Following a Trail Blazing Scholar: What Burton Mack’s Intellectual Journey Can Teach Us

Editor’s Note: In the recent issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Randall Reed published his reflections on the influence of Burton Mack in his essay, “Experiments in the Analytic Study of the Bible: Burton Mack as Pioneer.” Reed offers in this blog some thoughts on his own encounter with Mack’s work. 



By Randall Reed

As I am certain is true for many scholars, Burton Mack’s work has been an important part of my intellectual development. I remember the day I bought A Myth of Innocence.  I was freshly graduated from an undergraduate program in Religion at a California State University. I was steeped in the Bultmannian tradition of attempting to combine theology and New Testament Studies. I was looking towards graduate school, not sure where to go. And I bought Mack’s book and read the introduction.

The goal of New Testament scholarship has been to give an account of the origins of Christianity… In spite of this concentrated effort, however there is no agreement about what that mysterious moment was or had to have been. One might think that failure to reach an agreement on such a fundamental objective would eventually call attention to itself and force a reconceptualization of the discipline. That has never happened and the quest continues unabated.

[…] That is because everyone seems to know that the objective is ultimately beyond reach. The origins of Christianity are known to lie on the other side of limits set by the nature of the texts at the scholar’s disposal and the nature of history that can be reconstructed from them.

[…] What if the notion of a single, miraculous point of origin was acknowledged for what it was, not a category of critical scholarship at all, but an article of faith derived from Christian mythology?

This book, I thought, will change everything if I read it. I confess, I set it down, I walked away and left it on my shelf for six months.

But I did pick it back up and it turned out I was right, because Mack’s book opened my eyes to a completely new way of understanding the Christian Mythos. One which opened the black box of the resurrection that had to be just accepted as a miracle that couldn’t be explained. Instead Mack showed the development of the Christ Congregations’ self-understanding that ultimately made sense without reference to the categories of miracle, resurrection, or the supernatural. It completely changed how I viewed everything I had been taught. I decided to apply to the Master’s program at Claremont.

As I studied with Burton Mack, I saw the category of religion opened up in a new way; focused now on theory of religion, on explanation of religious phenomena. When two years later Mack told me to go to Chicago to study with Martin Riesebrodt and J.Z. Smith, it was the natural progression of a journey that had begun when I opened that book.

But as important as Mack’s work has been to me, I was curious. Mack’s work had progressed since those halcyon days of studying with him at Claremont. He had refocused on the question of theory and recently published Myth and the Christian Nation (2008) which developed a full-blown social theory of religion. How did he get there? And did his journey have a message for the academy? It was that question that drove me back into Mack’s work with fresh eyes.

What I discovered was that Mack’s journey was quite instructive. His has been a quest for explanation, first of the wisdom tradition in the Hellenistic period and then of Christian origins. Yet what became apparent is that any explanation requires a theoretical base. This became most clear to Mack when he had an extended interaction with J.Z. Smith and Rene Girard. In contrasting ways, Smith and Girard showed the promise and problems of theory. But what was most apparent to him is that Biblical Studies had neither a good theory nor a bad theory, it had no theory. And this was part of the reason it was mired in theology masquerading as critical inquiry.

To engage in explanation requires theory. A look at the publication of the Ancient Myth Seminar at SBL that engaged Mack’s work on Christian origins shows that this was a predominant concern of the participants. Engagement with theory seemed essential to real explanation of what was happening behind the texts.

So it perhaps was no surprise when Mack went back to work after the seminar that he focused on trying to construct a social theory of religion. Reading widely in the areas of Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology and Philosophy, Mack developed an understanding of myth and ritual that focused on them as intellectual products which were inspired and limited by social interests. One sees his dialog partners along the way, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Durkheim, and most importantly J.Z. Smith. Each contributes a piece to his theory as he investigates Christian History. What he finds is a set of grammars — Christian Mentalities he calls them — which both act as the raw resource of thought while at the same time constraining said thought. His analysis ends in an insightful examination of politics and culture at the beginning of the 21st century which the legacy of the Christian Mentality had wrought.

The message that I think one comes away with from an examination of Mack’s journey is a reaffirmation of the place of theory in the Religious Studies academy, including Biblical Studies. Those engaged in historical studies often eschew theory in lieu of “data” or “evidence.” And yet what we learn from Mack, and more interestingly from Mack’s critics, is in the absence of theory it is theology that inevitably fills the gap. Mack’s work prompts us to make a choice, either we can have thoughtful theory or we can have thoughtless theology guiding our discourse. Mack’s work points us towards the former and challenges us to unmask the latter.

Author Bio

Randall W. Reed is Assistant Professor of Religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. He hold a PhD (2005) from the University of Chicago and his research interests include Religion and Social Theory, American Evangelicalism, Apocalypticism and New Testament. He is the author of A Clash of Ideologies: Marxism, Liberation Theology and Apocalypticism (Pickwick, 2010).

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2 Responses to Following a Trail Blazing Scholar: What Burton Mack’s Intellectual Journey Can Teach Us

  1. Randi Warne says:

    “Thoughtful theory” or “thoughtless theology” – surely there are other alternatives! At the very least, this seems like a bit of a rigged game. I am not commenting on the significance of Burton Mack here, or about the importance for current Biblical scholars and other scholars of religion to have an “aha” moment of distancing from the notion of mystical, mysterious, “given” origins of a previously held faith or identity position. I find it a bit frustrating, however, to watch its apparently easy slippage to categories experientially unfamiliar to or otherwise unhelpful to scholars who do not share these experiences or prior identities. It is also frustrating to have difficulty expressing this scholarly concern in terms that don’t sound snotty, or inviting of speculations on personal origins or character. I don’t mean to do that (who has control over the circumstances of their birth and upbringing after all, at least at life’s outset?). But if one does not share the “thoughtful theory” vs. “thoughtless theology” dichotomy, the spaces for discussion seem pretty cramped.

  2. Franklin Samraj says:

    Christian Mentality is indeed a good phrase to size into place the christian set of beliefs in the various mental frames that can be generated in the human mind But mentality of a mind is a process involving partnership growth with either the Creator or the destroyer. Therefore if the human mentality that is derived is with the Creator then it is Truth. therefore any human Mentality is true if it is partnered with God of else is it is a theory or a theology and it does not matter to include the adjectives thoughtless or thoughtful

    Regarding miracles : to deny them is somewhat like the ostrich burying its head in the sand to deny reality or danger

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