Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Bruce Woll

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

by Bruce Woll

My wife has asked me for years why my experience of the Ph.D. process at the University of Chicago was so different from many other students she has met. My answer has always been the same: “Jonathan Z. Smith.” Smith made the experience an adventure instead of an ordeal. In the almost fifty years since I met him in 1968 he has been one of my most important intellectual fathers.

The first lecture I heard when I came to Chicago in 1968, was the first, or one of the first, lectures Smith gave when he arrived that fall. I had never heard of him and chose the course because of the topic, Hellenistic Religions. My response to that lecture was instant and unreserved. I went up to him immediately afterward and asked if he would be my dissertation adviser. “Sure,” he said.

He turned out to be just what I was looking for, namely, someone who came to the subject matter as an historian without any theological axe to grind, but passionately committed to what I have come to call the responsible exercise of cognitive power. He was also a historian not only equipped to talk about the factoids of history but to think historically, concretely, materially, as well as philosophically, imaginatively and scrupulously, about the whole range of human experience, cutting across all of the disciplinary boundaries that had turned biblical studies into a patchwork of isolated silos of expertise.

A year after that first conversation, I went in to talk with him about selecting a dissertation topic. His response was clear and simple. The topic had to be something I was interested in, and I had to be able to handle the relevant materials. That was it. I felt something take hold inside, the beginnings of excitement. That moment set the tone for the rest of my program. Jonathan was a conscientious adviser from beginning to end.  After I finished and left behind formal studies of religion I continued to read everything he published.

Looking back on that conversation about a dissertation topic in light of what I subsequently learned about how loaded the word “interest” is for Smith (“something in which one has a stake, … which places one at risk, … for which one is willing to pay some price”) I know that was the moment he was inviting me into the collaborative adventure of thinking for myself, with him, about something that really mattered. I poured myself into the effort to interpret the Gospel of John as writing that was a product of its complex time and place in that world of Hellenistic Religions. My dissertation, the outcome of that work, was later published by Scholars Press as Johannine Christianity in Conflict: Authority, Rank, and Succession in the First Farewell Discourse.

Many years later, the week after the disastrous 2004 presidential election, I was reading “When the Chips are Down,” the first chapter in Smith’s just-published collection of articles, Relating Religion. One of the persistent preoccupations he traces through this biobibliogaphical essay is “thinking” and its cognitive power. Near the end of the essay I read a sentence that stopped me in my tracks, excited all over again: “Religion is the relentlessly human activity of thinking through a ‘situation.'” “That’s it,” I thought. “That connection between thinking and religion is the reason I have never stopped reading him.”

I was thrilled with a notion of religion that was so precisely the opposite of the one being paraded at the time by the re-elected President’s “faith-based” decision-making. I was also thrilled with the implication that seemed clear to me, even though I wasn’t completely clear about what the sentence meant: everything he wrote about religion had some bearing, however minor, on thinking, its “liveliness,” fascination, exhilaration, vigor, playfulness, imaginativeness, humor and potentially far-reaching consequences.

I realized too, as I began rereading Smith’s writings with an eye to the notion of cognitive power, that his work is important not just to students of religion but to a wider public faced with widespread, powerful notions of religion as an alternative to thought and now faced with a politics that is bent on a war against thought. We are living at a time when the need for us to think/act together about ourselves, our nation, and our world has rarely been more urgent. What I have learned from Smith is the “iron law” of democratic citizen responsibility, as co-representatives of the body politic. I will always be grateful to Smith for the gift of trusting me to join him in that ultimately political work.

Bruce Woll was born, raised, and educated in a variety of American fundamentalisms, spent three years at Tubingen University (1965 to 1968), making his way through Rudolf Bultmann’s magnificent commentary on John, reading as much of his other work as he could, and attending lectures by Ernst Kasemann, before coming to Chicago. He spent twenty-five years working in the IT industry, during which time he was also studying and writing about the politics of the new digital world. Woll earned a D.Ed. from Northern Illinois University in 1997. His unpublished dissertation was a theoretical critique of technocratic myth based on the early writings of Bruno Latour. Woll retired in 2011 and continues with his intellectual pursuits.

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So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Eoin O’Mahony


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 Eoin O’Mahony

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

I used to work for Ireland’s Catholic bishops. In an Irish context, where well over 80% of the population actively ticks the Roman Catholic box on the census, many thought that this meant access to political power. The Republic has no state church but it might as well have had. Since independence in 1922, the level of collusion in healthcare and education between government and the Catholic bishops was so great it may as well have been the established church. In 2006, fresh out of another workplace where bullying was widespread, I applied for a job as a social researcher. I saw this job in the newspaper and it looked like something, as a social scientist, I could do. I needed a job. About six months after I started it, part of which was to work alongside Catholic priests, I stopped wearing black or grey shirts to work. Priests thought I was a priest.

At the time I looked at that in one of two ways: they think enough of me that they see something of their life in this younger man. (I was 33 when I started, the average age of Irish Catholic priests is somewhere north of 55.) In a work environment that was far more supportive than my previous job, this seemed flattering. After all, being a priest while working for their bosses, the bishops of Ireland, must seem like the natural order of things. As time went on in the job however, I came to question the implication that being articulate and organised meant I could only have been a priest. Many of the Catholic priests I met on the job were educated at a time when only the smartest boys got to become priests. Their own life path was perhaps characterised by being articulate and organised at school and they were encouraged to think about being a priest by the generation of priests before them. I, on the other hand, had learned how to listen by virtue of my training as a good qualitative interviewer. Perhaps many of the priests who asked me if I was one of them did not know that listening skills come from many sources. I left the job in 2015, but reconciled myself to clerical recognition.

Beyond the job, working as I was on a doctoral thesis about the landscape of Catholic practice in Ireland, many assumed I had a Dan Brown-esque knowledge of the inner workings of Mother Church. At some stage of a social gathering, people would usually ask what I did for a living. I told them that I worked for the Catholic bishops as a researcher. Many didn’t know how to react; it often led to indifference and not curiosity. As opaque as the organisational structures were for me within the job, for many Irish people, Catholic or not, working for the Catholic Bishops Conference meant you were maybe a priest or an unthinking apologist for homophobia. The information I had presented them with had very little context in a society undergoing a profound readjustment to the institutional church after years of abuse revelations. Many merely didn’t know what to do with the information that I Work For The Bishops. In this job, I designed, coordinated, and reported on research projects. I facilitated focus groups and analysed multinational datasets using specialised software. To this day I believe that some thought we sat around thinking up ways to annoy women and LGBT people.

Particularly during the time of my doctoral fieldwork, examining pilgrimage, Marian statues, and denominational education, I came to develop a thicker skin to the question So You Are Not a Priest? If you are at all interested in religious studies in Ireland, particularly so from a Catholic background, most assume you are a devout and practising Catholic. In many minds I was the first in line for receiving the Host and dismissive of whatever notion of secularity they defined themselves by. I happen to think that this close identification comes not from something intrinsically invidious about Catholicism in Ireland. It comes from a sense that to believe as a Catholic in Ireland is, at least conversationally, about being a particular type of person. The closer you got to the centre of Church life, the more orthodox and unwavering you were. Proximity mattered and I worked in this formless, unknown stone building on a university campus. It is a characterisation of the life of a Catholic as defined by orthodoxy and unwavering support for church teaching.

Since finishing the job in Maynooth, I have tried to carve out a new job path for myself. Teaching geography at university is rewarding to me and I hope to be able to continue to do so. Outside employment of the Catholic Bishops, work is less secure and subject to a precariousness that would not be tolerated were I to actually have joined the priesthood. Academic life, coming as it does from clerical scholarship, has its own rituals and rites. It also has a profound sense of itself as thoroughly soaked in a defined secularism. I cannot be a geographer of religious practice and landscape in Ireland so I have to become another type of scholar in geography. There are no jobs for geography of religion scholars in the land of Saints and Scholars. Religious studies is obscure, more so in a self-consciously defined secular space as a university where studying religion means you are religious. So I need to become interested in secular things: cities, spatial justice, housing policy. To maintain an interest in religious studies professionally maybe means buying the grey and black shirts again.

Eoin O’Mahony holds a PhD. from the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.

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Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Mitsutoshi Horii

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

by Mitsutoshi Horii

My disciplinary background is in Sociology, and I have also written on the topic of Religious Studies. I often feel there is some distance between these two academic disciplines, which I have to constantly jump across. But this would be nothing compared to the cross-disciplinary journey of the late Jonathan Z. Smith. In an interview in 2008, Smith stated: “I started off originally in grass breeding.”

I often wonder about my own academic identity, sometimes aimlessly moving between Sociology, Religious Studies, and Japanese Studies: Where do I belong? The story of Smith’s enormous cross-disciplinary jump, however, gives me comfort.

I completed my PhD in Sociology at a university in the UK towards the end of 2005. My thesis was on the de-professionalization of Buddhist priests in contemporary Japan. At that time I took for granted the conceptualization of Japanese Buddhism as a ‘religion,’ and the academic discipline of sociology as ‘secular.’ This assumption was implicit throughout my PhD thesis. Immediately after the completion of my PhD, I came across Timothy Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies. It was in my reading of this book that I first encountered Jonathan Z. Smith.

Fitzgerald’s book shook the conceptual foundation upon which I had stood until that point, and made me realize that the religious-secular distinction is an ideological construction – making such a distinction is a classificatory practice. As a student of Sociology, I studied Emile Durkheim and Mary Douglas, for example, who turned the issue of classification into the object of analysis. I believe most undergraduate students in Sociology learn that racial categories (such as ‘Black,’ ‘White,’ ‘Yellow,’ and the like) are social constructs. However, I realized that most sociologists seemed to regard ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ as the natural order of things.

In the process of my post-PhD exploration on the critical studies of the religious-secular distinction (known as ‘critical religion’), I frequently came across references to Jonathan Z. Smith’s work. In particular, his famous essay ‘Religion, Religious, Religions’ has been one of the foundational texts to which I still return. Other works I came across include Imagining Religion and Map is not Territory.

As a non-specialist in religion, whose main focus tends to be on Japan and social theories, I have found some of Smith’s texts impenetrable. However, some of his more general remarks scattered across his works have often been sources of inspiration to me. The inspiration that I took away from Smith may not have be his intention when he composed these words, and I believe Smith might not agree with my more deconstructionist approach to the concept of ‘religion.’ Nevertheless, here are some examples.

In the opening paragraph of Imagining Religion, Smith claims: “man, more precisely western man, has had only the last few centuries in which to imagine religion.” (xi) Then he continues:

Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy. (xi)

These sentences remind me that ‘religion’ is a scholarly construction. It has also made me wonder whether the term ‘religion’ would be useful to analyze the everyday social world of ordinary people outside of academia. People outside of academia generally know the word ‘religion,’ which generates a multiplicity of meanings in different discursive fields within their social world. Meanings of ‘religion’ in this context would often differ from the one constructed in academia. Here I pose a question: Is the scholarly concept of religion useful to analyze everyday social reality?

Smith seems to provide us with an interesting answer to this question. At the very end of Map is not Territory, he states:

… we may have to relax some of our cherished notions of significance and seriousness. We may have to become initiated by the other whom we study and undergo the ordeal of incongruity. For we have often missed what is humane in the other by the very seriousness of our quest. We need to reflect on and play with the necessary incongruity of our maps before we set out on a voyage of discovery to chart the worlds of other men. For the dictum of Alfred Korzybski is inescapable: “Map is not territory” – but maps are all we have. (309)

The scholarly notion of religion is part of the conceptual map widely shared by academics. This is all that we have. It may guide us to a destination, but it is often useless for us to explore the area of investigation. We may have to rely on local knowledge, or get a more detailed map from a local specialist. We should not hang on to the map we brought with us from the modern West. We should stop trying to understand the area with that modern Western map. If we keep using that map, our understanding of the area can be distorted, or we may get lost. What we should commit ourselves to is not the map, but the expedition.

I am originally from Japan, and I came to the UK for my university education. I then went back to Japan to carry out fieldwork for my PhD. By that time, I had been carrying with me the modern Western scholarly conceptual map, which is embedded with the religious-secular distinction. This was all that I had at that time. However, as Smith suggests, I gradually learned to “reflect on and play with the necessary incongruity” caused by my own map. For example, there are discrepancies between the sociological meaning of ‘religion’ and what the same term means in the Japanese colloquial discourse. My post-PhD study in ‘critical religion’ interrogates the scholarly concept of religion, and now my forthcoming book The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2018) problematizes the serious attachment amongst scholars of Japanese religions to the concept of religion as a category of analysis. I have taken Smith’s remarks as if he is telling me to ‘relax’ my attachment to my modern Western scholarly map. It is useful to guide me up to a certain point, but useless to go further. Of course, as Smith says, my own conceptual map is all that I have. When one’s map does not make sense, however, you have to ask for local knowledge (e.g., learning emic classifications on their own terms). If it is available, we should get a new more detailed and nuanced map to navigate more effectively in a way that is more rooted to the local culture in quesiton. In this process, we may have to abandon the category ‘religion.’ I believe that this intellectual flexibility is essential, most especially, for cross-cultural explorations.

Mitsutoshi Horii is an associate professor at Shumei University in Japan. He works as Shumei’s representative at Chaucer College Canterbury, which is Shumei’s overseas campus in the UK. His previous research was in sociology of risk and uncertainty. His more recent research critically examines the religious-secular distinction in Japan and Western sociological theory. His forthcoming book, The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan: Shūkyō and Temple Buddhism will be published in the summer of 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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


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

by Adam J. Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Adam Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Anna Cwikla

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

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

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

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

I take a big sip of beer and brace myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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