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.