturing on Geographies of Religion: Interviewing My Colleagues’ Students, Focusing on Tangents” Justin K. H. Tse (University of Washington) – (pp. 55-61)

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