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

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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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The State of Religious Studies Education on YouTube

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by Andrew M. Henry

Despite stiff competition from cat videos and corporate-sponsored content, educational YouTube channels have carved out a respected niche in the landscape of online video. Borrowing the style of video bloggers pioneered in the early years of YouTube (likable hosts, fast-paced editing, splashy animations), these so-called “edu-vloggers” have proven YouTube’s potential as a platform for disseminating fun yet rigorously academic content for the broader public.

In fact, educational content on YouTube has entered something of a “Golden Age” over the past few years. CrashCourse, a channel founded by the YouTube celebrity brothers John and Hank Green, has garnered millions of subscribers and hundreds of millions of views publishing series on astronomy, physics, politics, literature, and world history. Veritasium, a science and technology channel hosted by Dr. Derek Muller, has attracted almost 4 million subscribers publishing videos on obscure topics such as “The Most Radioactive Places on Earth” and “Is Glass a Liquid?” The non-profit organization Khan Academy has made significant inroads on YouTube with video series on algebra, grammar, biology, and economics.

And this is just a small sample. Dozens of other channels are enjoying similar success in the disciplines of:

Physics: (PBS Spacetime, minutephysics)

Science: (SciShow, AsapSCIENCE)

Mathematics (Vihart),

Philosophy (Philosophy Tube)

Geography (GeographyNow!)

Linguistics (NativLang)

History (Step Back History)

Botany (Brilliant Botany)

Some of these creators are academics with graduate degrees in their respective fields. Others are popular bloggers and opinion leaders. Some are supported by $500,000 budgets and full-time staffs, others are one-person operations. All of these channels have thousands, if not millions of monthly viewers. And, taken as a whole, all of their videos have been used in thousands of schools, colleges, and universities worldwide.

But what is notably absent from this list?: Religious Studies.

To my knowledge, there are no large (100,000+ subscribers) YouTube channels that focus on religion from an academic perspective. Of course, some edu-channels do occasionally cover topics about religion. CrashCourse has published several excellent videos on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—each video garnering over a million views. The channel ExtraCredit published a well-researched and well-received series on Ancient Christian schisms. The pop-culture channel Wisecrack has even published a hilarious yet informative video titled “South Park on Religion” that rocketed to 100,000 views within a few days.

However, these brief forays into Religious Studies can never achieve more than a summary of some very complicated topics. A YouTube channel specializing in religion could offer a more thoroughgoing treatment of these topics all while fostering an online community of interested individuals. However, while scholars of religion have excelled in the realm of blogs and podcasts, YouTube remains an untapped resource for education about religion even while the business of edu-content is starting to boom and take its place in school curricula worldwide.

What would such a channel look like?

If you can pardon a few brief paragraphs of self-promotion, I can share my experience trying to start a Religious Studies YouTube channel from scratch. I don’t presume to be “that” next big creator who brings religious studies to YouTube, but I do think my YouTube channel can help us visualize what a Religious Studies edu-channel might look like.

In 2013, I launched Religion For Breakfast, a channel that I market as a fun and engaging dose of religious studies “for daily life.” While toiling in YouTube obscurity for two years, the channel has finally started to catch on and has grown to over 1000 subscribers as of August 2016 thanks to several dozen videos about ancient Christianity (my own subfield), religious studies theory/method, and general “Intro to Religion” topics about religion that I produce in my small Boston bedroom.

The videos have sparked countless fruitful discussions with complete strangers online about religion. I have received emails from high school students asking which religion departments they should attend for college. I am aware of half a dozen tenured professors who use my videos in their classrooms and report positive responses from their students. And I have started to notice a small cadre of individuals forming an online “Religion for Breakfast” club interested in discussing the academic study of religion.

In short, it seems religious studies can thrive on YouTube. Despite the vitriol associated with online discussions about religion (and the dozens of YouTube channels that perpetuate this vitriol), there is an undeniable interest online to learn about religion from an academic, nonsectarian perspective.

Challenges do remain. Compared to other social media platforms, YouTube has high barriers of entry. To compete with the larger channels, production quality needs to be top-notch, requiring a significant investment in equipment (studio lighting, professional grade microphones, HD video cameras, editing software), savvy online marketing skills (search engine optimization, branding, graphic design), and even acting skills (talking to a camera is hard!). However, in a world where video is the king of content, and in a world where YouTube is the 2nd largest search engine on the web, the discipline of Religious Studies cannot afford to ignore the potential of YouTube as an educational platform.

Andrew M. Henry is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Boston University. His research interests include magic and demonology in Late Antiquity, particularly the material culture of magical practice such as amulets, curse tablets, and apotropaic inscriptions. He is also the host of Religion For Breakfast, an educational YouTube channel committed to raising the quality of discussion about religion on YouTube. 

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Bourgeois Bohemians, Hipsters, and Social Order

 

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by Travis Cooper

Not too long ago a friend jokingly suggested via a comment on an Instagram post that my endorsement of a particular quarterly magazine had “crossed the threshold into full on BoBo.” I immediately did two things. First, and if only to confirm my initial speculations, I looked this “BoBo” term up in the linguistic authority of quotidian jargon: The Urban Dictionary. Definition number eleven (ignore the largely unhelpful but laughter-inducing definitions one through ten) for Bobo follows:

French: Short for bourgeois bohème. Describes Parisians who are both upscale and artistic. Similar to the original meaning of the American “hipster,” but generally laced with a uniquely French “Je ne sais quois”.

Il s’agit d’un magasin de bobo (This is a bobo shop).

Second, my friend’s classification of me as a bourgeois bohemian led me to recall one of my favorite contemporary director’s films and the ways in which the filmmaker often plays with such descriptive, socially, and culturally loaded taxons.

Harvard educated screenwriter and director Whit Stillman’s movies are brilliant little social commentaries. Metropolitan (1990) follows a community of young “preppies” in Upper East Side Manhattan as they attend debutante balls and social gatherings. Barcelona (1994) tells the story of two disenchanted American expatriates living abroad in Spain. The Last Days of Disco (1998) returns to Manhattan in its depiction a group of fresh graduates from elite American institutions who frequent popular venues of a rapidly shifting 1980s dance club scene. Damsels in Distress (2011) depicts the educational, extracurricular, and romantic exploits of a collective of college girls attending an East Coast American university. Damsels, by the way, stars Greta Gerwig, filmic “hipster” par excellence, second only to Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls fame. Stillman’s films cater easily to intellectual audiences with frequent nods to philosophical and literary works, self-referencing, intertextually-linked scenes, and segments replete with witty dialogue and dry humor. Many of the movies also include extended conversational scenes on topics of class theory and social and cultural stratification.

Below are short dialogues from two of my favorite films. Note the characters’ deliberative uses of specific terms of social register and classification.

The Urban Haute Bourgeoisie Scene, from Metropolitan:

Charley: “Well, I don’t think ‘preppy’ is a very useful term. I mean, it might be descriptive for someone who is still in school or college, but it’s ridiculous to refer to a man in his 70s like Averell Harriman, as preppy. And none of the other terms people use—WASP, P.L.U., et cetera—are of much use either. And that’s why I prefer the term ‘U.H.B.’”

Nick: “What?”

Charley: “U.H.B. It’s an acronym for urban haute bourgeoisie.”

Cynthia: “Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms or French phrases to make ourselves understood?”

Charley: “Yes.”

Nick: “U.H.B. The term is brilliant and long overdue. But it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it—U.H.B.? Wouldn’t it be better just to pronounce it simply uhb?

Charley: “Well, I didn’t expect it to gain immediate acceptance.”

Nick: “No, no, I think it’s a useful term. The fact that it sounds ridiculous could be part of its appeal.”

Cynthia: “You see the world from such lofty heights that everything below is a bit comical to you, isn’t it?”

Nick, standing up and adjusting his tuxedo lapels: “Yes.”

 —

And here’s the Yuppy scene, From The Last Days of Disco:

Berrie, a disco club owner, to Des, his (now) ex-manager: “You’re fired. And take this yuppie scum with you.”

Des, exiting the club with his cohort: “Yuppie scum? In college, before dropping out, I took a course in the propaganda uses of language. One objective is to deny other peoples’ humanity—or even right to exist.”

Jimmy, Des’s best friend: “In the men’s lounge, someone scrawled ‘Kill Yuppie Scum.’”

Des: “Do yuppies even exist? No one says, ‘I am a yuppie.’ It’s always the other guy who’s a yuppie. I think for a group to exist, somebody has to admit to be part of it.”

Jimmy: “Of course yuppies exist. Most people would say that you two are prime specimens.”

Des: “We’re not yuppies! You think we’re yuppies?”

Jimmy: “You’re seriously saying you’re not yuppies?”

Des: “No. Yuppie stands for ‘young upwardly mobile professional.’ ‘Nightclub Flunky’ is not a professional category.”

Jimmy: “Contrary to popular belief, junior level ad jobs don’t pay well at all.”

Des: “I wish we were yuppies. Young. Upwardly mobile. Professional. Those are good things, not bad things.”

Charlotte: “Where are we going?”

Des: “Rex’s” [a nightclub just down the street in NYC].

Charlotte: “Oh, no.”

Des: “What’s wrong with Rex’s?”

Charlotte: “You can’t dance there. And it’s full of boring preppies.”

U.H.B., WASP, P.L.U., Yuppie, Preppy, and even BoBo or Hipster: The terms proliferate. But do they mean anything? And as Des worries, why, if the descriptions hold some semblance of meaningfulness or function, are they nearly always etic or outsider terms employed in description of some group to which the person does not belong? What do such socio-cultural categories signify and what social purposes do they serve?

These labels do something; they serve indexical and classificatory purposes. The taxons delineate social order and distance some segments or collectives from others. The labels often carry with them negative valences (c.f. the more rural hillbilly, backwoods, or redneck terms). But the terms are also highly polysemous. Even though the terminological components of the yuppie taxon are not inherently negative—and may even be desirable, as in Des’s example above—taken together the acronym carries undesirable significance in terms of self-identification.

The popular site lookatthisfuckinhipster.com is not, after all, intended to compliment hipster styles and commend the sartorial and sumptuary practices of the (in this context, derided) sub-cultural group. No hipster, it appears, self-identifies as one. “I am not a hipster,” one anthropologist reflects, “at least, I do not think I am. This is not entirely helpful as most hipsters I have met don’t think of themselves as hipsters either.” Another commentator goes even further by denying that the hipster category actually exists in some statistically identifiable or objective sense: “‘Hipsters,’ really, are just boogeymen; they’re a catch-all that contain the cultural anxieties of the moment: about homosexuality (‘they’re all wussy!’), about class (‘they’re all rich and they don’t even work!’).”

“What actually do exist in Brooklyn,” he elaborates, “are young people who make art, who go to see art, who hang out together, work day jobs and night jobs, and/or try to live lives they want to lead as best they can. I know this because I meet these people and talk to them and socialize with them, professionally and personally. Some of them are from other places in America and the world, others from New York City itself.”

This writer, who lives and writes among those classified under the problematic taxon, not only resists self-identification; he wants to jettison the category altogether. The commentator both understands yet doesn’t quite seem to fully grasp that the hipster term exists because society exists and a prerequisite for society is taxonomic, systematic order. “Where there is dirt there is system,” an influential social-anthropologist noted some time ago. To engage in a bit of theoretical conjecture, one might posit that at an earlier time some sort of unnamed, proto-hipster existed as a nebulous and eclectic anomaly in the social system, impervious to taxonomy and pigeon-holing. The present irony is that for all of hipsters’ adamant categorical resistance, they appear to have been reduced to a semi-derogative social category. Hipsters don’t actually exist; hipsters are everywhere.

Such terms are not exclusively derogative, however. An elite group of well-educated urbanites, to return to Stillman’s fictional account, propose the U.H.B. term as a category of self-identification. The hillbilly taxon, a further example, has historically carried offensive meaning. In some instances Ozarks-area or Appalachian people have reappropriated or reclaimed the term in culturally celebratory fashions. In other words, the terms that we’re discussing are highly complex and multifaceted, retaining multiple and sometimes conflicting usages.

All of these dynamics, though, appear to reinforce an axiom of social theory that persons in positions of power (be it educational attainment, political status, socio-economic standing, etc.) maintain societal order through strategic ideological methods of persuasion. Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society (1989) argues helpfully along these lines. Discourse legitimates social and cultural authorities as it simultaneously classifies, defines, and delineates subordinate groups. Classifications—even the most seemingly lighthearted or satirical—play important social roles. Religious studies scholars have an especially important role to play in the study of discourse, myth, and taxonomy, and social rhetoric. Potentially condescending taxons such as fundamentalist or the less subtle but dated Holy Roller come to mind.

The role of the scholar in light of these social categories, however, is less clear. If as academics we study the mechanisms of social order and the processes by which social actors position themselves in their constructed orders, then terms such as yuppie and U.H.B. are tantamount to first-hand or folk (i.e., quotidian) linguistic strategies. We must examine the locations from which the taxonomies are deployed; who, for instance, is doing the labeling? And why? What is most interesting to me, in the end, is that as scholars we are also, not unlike Stillman’s elitists, embedded in complex relationships of power and privilege. Maybe, then, the distance between folk and scholarly categories is not as simple as we might envision it to be; perhaps BoBo and hipster are partly catalogues of our own creation.

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

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Update on Responses to the AAR Annual Conference Theme for 2016

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by Philip L. Tite.

The American Academy of Religion is the largest professional society for scholars studying religion. The annual meeting (held jointly with the Society of Biblical Literature), held in different cities each year in North America, draws around 8,000 academics from around the world. The AAR is a big deal. And perhaps that is why many have had serious concerns over trends emerging in our society in recent years. Not only have several scholars voiced concerns over confessional agendas within the AAR’s “umbrella” approach to the study of religion, but several have raised questions about the push toward social activism (e.g., the a recent issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion was dedicated to climate change). Is the academic agenda (and it is certainly an agenda) giving way to other, less or non-academic agendas (that are legitimate agendas, but not to be identified as scholarly research).

The theme of “Revolutionary Love” for this upcoming November’s meeting has become an important example of such concern, resulting in voiced concerns from the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), a much smaller academic society that holds it’s annual meeting in connection with the AAR and a society dedicated to method and theory approaches to the study of religion. Below is a link to the concerns raised by the President of NAASR (Russell McCutcheon [University of Alabama]) along with a follow-up letter from Tim Jensen (President of the International Association for the History of Religions) (and this is relevant as the AAR is a member society of the IAHR).

Rather than re-posting these letters, I encourage readers to go to the NAASR website and read them directly. There was also a series of responses from various scholars reacting to this theme on the blog site of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Here is the NAASR link:

https://naasr.com/2016/08/23/update-on-responses-to-the-aar-annual-conference-theme-for-2016/

I am fully in agreement with the concerns raised by both McCutcheon and Jensen, but I also want to stress that what we are seeing is a process of identity construction. What constitutes an “academic study of religion”? Does the metaphor of an umbrella–or set of umbrellas–resolve the tensions felt by members who have competing claims to normative identity, or does the metaphor add to that very tension by evoking an underlying value system of methodological pluralism? As we consider such questions, the answers we find (and perhaps put forth ourselves) are acts of self-authenticity; i.e., we engage in social acts of delimiting (and yes expanding a boundary is just as much an act of delimitation as contract a boundary) a social sphere to what we, as social actors, consider authentic or real. What is “real” scholarship? Does it include protesting for labor rights (something we struggled with regarding another annual meeting a few years back), fighting social injustice, protecting religious traditions, determining what the essence of a tradition is, making truth claims about supernatural and/or moral beliefs? Or do (some of) these–no matter how good or valuable–belong to other social spheres?

As I’ve said in earlier blog posts, to draw a boundary is an act of power (establishing, contesting, undermining, shifting, reinforcing, obscuring) by social actors. The debate over the AAR’s 2016 annual theme, from all sides, is one of such boundary construction and boundary maintenance. Yes, for me I think that “Revolutionary Love” as a conference theme is as problematic for an academic society studying human phenomena classed as “religion” or “religious” in some sense, as is a theme on “Love, Prayer, and Hope.” Such themes nicely contribute to a prayer and mediation retreat, but not for a professional academic conference (and, furthermore, such moves within the AAR help undermine the theoretical and methodological work that should be going on in such a professional academic setting). They are just two different spheres of interaction.

So in a sense, what is at stake here–and all boundary drawing evokes “stakes”–is the self-definitional question: Who are we as a profession? Indeed, what is an academic profession? And who has the moral authority to make such judgments? Or is it all a matter of relative choice? Such concerns, debates, and back-and-forth has been a significant component of the academic study of religion since at least the 19th century and especially from the 1960s onward. And the questions are just as pertinent today as it was fifty or a hundred years ago–because what is at stake for all social actors involved is the very future direction of religious studies as an academic field of study.

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).

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Of Gods and beasts and Stranger Things

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by Tyler Tully

Stranger Things, the Netflix television series of the summer, has captivated audiences with its imaginative storytelling and nostalgic nods to the paranormal thrillers of the 1980’s. The show’s originators, the Duff brothers, originally envisioned the series under the title of “Montauk”–a real town in Long Island that coincidentally inspired the fictional location of “Amity” in Spielberg’s Jaws. Montauk, however, is also associated with Camp Hero (aka Montauk Air Force Base) and the Brookhaven National Laboratory; locations that allegedly served as sites for clandestine psychokinetic experiments that involved kidnapped test subjects, according to some. Although the Duff brothers would later change the name and setting of what would eventually become Stranger Things, its plot still involves these eerie subjects.

Like many others, I have been binge watching this superb series as of late, but with a careful eye towards its themes of kidnapping, experimentation, and (yes) even religion. Below I’ll attempt to tease out some of the obvious (and not so obvious) motifs I’ve discovered that revolve around the children of Stranger Things.

After a long night of playing Dungeons and Dragons with his trio of besties, Will Byers (a “sensitive” and “special” boy by all accounts) suddenly goes missing in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. Yet as the series develops, this child seems to represent more than just the missing son of a single working-class mom (played by Winona Ryder). The heart of Stranger Things revolves around its cast of children as they propel the plot forward in their search for Will.

The plotline of Stranger Things is foreshadowed in an early sequence where Will, Dustin, and Lucas are completing a marathon D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) session hosted by Mike (acting as dungeon master) who orchestrates a perilous encounter with a demon known as the “Demogorgon” in D&D mythology. Under pressure from the attack, Will accidentally tosses the dice past the playing board and onto the floor where they fall hidden somewhere within Mike’s basement. The boys scurry about in search of the dice when Mike’s mom suddenly appears to tell them it’s time for everyone to pack up the game and go home.

Childlike wonder and encounters with the supernatural are common throughout the series, where the audience follows along with Lucas, Dustin, and Mike in their search for Will who disappears later that evening. Whether in naming the area near Will’s home as “Mirkwood Forest” or by referring to any turncoat as a “Lando Calrissian,” the show’s three (nerdy) boys often interpret the real world around them using the lens of their “sacred” texts. As children, they are forbidden by adults to meddle in the grander affairs of their world, (e.g. the disappearance of Will) and like mere mortals, the children are mostly powerless in the face of these forces. Yet they are also free to interpret them–to make meaning out of their ordinary encounters with the supernatural world as they understand them.

Encounters with the supernatural abound in Stranger Things.

While the boys are searching for Will in the woods one evening, they stumble across “Eleven”–a quiet and mysterious girl who escapes from the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory (a top secret location run by the US Department of Energy). From the moment she arrives on the scene, it is clear that Eleven is from a different world and completely out of place in rural Indiana. Scared, but in need of shelter, Eleven covertly returns with the boys to Mike’s basement, where she reveals a bit of her true identity. There, she recognizes Will from a photograph and reveals his hidden location to the boys who are eager to find him.

Clandestine government projects, such as MKUltra and those allegedly associated with Montauk, are intimately connected to Eleven’s past. As the plot develops, the audience sees that Eleven was subjected to all sorts of abusive experiments that exploited her paranormal powers. During one such experiment, Eleven punctured a rift in space-time, thereby making it possible for an otherworldly monster to cross into their reality. To communicate this complex situation to the boys, Eleven uses their common mythologies, referring to the otherworldly monster as the “Demogorgon.” Taking the D&D game board and flipping it upside down, Eleven demonstrates that Will has been kidnapped by the Demogorgon and is in hiding in this “upside down” dimension.

“El,” as she is affectionately referred to by Mike (aka Michael = “Who is like El?” in Biblical Hebrew) harbours awesome god-like powers. In the ancient Near East, “El” (or ‘Al) could generally refer to any god or the god depending upon the context. While the “El” of Stranger Things may have a few things in common with the ancient Semitic deity (association with water, mighty powers, and name recognition), both “Els” bring “death” into the world (so to speak) and both do battle with a beastly, “creeping” monster in the “underworld.”

Of interest to me (as it relates to my own doctoral research) remain the similarities between the show’s laboratory exploitation and power broking from a religious studies perspective. According to the ancients, El (and other deities) were associated with the practice of child sacrifice–especially during times of national crisis and war (Cold War anyone?). As Kimberely Patton has pointed out, victims of ritualized sacrifice in the ancient world were chosen as such precisely because of their perceived connection to the holy and supernatural–a theme that is something akin to that popular saying, “only the good die young” (Barb!?!)

All of which brings me to Eleven’s association with Will and the theme of child sacrifice in Stranger Things. El escapes from the lab almost exactly at the same time as Will disappears, even as she disappears near the time Will is brought back. Both are children and innocent, “special,” and “different.” And it is through Will and El that the trio of boys make meaning of their powerless situation even as they are divided in their loyalties to El while searching for Will. Fascinating too remains the ways in which the boys conduct experiments with El, who they cannot manipulate but depend upon nevertheless.

Whether intentional or not, perhaps the Duffer brothers have also taken timeless truths and communicated them to us using our own common (if nerdy) mythologies.

Tyler M. Tully is an American writer, graduate student, and theologue whose work has been featured in local and national news sources including Real Clear Religion and Al Jazeera America. In 2016, Tully was offered the Arthur Peacocke Graduate Studentship in Theology at Oxford’s Exeter College for research at the intersection of science and religion. A graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University with a BA in Religious Studies and Theology, Tyler later earned a Master of Divinity with the Chicago Theological Seminary. Starting in October 2016, Tully will begin the Doctor of Philosophy in Theology and Religious Studies course at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Donovan O. Schaefer. Tully’s research interests are at the intersection of critical theories on race.

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Get a Load of Canada’s “Super Hot” Prime Minister!

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by Matt Sheedy

I recently came across the following political ad (pictured above) from the Conservative Party of Canada in my Facebook feed. The image features a (not unflattering) photo of the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, with a caption reading:

Last seen wandering shirtless in the BC wilderness looking for photo opportunities.

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The immediate context for this political barb comes from two recent incidents, separated by only a few days, where Trudeau was photographed topless among the general public. The first incident occurred in Gatineau Quebec, where a young family out on a hike encountered a topless Trudeau emerging from Lusk Cave while on an outing with his own family. The Prime Minister posed for a selfie-style photo with the couple’s young son (pictured right), which quickly went viral.

The second incident took place on a beach in Tofino, British Columbia, where a smiling Trudeau was spotted standing to the side of a wedding party, which he had apparently stumbled upon while surfing in the area.

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The satirical website The Beaverton (Canada’s answer to The Onion) also made hay of the first of these encounters, with a piece entitled: “Justin Trudeau waits in dark cave for attractive enough family to walk past.” This was followed a few days later with another satirical piece that made light of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s lack of charisma and sex appeal with a headline reading: “Shirtless Stephen Harper photobombs Calgary couple’s wedding: 5 dead.” Not to be outdone, Trudeau posed for a photo atop of Signal Hill in St. John’s, NFLD, with a local comedian standing topless behind him (pictured below).

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I’ve long been interested in the performative nature of Justin Trudeau, who first became a member of parliament in 2008 in the riding of Papineau in Montreal. Before that time, he was a fixture in the national imagination as the oldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was arguably the first celebrity head of state in the county’s history, having dated Barbara Streisand and Margot Kidder (of Superman fame), while his partner, Margaret Sinclair (Justin’s mother), had a well-known affair with Ted Kennedy, The Rolling Stone’s Ron Wood, and possibly Mick Jagger.

In 2000, Justin delivered an animated eulogy at his father’s funeral, attended by the likes of Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro, which gained him praise around the country, with speculation even then that he might become Prime Minister one day. This speculation morphed into a near fait accompli when Trudeau became a member of parliament, where the speculative ‘if’ turned into a question of ‘when.’ Once Trudeau won the leadership race for head of the Liberal Party in April of 2013, a barrage of Conservative attack-ads continued apace until his election, with the oft-repeated slogan, “Justin, he’s just not ready.” In the end, Justin’s charisma and good looks, along with the dynastic narrative that he helped to cultivate, won the day.

In addition to this abbreviated history leading up to the recent topless encounters, some of Trudeau’s better-known viral performances include:

Reflecting on these and other performances by Canada’s “super hot” Prime Minister, I was reminded of an earlier post on this site by Tenzan Eaghll. Entitled, “A Plea to Critique the Pope’s Pity,” Eaghll’s piece opens with the following remarks:

Since the election of Pope Francis I in March, 2013, the media has effectively given the Pope a free pass on account of his acts of pity. Bathing him in unquestioning acceptance, news agencies around the world have whole-heartily embraced the new pious Pope, and it is near impossible to find one critical article on him.

Much the same can be said for Trudeau. Apart from critics within Canada who see him as a symbol for what is wrong with the Liberal Party (e.g., the image of a ‘tax and spend’ ‘bleeding heart’ from many on the right, and as a neo-liberal centrist from many on the left), his reputation on the world stage seems to be one of glowing praise. Unlike Pope Francis, Trudeau’s good looks and charm account for much of his appeal, though his performative acts of compassion or pity seem to make up a significant part of his persona, which leads me to another facet of Eaghll’s argument:

Due to his acts of pity, Francis is presented in the media as a man channeling the sui generis quality of religion that is independent of politics and cultural difference. This is the danger of pity.

In a similar fashion, Trudeau’s media persona helps to channel a sui generis quality of Canada—e.g., as polite, welcoming, apologetic, safe, tolerant, progressive, and peaceful–through the projection of an image that often carries the weight and even the presumed ‘essence’ of those who assume this national identity. Contrapuntal narratives are rarely seen, save for the occasional bit of satire as with the following Beaverton piece, “Reconciliation: Trudeau shares 30 seconds of intense eye contact with every First Nations person.” The post goes on to read:

OTTAWA – After nearly 150 years of colonialism and cultural genocide, Canada is mending fences by granting every First Nations person in the country 30 seconds of intimate eye-contact with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. …

Although the Trudeau government has made relatively few changes to outdated existing Aboriginal policy, sources on reserves say the eye-contact has completely changed how they feel about it.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Trudeau is insincere, as he seems like a decent person whose performances have not only helped to project a more friendly image of Canada on the world stage than in recent years, but have also had tangible effects on certain marginalized communities, as when he lashed out against the former Harper government’s preference for non-Muslims Syrian refugees and their attacks on women who wear the niqab, calling it “disgusting.” Trudeau’s rapid resettling of 25,000 Syrian refugees shortly after assuming office provides an example of rhetoric that was matched by actual policy. There is also an argument to be made that Canada is currently one of the more progressive nations in the West, especially with a spate of far right parties gaining traction in much of Europe, to say nothing of the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. But when it comes to the performance of Trudeau and the image that he projects, questions of sincerity are beside the point.

Assessing sincerity is not, generally speaking, a measurable scholarly aim, at least not for those who are interested in analyzing the social effects of charismatic figures, religious or otherwise, in terms of categories like affect, nationalism, ideology, and identity construction. One again, Eaghll offers a useful point of comparison with Pope Francis:

What is so worrying about this warmhearted embrace of the new Pope by the media is that not 12 months ago the Papacy was awash in controversy and scandal. Twelve months ago, if the Pope was in the headlines it wasn’t for washing the feet of a Muslim woman or an impromptu phone call to his dentist, but due to clerical paedophilia, leaked Vatican documents, widespread nepotism and corruption, or controversial claims about the Vatican’s tax affairs. All that now seems to be forgotten and the Pope’s pity has seemingly rendered these affairs inconsequential, or at the very least made them seem to be a thing of the past.

In a similar fashion, 12 months ago Canada was awash in intense controversy over its then-ruling government’s Islamophobia, its hawkish foreign policy, its secretive and controlling dealings with the media and in parliament, and its pariah status on climate change on the international stage (to name just a few things). All of this, too, seems to be forgotten, or, perhaps, it wasn’t paid much attention to outside of the country while it was happening in favour of maintaining more long-standing myths about Canada, which I’ve written about in a previous post entitled, “Beer, ‘Myth,’ and Canadian Identity.”

What is perhaps most interesting about Trudeau from the perspective of a critical theory of religion, is that he provides an instance of how popular images and representations can do a fair bit of work in projecting a quality or essence about certain nation-states or religious groups, which then comes to function on a affective level that often dominates the discourse about them (think Islam and ISIS) and guides the narratives that shape the boundaries of what see and feel as ‘real.’

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.

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World Religions, American Religions, the Object of Study, and an Ode to Bruce Lincoln

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by Charles McCrary

This post originally appeared, in a slightly different version, at the group blog Religion in American History.

This year I’ve been teaching “world religions” for the first time. I knew I would be required to do it at some point, and I dreaded it. My position was familiar and wholly unoriginal: Religion doesn’t exist; it has no essence. The word wouldn’t even make sense to any of our non-Western and/or pre-modern subjects. It is a recent invention, a product of what has been largely an imperialist, colonialist, racist project. Less insidious but just as dissuasive, many world religions textbooks are $120 assemblages of Wikipedia articles couched in thinly veiled liberal Protestant theology. At any rate, the discourse of “world religions” is something we can and should study—and, as Mike Graziano recently pointed out, we can study it in the context of American history. But it’s not something we engage in.

Nevertheless, we have classes called “world religions.” Some institutions still call theirs something like “religion in the human experience.” So, how can we teach these classes in ideologically and methodologically responsible ways? Should we teach only a history of World Religions discourse itself—a meta-history? This is a viable option. Equipped with histories like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, intellectual frameworks from Wendy Brown and Russell McCutcheon, and maybe a few methodological tools from Foucault or Marx, students can use their textbook as a primary source, historicizing it and interrogating its normative assumptions. This would make for a good class. But I fear I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to accept total failure that this task would require, as I address a room full of students who are not well prepared for critical thinking and quite hesitant to give it a try. (Also, I know that “millennials” are supposedly marked by their ironic self-awareness, but that mood is characteristically absent from large portions of the demographic. My students resoundingly hate anything “meta.”) So what can we do?

Last semester I sat in on a seminar co-taught by Nicole Kelley and Matt Day designed to answer this very question. Is there any responsible and defensible way to talk about “religion” that identifies it, even if hesitantly and provisionally, as a thing in the world? If anyone can do it—and help us do it—it’s Bruce Lincoln. I read Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society in my first few weeks of grad school, and it remains one of the most influential books for my work. What I failed until recently to understand, though, was that Lincoln provides us with a framework for using “religious” as an analytic term (an undertaking of which I was once pretty churlishly dismissive.)

This semester my world religions class began with a close reading of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” and we cribbed from it—supplemented by selections from Discourse and Authority—our definition of religion: “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.” We also find a definition of our job: “History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.” Their first assignment was to rewrite this thesis in their own words. The course has thus transpired, like many of Lincoln’s books, as a series of historical studies of people utilizing religious discourse, with close attention to what is at stake in their use of that discourse.

Aside: Last weekend, we had the pleasure of welcoming Bruce Lincoln to Florida State as the keynote speaker for our annual Graduate Student Symposium, directed by Andy McKee. Because I was nervous and have nothing interesting to say, I didn’t meet Dr. Lincoln, but I’ll remember his visit for a long time. His keynote address, “A Seventeenth-Century Werewolf and the Drama of Religious Resistance,” was an excellent example of the way a close textual reading in context can produce microhistories that demonstrate broader societal trends. He illustrated how “religious resistance” is a particular strategy of the dominated wherein they use the authoritative logic and vocabulary of the dominators, but modify its orientation or moral implications. I could say more about this, but I understand it was recorded and should be available soon. You should watch/listen to it. At a roundtable discussion also featuring Matt Day and Cara Burnidge, Lincoln spoke with an openness and even vulnerability that I have never seen from someone of his stature. It was an amazing display of conceptual precision, methodological integrity, and yet generosity. I’ll stop the ode here, since reverence “is a religious, not a scholarly virtue.”

While these issues have been most apparent for me when teaching world religions, I’ve started to consider their relevance for my own research, too. The problem of world religions extends to “American religions” as well, as Mike Altman argued on the Religion in American History blog last year. While I’m sympathetic to Mike’s point of view (and I did try to offer a solution based on the constitution of publics, but I suppose I ended up taking step one, as outlined here), perhaps Lincoln can help us salvage the project of talking about American religions, not just American “religions.” Of course, we all should be very aware of how the term itself is manufactured, employed, and policed, but if we use Lincoln’s framework, perhaps we can identify discourse and discursive communities that we would deem “religious” in defensible scholarly acts of classification. Surely, ideological persuasion by appeals to transcendent authority has been a common feature of American history. And certainly we can historicize these moves by identifying the various sorts of capital at stake. I think this could be a satisfying theoretical delineation of my field—its “object of study,” religion in American history. I suspect it could help others as well, including those working in the modern West.

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