Monday, December 15, 2014

Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom

This is another installment in an ongoing series of posts in a collaborative effort between the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blogs. On November 23, 2014, approximately 20 scholars of religion, from grad students to more seasoned professors, participated in a NAASR workshop in San Diego, CA on the question of how to introduce theory in an introductory religious studies class. Participants were divided into three groups addressing: 1) who/which theorists to include; 2) what data should be included, and; 3) where should theory come into play (e.g., at the start, middle, or end?). What follows is a reflection from one of the participants.

By Pat McCullough

My Religion 101 course presents me with a bit of a dilemma. At UCLA, the “101” actually signals an upper division course. The course is not really a general introduction to the study of religion, highlighting foundational methods and broad themes—we don’t have one of those. Rather, the course (“History of the Study of Religion”) surveys the theorists who have influenced the academic study of religion. Since we are on the quarter system, I have only ten weeks to play around with.

So, it’s a 10-week introductory course at an upper-division level focusing on theorists without any more general introductory course leading them in. I don’t want to bring the students into our list of dead white guys cold, so I need to provide a framework . . . and one that fits in 10 weeks. J. Z. Smith’s “less is more” pedagogical challenge haunts me.

Setting the Framework. One of the key questions we address in the course is: what is religion? We start the first week with the intro and first chapter to Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion (a decent, accessible overview to the historical invention of the category) and Craig Martin’s first chapter in his Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. On the whole, the students are really drawn in by the issues of definition and categorization that these readings raise. Then we apply what we’ve learned to a comparison between Geertz’s and Lincoln’s definitions. This issue of the category of “religion,” then, permeates our analysis as we go.

I also present them with a dichotomy that gives them a narrative of controversy (to add a bit of excitement to the course): the “essentialists” vs. the “reductionists.” I present these as two “camps” that battle over “religion” language. We talk about how these two camps utilize certain terms to claim their territory or attack the other camp.

After this first-week framework, I give them the rest of Craig Martin so that they know what a contemporary, critical approach to the study of religion looks like. (This is what I wish they had before walking into my class.) Also, I know that we’ll spend the majority of the quarter reading Pals, whose approach to the study of religion differs considerably from mine. I want them to have a resource that helps them make sense of Pals’ perspective (more on this later). This takes up weeks two and three. As fun and revolutionary as Craig’s book is, I feel like it’s too much reading not directly on the topic at hand. I may work on choosing just two chapters.

Also, throughout the entire class, we have “case studies.” This year, we talked about Hobby Lobby, the Quebec charter, the intro to Carolyn Chen’s Getting Saved in America, 12 Years a Slave, the intro to Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (that was so much fun), Christian Zionism, and Richard Madsen on Buddha’s Light Mountain. We do this because I think we’d all get bored out of our minds talking theory for theory’s sake all quarter.

Choosing the “Canon.” Not everyone has to set a canon in their introductory religion courses, but it seems to me that a course on the “history of the study of religion” is necessarily canonical. I need to decide who is in and who is out. My choices thus far have been fairly traditional, with just a little bit of extra flavor towards the end. I use Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion as the main text, supplemented by Deal and Beal’s Theory for Religious Studies and the glossary of scholars in Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion. I use Pals because the reading is the most accessible presentation. I use McCutcheon and Deal and Beal because I find Pals’ bias too much to bear at points. For Pals, Freud, Durkheim, and Marx are the enemies and Eliade is the clear hero:

Reductionist explanations, even in the less militantly antireligious form developed by Durkheim, tend to be so fundamentally opposed to the normal stance of faith that it is hard to see how believers could abide them without discomfort. . . . Behind the scenes, then, it is apparent that personal commitments have played at the very least a strong motivating role in the development of modern theories of religion. To those who, like Freud and Marx, have written from a personal stance of antipathy toward religion, aggressive reductionism seems only natural and right. To those who, like Eliade, have been moved by sympathy with the religious perspective, it can only be misguided and mistaken. (316–7, emphasis mine)

Thus, I pit Pals against McCutcheon as representatives of our “essentialist” and “reductionist” camps—highlighting how these often function as pejorative labels. So, these disagreements become pedagogically useful.

I use 6 out of 8 theorists from Pals: Freud, Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Eliade, and Geertz. I add Althusser and Foucault. We also get Bourdieu via Craig’s book. Nine theorists: all white, all dead, one gay, one wife murderer.

This brings me to the canon question: who represents the history of the study of religion? Fundamentally, it seems to me that there are two approaches to this: theories of religion (see Pals’ title) and theory for religious studies (see Deal and Beal). One is a review of theorists who have said something about “religion” and the other affects the way that we do religious studies. At times, we deal with this distinction in a single theorist: Marx, for example, said some stuff about “religion” that’s worth unpacking, but that’s certainly not where his influence ends in the academic study of religion. Foucault said some stuff about “religion” that I don’t really think matters all that much (sorry, Jeremy Carrette!), but he’s offered some analytical tools that have revolutionized the field.

My primary textbook largely sets the agenda for me: I do mostly theories of religion, which I think is reasonable. There’s a problem, though. It kills me that all the theorists are dead white guys. I have several important female scholars in the case studies (Lofton, Mahmood, Sullivan, others), but they don’t function as part of the “canon.” These women are not available to the students when they choose a theorist to write about in their final paper. (I never used the term “canon” in class, even though it is effectively a canon.)

I finish the class with a reading that would have been impossible to start with, but is a wonderful way to tie all the loose ends together and bring us back to the overall framework: chapters 1 and 6 of Arnal and McCutcheon’s The Sacred Is the Profane. Closing out the course, it reviews just about all the theorists we discussed and pushes the students to take categorical considerations even more seriously.

Changes for Next Year: Less Is More; Difference Is Better. I’m going to be soliciting feedback from students on how best to do this, but I will be making changes to cut down on the reading and to reduce the white-male-ness of the course-canonized theorists. My gut tells me I will chop our Craig Martin reading, as I mentioned, to free up a week, and to switch out some theorists. Right now, I’m thinking I could reasonably nix Freud and Weber (and maybe Althusser), changing them up with Mary Douglas, Judith Butler, and Talal Asad (we already talk about Asad quite a bit). I’m certainly open to suggestions on theorists. The best canons are flexible canons.

Also, I’m wondering if there’s some way to reduce Pals. Ultimately, even though it is fun to teach against the text, I do long for a single “History of the Study of Religion” textbook that does what I want it to do—and with shorter chapters. I imagine a mix between Pals and Deal and Beal, with a sprinkling of Martin’s “Intro” and Nongbri. I can juggle the current combination in teachable ways, but it feels like too much.

That said, I have watched my students progress through the class in astounding ways. It was challenging for them, I know, but I’m confident they can handle pretty much anything another humanities or social science course might throw at them after this.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Part I: Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom

This is part of an ongoing series of posts in a collaborative effort between the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blogs. On November 23, 2014, approximately 20 scholars of religion, from grad students to more seasoned professors, participated in a NAASR workshop in San Diego, CA on the question of how to introduce theory in an introductory religious studies class. Participants were divided into three groups addressing: 1) who/which theorists to include; 2) what data should be included, and; 3) where should theory come into play (e.g., at the start, middle, or end?). What follows are reflections from two of the participants.

By Ian Cuthbertson
PhD Candidate, Queen's University

I organize my full-year introductory course as an introduction to the academic study of religion. Enrollment is typically between 150 and 175 and most of the students are first-year students who have never taken a religious studies course.

I have three main goals for the course.

1. In April, I want students to understand that religion is not a straightforward ‘object’ of study and that the usual ease with which we determine what is, or isn’t, religion obscures the ways this seemingly obvious designation varies according to the contexts (temporal, geographical, cultural, etc.) and motives of the individuals who employ that designation;

2. I also want students to understand that theory is everywhere – not only in classrooms or textbooks, and;

3. I want students to understand that theory isn’t something that is applied to an object, but that theory actually determines the boundaries of the ‘object’ under scrutiny. Additional details concerning the course and my plan for achieving these goals can be found here.

I would like to address two themes that came up at the workshop this November: 1. The value of using everyday seemingly mundane reality as data in introductory courses and, 2. The importance of cultivating what might be described as an attitudinal or affective change in students.

1. Making the Usual Unusual

Last week I solicited student feedback for the first half of my course and one recurring complaint concerned how little time we spent ‘actually learning about religion.’ The problem, I think, is that while I want to discuss problems surrounding the category ‘religion,’ students expect to learn interesting facts about various religions. I think this is a problem for three reasons. First, it reinforces the notion that there are religions in the world that, while different, all share some common irreducible core that sets them apart from other aspects of human culture (economics, politics, etc.). Second, I think it reinforces the notion that the study of religion involves learning what religious people (Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc.) believe or do – as if these identities are straightforward, static, and universal. Third, I think it obscures the fact that the study of religion should involve not only exploring their (exotic, unusual) beliefs practices, texts, etc., but also our (seemingly unproblematic) categories and acts of classification.

Several strategies for shifting the focus away from the contents of various religions and toward problems of classification came up in the workshop but I want to focus on one strategy I hope to implement next term. In the second term we approach ‘religion’ from the standpoint of practice rather than of belief. One assignment I like requires students to visit and report on a religious ritual. Last year I expanded the assignment to include any kind of ritual (a football game, say) but left it at that. This year, in light of the workshop, I want to modify the assignment so that students observing (apparently) religious rituals are paired with students observing (apparently) non-religious rituals. While the first half of the assignment will remain the same, I will add a new component in which students read and discuss their partner’s work and then report on this exchange. In this way the data for the assignment is no longer the (seemingly unusual) religious ritual or the (seemingly ordinary) non-religious ritual but rather the process of studying ritual as religion or studying ritual as non-religion. I’m still thinking about how best to make this interesting for students, but I think it might help dispel the idea that religion is radically different from other domains of human activity and encourage students to become curious about their own distinctions between what is and isn’t religion.

2. Cultivating Confidence

I don’t remember what I learned in my first year classes and I don’t expect that my students will remember much of what they learn in my class either. The one thing I do remember from my very first religion class at Mount Allison University is being asked the question “what is religion?” I don’t know how I responded, but I can clearly recall the dawning realization that this was actually a difficult question that would require some serious thought. I became curious, in other words, and remain curious today.

Cultivating this sort of curiosity is one of my priorities as an instructor and this desire to affect change in the ways students think was a central theme of the workshop. While we disagreed as to how best to describe this change (affective? attitudinal?), we seemed to agree that what really mattered was the development of critical faculties and curiosity rather than the acquisition of particular bits of information or the mastery of particular theoretical approaches.

One thing I would like to add to this discussion is the importance of cultivating confidence in first-year students. Theory is complicated and theorists’ writing can be obscure and intimidating. I want my students to feel as though they are able to engage with theory, even if they have not yet developed anything close to a complete understanding. There is a fine line, I think, between cultivating confidence and settling for sloppy or incomplete arguments – and I don’t always know where to draw that line. But I think that confidence is necessary for the development of the kind of active inquisitiveness or curiosity we value.


By Martha Smith Roberts
PhD Candidate, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

This workshop created a space for discussion of theory, method, and course goals in relation to larger critical understandings of religion and religious studies. My group, which included Matthew King, Rebekka King, and Ken Estey discussed the question of when/where to use theory in an introductory course. And, like the other groups (discussing the who and what) our conclusion was that there is no single correct answer. However, what became clear in our discussion was that context is key. Whether organizing a course thematically or chronologically, theoretical structures, questions, and ideas must be contextualized and connected to content throughout the course. Matthew King discussed an approach that begins by introducing traditional categories/theories of religion then offers critiques of those definitions (including postcolonialism, feminism, and secularism). Rebekka King discussed a thematic approach based on traditional concepts of religion (like creed, code, cultus, community) that provides students with critical theory and case studies to problematize each concept. In both of these examples, they emphasized the need for critiques and content that give students a way to understand and “speak back” to dominant theories.

The larger group discussion on who to include and what data is useful for this project was also a conversation on context. The questions that I found were perhaps left unanswered were those of alternative knowledges that could be a useful tool for both contextualizing and critiquing dominant theories of religion. Introduction to Religion courses are often theory-centered, and the traditional theorists and theories (like those in Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion) can be paired with their critics so that, for example, students read both Geertz and Asad (other suggested critical texts and authors were Craig Martin, Russell McCutcheon, and J.Z. Smith). However, our discussion left me wondering about theories that challenge the narratives of religion from other angles that students might find both relevant and empowering.

In an Introduction to American Religions course, for example, the frames shift; theory is not my content in the same way it is in a method and theory course. And the narrative we are challenging is one that students can perhaps more clearly see that they have a stake in. We discuss the construction of dominant narratives of American religion: consensus, conflict, and combinative histories that reveal power dynamics of which religions “count” in particular historical contexts. We look at the ways in which categories like diversity, pluralism, and tolerance are used to create American religion as inclusive, even as many are excluded. Alternative narratives reveal the cracks and fissures of those dominant constructions. Reading theory from women and people of color like Charles Long, Ron Takaki, Khyati Joshi, Jane Iwamura, bell hooks, and Robert Allen Warrior, among others, is a powerful way to disrupt white, Protestant, hetero-patriarchal theories of religion.

The workshop made me consider how to incorporate these ideas as I write a syllabus for a method and theory class. Disrupting, decentering, and complicating the categories and definitions of religion can happen in a variety of ways. For me, giving students different models for “speaking back” not only introduces the possibilities of new forms and languages of critique, but also encourages students to see how it is that our socially constructed identities inform our critiques in very real ways.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Notes on the film ‘Teenage’

By Adam T. Miller
University of Chicago

In "Redescribing ‘Religion and…’ Film: Teaching the Insider/Outsider Problem," Russell McCutcheon writes: "What makes a particular film a candidate for [religious studies] courses…is usually limited to whether it addresses such grand issues as suffering and evil or such supposedly enduring human values as forgiveness and love." But if our classes are about "cultivating historical, cultural analysis of complex human behaviors and institutions," not uncritically reproducing the understanding of religion our students often already have, then perhaps we ought to choose films more suited to our ends.

It is with this suggestion in mind that I bring to the table for consideration Teenage, a film ostensibly having very little to do with the study of religion. Using archival footage and diaries of youngsters living in the United States, England, and Germany between the late nineteenth century and the years immediately following the conclusion of World War II, the 2013 film documents the birth of the teenager. Watch the trailer below:

Although the film could probably be used to raise a few different sets of questions, I’d like to focus on how it might help students in introductory classes begin to think critically about the categories we employ.

Using an example seemingly inconsequential relative to the seemingly ever-serious topic of religion, the film introduces social constructionism and the genealogical method–it traces the development of the category "teenager" (thereby implying that teenagers [as we conceive them today] have not existed in all times and places), and shows how the category has connotations unique and directly related to its development.

"But," the objection goes, "haven’t there always been people whose bodies have revolved around the sun thirteen to nineteen times (or, if you fancy a longer view of adolescence and young-adulthood, twelve [or so] to twenty-five [or so] times)?" Sure there have. But people with this level of solar-systemic experience–not all of them, of course–were only recently afforded the rights, privileges, and responsibilities (or lack thereof) we today associate with being a teenager. Prior to this gradual bestowal, children became adults as soon as they were able to work. There was no in-between stage characterized by voluntary/optional work, increased (albeit still limited) self-determination, and surplus time for leisure and "self-discovery". Conceptualized in this way, we can’t sensibly talk about teenagers in contexts prior to the industrial revolution (not to mention some contemporary contexts). But if we take the word and give it a new, limited sense for the purposes of conversation and/or analysis (e.g., if we restrict our usage of the term to refer to people whose bodies have revolved around a certain number of times), such silence is no longer necessary.

Like the category "teenager," the category "religion" has a traceable history, and it carries connotations today unique and directly related to its development. As Jonathan Z. Smith notes in "Religion, Religions, Religious," the etymology of the word "religion" is complex, but it gradually came to be employed by Euro-Americans (often in colonial contexts) to describe "human thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior." In other words, the word became an anthropological category. And, as Craig Martin writes in the second chapter of A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, "[t]he categories we use are almost always directly related to our human interests." Discussing the human interests that lead to the advent of teenagers as we know them (e.g., the desire to do away with child labor) could be a useful entry point to a discussion of the same with regard to religion. And though perhaps a bit meandering, loosening up the meaning of "teenager" may help students to understand why it is important to begin with theories and definitions when studying religion.

On a related note, the way in which the film seems to disregard empirical differences among its subjects (whose situations and identifications, both self-imposed and otherwise, vary drastically in some instances) in favor of an abstracted essence is reminiscent of the way in which some religious studies scholars (not to mention most students, at least initially) think about religion. The following words from the film’s website illustrate this suppression of difference: "Whether in America, England, or Germany, whether party-crazed Flappers or hip Swing Kids, zealous Nazi Youth or frenzied Sub-Debs, it didn’t matter – this was a new idea of how people come of age. They were all ‘Teenagers.'" The fact that the swing kids defined themselves in direct opposition to the Hitler youth, for example, is inconsequential–or, so the film suggests. But is it really? Can these differences be so easily brushed aside? Regardless of where one lands with regard to this particular question, I think working through it–in conjunction with the first chapter ofA Critical Introduction–could open up avenues for discussion about how colloquial uses of words like "religion" group together dissimilar things and not everyone is in agreement about what should count as "religion"–the end goal again being to get students to see the need for up-front talk of theory and definition.

*This post originally appeared on the author's blog.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ten Observations about Teaching and Academia

By Tommy Carrico
Florida State University

Sometimes, an instructor is afforded a great amount of leeway when designing a course – reading schedules, assignments, course descriptions, and policies are all left up to her.  Other times, the syllabus comes pre-prepared with all of these policies, procedures, and reading lists: the instructor’s task is to teach a course that someone else has designed.  In the former situation, the instructor is able to structure the readings, assignments, and flow of the course according to her research interests, style of argumentation, and the learning goals of the course.  In the latter, while it may seem that the instructor is not afforded these opportunities, I have found that teaching a pre-prepared syllabus provides a unique opportunity to examine academic discourse more generally.  Rather than viewing this type of teaching assignment as unduly restrictive, I would recommend using the construction of a body of knowledge as a theoretical grounding point to tie various elements of the course together.  This is, in many ways, an approach that scholars are (or should be) quite familiar with:

      1. The instructor/scholar is presented with a unified body of material;

      2. This unified body of material may have been divided into sub-sections based on any number of categorizations (thematic, chronological, etc.), necessitating that the instructor

      3. Identify some kind of unifying principle, thesis, or logic to this body of material and its subdivisions,

      4. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of this body’s unity,

      5. Draw attention to the processes by which this material and its subdivisions are presented as related and unified,

      6. Make an argument based on this body of material, introducing “outside” material as necessary, in order to

      7. Challenge the presuppositions of the material itself as well as its unification, in order to

      8. Come to a clearer conception of the production of bodies of knowledge as well as their internal strains/contradictions, in order to

      9. Render elements of these bodies (in fact, the bodies themselves) contingent and, therefore, challengeable, in order to

      10. Begin the project of re-structuring, expanding, or pruning particular commonplace categories or bodies of material presented as unified.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Asking the Right Questions

By Adam T. Miller

I’ve been teaching an accelerated online course in religious studies for a little over a year now (thanks, Doug!), and have had some time to get certain parts of my course–the discussion forums in particular–how I want them. But I’m always looking to improve, so I want to do a bit of crowdsourcing here. After providing my current discussion forum prompts, I will humbly request feedback from my comrades in the business of teaching courses in religious studies–ideally those familiar with (to one degree or another) the works in question. I am looking for better ways to frame the questions so as to elicit better responses–for if there’s anything I’ve learned from teaching, it’s that it’s all about asking the right questions.

So, here goes nothing…Hopefully this turns out to be a good idea.

Week 1: Approaching Religion Academically

Having read “Studying Religion: Laying the Groundwork” by Craig Martin, I want you to explain in mostly your own words the following: (1) Functionalism, (2) The hermeneutics of suspicion, (3) Methodological atheism, (4) The difference between methodological atheism and atheism, and (5) Martin’s reasons for promoting methodological atheism in the academic study of religion.

Week 2: Social Constructionism

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Society Works: Classification,” I want you (1) to explain social constructionism in mostly your own words (Hint: it’s a theory about the relationship between language and the social world; pay close attention to his discussion of classification/categorization), and (2) to explain why Martin treats religion as a social construct.

Week 3: Socialization, Naturalization, and Religion

Having read “How Society Works: Structure” by Craig Martin, I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the process of socialization, (2) the meaning of the word naturalization, and (3) the role religion plays in the naturalization of socially constructed realities (for example: social roles, norms of behavior, social orders/hierarchies).

Week 4: Habitus

Having read “How Society Works: Habitus” by Craig Martin, I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of habitus, and (2) the relationship between habitus and religion.

(Think about these questions in formulating your response: What is the root word of habitus? How does habitus relate to socialization and naturalization? How does habitus function—that is, what does it do? How do we acquire habitus? What role does socioeconomic status play in the acquisition of habitus? Does religion provide its own unique habitus? Is religion just one ingredient in a habitus, broadly conceived?)

Week 5: Legitimation

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Religion Works: Legitimation,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of legitimation and (2) the relationship between legitimation and religion.

(In formulating your response, it will be helpful to think about and use Martin’s discussion of cultural tools and toolboxes.)

Week 6: Authority and Projection

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Religion Works: Authority,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concepts of authority and projection, and (2) the relationship between the two concepts and religion. (Hint: It will be helpful to explain the types of authority, as well as the circle diagram.)

Week 7: Authenticity

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Religion Works: Authenticity,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of authenticity as it relates to religion, and (2) how Martin thinks scholars of religion should interpret authenticity claims (Two hints: (a) He does not argue that scholars should take all authenticity claims as true, and (b) His position has to do with the construction, maintenance, and modification of social groups.)

Week 8: Redescription and Social Formation (see note below)

Having read Russell McCutcheon’s “Redescribing ‘Religion’ as Social Formation: Toward a Social Theory of Religion,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of redescription, (2) the concept of social formation, and (3) how religion can be redescribed as a social formation.

As you see, my students read Martin’s Critical Introduction almost in its entirety, and I have them finish up with the second chapter of McCutcheon’s Critics Not Caretakers. This is my first time using the McCutcheon piece, so who knows whether they’ll be able to dig into it. But I think after reading Martin for several weeks, they will hopefully find the piece accessible.

I am open to any comments, suggestions, criticism, or corrections. All I ask is that you keep in mind that this is an online course, and that it is only eight weeks long. My sincere thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to read and share some thoughts.

A quick note as of 11 October:

This post initially appeared on 30 September, during the seventh week of my eight-week course. My term has since come to end, so I wanted to share a few words about how my students did with the McCutcheon reading/forum.

To put it very briefly, I’d say over half of my students had a very difficult time with it. Many of them found it to be way over their heads (a reaction I anticipated), but also had a hard time uncovering what McCutcheon meant by redescription and social formation (something I did not anticipate, at least not to this degree). That said, there were a handful of students who did pretty well, and an even smaller handful whose posts were truly impressive. Those who did well on this forum, however, were those who had done very well on all previous forums.

In the interest of some kind of fairness (and to alleviate my mild sense of guilt for making them my guinea pigs), I decided to give full credit to everyone who took a legitimate stab at responding to the prompt (making sure to privately recognize the excellent responses, of course).

I’m pretty sure I have to go back to the drawing board for my last week of class. At the moment, I plan to do what I’ve written about doing elsewhere (a post, I should note, written just before the beginning of the term in question here), and have them formulate a critique of Kessler’s Elephant Principle. But, with all that said, I’m still open to any suggestions regarding the Week 8 prompt given above.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

“To suffer for doing what is right”: The Social Functions of Martyrological Language

By Tara Baldrick-Morrone

*This blog originally appeared on the History of Christianity Blog.

When I teach sections on Christianity in my Introduction to World Religions course, I spend a good amount of time on getting my students to think about martyrdom. I do this not only for my own research interests, but because martyrological language plays a large role in the cultural history of Christianity. Oftentimes, the students get caught up in the blood-and-guts portion of the stories; however, my goal in having them look at such stories is to get them to think about how language works. More specifically, though, I want them to see how language serves particular functions, such as how labels are used by groups in order to legitimate their position, for example, or how those used by so-called outsiders (scholars, other groups, etc.) might serve to determine whether the group is (or is not) a “true” example of a particular tradition.

This semester, I created a writing assignment that would get at this very issue: students had to analyze texts that are written in favor of as well as against a specific group. One of the groups that they could choose to write about is the Army of God, an anti-abortion activist group that advocates the killing of doctors in order to prevent them from performing abortions. The pro-Army of God text I selected is a letter from Paul Hill, a loosely affiliated member who was executed in Florida for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett. In the letter, Hill does not explicitly use certain labels to characterize the Army of God (in fact, he does not even mention the group); instead, he alludes to ideas like martyrdom with statements indicating that “[i]t is a great privilege to suffer for doing what is right.” Hill is not the only anti-abortion activist to draw on this notion of martyrdom; in fact, the allusion to martyrdom is prevalent in the anti-abortion movements of the 1980s and 1990s. I would argue that these allusions are best seen in the rhetoric and literature coming from Randall Terry and his group known as Operation Rescue.

Operation Rescue emerged in 1986 in a stated attempt to get “the church” involved in the anti-abortion movement. Doing so, according to Randall Terry, would make Christians realize their sin of bloodguiltiness, which had been committed through their lack of response to the issue of “abortion-on-demand.” Addressing the guilt Christians had because of their indifference was of the utmost importance, for if Operation Rescue were to accomplish its goal of abolishing abortion, Christians would have to be willing to redeem themselves. In a 1989 recruitment video, Terry stresses this point when speaking to protesters: “We are not going down there as the heroes. We are going down there in a spirit of repentance. We are guilty; the blood is on our hands. We’re fifteen years late … We are more guilty than the police when they take us away because the police are not called to be the salt of the earth. We are.” In Terry’s mind, Christians had to come together on this issue, as “only those with warriors’ hearts c[ould] turn the nation around.” These warriors, according to Terry, would be “disciplined, willing to sacrifice, and ready to die.”

The choice of thinking of themselves as warriors who are ready and willing to die, i.e., the use of martyrological language, serves to legitimate Operation Rescue (as well as the Army of God and Paul Hill) in terms of their identities. This martyrological language functions to position them in a much larger formation of civil disobedience and Christian martyrdom. This is done explicitly by Terry in Operation Rescue’s 1988 “handbook” when he draws on the martyrdom of Polycarp, the second-century bishop from Smyrna who was killed for his refusal to renounce Christ and swear to the Roman emperor. More importantly, not only does he reach back to this story from antiquity, but the source he cites from is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, by recounting numerous martyrdoms, constructs a trajectory of Christian martyrdom that spans from the early church period to Protestant martyrs in the sixteenth century.

Elizabeth Castelli’s work on martyrdom and memory in antiquity is useful for thinking about Operation Rescue because, as she argues, “the memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making.” Christian identity became “indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.” In this same vein, then, groups like Operation Rescue use this social memory of early martyrdom to their advantage by arguing that one’s willingness to die lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian in the world. This language also “implies a broader narrative that invokes notions of justice and the right ordering of the cosmos.” Castelli’s point here regarding the “right ordering” of things situates martyrdom in antiquity as a series of conflicts over order between the subjugated (Christians) and the powerful (Roman authorities). Thinking about the function of martyrological language as a way for a group to contest the current order of the world–as fellow CH blogger Jenny Collins-Elliott did earlier this week–is appropriate for thinking about Operation Rescue, as their acts of “martyrdom” sought to overturn the current state that the world was in, namely, the legalization of abortion. Although modern Christian groups are not the minorities they once were, the use of martyrological language attempts to create ties to the past so that the present can be portrayed as being part of a continuous historical narrative.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How and Why Should You Bring Culture on The Edge in the Classroom

By Vaia Touna

PierreBourdieu, in his 1998 book On Television, wrote: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness…Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How to make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extra-ordinary it is?” (21) This is one of my favourite quotes, one that, as a social theorist, drives my teaching approach.

How do you make the students who come to your Religious Studies courses from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of knowledge of what religion is (to name just one word, because I think the struggle to deal with popular knowledge is something common across the humanities), question that knowledge and the self-evidency that lies therein? This is where Culture on the Edge’s blog posts, I think, can play a crucial and very helpful role.

First of all, there is a variety of data to choose from on the site since the seven members of Culture on the Edge come from different disciplines yet all work in the academic study of religion, something that makes Culture on the Edge relevant not only for Religious Studies courses but for courses across the humanities that engage their students in social theories and critical thinking. From historical examples to what’s in the news today, the posts are all relevant and timely.

Blog posts are a fairly new genre, of course, and they could be used in classrooms in various ways:

  • Introduce a theoretical point in a way that it will spark a discussion, since most of our examples are familiar to the students and they are written to provoke their curiosity. 
  • Make useful, even unexpected comparisons. A blog post can serve as an example by which students can be asked to see if the point raised in the blog has application somewhere else, to something from the every day life of the students, something they can now see (in light of the blog post) as strange and therefore curious. That is, to see the familiar in a way that they haven’t thought of before.

The above two can also be helpful to:

  • Regain students’ interest at crucial moments during the course. 
  • Assess what they have learned. 
  • Provoke critical thinking. 
  • Provide examples of self-analysis and socio-analysis.

What makes the CoTE blog posts ideal for classes, is that they are often written with undergrad and grad students in mind and in such a way as to engage students by drawing from examples that are in most cases from their everyday world and in a way that one can introduce a complicated theoretical point in a simple, easily identifiable way. The blog posts then can bring a wide variety of human doings, activities (i.e., other worlds) into the classroom and the classroom into the reader’s world.

One of the most difficult and important things for students is to know if what they learn in a classroom has a practical applicability in their everyday life. Ultimately, then, the question that arises is why should a student take a religious studies course or for that matter any course in the humanities?

To give but an example consider introducing the idea that description and definition is not an innocent act, neither being as self-evident as one might think. Although there are plenty of posts one could cite as an example of this, Steven Ramey’s “The Curious Case of Flappy Birds” draws on an example that students are familiar with, a “game,” but it is also an article that does a lot more work than just describing or defining (an act that is not so unfamiliar when someone tries to describe or define “religion”). I have often heard that what we do in Religious Studies classrooms is disconnected from the “real” world (although I don’t doubt that that might sometimes be the case but only in the way professors teach their material at hand) but Ramey’s post is a great illustration of how everything is connected by comparing, defining “game” to defining “religion,” showing what this act of defining can accomplish, thereby allowing teachers and students alike to further elaborate the comparison in the classroom. That means that students are trained in critical thinking—applying findings from one area to make sense of another. What that further means is that everything in their world can become an occasion to reflect upon, problematize, analyze and not just receive passively as self-evident.

Efficient teachers and professors, in my experience at least, have been those who draw on examples from something familiar, contemporary and present it in a way that students haven’t thought of before, that is, in a controversial or counterintuitive manner; and, as far as I know, counterintuitive in cognitive sciences translates into something that will be memorable. Those teachers and professors who did this certainly gained my attention and curiosity. And like Ramey on games, this is just what so many of the blogs do at Culture on the Edge.

A blog post, or better said our blog posts, are not, of course, the ultimate analysis one can offer to one's students, but instead they should be approached as a venue for brainstorming, a teaser of a theoretical point that can further be analyzed in the classroom or they can even serve as assignments to students that complicate some point further through a comparison to a data set of their choice and with a more detailed analysis.

Given the benefits that we see deriving from the blog posts both as a resource for professors but also as beneficial to students who are now being exposed to the academic and (I would add) critical study of religion, we at CoTE have initiated a series of books entitled, “Working with Culture on the Edge.” They are designed to be little books that can also be used in classrooms as resourceful material, in which a main theme (for example, the issue of origins) gets complicated through a series of blogs written originally on the site by the Culture on the Edge members but now accompanied by invited responses and commentaries, even critiques and elaborations, from some of our graduate readership; the first volume, due out in 2015, is comprised of ten dialectical pairings that each complicate for the readers a central theme in different social and historical sites. 

The “Working with The Edge” books therefore take the idea of the blogging (succinct, provocative pieces that are timely and relevant) to another level because we now have, in one volume, not only the voice of the author but that of the reader as well; in fact, it is difficult to differentiate between the two when reading these pieces, for they are all now authors for yet other readers and so on.

To conclude, and to come all the way back to Bourdieu, CoTE blog posts demonstrate to students what it means to be a social theorists; of course, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange is only the first but very important step in becoming critical thinkers not only in the Academic Study of Religion but I would dare say in the humanities in general. For following flappy birds there will undoubtedly follow further training in fair description and argumentative analysis, all of which is aimed at making the ordinary fascinating.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Residual Assumptions

By Steven Ramey
University of Alabama

(This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.)

In a recent email discussion among scholars about general issues of representations and Wendy Doniger’s controversial book (about which I have written on Culture on the Edge and Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog), P. Pratap Kumar, a colleague in South Africa, framed the issue through a clear, though contrived, contrast between the scholar and the devotee. He wrote,

Someone who is raised as a Hindu grows up listening to religious songs at Satsangs and even through Bollywood religious songs (there are plenty of Bollywood religious songs that Hindus listen to with utmost devotion) and never would have known that their Hindu texts contain many erotic statements and not just the singular term Linga. But on the other hand, scholars especially from the outside Hindu tradition (be they western or eastern) begin with Sanskrit language and then reading the highly specialised texts where they find statements that devout Hindus would have never heard of. From scholar’s reading, there are indeed very detailed erotic references in many Hindu texts, . . .
 We as scholars have to talk about these things because these matters are there in the texts from the Rig Veda to the epics in plenty of places. It is hard to fault a western scholar or any non-Hindu scholar for pointing these out and translating them for what they are.

What particularly caught my eye in this generalized contrast is the assumptions informing each side. The scholar’s training (as Pratap constructs her) forefronts the texts, assuming that whatever is in the text is a part of Hinduism. While many scholars are not focused on texts and translations today, the suggestion that something in the Vedas, puranas, or epics is fair game for representations of Hinduism is common. This earlier assumption retains a continuing influence. For the devotee (again in Pratap’s construction), if it is not in their experience of texts and practices, it is not Hindu.

It is easy to see the devotee’s construction as being narrow, limited to their own experience rather than the broader diversity that people identify with Hinduism. Yet, the scholar’s position, while perhaps appearing more expansive, simply reflects a different narrowing of the boundaries. Assuming that something in the text is automatically representative maintains a residual aspect of the European construction of religion, often termed Orientalism now, that the text is the basis for a religion. It actually sounds like the colonizers trying to be certain that they are not being fooled by those who are explaining cultural elements to them. “Where does it say that in the text?” they might ask.

Doniger’s interest in extending her readers’ conception of Hinduism and preserving it from homogenizing limiting forces appears expansive but retains its own limiting assumptions. What often appears to be obvious is obvious because the assumptions that determine the observation or description have been effectively naturalized as the way things are, not a specific choice in a particular moment. Of course, that naturalization is not universal, as others in other situations make different “obvious” choices that produce different boundaries and descriptions.

     Thanks to Pratap Kumar for permission to quote from the private listserv. Photo of  shivlingam with offerings by Steven Ramey

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reflections on RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture

By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Ph.D. Candidate, Cultural Studies Program, Queen's University 

Last year I redesigned a first-year religious studies course at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. The course is one of two full-year intro courses offered at the School of Religion, the other being a typical introduction to world religions course. In past years, the course had been split between two instructors and tended to be taught as a religion ‘and’ course where each instructor developed content in line with her own interests (religion and sex, religion and the environment, religion and science). Given the opportunity to teach the entire course myself, I developed a new syllabus with the goal of giving first year students a broad introduction not to ‘religion’ per se but rather to the academic study of religion. The theme for the course became ‘religion in modernity’ and topics included secularization, religious fundamentalism, new atheism, and new religious movements. Owing to my own interest in critical theory, I attempted to integrate a critical perspective into the course readings using Malory Nye’s excellent introductory text Religion: The Basics along with excerpts from J.Z. Smith, Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, and others. 

Entering the classroom last September I naively hoped that my students would become as excited about critical theory as I am. They didn’t. And although the course wasn’t a complete flop, it did not live up to my expectations. For the most part, the students hated the theoretical components that I included. Or perhaps they simply couldn’t understand why I seemed so interested in pointing out what religion isn’t – that it isn’t just beliefs or churches – that ‘it’ isn’t really an ‘it’ at all and is instead made up of countless acts of classification performed by self-interested actors. What came across instead was that different people see religion differently. Yes, the students seemed to say. We get it. But we want to learn about religion, not what people say about religion.

This summer I had some time to reflect on the challenges of including critical theory in a first-year intro course and went back to the drawing board. First, I identified some of the major challenges I had faced and then developed some strategies for addressing these. In what follows I briefly outline these challenges and strategies. 


1. Preconceptions (lack thereof): I had originally decided to focus almost exclusively on Christianity in the first half of the course – not only because Christian categories have so deeply influenced the academic study of religion, but also because I assumed my students, who had been for the most part raised in a society dominated by Christianity, would be familiar (at least in general terms) with that religion. They weren’t. In fact, most students came to the class with very little base knowledge of religion. Of course some students were themselves religious and had insights into their own particular traditions and denominations. Still, most seemed only dimly aware that there were different kinds of Christianity in the world, let alone religions in which god(s) are largely peripheral figures. It became difficult, therefore, to criticize dominant conceptualizations of religion (the world religions paradigm, say) when students had never taken a world religions course to begin with.

2. Relevance (lack thereof): Precisely because the students had very little basic knowledge of religion, it became difficult to show why they should care about any of the critical theory that I kept talking about. I was clearly very excited about critical theory, and that helped. But the relevance of critical theoretical approaches was lost when I would introduce a dominant way of understanding religion (as sui generis, say) and then proceed to critique that view. For one thing, I typically had hard time showing the students that one approach was, in fact, dominant. But my explanations (that this view renders religion apolitical, say) also failed to stick either because each view (religion as sui generis and ‘religion’ as culturally determined) seemed just as plausible as its opposite or perhaps because students couldn’t see why this actually mattered outside of the classroom. The satisfaction that comes with questioning a taken-for-granted way of understanding something was lost because any given way of approaching religion was never taken-for-granted - it was always a brand new idea presented by me.

3. Trust. A final challenge is that the students trusted me. When I designed the course I included primary source readings thinking the students would not want to trust my interpretations and would instead prefer to read the original sources themselves. But for the most part, students preferred to have me (or secondary sources) tell them what early twentieth century Protestant fundamentalists thought or what contemporary new atheists are all about. The problem was that this basic trust also made it difficult for the students to understand that I was presenting various opposing views that were not necessarily my own and that none of them were ‘right.’ Students seemed to have a hard time understanding that any particular view depends upon an historical context and is contradicted by a host of other, equally plausible and well-argued opinions. Rather than view a given theoretical approach as being better or worse for some particular issue or problem, students simply accepted each in turn.

Obviously I had a lot of re-drawing to do. Here’s what I’ve come up with.


1. Making the Taken For Granted: My goal this year is to encourage the students to take certain things for granted – at least at the outset. To do this, I will depend largely on the trust issue outlined above. This year, rather than providing a wide variety of opposing ways of understanding and approaching religion at the start of the course, I will consistently take a single approach. I plan to stick with the overall ‘religion’ in modernity theme and to keep secularization, religious fundamentalism, and new atheism as topics. But rather than question the ways fundamentalists, new atheists, and (some) scholars describe religion in terms of belief, I will present this view uncritically. The fate of religion in the modern world, I will argue, is really all about the struggle between religious and secular/scientific beliefs. Rather than presume, as I did last year, that students will come to class with a host of preconceptions about religion, I will work to create these views in my students.

2. Breaking the Spell: The title of the first lecture of the spring term will be: “Everything We Learned Last Term Is Wrong.” In the first few lectures of the second term I will give concrete examples of the preconceptions under which I (we) operated in the first term. Religion, I will reveal, is not only about belief; it is also about practices. In other words, I will wait until students have developed opinions about what religion is before working to critique and expand these views. Only in the second term will we do readings on ritual and habitus - readings that I had originally included in the first weeks of the course. Our exploration of ritual and habitus will not, of course, be limited to ‘religious’ ways of being and doing in the world, which will (hopefully) lead the students to wonder why certain kinds of ritual are deemed religious while others are not. 

3. The Other Jay-Z: Having shown students (and not merely told them) that there are vastly different ways of studying religion, I will be better able to introduce them to Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, and other critical theorists. At this point the students should be better equipped to see not only that there are different ways to study religion but that these approaches trace the contours of the very thing they seek to analyze and describe. The students will have had the experience of operating under a set of preconceptions (religion is about what people believe) and will have seen how this view led us to be interested in certain kinds of phenomena (fundamentalism, new atheism). They will also have had the experience of criticizing this view and replacing it with a different one (religion is about what people do) and will have seen how this new perspective caused us to turn our gaze to other kinds of phenomena (rituals, clothing, meals). They will have experienced, first hand, that there is no data for religion and that religion is, instead, “created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization” (Smith, 1982). In other words, the students will experience first hand that the kinds of things that counted as religion in the first term depended upon the approaches we opted to take.

4. So What? I mentioned above that I found it difficult to explain why the students should care that different ways of studying religion actually create the object of study. I think this might seem more relevant once the students experience this process at work, but I would also like to focus on some other practical ‘real world’ implications as well. Last year I ended the course with a section on new religious movements (neo-paganism, Scientology, Satanism) and ironic and ‘hyper-real’ religions (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jediism, Dudeism). I plan to do the same thing again this year. But rather than focusing on how these phenomena fit into the larger underlying theme of religion in modernity, I will focus instead on struggles concerning classification and authenticity. The fact that Scientology is a religion in the United States and a cult in France along with controversy over Satanists’ plans to erect a monument to Satan in Oklahoma will become real-world examples of how different ways of understanding religion determine what is, or isn’t, acceptable/authentic religion.

Of course I have no idea whether this new approach will work and will likely find myself back at the drawing board again this time next year. Fortunately, it is exactly this opportunity to learn from my mistakes (or earlier attempts to put a more positive spin on things) that I love most about teaching.