Studying Religion in the Age of a ‘White-Lash’

by Tenzan Eaghll

On the evening of November 9, 2016, as Trump’s victory over Clinton seemed inevitable, CNN commentator Van Jones made a statement that would prove true not only about the results at the polls, but the many things to come in the realm of politics, philosophy, and even theory in the academic study of religion. Almost holding back tears, Van Jones said, “this was a white-lash, this was a white-lash against a changing  country, it was a white-lash against a black president….”

Since election night almost two years ago, the data has most certainly shown Van Jones to be correct about the vote—Trump won the white vote 57% to Clinton’s 37%—but he was also proven right by the policies and appointments that Trump has put forth, which have obviously not only supported white conservative interests but fueled white nationalism and the alt-right.

Now, this is not a post about Trump, so I don’t want to dwell on any of these facts, but I just mention them in passing because I want to talk about the deeper conservative trend that has accompanied this political white-lash and how it relates to religious studies. What really concerns me in this post is therefore not how or why the white-lash occurred, but how it relates to theory in our field and what we can do moving forward.

In terms of popular philosophy—and I hesitate to even use the latter word to describe this man—Jordan Peterson has rocketed to stardom since the election of Trump, and interest in his work has also been fueled by the insurgence of white nationalism and the alt-right. At the time of the election in 2016 Peterson was certainly well known in Youtube and other online circles, but it is really over the last year and a half that he has gone stratospheric, with the New York Times recently calling him “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”

As most readers of this blog will know, Peterson got his initial notoriety for refusing  to use gender neutral pronouns, as required by bill C-16, which is an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code that protects gender expression and gender identity. However, since the controversy from that affair, he has published a New York Times bestselling book which has attempted to rebrand him as a more mainline conservative self-help guru.

The common factor in both Trump’s and Peterson’s rhetoric is an appeal to the natural greatness of “Western civilization.” For Trump, this greatness is specifically located in and through American domination—hence the slogan of his campaign, ‘MAGA’—and his constant attacks on all immigrant groups which threaten white Christian domination, both nationally and globally. For Peterson, the greatness of “Western (Christian) civilization” is located through its myths and hierarchies, as he thinks these myths preserve the world from chaos—hence the subtitle of his book, 12 Rules For life: An Antidote to Chaos. For both Trump and Peterson, therefore, there is an appeal to a sort of natural trait inherent to Western civilization that makes it great, but each have different visions of ensuring the continued dominance of this greatness and different enemies that they attack for challenging it. Whereas Trump attacks immigrants and other alien forces that threaten his view of American sovereignty, Peterson attacks cultural relativism, Marxism, and postmodern theory for threatening the sanctity of Western myths and values. In the rhetoric of both, however, there is an appeal to a time in the past when (white) Western (male) dominance wasn’t challenged, politically or culturally, by the rights of minorities, females, gender diversity, or other forms of social difference. Again, the common theme here is an appeal to certain traits from our past, either ethnically (as is most often the case with Trump) or even biologically (as is sometimes the case with Peterson), which can be linked to the outdated ideas of trait theory.

In terms of religious studies theory, I think both Trump and Peterson provide a wonderful example of what Russell McCutcheon called the politics of nostalgia’ in Manufacturing Religion. In that bookMcCutcheon was primarily concerned with critiquing sui generis claims about the essential uniqueness of religion, but his overall point about how these claims are connected to the politics of nostalgia overlaps nicely with a critique of the current white-lash we are experiencing, politically and philosophically. After all, the politics of nostalgia doesn’t just refer to sui generis claims about religion, but any ideological appeal to an essentialist vision of the past. As McCutcheon writes, “The politics of nostalgia, therefore, denotes an ideological position in which, for example, things purportedly archaic are unilaterally prevalued as essential and beneficial, becoming the norm against which other social arrangements and forms of human behavior are judged and found wanting” (33-34). At a general level, the politics of nostalgia stresses archaic myths as normative for the present, and this is what we see with both Trump and Peterson (and also what McCutcheon found in the work of Mircea Eliade). The rejection of the present by these thinkers, whether it be in an effort to make America great again or to fight ‘postmodern chaos,’ is an attempt to secure the sui generis traits of the West—as they respectively define them—above all else.

This conservative trend in politics and popular philosophy is therefore nothing new to religious studies scholars, as we have known that the politics of nostalgia is a major cultural and scholarly concern for some time now, but it is quite shocking how resurgent it is after all the theoretical developments over the past several decades. Trump and Peterson, after all, are merely the two most glaring examples from the numerous far-right politicians and conservative cultural theorists who our dominating public discourse right now, reviving old debates about equal rights, cultural diversity, and the need for basic economic oppertunity that I thought had been settled years ago. In fact, it seems like we are having to re-debate whether the politics of nostalgia is even a problem, which seems kind of insane to someone like myself whose whole education was centered around critiquing it. Yet here we are, and some major ‘scientific’ academics are even jumping on the bandwagon, once again attempting to define the religious nature of man like the old 19thCentury anthropologists from which our discipline emerged.

Pedagogically, what all this implies is that we need to get back to basics and teach students how to critique sui generis claims, whether they be classified as political, philosophical, or religious. I think that over the last decade we have let our defenses down a little bit and have been willing to explore ways to creatively re-imagine the study of religion, but in light of all the attacks on cultural difference, postmodern literary theory, and the return to essentialist or positivist theories of religion, it is painfully evident how much work remains to be done to deconstruct privileged narratives in popular culture. For a while it seemed that after the wave of deconstruction in the 90’s we were entering into a new creative period in the field, and that our duty was to recreate the study of religion from the ground up—and as some have recently suggested, to rebuild the humanities in creative non-critical ways—but I think this is wrongheaded. What is needed is not a reconstruction of the field, or the humanities at large, but continued critical work to deconstruct suigenerisclaims which privilege unified and autonomous phenomenon, no matter whether it be defined in political, philosophical, or religious terms. As Malory Nye recently argued in an article for Implicit Religion, there is no real end to the deconstruction of religion—and religion doesn’t need to be ‘reconstructed’ after its deconstruction. Rather, what is needed is further critical and ideological analysis of issues such as race, class, gender, etc., as these are the political strategies that lay concealed in all hegemonic sui generis claims.

In very practical terms, a good example of what this implies can actually be found in Nye’s recent article for Method and Theory in the Study of Religion,Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness.” In this piece, and in his blogs on the subject, Nye calls attention to how suigenerisclaims about religion are not only linked to issues of race and power, but how the category “religion” itself is “a form of racialization.” This insight can be particularly powerful for addressing a number of political, philosophical, and theoretical issues because it illustrates how anything from Trump’s appeal to ‘Make America Great Again,’ Peterson’s triumphant endorsement of the myths of Western culture, and scholarly attempts to locate the suigeneristraits of religion, whether in theological or positivist terms, can all be subjected to a very clear ideological critique. Moreover, it opens a host of theoretical and methodological questions that can be applied to other areas of study in the social sciences and humanities, from Political Science to Film Studies.

In all these ways, I think the white-lash brought on by Trump’s election has important implications for the study of religion that all scholars should pay heed to, both in the classroom and in our scholarship. Though it pains me to say it, we may have to fight against the growing resurgence of the politics of nostalgia for years to come, and this is not a fight any of us can afford to sit back idly and ignore. For as critical scholars who use a host of cultural studies methods to expose social-political interests concealed in hegemonic claims and to argue for diversity and equality, we too are caught in its cross-hairs.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

On Byzantine Apocrypha and Erotapokriseis Literature

by Tony Burke

As I work through the contributions to the second volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, I am struck by how many of them are related to a genre of literature that has not been discussed much in connection with apocryphal texts. This genre is erotapokriseis (question-and-answer) texts. For an introduction to this literature, see Péter Tóth, “New Wine in Old Wineskin: Byzantine Reuses of the Apocryphal Revelation Dialogue,” in Dialogues and Debates from Late Antiquity to Late Byzantium(ed. Averil Cameron and Niels Gaul; New York: Routledge, 2017), 77–93 (available on and Yannis Papadoyannakis, “Instruction by Question and Answer: The Case of Late Antique and Byzantine Erotapokriseis,” in Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism (ed. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson; London/New York: Routledge, 2006), 91–105 (also online HERE).

The genre can be defined widely enough to include any dialogue literature, going as far back as Pseudo-Aristotle’s Problemata (compiled over a period stretching from 300 BCE to 600 CE) and, in their early form, are structured as an exchange between a master and his disciples. This should be familiar to readers of such apocryphal texts as the Dialogue of the Savior and the Letter of Peter to Philip, in which a (typically) post-Easter Jesus responds to a series of questions from his disciples. Kurt Rudolph called these texts “apocryphal revelation dialogues,” Helmut Koester, more provocatively, “dialogue-gospels.” The prevalence of the form among the so-called “gnostic” texts of the Nag Hammadi Library led to a belief that it was particularly favored among gnostic Christians. But the form is also used in the more orthodox Epistle of the Apostles and the Questions of Bartholomew, and to some extent in tour of hell apocalypses, such as the Apocalypse of Paul or the Apocalypse of the Virgin, in which various locations of punishment are explained in response to questions from the visionary of the text.

Non-revelation erotapokriseis include works by Origen and Eusebius. On their models evolved in late antiquity a flexible form of numbered questions and answers that allowed for adaptation and supplementation. One of the first of these is the Quaestiones et responsiones ad orthodoxos attributed to Justin. It features 161 questions and answers (in the long recension) dealing with themes such as eschatology, cosmology, demonology, magic etc. It has an apologetic dimension, asserting orthodox teachings against the views of well-known critics of Christianity (Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian) and of heretics. It is these Byzantine question-and-answer texts that have some kind of relationship to contemporary apocrypha.

The erotapokriseis texts included in MNTA 2 include one text closely aligned with the early “gnostic” dialogues. It has appeared in previous editions and collections, including the German collection edited by Schneemelcher (by Henri-Charles Puech, see pp. 388–90 in the English translation) and its revision by Markschies and Schröter (by Hans-Martin Schenke, see pp. 1217–19). In both collections the text is called “Fragments of a Dialogue between John and Jesus,” but Philip Tite, who has provided an extensive introduction and new translation of the text for MNTA, prefers to keep the identity of the revealer anonymous, simply calling the text the Dialogue of the Revealer and John. The fragmentary manuscript, in Coptic, is a single page broken up into smaller pieces. It likely derives from the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Deir el-Bala’izah, which seems to have been abandoned by 750 CE. The remaining portions of the text comprise a series of questions about Genesis—the fall of humanity, Cain and Abel, the Flood, and Melchizedek—answered by the Revealer with hints of Sethian theology (the mention of five seals, the terms “silence” and “rational power”).

Tite’s work on the Dialogue of the Revealer and John is followed in MNTA 2 by a series of Byzantine Johannine apocalyptica. Most of these have appeared previously, most prominently in John M. Court’s collection The Book of Revelation and the Johannine Apocalyptic Tradition (JSNTS 190; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). Court republished earlier editions and provided English translations and notes. The first of these Johannine apocalyptica, 1 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, is the most widely known as it is included in Constantin Tischendorf’s Apocalypses Apocryphae, from which it was translated into English in Alexander Walker’s Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Revelations. In the text, John sits with the resurrected Jesus on Mount Tabor and asks a series of questions about the fate of the soul, the form of the body in the afterlife, and about the anti-Christ. My favorite section is the answer to John’s question on the form taken by the righteous after resurrection:

For even as the bees are, and are no different one from another, but are all one appearance and one stature, in the same way, even those in the resurrection will all be human. They will be neither fair of skin, nor red of skin, nor black of skin; neither will they be (like the) Ethiopian with different facial features; 5but all will rise in one appearance and one stature. (11:2–4)

Many new manuscripts of the text have been found since Tischendorf’s day—he used seven in Greek, but Rick Brannan’s introduction for MNTA 2 lists an additional 27, and likely there are more. The text is known also in Arabic, Garšuni, Armenian, and Slavonic. It was certainly popular. With a new critical edition still a desideratum, Brannan provides only a new translation of Tischendorf’s text. He has also published a Greek reader of the text (more on this HERE). Besides the question-and-answer structure of the text, 1 Apocr. Apoc. John also intersects with the erotapokriseis genre in a number of parallels of content with the Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem, attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria but likely composed in the seventh century. Both texts share material in their answers to whether the dead will be able to recognize each other in the afterlife (Quaest. ad Ant. 22; cf. 1 Apocr. Apoc. John 12) and about the number of the angels (Quaest. ad Ant. 6; cf. 1 Apocr. Apoc. John 26). The parallels are noted in work on the text in the nineteenth century in Russian by Vassily Mochulsky but have only been brought into Western scholarship recently by Péter Tóth (“New Wine in Old Wineskin,” 82–84) and Laurence Vianès (“Les citations bibliques dans la Première Apocalyse Apocryphe de saint Jean et dans les Quaestiones ad Antiochum Ducem,” in Soyez des changuers avisés. Controverses exégétiques dans la littérature apocryphe chrétienne, ed. Gabriella Aragione and Rémi Gounelle [Cahiers de Biblia Patristica 12; Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 2012], 145–612, also available on

The second Byzantine Johannine apocalypse is known, appropriately enough, as 2 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, though it is attributed in the manuscripts to John Chrysostom, not John the Theologian. It is possible that the attribution to Chrysostom is a secondary development in the tradition, though the content of the text—questions about the Byzantine liturgy—is certainly appropriate to Chrysostom, who was instrumental in its development. This text was first published by Russian scholar N. Th. Krasnoseltsev in 1898 but readers in the West became aware of it from an edition by François Nau in 1914. Janet Spittler and two of her students, Rebecca Draughon and Jeannie Sellick, have prepared for MNTA 2 a synoptic translation of both editions, which vary from one another significantly. At least four other manuscripts are known, one from the new finds at St. Catherine’s Monastery, but these have yet to be evaluated or published. The fragmentary St. Catherine’s manuscript should be important since it dates from around the eighth or ninth century. As with 1 Apocr. Apoc. John, there are several Byzantine erotapokriseisworks, indicated by  Krasnoseltsev, that share content with 2 Apocr. Apoc. John. As Tóth notes (p. 83), the Various Questions and Answers on Priests contains the questions, “What is the church? What is the sanctuary? What is the altar?” and the answers sometimes agree verbatim with 2 Apocr. Apoc. John 3:1–3. Parallels to the apocalypse can also be found in commentaries on the liturgy, such as Germanos of Constantinople’s Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation.

MNTA 2 features also, for the first time, a translation of a new text: 3 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John. This text has been prepared by Chance Bonar and I from two error-ridden Greek manuscripts; it is available also in 24 Slavonic manuscripts. 3 Apocr. Apoc. Johnhas some clear connections with 1 Apocr. Apoc. John: the dialogue occurs on the Mount of Olives after the resurrection and overlaps in content with the question on the form of post-resurrection bodies. But in this text, John asks questions of Abraham, not Jesus. The patriarch is an appropriate choice for interlocutor given the tradition in ancient Jewish and Christian tradition of the “bosom of Abraham,” which holds that after death the righteous are separated from the unrighteous and cross over to an area of Hades/Sheol where Abraham dwells. So Abraham is fully qualified to answer questions about the nature of souls and the afterlife, such as will the Jews find mercy in the afterlife? What will happen to the impious on judgment day? Will the righteous be separated from family and friends? And do deceased children go to heaven? Some questions also deal with the conduct of priests and other church officials, with a particular interest in their conduct and who will speak for whom on judgment day. It is not known yet whether this particular apocalypse has any connection to other erotapokriseis texts. Perhaps scholars who work closely in that area will see some parallels when the text is published.

The last of the texts in this cluster of Johannine apocalyptica is the Questions of James to John, prepared by Kathleen Gibbons. The text was first published from one Greek manuscript by Athanasius Vassiliev in 1893 in his collection Anecdota graeco-byzantina; an English translation was provided by Court. An additional seven manuscripts are known, and Kate drew upon four of these for her translation. As of yet no versions have been found in other languages. The questions posed by James focus again on the fate of the soul after death, but this time attention is paid to what happens to sinners (in typical tour-of-hell fashion they are placed in a fiery river where they are consumed by a sleepless worm) and on the possibility of repentance. A number of examples are presented of notorious sinners who received forgiveness, both biblical (Peter, Manasseh, David, and the Good Thief) and nonbiblical (Mary of Egypt, Andrew of Crete, and Cyprian of Antioch). Tóth does not mention any connections between Quest. James and other erotapokriseistexts, and very few other scholars have worked on this text. The repentant late antique saints given as examples of repentance certainly indicate use of another source—that John would have knowledge of these figures is peculiar and not explained in the text—but so far no one has pursued parallels.

Two other apocryphal erotapokriseis texts are mentioned in Tóth’s study: the Revelation on the Lord’s Prayer (BHG 821x–y), which entails a post-Easter discussion between Peter and Jesus about the interpretation of the prayer (e.g., “what is ‘they kingdom come’?”), and the Dialogue of Mary and Christ on the Departure of the Soul, which is attributed to John. The first of these texts was published by Krasnoseltzev from two manuscripts, and a third is known. It also appears appended to Quest. James in one of the manuscripts used by Kate for her translation. The Dialogue of Mary was found by Tóth in two manuscripts but has yet to be published. I wish we had known about these two texts earlier in the process of compiling MNTA 2! Ah well, there’s always vol. 3 (if indeed there is a vol. 3).

One more text to appear in MNTA 2 relates to erotapokriseis literature, but this one is not a Johannine apocalypse. It is the unpublished Martyrdom of Zechariah, translated by Sarah Veale and I from two Greek manuscripts. It is extant also in 18 Slavonic manuscripts. The text compiles traditions about Zechariah’s death and episodes from the life of John the Baptist. Some of this material appears also in an exchange between Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great known as Quaestiones ac responsiones. One question addresses how long the Holy Family spent in Egypt, with the answer given as 12 months. Another addresses where Jesus lived while there, with the answer given as “the house of Alphaeus,” and a partial exchange refers to the murder of Zechariah by Herod. All of this information appears in the early chapters of Mart. Zach. Another erotapokriseistext extant in Slavonic under the title “Narrative from the unknown, true books of Genesis” includes a question about the baptisms of Zechariah and John; the response, corresponding to the narrative in Mart. Zech. 5–6, is given as:

The Lord baptized the two after he came out of Egypt with the four angels. After Zechariah had been killed in the temple, he baptized the two there, after he raised Zechariah from the dead. But he brought John out of the mountain, and again sent him into the mountain.  Zechariah, however, fell asleep again and was buried under the altar. The Lord himself went to Egypt. But all this happened in one night.

Two other Slavonic manuscripts have the same question and answer but in these manuscripts the question is posed by Gregory of Nazianzus, suggesting that it has some association with the Greek Quaestiones ac responsiones.

Opinions vary as to the direction of dependency of the erotapokriseis texts and their related apocrypha. Vianès reserves judgment about which of the two texts he examines, 1 Apocr. Apoc. John and Quaest. ad Ant., is primary, or whether they depend on a third, unknown source, whereas Tóth concludes that 1 Apocr. Apoc. John is a transformation of Quaest. ad Ant. As for Mart. Zech., it appears to me far more likely that the questions addressed to Gregory are based on Mart. Zech. than the reverse. Regardless of the answers on dependency, the relationship of apocrypha and erotapokriseis texts begs for further exploration. In cases were the apocryphal texts are primary, the examples show that Byzantine writers were willing to draw upon apocrypha as sources for questions about the afterlife, the liturgy, and the lives of saints; where erotapokriseis texts are primary, we see the transformation or adaptation of one type of literature into apocrypha, presumably because doing so would give it a wider hearing or appeal. As Tóth writes, “The close dependence of the Apocalypse to the Quaestiones seems to indicate a certain permeability between the two literary forms. The dry and impersonal series of questions and answers could easily be turned into a more lively dialogue form resulting in a, so-to-say, ‘apocryphised’ version of the erotapokriseis” (p. 84).

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Discourses of Religion and the Non-Religious/Secular in Islamic Contexts: Call for Expressions of Interest


Proposed New Network:

Discourses of Religion and the Non-Religious/Secular in Islamic Contexts

Please send expressions of interest to Dr Alex Henley ([email protected]).

A critical school has emerged in the Study of Religion that identifies the category of ‘religion’ as a modern concept inseparable from its post-Enlightenment twin, ‘the secular’ (Asad 1993; Fitzgerald 2000). Pioneering work has been done on the invention of ‘religion’ in various colonial contexts (Chidester 1996; King 1999; Masuzawa 2005; Josephson 2012; Horii 2018), but few sustained studies have been undertaken for Islam. An early study by WC Smith (1964) identified a modern shift in Muslim discourse around ‘Islam’ as a category, but nevertheless argued it to be a special case. Certainly we see classical formulas such as ‘din wa dunya’ that seem to suggest an existing, perhaps even original, distinction between religion and non-religion. Whether or not ‘religion’ has been invented wholesale in Islam as in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, a study of such discourse among Muslim intellectuals by Tayob (2009) has highlighted significant innovation in the modern period.

A new academic network based at the University of Oxford will provide a forum for discussion of these questions: To what extent, if any, is ‘religion’ a useful category of analysis in Islamic Studies? Was there an Islam ‘before religion’ (Nongbri 2013)? In what changing or varied ways do we see ‘religion’ as a bounded category of practice articulated, operationalised and institutionalised by or for Muslims in recent centuries? What distinctive characteristics and functions (e.g. rights, freedoms, authority, privatisation) does ‘religion’ have as a reified subject in Islamic discourse, that distinguish it from ‘non-religious’ or ‘secular’ domains? Does a ‘religion-secular’ dichotomy operate also in contexts where ideological secularism is rejected as un-Islamic? What role have colonial and post-colonial modernity or states played in Muslim (re)formulations of ‘religion’ and its others? Do such trends in Islamic contexts compare to the invention of ‘religion’ in other colonial contexts, or should we see Islam as exceptional in some way? What new methodologies may shed light on these dynamics? What implications may the critical study of ‘religion’ have for the way Islam is taught in schools and universities?

Please let us know if you would be interested in this network by emailing Alex Henley ([email protected]). Participation is invited from scholars interested in these kinds of questions in any period or regional context. As we are trying to gage the level and type of interest, we would also welcome any suggestions on its direction, specific themes for workshops, collaborations with other organisations, etc.

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A Review of Emily Ogden’s Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism

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

Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism. By Emily Ogden. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. xiv + 268. $27.50 (paperback), $82.50 (hardcover).

by Charles McCrary

It can be a terribly tenuous thing, being modern. It slips. To be a secular liberal subject, a choosing agent, a person in control of faculties and wits, requires diligence. But if you’re ever unsure of your own enlightenment, it can be reassuring to find someone unenlightened. Even Benjamin Franklin, a healthy, wealthy, wise man—in modern parlance, very much on top of his shit—needed to consider his others. As a reminder of his own rationality, or perhaps as a way of establishing it, he took to identifying, studying, and debunking the irrational, the credulous. Credulity, like superstition or fanaticism or idolatry, emerged as a category for understanding what others do, and what’s wrong with them. But, as Emily Ogden shows in her brilliant book Credulity, demarcating the modern from the primitive was only the first of credulity’s uses.

Ogden investigates the various ways nineteenth-century US American mesmerists and their skeptics played seriously with credulity, navigating secular subjectivity and modernity in a supposedly-but-clearly-not-totally disenchanted age. Enchantment was useful, but it had to be studied and understood in order to be managed. “Mesmerists,” Ogden writes, “did not believe in magic, but they did believe in the utility of others’ belief. They were not enchanted themselves, but they were eager to use the enchantment of others” (3). What can a modern subject do with a credulous dupe, a primitive animist, a believer in magic? Credulity demonstrates how “the skeptic of this period sought to manage enchantment, not to suppress it. To confine, explain, and redeploy primitive religious power: these were the quintessential aspirations not just of mesmerists in particular but also of antebellum secularism in general” (5). The secular subject lives on one side of the “line between modernity and credulity” (24). About that line antebellum fiction authors and Ogden together ask, “how, by whom, and for what purposes it had been put there” (24). The answer is secularism, in so many words, the project of drawing the line and policing it, working to remember who’s on which side. In these ways, modern secular subjects are modern and secular because of this line—“enchantment can only be modern” (9)!—and, more specifically, their regulation thereof.

The first chapter focuses on the 1784 reports from a Parisian commission led by Benjamin Franklin on the new European fad of animal magnetism, popularized by Franz Anton Mesmer. Franklin and his fellow debunkers claimed that animal magnetism “did not exist.” But something was having effects on people. As Moderns, in Bruno Latour’s sense, the debunkers could not believe in the efficacy of material objects, but they could believe in the efficacy of others’ beliefs. “Thanks to its initial debunking,” Ogden writes, “animal magnetism could eventually become an instance of credulity deliberately practiced” (34). When a credulous believer believes—knows—that, say, an iron rod is controlling them through animal-magnetic power, they give in to it and then are in fact controlled. “Imagination did not merely trick them into thinking they were feeling heat in a magnetized part of the body, or convulsing; it tricked them into actually feeling heat and convulsing” (34). However, this worked only on subjects who were susceptible to this sort of control, those who were somehow weak-minded, primitive, or impressionable. It still could be used “to constitute the community of the enlightened by excluding the dupes” (52). And here we see an early example of the comparative study of religion, as certain commentators noticed that a variety of practices, from Indigenous rituals to camp-meeting revivals, looked awfully like animal magnetism (53).

Mesmerism developed into an American science in the 1830s, when Charles Poyen, a Creole sugar planter who learned about animal magnetism while in medical school in France, decided to put the practice to use. If, due to their not-so-buffered selves, “primitives” were susceptible to becoming mesmerized—somnambulant and suggestible—such a practice could become quite useful for controlling populations. And in this way, Ogden is careful to note, Poyen was not so different from the earlier generation of debunkers. They “thought credulity was primitive but so did Poyen: he wanted to control it in others, not succumb to it himself” (70). The goal was not to enlighten the whole population but, rather, to leverage enlightenment and to keep enchantment around insofar as it was useful. As other scholars have argued, secularization is not about eradicating religion or superstition, but about managing them. So, US mesmerists sought the disenchantment of the world, but not the whole world. “If disenchantment was supposed to liberate humanity from superstition’s spell, mesmerism did not aspire to set everyone free. No more did it envision a modernity in which everyone was subject to incantations. Mesmerism’s efficacy depended on keeping just certain people—somnambulists—enchanted” (83). The population whom Poyen was most keen on keeping enchanted were the enslaved persons who worked in his sugar fields.

Other Americans found other uses for mesmerism, though. And here, in chapters three and four, Credulity turns directly toward the ambiguities and anxieties of agency. Though Poyen and his colleagues wrote manuals and developed methods, the science of controlling others remained inexact. Chapter three offers an extended consideration of Loraina Brackett, a blind clairvoyant who while in a magnetic state could travel to faraway cities, describing accurately the geography and sensory experiences of the place. William Leete Stone, already renowned for exposing humbugs, investigated Brackett. What he found, though, was that in order to induce belief in her, so as to leverage her credulity, he too had to use his imagination. Stone and Brackett ended up telling stories together, operating in a “world of interdependency and playing along,” in which the tug and pull of agency and control—leader and follower, studier and studied, modern and credulous—was more complicated than Stone had anticipated (155). It’s all so hard to pin down. But, as Ogden describes in chapter four, people tried. Phrenomesmerists, with their psychrometers and sundry other tools and methods, “aimed to use mesmerism to map the phrenological organs more accurately, thus furnishing a tool for self-culture and education” (165). What mesmerism did better than phrenology was change subjects, not just measure them. It was a practical science.

What does it mean to be free, to be a secular agent in this context? Drawing from Talal Asad, Ogden writes, “The paradox at the heart of secular agency—that the self, to be free from external control, must already be subject to the control of a self fully free and aware—means that the agent can never quite pin down that part of itself that is fulfilled and in control” (177). According to Latour, Moderns have two options: “either you are cynically pulling the strings, or else you are being had” (quoted on 43).[1] Stone and Brackett’s collaborative world-making hints toward other options. In an insightful and fresh reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), Ogden insists that the much-maligned Miles Coverdale, accused by modern critics of failing to exercise enough agency, instead undertakes “an experiment in a kind of selfhood that neither veils nor enslaves others” (183). He is “not much of an agent” (184). But, again, what exactly is the character of secular agency and freedom?

By the 1850s, Spiritualists had superseded mesmerists in popularity and influence in the United States. Spiritualists had different political goals, beliefs, metaphysics, and practices, but, Ogden notes, in at least one key way they continued mesmerists’ project: “Spiritualists, too, believed in belief and thought it could be put to use” (203). In this chapter, Ogden’s main contribution to the already robust literature on US (and British) Spiritualism is to trace their lineage through the mesmerists and the debunkers. They are part of the same secularization story. “Spiritualists shaped a narrative in which mesmerism was the primitive practice that they had rationalized” (224). Were Spiritualists really secular, working to bring about disenchantment? How does this type of disenchantment work? Here, a well-placed quotation from John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America (2011), makes the point: for the influential Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis, disenchantment “was not the vanquishing of ghosts. Rather, it was a matter of calculating them” (224).[2] And, as Ogden stresses throughout, it was a matter of putting them to work. This is what mesmerists and Franklin had in common; they studied credulous subjects and reassured themselves of their own modern, rational, secular subjectivities. But now, for Spiritualists, mesmerists were the credulous ones. Spiritualists spoke both with and in “the Spirit of Benjamin Franklin.” Franklin’s spirit was one of the most popular visitors to nineteenth-century American séances. When he spoke to antebellum Spiritualists, he sometimes made the same anti-mesmerist arguments as the earthly Franklin had. Unlike credulous mesmerists, the Spiritualists and (spirit-)Franklin were modern.

Credulity is an extraordinary achievement. It is the best kind of interdisciplinary American studies scholarship, deftly navigating canonical American literature, critical theory, and archival sources, presenting them in sharp and engaging prose. Very few works of scholarship are both intensely smart and deeply pleasurable to read (and most are neither), but Credulity surely is, and it repays close, careful reading and rereading. Its clearest critical intervention, at least for this reader, is in secularism studies. Specifically, Ogden clearly and creatively applies Latour’s insights on scientism and the Moderns to work on secularism by Modern, Asad, and others. Secularization is not the disappearance of religion but the management of it, the processes of separating it from the secular and, just as importantly, the troubling slough-off third categories like magic and superstition. By zeroing in on credulity, Ogden both excavates a key nineteenth-century category and offers new analytical vocabulary. By focusing on mesmerists, she highlights previously understudied historical actors and texts, and when discussing more familiar material she does so with fresh lenses and questions. She treats her subjects, even fictional ones, with generosity and grace. But the book’s contributions go beyond even that. Rather than a formal conclusion restating the book’s claims, Ogden gifts the reader a truly stunning coda on Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits (1989) and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) that works simultaneously as historiographical corrective, critique of second-wave feminism, and meditation on freedom itself. I don’t want to spoil the whole thing, which I implore you to read, but here is a snippet: “There is no special reason why you would be freer from your idol when your idol is your freedom of choice than when it is your little wooden god. The problem with the empowerment argument is that it assumes that freedom is a better master. On the Pequod, freedom is the worst master” (235). These are not strictly nineteenth-century issues—subjectivity, agency, freedom. Like credulity, or religion, it’s not just about who has them and who doesn’t, but how they get them, and how they use them.

[1]Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

[2]John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 179.

Charlie McCrary is a postdoctoral fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Name it and Disclaim it: A Tool for Better Discussion in Religious Studies

by Joseph P. Laycock and Natasha L. Mikles

Anyone who has led discussion in an introductory undergraduate Religious Studies class has experienced frustrating comments from students such as, “Jews practice empty ritual,” or “Buddhists are more spiritual than other religions.” It seems that regardless of efforts to set up “ground rules” at the beginning of the course, comments likes these still show up. The worst is when they appear in final exam essays and one wonders if all of their instruction has fallen on deaf ears.

In fairness to our students, doing analysis within a religious studies classroom is a unique beast.  It may seem comparable to discussions they have in a philosophy class or a history class, but there are subtle differences.  Unfortunately, by the time most students have any sense of how to do religious studies, the semester is over. This problem is even worse in a World Religions class where the students must master course content at the same time they are learning to think like a religion scholar.

While everyone must muddle through, certain students demonstrate assumptions and patterns of thinking that are uniquely aggravating to religious studies professors. Usually what makes these patterns so exasperating is that they conceal some form of intellectual laziness: The problem is not that the student has some unique perspective the professor disagrees with, but rather that they are deploying a rhetorical maneuver to avoid the hard work of critical analysis.

The challenge for faculty lies in identifying these patterns and explaining to the student what we want them to do differently. This is especially the case when, say, grading a mountain of blue books. What follows is an experiment in identifying certain recurring patterns that emerge in religious studies classes and creating labels for them. These labels are a heuristic. They provide a vocabulary to discuss these patterns more easily. The list below is inspired in part by a poster created by School of Thought International designed to help people hone their critical thinking skills by identifying and naming specific logical fallacies.

Our labels are, of course, arbitrary. The purpose is not to perfect a taxonomy of poor approaches to religious studies but rather to create a tool that can expedite the process of learning to think like a religious studies scholar. We encourage pedagogues in religious studies to identify the patterns that occur most often in their courses, name them appropriately, and then share this vocabulary with the students as needed. These terms can be introduced early in the course and then referred to again, especially during discussion or when giving feedback on student writing.  They could also be included on the syllabus or a course website for future reference. Again, their purpose is to help students apprehend larger patterns in what makes a strong or weak argument when doing religious studies.

Square Peg, Round Hole: This label refers to analyzing a religious tradition in terms of another religious tradition––and almost always this tradition is Protestantism. Describing religious beliefs and practices in terms “empty ritual,” “superstition,” or “a lack of morality” are all examples of “Square Peg, Round Hole.” So too are comparative essays with statements like this, “Instead of a church, Jews have a synagogue. Instead of the Bible, Jews read the Torah. Instead of a pastor, Jews have a rabbi.” All of this is technically correct, but it doesn’t demonstrate much understanding of Judaism as a tradition.

“Square Peg, Round Hole,” should not be misconstrued to say that we never use comparisons in our classroom. Students are always making comparisons, whether we ask them to or not, so it behooves us as educators to embrace the comparative strategy when appropriate.  What “Square Peg, Round Hole” challenges is comparisons that tacitly and uncritically take one tradition as the norm and everything else as a distortion or aberration of that norm. “Square Peg, Round Hole,” is also not making the claim that we must take religious traditions at their word or can never apply the hermeneutics of suspicion. We reject William Cantwell Smith’s assertion that “No statement about a religion is valid unless it can be acknowledged by that religion’s believers.” But before we can apply critiques we need some understanding of the internal logic and worldview of the tradition. It is hard to do this if we are constantly contorting the data so that we can measure it solely in terms of some other religious tradition.

No Good Scotsman: This well-known fallacy takes its name from an anecdote in which a Scot claims that Scotsmen never put sugar in their porridge. When shown another Scotman who does put sugar in his porridge, the first Scot specifies that no good Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge. In other words, any counter example to the original claim is dismissed ipso facto.

Franklin Graham invoked this argument in 2009 when he stated that “true Islam” is about beating your wife and murdering your children.  Presumably an infinite number of peaceful Muslim counter-examples would be irrelevant to this claim because they are not practicing “true Islam” as defined by Graham.

Unchallenged, the “No Good Scotsman” argument is very effective for belief perseverance. As such, students may be tempted to reach for it when their preconceived notions about a religious tradition are challenged. Just as Franklin used this argument to dismiss peaceful Muslims, students may claim that Buddhists who support nationalism or who are more interested in blessed amulets than meditation are not “good Buddhists.”

The “No good Scotsman” argument is also frequently applied to the category of religion itself. In his essay “Everyday Miracles” Robert Orsi describes how his students felt Catholics in the Bronx using holy water from a replica of the Lourdes grotto was not an example of religion.  This led Orsi to ask, “So if this is not religion, what is?” Orsi’s work demonstrates that numerous labels including “cult” and “superstition” serve the same function as the “No Good Scotsman” argument, preserving biases about what religion is and does by screening out counter examples. But we cannot get into the hard work of doing religious studies until we have stopped making such excuses with the data. As Jeffrey Kripal states in his book Super Natural, “It is very easy to explain everything on the table if you have just taken off the table everything that you cannot explain.”

Loaded Questions: The classic example of a loaded question is the prosecutor asking, “Do you still beat your wife?” We find these kind of indictments framed as questions are often coupled with anecdotal evidence. For example, one student asked, “I went to Turkey and everyone glared at me. Why are Muslims so intolerant?” Invoking a completely subjective experience of Muslim intolerance reinforced a rhetorical maneuver in which the class was pressured to accept the claim that Muslims are intolerant instead of challenging this idea.

But the loaded question can also take a more subtle form. Instead of just trying to mask a claim, in a religious studies class it can also be used to abdicate the burden of analysis. When a student asks, “Why would anyone believe that?” they are actually making the statement, “This tradition is inscrutable and making sense of it is not my responsibility.” But when students sign up for a religious studies class they forfeit the ability the make these kinds of dismissals. As long as they are in the course, it is their job to figure out why anyone would believe that.

Medical Materialism: This term, famously coined by William James, refers to the practice of “explaining away” religious experiences in terms of medical diagnoses. Common examples include the claim that Paul was epileptic or that Islam arose because, “Muhammad suffered a hallucination from too much sun.”

As James noted, the problem with medical materialism isn’t that these diagnoses are necessarily incorrect (although they are usually made with minimal evidence or medical expertise). Rather, the problem is that they function to dismiss the cultural significance formed around these experiences. James noted that all thoughts and mental states can be reduced to the functions of the nervous system, but we only engage in this analysis when examining ideas we don’t like.

The Dumb Ancestors Assumption: Related to medical materialism is a facile attempt to explain all accounts of the supernatural as a misunderstanding of mental illness or some other natural phenomenon. This maneuver conceals a certain smugness that we have greater powers of reasoning and familiarity with the natural world than our ancestors. The Dumb Ancestors Assumption is particularly an obstacle when interpreting myths or accounts of the supernatural. Our ability to imagine the significance of these stories is limited if our default assumption is that these are just-so stories told by intellectually primitive people to explain the natural world. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan alludes to this lack of imagination when he writes, “My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Dan Brown Syndrome: This label refers to an assumption that a historical claim about a religious tradition is more likely to be true if it is not believed by the tradition’s practitioners or if the claim would upset them. The most common examples of Dan Brown Syndrome concern early Christianity and include simplistic mythicist claims about the historicity of Jesus or claims that Jesus studied mysticism in India.  Less common examples of Dan Brown Syndrome include hyper-diffusionist theories used to explain, for example, why there are five pillars in Islam and five skandhas in Buddhism. Of course, there is evidence for many historical claims that contradict the official histories of religious institutions. The problem with Dan Brown Syndrome is that it eschews reasoned historical arguments in favor of contrarianism.

Epistemological Nihilism: This label refers to claims that we cannot engage in any sort of analysis or discussion unless we have perfect empirical knowledge. One student told an author it was unreasonable when she was asked questions during class discussion like, “What would Bertrand Russell say about this?” because only Bertrand Russell could ever answer this. Another student chose to write an essay on Elie Wiesel’s exegesis of the Book of Job and wrote that Wiesel did not live in the time of Job and therefore was utterly unqualified to say anything about this story and arrogant for attempting to.

This is one of the most galling maneuvers because, while these arguments are often framed in terms of critical thinking or the scientific method, their function is usually to dodge the hard work of analysis. If we can know nothing, claims the epistemological nihilist, then attempting to learn or understand anything is a waste of time.

This list is just a preliminary exploration, and we encourage colleagues to add their own commonly encountered fallacies and biases in the comments below. Above all, we hope that by labeling these patterns, we can better communicate to our students how to sharpen their analyses. We all were students once and probably at least a little bit intellectually lazy until someone pushed us; we hope to do the same for our students now.

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


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

by Merinda Simmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criticism is not cynicism.

Criticism is not religious reductionism.

Criticism is not advocacy or retail (etc).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 James Crossley

Do you want to hear my anecdote about my favourite experience along the lines (though admittedly not the same as), “So you’re not a priest?” Of course you do. I was reading a book on the development of the study of Christian origins in the nineteenth and twentieth century (Ward Blanton’s Displacing Christian Origins) in a dentist waiting room and I was asked by the receptionist what I was reading. No-one wants to engage with fellow human beings and I did keep the cover deliberately obscured (great book though it is) but I nevertheless tried to explain what I hate explaining. Yet it turned out to be a humbling experience because she responded by telling me that she hoped rich people would burn in hell, starting with the Rolex-wearing dentist who underpays his staff. I could only agree with the sentiment.

Most reactions to what I do (assuming I tell the truth) to people outside universities are usually unsurprising ones of indifference or bafflement. Countless times colleagues have spoken about the question, “So you’re not a priest?”, or variations on the theme. While not professing to know what people think, I tend to assume cynically that the question often functions as code for, “look how obscure I am and our little group I’m a part of is!” Maybe I’m wrong in plenty of instances and I actually do like the idea of valuing things deemed obscure, useless, and without obvious economic value. And, in fact, one reason I value such things is because in my previous academic experience there was pressure on my economic valueless subject which was therefore not deemed worthy by influential figures in management. Put another way, my embarrassment outside the workplace is the opposite of my proudly self-identifying with biblical studies against certain universities who treat such a subject with contempt because it does not bring in much money.

Let’s take a look at these two tendencies and some of their ramifications.

Category One: being embarrassed outside university about the subject we study. I always struggled understanding why I am (and others are) socially awkward when it comes to discussing what I/we do. I have always known that it would be deemed weird to admit my interests but I would also read things like the majority of people identifying as “Christian” in answer to the question, “What is your religion?” According to Census 2011, this figure was 70.7% in my hometown of Barrow (a little higher than the national percentage, though notably down from 81% in Census 2001), and might be compared with 22.1% identifying as “No Religion”. This surprised me because I do not seem to know anyone in my hometown who goes to church and very few who care about what I do. I have also read articles and books arguing (not always unreasonably) that the past forty years may have seen a sharp decline in identification with a church but yet people identify as “religious” in a host of different ways. This seemed a little closer to my experiences but still: why would my job be embarrassing in these context if lots of people were now claiming to be SBNR (Spiritual, But Not Religious) or whatever? Well, questions and answers in the context of e.g. the Census only tell a story in one particular context. The British Social Attitudes survey asked a different question (“Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?”) and it suggests a national and regional decline in identification with Christian churches (especially the Church of England) and a rise in those identifying with “No Religion” (44.2% in the North West of England, slightly lower than the national percentage). I am not suggesting that one question is necessarily better or worse but rather both provoke different answers and identity performance in different contexts. One seemed to be a little closer to helping me understand my anxieties but, ultimately, I wasn’t too much the wiser.

Over the summer I decided to find out more about this in Barrow and in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. I asked about thirty people what they thought of the following from the now former British Prime Minister, David Cameron:

[From] human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy…the first forms of welfare provision… language and culture… [T]he Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy…[They form] the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women… Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none.

The reactions were telling. Certainly there were constructions of, and assumptions about, what the Bible and Christianity is (e.g. a morally decent something corrupted by later interpreters). But the near-universal response was disbelief that a politician would dare justify political views with the Bible or Christianity which were deemed largely irrelevant. In contrast to immediate answers about politics, almost all participants were puzzled, baffled, and paused for some time to think, and some thought that I even invented the quotation from Cameron (I didn’t, incidentally). Several answers mocked the perceived hypocrisy and stupidity, as well as using industrial language to describe Cameron for doing this. There was little in the way of hatred for what they assumed the Bible or religion to be though little in the way of nostalgia for a lost past either. One of the few generalisations possible is that there was that shoulder-shrugging indifference about something that might once have been influential. I looked at hundreds of related examples in the context of social media over the summer and there were only occasional examples that might commonly be categorised as “religious” of “biblical”. This is, of course, only one town with its own peculiarities. But at least it seemed to confirm some of my own suspicions and experiences (on all this, the article is freely available for download here).

Why might this be relevant? This brings us to Category Two: we demand religion and the Bible be studied, not because we are necessarily wanting to be priests but because it’s all very important. A standard justification (at least in the UK) for a field or fields feeling under threat is to say that the Bible has had a hugely important influence and continues to have a hugely important influence. But what if the puzzlement about the priestly question, the common anxieties biblical studies types talk about, and the sample of people I interviewed and looked at, reveal something more worrying for the future of the field than being red faced? Might it reveal that there are a lot of people for whom the Bible or religion isn’t as important as some scholarly rhetoric would have us believe? Might it reveal that the Bible and religion is actually important for people who think a bit like the academics who insist that the Bible and religion is important, whether in terms of theological commitments or aesthetic tastes? All this could provoke questions and explanations as to why. Yet the claim of cultural importance isn’t exactly wrong either. It is easy enough to find the Bible and understandings of religion present among politicians, on TV, in music, and so on. This in turn might lead us to complicate the standard claim that “the Bible and religion are very important” and think more about these disjunctions and why and for what reasons is the Bible cited as a higher authority or used in the name of subcultural chic when plenty of people don’t care or notice. In the case of political discourse, why is the Bible invoked when the British electorate, as Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell speculated, do not “want their politicians banging the Bible [British English equivalent of “thumping the Bible”] all the time. They hated it, I was sure of that’? (Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years [Hutchinson: London, 2007], pp. 111-12].

That answer is for another context but clearly such questions that complicate the case for importance. Yet the argument of importance has a pragmatic function. I know I am not alone in having experienced a university management who likewise have no interest in the Bible and religion, and some such figures push certain negative subtexts that sometimes lurk behind the question asked in this series. This is starting to have ramifications for degree programs and, most worryingly, jobs in the UK, some of which are being lost. This is where the “importance approach” can be significant, at least if allowed to be put into practice, and at least for those who want the field(s) to survive. The UK model of the study of religion is (largely) tied in with subjects having discreet departments with their own courses for student recruitment. The increasing neoliberalization of universities (especially since 2012) has also contributed to the anxieties about the future of the field(s) based on income. While complicity with (what to some of us is) an unfortunate economic turn would be inevitable for those who wish to continue in the conventional university setting, there are still ways of surviving. By embedding the subject in other academics fields (e.g. English, History, Anthropology, etc.), scholars of religion can put the “importance argument” into practice and help with staff-student ratios for colleagues in other departments and faculties. This might not be as pressing for North American colleagues but there is an intellectual argument that might be of relevance. It seems clear enough (to me at least) that in some areas of the humanities and social sciences there is little knowledge of the deconstruction and genealogy of discourses about “the Bible” or “religion” and too much work which assumes some peculiarly essentialized notions. But so does a great deal of biblical studies and religious studies, you might respond. Certainly. But that does not mean limiting debates and intellectual engagements. On the contrary. There is an opportunity to embed the subject(s), inform other subjects, and learn from other subjects.

So, if anyone is working in a context where the priestly question (particularly when spoken with a derogatory subtext) is too easily assumed, answer: “Not necessarily. Now, sit back, relax and let me tell you all about it…”

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