Reading J.Z. Smith (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Both of us have been enormously influenced by J. Z. Smith (1938-2017), through his many writings, obviously, but also in numerous visits and conversations with him. Along with many others, we consider Smith to be one of the most provocative and influential theorists of religion of the last half-century or so. Reading J. Z. Smith does not argue this, however; rather, it presupposes it and, through the informality of the interview format, demonstrates it. The main purpose of this book is to gather in one place some the oral, informal musings of Smith on the field, his own work, and his teaching style. After all, high-level scholarship and teaching were of equal importance to him. Along with the interviews that Smith gave on numerous occasions, we are enormously pleased also to include Smith’s previously unpublished inaugural “Lifetime of Learning Address” to the American Academy of Religion in 2010. This address (introduced by Ann Taves), along with the interviews and his more formal essay “When the Chips Are Down” (in Relating Religion, University of Chicago Press, 2004) forms a body of Smith’s self-reflection on what he calls the “persistent preoccupations” of his long scholarly career. We thought that the material published in Reading J. Z. Smith would give readers an insight into Smith’s motivations, expressed with his characteristic candidness and provocation. Anyone who has had the pleasure of listening to Smith lecture, whether at a conference or in the classroom, will enjoy the edgy liveliness of the interviews and the dynamic mind that he brought to his work.
What motivated your work?
Well, though the interviews and even the “Lifetime of Learning Address” are no substitutes for reading Smith’s many published essays, we thought that the conversations recorded in this book could illuminate his written work, provide expository wisdom on his scholarship, and provide a new more informal point of entry for newcomers to his writings. So we thought that these pieces might help to clarify his often difficult and dense formal work, even motivate readers to do the labor of reading (or re-reading) Smith. As one reviewer (James Tabor) very nicely commented, “J. Z. Smith is infinitely better ‘in his own words’ and this volume is such a wonderful window into just that – not just Smith but Smith on Smith.” We agree. Smith has significantly shaped the field of the study of religion and fundamentally influenced a couple of generations of scholars now in the field. What could be better than “hearing” him talk about what he thought he was up to in his scholarship and teaching? And doing so in explicit conversation with others—since that’s how all scholarship actually works, though evident sometimes at conferences, its back-and-forth nature is often occluded in our published work, something readers have to piece together from the citations and footnotes. As it turned out, although Smith was fully on board with our book’s project—we met with him a couple times, in Chicago, to discuss it and kept him in the loop as it developed—he did not live to see it published. So, the words in this book may be the last words of Smith that will be published. Thus, certainly unanticipated by us, this book is also a sort of farewell by him to the academy and we are glad to have been able to facilitate that.
What is J. Z. Smith’s legacy in terms of theory/pedagogy?
“Legacy” is a big word and implies both a bequest and the reception of it. There are many insights that Smith offers the student of religion. Perhaps first and foremost is his repeated insistence that “religion is an inextricably human phenomenon,” as he puts it in his first essay collection, Map Is Not Territory (1978). This of course means many things. One thing it obviously means is that students of religion are interested in human doings; their focus in on humans who speak about and interact with the gods or other non-obvious beings and not on those gods themselves. Religion does not exist without and apart from human doings. This is why Smith insists that the study of religion is best described in relation to the Human Sciences, in relation to Anthropology rather than Theology. This anthropological orientation is something to which he remained true in all his work. Now, humans do many things, of course. So, a second step is needed, which is to limit our focus of interest to just some of these doings that we then somewhat arbitrarily call religious. “Religion,” as he made evident on many occasions, is a taxonomic term, a classifier. And this act of classification that identifies some human practices as religious—regardless who does it (so this includes scholars too)—is itself entirely a human act. It’s this that we read Smith to have meant when he famously (and to many peoples’ chagrin) insisted that “there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study … Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy” (see the opening lines of Imagining Religion). In other words, there is no inherently religious data set; some human activities become religious only once they are defined and classified as such. It is true of course, that definition and classification are intellectual acts and, as such, they can be contested and changed. Smith would grant that, we’d argue. What he did not grant is that there are self-evidently religious things out there—and this marks a significant break between him and many others writing in the field either before or even after him. Although the “anthropological turn” in religious studies has been advocated by others, no one has elucidated the implications of this with greater clarity and rigor than Smith. One immediate implication that comes to mind is his distinct contribution to the act of comparison – another term that Smith has made famous. “I tried always to be comparative,” he says (Reading J. Z. Smith, 7). This not only because classification by necessity demands comparison, but because intellection, knowing, itself depends on comparison. For, as he wrote: “We never look at one thing; we always look at more than one thing” (Reading J. Z. Smith, 7). The problem of comparison and his suggested method for comparison is among what Smith called his “persistent preoccupations” and it comes up for comment frequently in Reading J. Z. Smith (see the book’s detailed index). At its core, Smith insists, comparison is typically done to relate like to like: x reminds people of y, and therefore x and y must somehow be like each other. Also typically, comparison is tends to be competitive to determine relative value: x is better/greater/more valuable/more exceptional/etc. than y. (Think of how our field once worked, in the late-19th century or early 20th, for example, or consider how world religion textbooks still work today.) For Smith comparison instead serves the student’s intellectual purposes; it is motivated by our curiosity and must produce cognitive gain. So, he suggests, “comparing … is not about the similarity or difference of the things compared, but is instead in the service of some intellectual interests and curiosities of the scholar,” as we write in the introduction to Reading J. Z. Smith. For this reason, Smith advocates a method of comparing two things always “with respect” to a third. This delimits comparison and allows for difference to emerge in the compared examples. Much more needs to be said about this, but let it be enough to say here that surely one of Smith’s lasting gifts to the academy is a rigorous method of comparison that is not driven by commonality and the unification of things, much less by presumptive hierarchy of values, but by questions such as: What is comparison? What can it do for us in trying to understand religion and the religions? How can a scholar compare responsibly?
How might the book be used in a classroom?
We like to think that this little book is an expository companion to Smith’s work. On the one hand, it lends itself to being a primary text. Here is what Smith says he is doing and why; now go and see him do it in article x or y. (One of the features of the volume is that it contains numerous editorial notes that refer readers to Smith’s other works where something he mentions in passing is worked out and demonstrated.) On the other, the volume is also fruitfully read after having worked through Smith’s scholarly essays—a way of debriefing and seeing how Smith himself might rephrase, in conversation, a point illustrated in his work. There’s four interviews in the volume, conducted from 1999 onward, in which he talks to scholars but also to students, such as the still read Chicago Maroon online student newspaper interview with him (from 2008), that sheds some interesting light on, among other things, his writing habits—it’s an interview that’s fun, at times, and it humanizes a famous scholar, and we think students often benefit from realizing that the authors they read in their classes are people too, just like them. The fifth interview is actually a recorded 2013 session from the University of Chicago Divinity School (and our thanks to Andie Alexander for transcribing these audio pieces) in which he presented on the choices that went into making his intro course’s syllabus, followed by a Q&A session with the grad students there. So working through all of these five pieces, which often involve questions with which student readers can likely identity, will thicken anyone’s understanding of the issues being debated in the field today, let alone Smith’s other works.
How do you think students would most benefit from your book?
Hopefully, the book will entice students to become careful readers of Smith’s many other books and essays. And, in many instances it will answer candidly what Smith thought he was up to. But given his clear thoughts on questions being far more important than answers (see the question about this in one of the interviews), the book’s conversational model makes evident how he arrives at his answers—the process is far more important than the outcome, for if you can figure out how to, for instance, compare two things, then you can take that method and go do things your teacher hadn’t even anticipated. So we’d hope that students would benefit by using the book to think not just about how they think about the study of religion but, more broadly, how they go about thinking about a host of other things, for we’re all doing comparison all throughout our day, just to get from place to place or to arrive somewhere on time. So if the book helps get readers either to read more of Smith or even just to consider how it is that they know some two things are alike or different, then we’d consider that a victory.