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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