So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Sarah Lynn Kleeb

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 this link.

by Sarah Lynn Kleeb*

About 10 years ago, I was returning home from one of my first big academic conferences. I was in that weird post-conference headspace of feeling mildly buzzed and yet utterly spent, as I entered the taxi that would take me home from the airport. The cab driver was an older man, probably in his 60s, grey hair, bushy beard. He seemed like a kind man, with a genuine smile and courteous nature, and I welcomed his warm and gentle approach after a long day and a long week. I was tired, and very much looking forward to sinking down into the comfortable, plush back seat of the cab, silently watching the world blur past as the driver whisked me home.

The driver, however, wanted to chat. As we merged onto the highway, he asked where I had been, if I was from Toronto, what I’d been doing out of town, and all the standard questions cab drivers generally ask their fares from the airport. I answered minimally, but courteously, sliding down into my seat a bit further and looking intently out the window, hoping he’d pick up on my body language. He did not.

“An academic conference? Are you a professor, a student?” he asked.

When I told him that I was a student and he asked what I studied, I tried to stifle a heavy sigh, knowing that this often leads to a long – and occasionally somewhat frustrating – conversation. As it turned out, there was a massive traffic jam, meaning we’d be in the car together for at least an hour, so I resolved myself to snap out of my little self-centered haze and make myself available to this seemingly kind man with at least a bit of time-passing conversation.

But, then came that important moment: What do I tell him I study? This was still in my early grad school days, and I, like so many of us who study religion in an academic, non-theological context, was accustomed to people assuming I was going to be a religious official of some sort whenever I told them I studied “religion”. I was still searching for a label that would work against such assumptions. So, for what may have been the first time ever, I told him, “I study Critical Theory of Religion”.

My thought process was this: “Critical Theory” means something more specific than most people realize, so he likely won’t precisely understand the reference. But, “critical” should be a broad enough term to express the non-theological/non-apologist nature of my studies. So, out it came, and I anticipated some mildly confused muttering, and – maybe – an awkward silence to follow. I was very wrong.

He looked at me in the rear view mirror with a noticeably arched eyebrow, and asked, “Critical Theory? Does that mean……… [very pregnant pause]……. Karl Marx?”

Aside from the arched eyebrow, his face had been hard to read (especially from the back seat), and I wasn’t sure how to interpret him. He was, of course, quite right – that is pretty much what I’d meant (small-scale, anyway). Marx is, indeed, one of the central figures for this particular school of thought. But, was his moment of recognition about to get me thrown out of his cab on the side of the highway? Was the raised eyebrow cheeky or accusatory? Not everyone responds well to Marx (to put it lightly).

I stammered out, “Uhhhhh….. Well…. Ummmmm….. Yeah, Marx is one of the key thinkers I’m looking at,” in an attempt to both maintain my position, and perhaps soften it a bit, just in case (“one of…”). He didn’t say anything for a moment that seemed eternal, though it was probably only about 10 seconds.

When he did speak, my jaw dropped. To my utter delight, my cab driver was really into Marx, and he was remarkably well-versed in Marxist theory. His hesitation in asking about Marx, he confessed, was due to his own internal monologue, which was similar to my own – i.e., would asking about Marx lead me to react defensively or aggressively? As it turned out, he had fled to Canada from the former Yugoslavia several years prior, and (as I’d eventually learn is the case for so many workers in Canada) he was highly educated, but with degrees that weren’t considered valid in his new homeland. He told me about his amazing journey as a political refugee, about coming to Canada with the promise of work based on his credentials, only to learn – upon arriving – that his options were severely limited, since his education was not recognized. With bright smiles on both our faces, me now sitting on the edge of the back seat, leaning against the front passenger-side seat to get as close to eye-contact as I could, we exchanged off-the-cuff insights about Marx and Feuerbach, and their views of religion. I remember him emphasizing issues of praxis and critique – at the time, I’d figured that this was just because such topics are par for the proverbial course in talking about Marx. Years later, I now realize that he was probably calling back to the Praxis School of Marxian thought, which originated in the former Yugoslavia in the 1960s. We marvelled together at the continued relevance of thinkers like Marx, the extent to which his own critiques – and his calls to continuous, relentless, critique – remain valid even in 2005, even in Canada. We talked about so many things that I can’t even remember now, but it was, without a doubt, the single greatest cab ride of my life. I’ve never been so elated to be stuck in traffic for what ended up being nearly 2 hours.

As we took our leave of each other upon reaching my apartment, we shook hands and patted each other on the back, regarding each other warmly, like instant comrades. I found the unrestrained physical contact between us – he an older man and me a younger woman in my mid-twenties, he a cab driver and me his fare – to be a significant violation of divisive norms, an action so true to the tradition of Critical Theory. He cut my fare to a mere fraction, and I returned the favour by upping his tip tenfold (we both chuckled a bit about this part of our exchange, considering our topic of conversation). We expressed our sincere mutual appreciation of one another and wished each other all the best as we both departed, beaming with delight, heading back into our individual lives.

Thinking through my use of this particular label, “I study Critical Theory of Religion”, my intention was clearly to separate myself from particular kinds of scholarship: theological scholarship, faith-based investigations of religions and religiosities. Recalling this particular story, though, helps to remind me that self-applied descriptors can act as an “in” as well as an “out”. As we define ourselves (in true Critical Theory fashion) as “not-this” and “not-that” with the delimiter “Critical Theory”, so do we enter into a particular community with others, even if we do not realize it or recognize such others at a glance. “Critical Theory” constitutes a “getting away from”, but also a “moving toward”. In this fruitful space of recognition, contingent upon disclosure of the descriptor “Critical Theory (of Religion)”, I was able to experience an unexpected solidarity that relied entirely on the work done by that particular term. Had I described myself as merely studying “religion”, such a connection may not have been so easily and wonderfully formed.

Sarah Lynn Kleeb received her PhD in August 2015, and is an on-the-market scholar currently teaching courses in humanities, academic writing, and religion and media at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Sarah’s doctoral thesis, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Notion of “Liberation” and the Legacy of Marx’s “Ruthless Criticism”, critically examines connections between religious belief and (social, political, economic) dissent, particularly as manifest in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology. Current research interests include the rise of Pope Francis, who frequently uses liberationist language and economic critique in interviews and encyclicals, yet who has long distanced himself from liberation theology.

This post originally ran May 2016.

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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.

*This piece first ran in August 2016.

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


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

Small Talk and the “Religious Studies” Professional

by Matthew Baldwin

Mavens of etiquette and custom have frequently criticized the propriety of asking people one has just met “so, what do you do?”[1] Nevertheless, outside of a few localities where an unwritten taboo has caused “the question” almost to vanish from social life (this seems to be true, for example in my adopted home city, Asheville, NC), asking the “what do you do?” (WDYD) question remains a fixture of American small talk. Everyone, including scholars of religion, will face it from time to time.

As I understand its purpose, this series is meant to provide a space for scholars of religion to share our experiences with handling the often-awkward WDYD question. The premise of the series depends on a hypothesis, to wit: that many of our experiences with the question will be similar enough to bear comparison, while remaining diverse enough to warrant repeated acts of description and reflection. Presumably, the intent for the series goes beyond the desire to elicit communal feelings of affinity (and empathy) among “Religious Studies” types. We may also hope that these descriptions can lead to redescriptions. The things we learn from sharing our experiences might lead us to better understand the challenges we face in our shared work and social identity as scholars of religion.

The leading question of the series title, “so you’re not a priest?” suggests a humorous direction for the series, drawing on ancient comic tropes of mistaken identity and anagnoresis. It also foregrounds a certain assumption about what makes our collective experiences with the WDYD question similar and worth comparing. You may never have heard these exact words in response to your own answer to the WDYD question. Yet the title question serves as an icon (or synecdoche) of a certain repertoire of familiar-sounding responses that (we assume) outsiders to religious studies regularly present once they find themselves making small talk with a “professor of religion.” The question “so you’re not a priest?” gives us a pre-existing map, a short-cut for thinking about the most common outsider perspective on our professional identity. We aren’t priests. (Except, let’s be honest: some religious studies scholars are priests.) But many people assume we are. Not every interlocutor we meet will share this straightforward assumption that professors of religion must occupy the same classificatory category as religious professionals. But the mistake is common enough that we seem to already have decided that the mistake constitutes the archetypal version of the public’s misperception of our work and social role.

It may be the contrarian in me that wants to play with the premise and assumptions of the series, rather than to indulge in sharing any particular anecdote from the 24 years in which I have been either a graduate student or a professor of religion. Like my colleagues, I can think of many times when I have encountered other people’s cognitive dissonance and uncertainty once they learn what it is that I say that I do. Memories of many individual situations are percolating in my brain, from the astonished river guide on the Rio Grande (in 1992) who couldn’t believe that a scruffy young man wearing a silver demonic-joker-skull ring was going to be a Divinity student, to the thirty-something father at the Asheville Food Lion Skate Park (in 2016) who thought it was “cool” to meet a college professor who teaches about the Bible. But in truth I’m not a very good storyteller, and I have tended to “forget” the details of such encounters. There have been so many. The scores of times something “interesting” has happened to me following the WDYD question have kind of blended all together in my mind.

So instead, I think it might be more suited to my talents to reflect a bit more deeply on the social function of the WDYD question itself, and to consider taxonomically (or morphologically) how the repertoire of our answers to the question serve to position us within the complexities of the late-capitalist economy, constructing our identities in dialogue with others who bring their various ideas about what our various doings may mean within the world.

Let’s consider the setting in life of the WDYD question. Usually, one should graciously assume that, at least at the conscious level, the question is being asked innocently. We call it “small talk” for a reason. People ask it as though they were motivated by mere curiosity, or by a desire for simple human connection. We are in waiting rooms, on airplanes and trains, at parties, receptions, events, luncheons, mixers, dinners, in audiences, or contracting various services, and this is one of the things you ask people. (“We’re stuck sitting next to each other, so we may as well get to know one another.”)

Yet we are scholars of religion. Our theories (along with our experiences) tell us that nothing is so simple or mere. The query has larger social implications that are hard to escape. Ask a person what they do for a living, and you initiate a dance of mutual self-positioning and posturing. In trading “small talk” about one’s employment one is operationally identifying oneself within a larger system of significance. People who exchange profession-identifiers and appropriate responses are drawing on a symbolic and denotative system that has been shaped within a wider context. The signifiers and labels we use operate within a socially constructed system of classification, the terms and values of which are greater than any two individuals talking about their work.

It follows from these reflections that dealing with the WDYD question is relatively sensitive territory for everyone. Furthermore, many different employment-identity positions available in our economic and social life could involve discomfort, hilarity, or opportunities for faux pas in interactions based on the WDYD question.[2]

The situation in which the WDYD question gets asked is complex. It can be referred to a classic idea of human intercourse suggested once upon a time by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (here I draw on it as reported by Josiah Royce in 1881).[3] Holmes suggests that in any conversation between two individuals, there are actually six persons involved. There are the two “real” individuals of course; but in addition to these two, there are four “imaginary” persons. Each “real” person also harbors two “imaginary” persons: a concept of self, and an idea of the other. Our real speech acts come out of our personal self-imagination and address our imagination of the other. Our speech is then received in a way that shapes the other’s imagination of us, and is taken up into their own self-conception. Our relations are therefore imaginary (and having said that, I suggest we leave behind Holmes and Royce, and embrace the Lacanian resonance of the term).

In furthering the analysis, let’s set some more obvious points on the table. Religious studies professionals do not all have the same real being or self-conception. We are diverse. We do not all have or want to be seen as having the same identity position or social role. We operate in a field where the disciplinary boundaries are shifting and contested. We work in contexts which range from the overtly sectarian and religious, to the secular and public. We pursue different goals in the classroom and in research. We have different kinds of work environments with great variation in the levels of compensation we receive and work duties we perform. Vigorous disagreement can be found among our ranks on basic questions of epistemology, metaphysics, theory, and method. There is wide variation in specialization. There are huge regional, local, and cultural variations in available roles and identities with which we can attempt to identify through our choices of clothing, hair, speech, social activities, affiliations, affinities, possessions, and friendship. So much for our real and imagined selves.

And what about how we imagine those outside of the discipline? Again the obvious points come first. The success of our encounters may come down to how well we read other people. We have no way of knowing other people except by semiosis, that is, by interpreting the signs that they themselves are. Endlessly varied in class, position, and roles, other people are just like us in acting out and projecting their affinities into interactions with others. We are forced to interpret (and imagine) the people we are dealing with based on the signals they send. How we imagine the other person shapes what we tell them about ourselves, and how we receive what it is that they send.

So, how ought we to generalize about what other people think of “us”? How well have we formed our conception of how others conceive of us? What is our data?

We could start by considering the problem demographically. First, it should be noted that religious studies professionals are exceedingly rare in our economy. It is highly unlikely that a person will meet a religious studies professional in the ordinary course of life.[4] To consider only the economy of the United States, in 2015, out of the nearly 149 million employed persons over age 16, only 1.3 million (less than 1%) were categorized as “postsecondary teachers.” But postsecondary instructors in “Philosophy and Religion” (where the BLS categorizes us, not including the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed, and the graduate students) number only 23,820 persons. Translated, that means that less than 2% of college teachers teach Philosophy and/or Religion. Thus, overall, less than 0.02% (2/100ths of one percent) of working people in America do what you do. In comparison, Clergy, Religious Educators, and other Religious Workers (as the BLS categorizes them) make up some 620 thousand persons, making them about 25 times as common as you in this economy (though still rare at around 0.5% of workers).

But surely, maybe you’re thinking, most people in North America go to college or university, and there they will have met some scholars of religion, perhaps in a required general education course? Perhaps they knew some religion majors in college? Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. In 2014, it was estimated that approximately 45% of United States residents age 25-65 held an associates or higher postsecondary degree.[5] Furthermore, it should be noted that students with a major in Philosophy and/or Religion have made up from 1% (in 1970) to 0.75% (in 2014) of degrees awarded, while students in Theology have held steady at 0.5% of degrees awarded from 1970 to 2014.[6]

I have not found data to suggest what percentage of students in college have encountered religious studies courses during their time in school. However, the disparity in percentages of postsecondary teachers in our line of work (nearly 2%) versus the number of graduates with degrees in our fields (less than 1%) suggests that many of us are employed because we are at work in teaching general education courses. But some number of these persons teach philosophy rather than religion, and many teach general humanities at an introductory level. In short, I do not think you can count on most people ever having any prior experience with meeting actual religious studies professionals.

That person who just asked you what you do? You are probably the first (and last) scholar of religion they will ever encounter. (Unless the AAR/SBL is meeting in their town.)

Given such observations, is it any wonder that people have difficulty in categorizing us and situating us in their mental systems of kinds of professions?

As a coda to this set of reflections, let me step back and register a few further notes of perplexity and complexity.

Twice every year at my institution, in early Fall and Spring, the registrar sends out a complete list of every student organized by major course of study (double majors are listed twice). In each list, student names appear together with their ID number, the name of their main advisor, their declared concentrations, and their class level (which is determined by number of credits earned). I normally use these constantly shifting lists of majors in Religion and Philosophy to help manage my program, for example, by creating relatively current email lists, or for planning for which courses need to be offered, or for qualitatively tracking individual outcomes in conversation with my colleagues. But recently, while examining the lists from the past four years, I noticed something that was both interesting and a bit troubling. The fact is that it is somewhat rare for my program to retain freshmen majors. We tend not to see those who had declared a religion major when they matriculated as freshmen in our senior seminars. At least half of our graduates declared the major as sophomores or later. And well over half of those whose names appear on these major lists as freshmen do not stay religion majors (some drop out, transfer, or leave the school; others switch majors). What this suggests to me is that students who come in thinking that they want to “study religion” do not know in advance what this work entails. Possibly, when they encounter our faculty, and our courses, these early declarers discover that “religious studies” really isn’t for them. Possibly, there is a mismatch between their preconceptions and the “reality” that the work presents.

And what about the students that do persist? At my school, around half of them go on into seminaries after graduation, and from there into those vastly more common but still rare jobs that are associated with religious institutions.

And as for us: how many of us trained in religiously affiliated (or historically religious) colleges, seminaries, and graduate programs? How many received M.Div. or M.Th. degrees? How many took ordination? How many belong to churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.? How many do mainly descriptive, interpretive, theological or normative and constructive work? How many write editorials extolling the virtues of public theology, critical engagement, and the profound resources of religion, like “revolutionary love”? How many operate with the idea that religion is a sui generis response to a universal human experience of transcendence?

“So, you’re not a priest?”

“No, let me see if I can explain the difference…”

Yes, let us see if you can.


Matthew Baldwin is Professor and Coordinator of the Program in Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, an historically Baptist undergraduate liberal arts school in Western North Carolina.


  1. A vast literature of blog posts and professional self-help articles examine the socially fraught question “what do you do?” Most advise taking alternate paths for getting to know people. For a relatively recent and frequently linked piece on the topic, see Carolyn Gregoire, “Want to Kill a Conversation? Ask Someone What They do,” Huffington Post The Third Metric (10/30/2013)
  1. “So, you’re a heart specialist? do you recommend eating bacon or not?” “You’re a psychologist? Wow, I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you; are you analyzing me right now?” “What made you decide to be a garbage collector?” “Cool! I’ve always wondered what it is like being a stripper!” “You’re a writer/actor/painter, eh? interesting; but what do you really do, you know, for a living?”
  1. J. Royce, “Doubting and Working,” The Californian 3 (1881) 229–230.
  1. The following numbers are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and reflect fiscal year 2015. See BLS, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” (2/10/2016) For specific data on Postsecondary Teaching, see the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook at and for employment statistic on Philosophy and Religion teachers at the post-secondary level see the BLS, “Occupational Employment Statistics | Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015 | 25-1126 Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary” at
  1. See Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation” (April 2016)
  1. See Quoctrung Bui, “What’s Your Major? 4 Decades of College Degrees, in 1 Graph,” National Public Radio Planet Money (5/9/2014); and National Center for Education Statistics Classification of Instructional Programs at which explains and breaks down the categories.
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A Whole New People of the Book: A Review of Lewis and Lund, eds., Muslim Superheroes

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.

Lewis, A. David and Martin Lund, eds. Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 256. $24.93 (paperback).

by Aaron Ricker

Lewis and Lund’s book is literally one of a kind, which is saying something given the exponentially productive academic field of comics and religion. I was accordingly impressed by the generous research shared by Lewis and Lund in their “Introduction,” and convinced that books like theirs are necessary given the ignorance and hostility that often greets their topic. The facts and figures included here all point in one direction: Muslims are underrepresented in comics, even as villains where their numbers spike uncomfortably. Working with the assumption that the productions of pop culture can reveal important mainstream cultural attitudes and trends (and in turn shape them), Lewis and Lund argue that facts like these deserve more serious attention.

In the volume’s opening essay, Nicholaus Pumphrey addresses the problems of representation and visibility raised by the depiction of Dust, a member of the X-Men who wears a niqab. Though explicit attention to the details and politics of a superhero in niqab makes good sense in a volume dedicated to Islam and pop culture representation, I would like to have heard more about the representational problems of her superpower being the ability to turn into a sandstorm. Would a new Inuit X-Man have the code name Frosty and have the mutant power to turn into 50 distinct kinds of snow? Of course, I’m only assuming that there is a Person-of-Color dimension to Dust’s story because I’m told she’s from Afghanistan, and Pumphrey makes reference to the gaze of white male readers. I don’t actually know what she looks like. In fact, the reader is not referred to any images. Ignoring the image on the page is a common and dangerous habit in comics studies. We academics primarily used to dealing in texts and texts about texts often produce analyses of comic books that sound like the reviews of a film critic who’s only seen the screenplays. At a launch event for Muslim Superheroes hosted at the most recent national meeting of the American Academy of Religion (Nov. 18, 2017), Lewis said he and Lund had been a little confused by the scarcity of images requested by contributors, but felt unsure about how to understand and address the issue. It would have been better if they had pressed the question, though, because the volume suffers as it unfolds from this unfortunately common habit of rushing past the visual. Kevin Wanner’s piece on Faiza Hussain, for example, examines how Muslim superheroes are stuck with Western liberal standards of “good religion” versus “bad religion” (good religion being a personal matter that just happens to encourage mainstream social values), and gives a little more attention to visual cues. Readers still don’t get any analysis, though, of panels or pages or the deliciously smelly cheap printed matter we’d be holding in our hands.

A second troubling habit discernible in Muslim Superheroes is an abiding interest in the question of Muslim superheroes conforming to a given cultural consensus versus Muslim superheroes resisting assimilation into a given cultural consensus. Chris Reyns-Chikuma and Désirée Lorenz argue that Ms. Marvel is not an “assimilationist” work in the way it depicts her Islam as a positive “cultural and “personal” thing that supports positive public values. It feels jarring to try to follow this argument in light of the question just raised: Depicting “religion” as positive if it stays within the private sphere while serving values depicted as universal—doesn’t that amount in itself to a honeymoon with liberal consensus ideas about what religion is? Dwain C. Pruitt’s historical look at how the face of Islam in comics was for a long time black uses the Wise Son series to trace a similar pattern: religion is good provided it serves values assumed to be universal.

Mercedes Yanora’s essay examines the ways in which “good Muslims” in comics relate to American foreign policy, not just “bad Muslims.” Liberal ideas of good versus bad religion once again pass uninterrogated in her discussion of Davood Nassur, who “does not practice his religion overtly,” but is rather a hero who just happens to be a Muslim. The heroism of Ms. Marvel is praised in a parallel vein as “unhindered by Islam” (128)!

Fredrik Strömberg’s contribution discusses genre-bending in superhero comics from the Middle East, paying attention for example to the local expectation that comics will be educational. When Strömberg noted that AK comics were intended to express “universal values,” I wished once more that Wanner could fly in for a crossover cameo, and when Ken Chitwood’s essay discussed hybridity and the postcolonial idea of the “third spaces” created in colonial situations (irreducible to either the colonizing cultures or the colonized cultures involved), I found myself wishing that every essay in Muslim Superheroes had started there. In the essay after Chitwood’s, for example, Aymon Kreil explores the tangled “universalism” found in the Muslim superheroics of an Egyptian woman named Qahera, and the kind of frame just described would have helped greatly in clarifying and guiding the analysis.

The final essay is the second to incorporate images, and Hussein Rashid’s attention is on relating the succession of images to the progression of the stories involved. Rashid suddenly introduces a new focus by discussing comics made about Muslim “super-hero” Ali, the fourth Caliph, without explaining why or how the phenomena involved might relate to the study of Muslim “superheroes” per se. A. David Lewis says in the “Conclusion” that he himself has done such work elsewhere, but this just makes me wonder why Rashid didn’t either engage that work here, or go join Lewis and others there. The rest of Lewis and Lund’s “Conclusion” is as earnest and interesting as their “Introduction,” for example in their point about Muslim superheroes needing to be female to sell—interesting given what theorists of Orientalism have said about the “feminization” of the Muslim other. The notes included on teaching using comics are also solid and appreciated. The scholarly yet readable language of Muslim Superheroes certainly lends itself to such classroom use, as do its bite-sized topics and editorial overviews. I only wish that such ideas had been digested and engaged by all of the collection’s contributors, instead of ghettoized in its editorial bookends. As Lewis himself acknowledged at the AAR launch event mentioned above, Muslim Superheroes is a valuable and “noble effort,” in part precisely by virtue of offering a very imperfect “first step,” and a “blunt instrument” inviting further sharpening.

Aaron Ricker is lecturer in Religious Studies at McGill University. His work can be followed on Academia.

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

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

by Bruce Woll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Eoin O’Mahony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Mitsutoshi Horii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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