Thursday, November 12, 2015

Interview with the Author: Writing Religion, edited by Steven Ramey

Steven Ramey is the editor of Writing Religion: The Case for the Critical Study of Religion

1. What is the main argument in this book? 

The central assertion of Writing Religion is that the critical study of religion, while employing a range of approaches, provides significant insights into the various practices and ideas that we label religion along with insights into many aspects of society that intersect with those practices and ideas. By refusing to take for granted the natural existence of the category “religion,” critical study highlights the power inequalities, interests, and ideologies that often inform the construction and promotion of that category in its various forms. These approaches take seriously the assertions of practitioners as intentional self-assertions, thus treating practitioners as intelligent, intentional agents engaging in the tug-of-war for status and resources, like scholars and non-practitioners, and treating their assertions as worthy of analysis. The introduction to the volume makes the general case for critical study and its broader relevance along these lines, and the following chapters illustrate the potential benefits of critical study through example essays from ten acclaimed scholars in the study of religion and related fields.

2. What motivated your work? 

The work came out of the first decade of Aronov Lectures at the University of Alabama, where we have brought to Tuscaloosa internationally known scholars whose work addresses, in sophisticated ways, the analysis of elements identified with religion and speaks to broader issues in the humanities and social sciences. With such important figures as Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, Ann Pellegrini, and Arjun Appadurai, we wanted to bring together in this volume the work of these ten influential scholars who have enriched the critical study of religion. Their contributions to the volume do not speak with one voice but helpfully illustrate the range of approaches that become a part of the critical study of religion. 

3. What theory or theorists inform your methodology? 

What was particularly exciting about editing this volume was the opportunity to engage with theorists who informed my own methodology in other work, such as Tomoko Masuzawa and Jonathan Z. Smith. Moreover, as contributors employed a range of theorists and methodologies, editing the volume also gave me an opportunity to engage with the work of a wide-range of scholars that I had not experienced previously, such as Amy-Jill Levine and Martin Jaffee. What ties these contributors together is an interest in interrogating issues of power that inform the construction, maintenance, and evaluation of the category “religion”.

4. How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom? 

The volume has significant potential in a course that emphasizes theory and method or a senior seminar, as it provides sophisticated examples of a range of approaches to the critical study of religion, including the textual analyses of Bruce Lincoln and Amy-Jill Levine, the feminist reflections of Judith Plaskow, the critique of the field from Aaron Hughes and Tomoko Masuzawa, and the ethnographic modeling of Nathan Katz. The topics addressed include US Supreme Court cases, violence against minorities in India and the US, the analysis of sacred texts recognized as sacred in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and the construction of narratives from Oklahoma! and Marco Polo. Thus, the book’s range allows a course to address not only the diversity within the critical study of religion but also the diverse interests of students in any course.

5. How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

With the collection of contributors, the book provides a useful sampling of the methods and theories that inform the critical study of religion and the range of relevant analyses that those methods can produce. The chapters in the volume bring to life the results of some of the critical questions that we often ask in religious studies, such as the challenges that change brings in multiple contexts and the contestation and interests surrounding labels and identifications. Thus, the volume can help students bring together the theoretical questions and specific, concrete examples.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dilemmas of a 'Global' Core: Reading the Bhagavad-Gita with First-Year Students (part 3 of 3)

By Nathan Rein

This leads me back to the “dilemma” in my title. To reiterate: when we ask our students to grapple with difficult texts like the Gita, particularly (though not exclusively) when we associate them with non-Western origins, should we foreground their strangeness, or do we build familiarity? In the little story I’ve told here, the Miller translation leans toward familiarity, and the Patton translation toward strangeness. Each has its obvious advantages and disadvantages. The Miller translation is resonant, sonorous, relatively easy to grasp, and intuitively appealing – but, by all accounts, it’s less faithful to the original. The Patton translation is conceptually precise and carefully documented, but it’s also hard to read. It contains many more proper names and untranslated Sanskrit terms, and it often avoids recognizably “spiritual” language. It’s not difficult to recognize in Miller a loosely Protestantized version of Upanishadic mysticism, an emphasis on transcending externals and overcoming temptations for the sake of attaining inner peace – the development of a sort of universal gnosis – and a corresponding deemphasizing of the particularly Indian elements of the text. Patton eschews these tendencies, but at the cost of accessibility and aesthetic power.

Here I'll offer one further illustration of this difference. In a conceptually difficult passage, Miller’s language – though far from simple – sticks close to literary English convention:

 A. Eternal and supreme is the infinite spirit; its inner self is called inherent being; its creative force, known as action, is the source of creatures’ existence. (p. 79, 8.3)

Patton, by comparison, is dense and technical. Even the syntax seems contorted.

 B. Brahman is the highest imperishable; the highest self is said to be one’s own nature, giving rise to all states of being; action is understood as “sending forth.” (p. 94, 8.3)

Here, again, there is a recognizably “spiritual” quality to Miller’s diction, which I can’t help but think Patton is self-consciously avoiding. “Eternal and supreme” is a recognizably theological way to describe a god; “the highest imperishable” sounds like something you might find among the canned goods in your grandparents’ fallout shelter. The phrase “action is understood as ‘sending forth’,” again, verges on incomprehensibility, whereas “the source of creatures’ existence” is relatively straightforward.

The examples could be multiplied. Miller offers us something that we can grasp with relative ease, something that fits with our own preexisting notions of what a religion – and specifically an Eastern, highly “spiritual” religion – should look like, where Patton challenges us with diction and syntax that make clear the extent of the problem, reminding us of how little we really know about the Gita’s intellectual world.

So what do we make of this? Pedagogically, the obvious “right” choice here is to foreground neither strangeness nor familiarity but rather to create an environment where a dialogic interplay of strangeness and familiarity can form the ground of learning and genuine engagement. On the other hand, though, we had to pick one of these two translations to use. I have to confess that I don’t have a resolution to offer here. It is my hope, at least, that a clearer awareness of these inescapable choices can help inform my own teaching as I return to the Gita in the fall of 2016.


Miller, Barbara Stoler, tr. and ed. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.

Patton, Laurie L., tr. and ed. The Bhagavad Gita. London; New York: Penguin, 2008.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Dilemmas of a 'Global' Core: Reading the Bhagavad-Gita with First-Year Students (part 2 of 3)

By Nathan Rein

The two quotations I began with, as I noted, are drawn from two different translations of the Gita. Which one is better for freshmen? I think it depends on whether you want to emphasize strangeness or build familiarity, and for the remaining time I want to illustrate this tension a bit more concretely. Recently, I was involved in a small, but significant controversy on our campus, which I think exemplifies this dilemma of choosing between comfort and discomfort in our approach to these challenging texts. Here, in very condensed form, is the story. My institution's core course, the “Common Intellectual Experience” or CIE, begins with a Great Books-style sequence in the fall semester. As I’ve noted, most of the texts we read in the fall are drawn from the Western canon, but we devote three weeks to the Bhagavad-Gita and Mencius. From the time of the incorporation of the Bhagavad-Gita into the CIE syllabus up until two years ago, we have always used the Miller translation, which is the first of the two I quoted from initially. Since 2012, though, we’ve been using the newer, more scholarly, and slightly more expensive Patton translation, which was the source of that second quotation. I serve on the committee of four that administers the CIE, and part of the job that I’m responsible for is running the process by which the syllabus and reading list are updated from one year to the next. We follow a formal procedure, including a proposal followed by a faculty vote, for cutting texts, introducing new texts, or changing other fundamental features of the course, such as the writing requirements. On the other hand, the CIE committee typically institutes more minor changes, such as switching out one edition of a text for another, or making minor shifts in timing, without this voting process.

This raises an interesting question: in such a setting, is a move from one translation to another a major change that requires a vote, or a minor change? We initially chose to treat the change as minor. We moved to the Patton translation on the urging of a single faculty member, one of two on our staff who teach Asian studies, without a proposal or a vote.

But this choice proved problematic. Our CIE instructors come from all across the campus, including the natural sciences, and for many of them, leading discussions on Plato or the Bhagavad-Gita is a daunting prospect. After two years with Patton, many were fed up; they wanted to go back to the Miller translation, which was familiar and easier to work with. As a sort of procedural compromise, I didn’t require anyone to make a formal proposal for the translation change, but I did include a question about the translations on our annual syllabus vote. The overwhelming majority of faculty preferred to go back to Miller, and so it was decided.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that my colleague, the one who had originally pushed for using the newer, more scholarly translation, was not pleased with this outcome. He was scathingly critical of the Miller translation, to the point of suggesting that it was irresponsible to expose our students to it. On his view, omitting the Gita from the syllabus would be preferable to using this translation. Besides being inaccurate in many particulars, he said, Miller was also deeply Orientalist in character. Her translation choices supported a range of outmoded stereotypes about the supposedly mysterious, ascetic, spiritual bent of so-called Eastern cultures. Miller’s version, he argued, effectively lessened our students’ engagement in the thought of the Gita by conforming so neatly to common preconceptions.

(Part three available here.)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Interview with the Author: American Possessions, by Sean McCloud

Sean McCloud is the author of American Possessions: Fighting Demons in Contemporary United States

What is the main argument in this book?

First, thank you for inviting me to speak with you, I really appreciate it. The focus of American Possessions is Third Wave Evangelicalism, a movement focused on fighting the demons that practitioners see pestering and inhabiting human bodies, material objects, places, and regions of cities and countries.  In brief, I argue that this movement and its practice of spiritual warfare exhibits several prominent themes that characterize contemporary U.S. cultures. Specifically, consumerist, haunted, and therapeutic discourses saturate contemporary American religions and converge in Third Wave Evangelicalism. In addition, I examine how the movement’s theologies and practices reflect and contest contemporary neoliberal discourses concerning agency, social structure, history, and conceptions of individuals. In other words, I think that an examination of Third Wave spiritual warfare reveals a lot about American religions and cultures in the twenty-first century.

What motivated your work?

I was originally working on another book project when I kept having happenstance encounters with people whose ideas and practices tapped into Third Wave spiritual warfare. I found the subject fascinating, but even more I found that it seemed to touch in many ways on a number of issues prescient to the study of contemporary American religions. I ended up dropping the other book project into a file and focusing on the research and writing that became American Possessions.

What theory or theorists inform your methodology?

I found a number of writers good to think with. These include Eva Illouz on therapeutic language; Jean Comaroff, Birgit Meyer, and Matthew Wood on neoliberal consumer capitalism and religion; and Avery Gordon on haunting. And--even though he is cited just once in the book--the work of Pierre Bourdieu haunts nearly every page.  At base, the approach I take in this and all of my work is what might be considered materialist social theory. By this I mean that I am interested in how social structures, histories, and material conditions shape our consciousnesses, bodies, and practices by fomenting comfort/discomfort and making certain ideas and actions appear more natural and commonsense than others.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

Several people told me that they have already used the book in a class since it came out in May, but I am not sure how they used it. I could imagine it being assigned in courses on contemporary American religions, the supernatural in American culture, religion and capitalism, and theories and methods courses.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

This is a tough question because I am not a fan of self-promotion and these sorts of queries can lead to that, infused as they often can be with passively phrased boasting about the usefulness, importance, and lasting significance of one’s work. Don’t get me wrong—I think I’ve written a pretty good book. But I am growing weary of academics promoting themselves and their scholarship in ways that seem propelled by the very neoliberal consumer capitalist discourses that this book discusses. I guess I will leave it by saying that I hope the work conjures up some of the ways that those things we call religion, popular culture, and economy are historically and materially intertwined. And, perhaps even more, I hope it reveals how practices, ideas, and conceptions of self are not separate from, but rather dependent upon, the social structures within which they reside.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dilemmas of a 'Global' Core: Reading the Bhagavad-Gita with First-Year Students (part 1 of 3)

by Nathan Rein

Most of us in Religious Studies are accustomed to teaching with texts in translation. And most of us, accordingly, know that translations -- especially translations of major primary texts -- can differ from one another in significant ways. Even so, I sometimes find myself surprised at just how significant those differences can be. Recently, discussions at my institution over the use of the Bhagavad-Gita in our required first-year seminar provided a glimpse of both the pedagogical implications and the ideological dimensions of choosing a translation for a course.
Compare the following two translations of teaching VII, verse 25 of the Bhagavad-Gita:
 A. Veiled in the magic of my discipline, I elude most men; this deluded world is not aware that I am unborn and immutable. (tr. Barbara Stoler Miller, p. 76)
B. But I do not shine for all, wrapped as I am in the creative power of yoga. The confused world does not perceive me, as I am – unborn, and imperishable (tr. Laurie Patton, pp. 90f.)
In this line, the speaker -- Krishna -- is providing his disciple with an explanation for the fact that most people fail to comprehend Krishna’s own true, divine nature. The explanation is that Krishna continually projects an illusory, phenomenal, ever-changing procession of images (maya) into the world, which most mistake for reality. Only a devotee can receive and recognize, in his or her own consciousness, the real manifestation of Krishna as unchanging and undying. The first quotation, from Miller, has a poetic resonance marked by the echoing words “elude” and “delude.” With the terms “magic” and “discipline” it evokes an atmosphere of mystery and esotericism.  The second, from Patton, coalesces around the words “shine,” “wrap,” and “yoga,” yielding a more convoluted, conceptually and metaphorically difficult structure.
I begin with these two quotations because I think their differences exemplify a dilemma we face when teaching core texts, namely, the choice between making the strange familiar (version A, by Miller) and, with apologies for butchering T.S. Eliot, making the strange even stranger (Patton's version B). While we face this dilemma with many, or even all, of the texts we teach, it is intensified in the context of what I’m calling a “global” core. Those scare quotes are intentional, since the jury is still out on whether spending three weeks in a semester reading ancient Indian and Chinese texts in translation really does much to heighten our students’ awareness of the wider, non-Western world.
At my institution, all students spend their first semester taking a liberal studies seminar that examines twelve texts over fourteen weeks. Three of those weeks are devoted to the Bhagavad-Gita and to selections from Mencius (one and a half weeks each); the rest, to a greater or lesser degree, are recognizably Western, going from Plato all the way to Descartes. I say the the dilemma is heightened in the case of “global” texts because I think instructors inevitably find themselves, intentionally or not, presenting these texts to students – and students end up absorbing them – as if they represented the “non-Western world” in some broad, totalizing sense. Thus the Gita, the text I’m interested in here, is pressed into double duty: on the one hand, as a self-contained text and in its own right, it offers students a complex narrative full of challenging philosophical and religious claims, while on the other, it is supposed to provide a salutary and enlightening excursion into the bewildering but rewarding landscape of global, i.e. non-Western, cultures. In our classrooms, we end up repeatedly choosing between trying to ease our students into some, perhaps minimal, level of comprehension of the Gita, on the one hand, and making them sit with and confront their incomprehension and bewilderment on the other. By extension, the same could be said about other texts that serve (however unjustifiably) as proxies for foreign or exotic cultures, and indeed, about any text at all that speaks to us across a great historical or cultural distance. (As an aside, I want to underscore that I’m not arguing that the Gita, by virtue of being from India, is in and of itself necessarily more challenging, or more “different,” or more exotic and strange than, say, Aeschylus or St. Augustine; I think, however, that we – our students and ourselves – often burden these texts with associations of foreignness and strangeness as a result of their place in the curriculum.) This is, to an extent, a pedagogical choice between comfort and discomfort, and it is one that we make in our classrooms daily. Perfectly skilled teachers, I imagine – if they exist – can maintain a level of student comfort that lets them feel safe enough to engage, explore, and take intellectual risks, while administering just enough shock and discomfort to stave off complacency and stasis.

(Part two available here.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Religion as Film: Constructing a Course as a Critique of a Dominant Paradigm

By Tenzan Eaghll

This summer I taught a class on Religion and Film, and I feel as though I had to reinvent the wheel. This was my first time teaching Religion and Film and I was shocked by the state of scholarship on the topic when I began constructing my syllabus. From the perspective of ideological critique, the area of study is rife with essentialism and is about twenty years behind current trends in continental theory. There are a few great books in print, such as Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner's Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, M. Gail Hamner's Imaging Religion in Film: The Politics of Nostalgia, and Gregory J. Watkins, Teaching Religion and Film, but many of the books on the subject imagine religion in essentialist terms.

The dominant paradigm used in the field is to treat "Film as Religion," which boils down to a mythological analysis of film. According to this perspective, film functions like a religion because it is a cultural projection of the deepest human values and beliefs onto the silver screen. Film is portrayed as a social glue that constructs symbolic universes of meaning. In his popular book on the subject, Film as Religion: Myths, Ritual, and Rituals, John C. Lyden uses this paradigm to develop "a method for understanding film as performing a religious function" (3). Building upon the work of Clifford Geertz, Lyden defines religion as "a "myth" or story that conveys a worldview," and suggests that films express these myths by using all the tricks of cinematography (4). Lyden uses this definition to explore how the artificial nature of filmic reality has the power to affect us religiously in the modern world.  

Another popular book on the subject, which is used as a textbook in many courses, is Joel Martin's and Conrad E. Ostwalt's, Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, And Ideology In Popular American Film. Like Lyden, the editors of this book also privilege mythological readings of film and devalue ideological analysis. The text is superior to the former book because it offers examples of theological, mythological, and ideological film criticism, but the editors repeatedly suggest that ideological criticism lacks the depth of theological and mythological perspectives. Moreover, the editors openly state their desire to study religion in film in order to uncover its essential qualities. As they write, the aim of the study is "to take the things of the spirit spiritually" (12).  The editors make the apt point that religion can't just be rejected as the "opiate of the people, a mystifying set of symbols and ideas," yet their correction to this error is to essentialize religion as an autonomous domain of culture (11).

Given the state of scholarship on the topic I decided to construct my Religion and Film course as a critique of the "Film as Religion" paradigm. Instead of privileging theological and mythological criticism, or simply inverting this model and privileging ideological criticism over the former two, I treat "Religion as Film," and interrogate how films present religion on a symbolic and technical level. This means that rather than looking for the "religious power" in film as Lyden, or taking the things of the "spirit spiritually," as Martin and Ostwalt, I present religion as a modern cinematic creation without essence or origin. The fundamental thesis of my course is that religion is not a thing with definite qualities but a symbolic and technical production of popular culture. Religions are often portrayed as static and insular traditions that stand in opposition to (or in conflict with) popular culture, but my course explores how films challenge this perception by creating, mimicking, and influencing our understanding of religion.  Following the lead of Gail M. Hamner in her syllabus on the topic, I treat religion as an "occasion for analysis," not an "object of analysis." The films I screen in class and the readings I give students do refer to  Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, indigenous traditions, and new religious movements, but I do not use any as authoritative presentations of religion. Rather, I present the films and the readings as attempts to frame the relationship between reality, symbols, and society.

Since there are no textbooks that expose "Religion as Film," I have used  Martin's and Ostwalt's Screening the Sacred, but juxtaposed this text to alternate forms of criticism and analysis from film studies. First, rather than simply screen the films and readings from Screening the Sacred in a chronological order, I have mixed things up by showing how the types of criticism the editors select in this volume are not mutually exclusive. Whereas Screening the Sacred is divided into three neat sections, each of which provide a different type of criticism - theological, mythological, and ideological - I blur the distinction between these forms of analysis by providing students with competing theoretical articles, and inviting them to make up their own minds about what type of criticism is most dominant.  Second, each week I also supply students with readings from Timothy Corrigan's, The Film Experience and Louis Giannetti's, Understanding Movies. These readings provide the technical terms from film studies that are necessary to understand how film images are created by directors, cinematographers, writers, actors, cameras, lighting, make-up, costume, etc.

For instance, on week two we watched Oliver Stone's first Vietnam War flick Platoon (1986), and read a wonderful essay from Screening the Sacred on how the entire film functions as a New Testament allegory. According to a theological reading, Platoon offers a  critique of the American war effort by making stark claims about absolute good and evil, and providing a narrative of redemption in Christological form. However, in addition to this theological reading, the students also read an essay that offers an ideological critique of the film. According to this second reading, Platoon reinforces the American War effort by obscuring deeper political considerations and sustaining various myths associated with American nationalism. Of course, the point of this juxtaposition of critical readings is not simply to show how multiple interpretations are possible - a point most undergrads already accept - but to get the students to notice what technical aspects of the films these differing arguments rely upon. It is obvious that a film such as Platoon can lend itself to multiple readings, but what are the cinematic elements that support these various perspectives? What sort of cinematic style does the director use to get his point across; realism, formalism, or classicism? How does the plot and character development use religious ideas to facilitate this cinematic style? How about Symbolism and imagery, is it used to endorse or critique religion? Moreover, what about the use of dialogue and monologue, who is telling this story? Is there an omniscient narrator, narrative, or theme, or are all the characters subject to the whim of chance? What is the tone of the film and how do all the special affects support this tone? And, perhaps most importantly, what about music, lighting, makeup, costume design, etc.? How do all these technical factors combine in the mis en scene of each camera shot? How does each image frame religion as something to be observed, felt, or critiqued? Hence, I use the types of criticism in Screening the Sacred in conjunction with critical analysis from film studies to expose how religion is presented through film, not as a guide for uncovering the religious essence in film.

Fundamentally, what interests me is what films do with ideas and images, not defining religion in any particular way. At no point in the class do I provide a strict definition of religion. Rather, I invite students to examine how the films and the readings tell us to think, feel, and imagine religious content. What I continually ask everyone to consider is how religion is talked about in film, and to explore all the intellectual assumptions and technical aspects that go into the creation of images and effects on the silver screen. In a sense, what I ask them to consider is how everything we think we know about religion is created by filmic reality. By reversing the paradigm of "Film as Religion" with that of "Religion as Film," I invite students to consider how cinematic production creates the very content of religion in popular culture.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Multiple Choices

By Russell McCutcheon

I went up to Chicago about a month ago to give a talk on teaching the introductory course and in the midst of all the critical thinking talk there was a question that cut to the heart of the theme of my talk (on the tough choices we likely need to make when teaching such courses); it concerned the fact that I use multiple choice tests.
The course I have in mind, and for which I’d shared my syllabus, is one of our main 100-level undergrad classes, and it enrolls between 100 and 150 students per section, with a couple different sections (i.e., different profs teaching their own version of it) per semester. When I teach it (which is at least once a year) I use my own book and I also use multiple choices tests that focus both on lectures as well as content in the book. By the way, the book contains bolded technical terms (i.e., the first time a term that’s defined in the glossary is used in each chapter it is bolded) and also bolded scholars names (they too are discussed in greater detail in the back of the book, with a few quotes that illustrate their approach to defining and studying religion); one of the reasons why the chapters are all so short is because each chapter, somewhat like clicking links on the web, opens onto both a variety of interconnected paragraph-length discussions of terminology later in the book as well as several two to three page discussions of the scholars that are mentioned. This format then paves the way for the tests which, in part, emphasis the terminology as well as the scholars. So I ask the students to learn at least four or five things about every new term we discuss and also to be able to talk about each scholar mentioned in at least three ways: roughly when did they live (don’t memorize birth and death dates but know if they’re a late 19th century writer or a contemporary one); what part (aka academic discipline or department) of the university they worked in; and why they were relevant for us in our course.
But back to that question: why the multiple choice tests? Don’t they cut against some of the things that I’m trying to accomplish in such a course? After all…, multiple choice tests are…, are…, well, let’s just be honest: they’re multiple choice tests.
When I was a teaching assistant during my own Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, I TA’ed for a couple years for the late Will Oxtoby and the late Joe O’Connell’s world religions survey course. (You likely know the two volume textbook that, to a large extent, resulted from that class.) There was a whole team of us (5 or 6?) for a class that likely wasn’t larger than 200 students, and, as I recall, we all ran a couple tutorials (aka discussion or recitation sections), one before and one after the main lecture, so that students had the opportunity to participant in a small (20 students or so?) discussion, thereby not getting entirely lost in the large lecture. Bill Arnal and I did the same for Michel Desjardin’s night course intro to the New Testament one year as well—leading small discussion sections before and after the large, main lecture. The first large lecture class I taught on my own was when I first started working fulltime, back in Tennessee in 1993, and I’ve been doing them ever since, but, unlike those classes I worked for in Toronto, I’ve never had the luxury of a team of TAs able to staff multiple discussion sections; instead, like most people around the country, I’ve mostly done it on my own but, if we’re lucky (as in the last few years here at Alabama), we have one TA, assigned to the course for about 10 hours per week (what we’d call a half TA assignment), but that’s hardly enough personnel to offer smaller discussion sections of 100 or 150 students. That means that our TAs help with grading, keep the grade book, offer office hours, etc.—for just attending the class exhausts three of those 10 weekly hours, leaving not a lot of time to run multiple discussion sections.
So, given this practical setting, writing assignments are likely not a possibility in this course—I’m a Department chair and, besides a 100-level intro course, there’s lots of other things competing for my attention each day and I can only imagine what life would be like if, like earlier in my career, this were one of several classes I was teaching each Fall or Spring—whether different preps or not, all that grading adds up, especially when you’re also trying to do research and write. Which brings me back to those tough choices I mentioned: in those early days of my career, when I was finishing my dissertation and involved in a variety of other projects, I developed some group assignments and a style of multiple choice tests that I was willing to live with in this intro course—it was hardly ideal, given my own pedagogical hopes and dreams, but, given the practical circumstances of my labor, it seemed to be a compromise I could live with. And I’ve happily lived with it since then.
After all, I couldn’t help 150 students develop and write original research papers, much less read rough drafts, comment on them, and then grade them all. So the question became what could I do and what ends that I valued could these assignments help me to achieve.
And that’s how I settled on some small group work to start the class—on the most rudimentary level it’s a good way for students in a large class to meet someone, to learn where the library is, to have a taste, at the 100-level, of a required format for citing a source, and also a great way to discuss what it means to quote a source properly and what counts as plagiarism. So, for the second class of the semester, I send them all to the library, with a partner and with instructions to find 5 or so different definitions of religion, each from a different source (nothing from the web is allowed). They have to hunt and peck and flip through the table of contents and index of a bunch of books—which is a pretty good emulation of what it often means to do research, by the way; for we usually don’t know what we’re looking for when we start looking. Once they turn it in I keep ahold of that assignment and give it back to them at the end of the semester, when they now have to make data of those five definitions for their second group assignment. (Which definition is functionalist? Which might a scholar in a public university opt for—and why?)
It’s an assignment that allows us to apply things from the class, yes, but it also accomplishes so much more that, more than likely, the students don’t even realize.
But what about the multiple choice tests? Well, like that definition assignment, its more about form than it is about content—sure, you’ve got to know something about Freud and something about the notion of etic, but it’s more about how they study for it and how they come to learn, over the course of the semester, that the key is building relationship between the terms, about being able to link one seemingly discrete piece of information to another and then to another, and maybe another as well, making semantic webs, if you will, so that when I come along and throw a little curve at them by introducing a new ball into what they’re already juggling they’ll be able to accommodate the new information and link it to something they already know, which in turn they’ll link to yet something else and, like solving for X in a quadratic equation, they’ll then look among the various choices I’ve offered for the correct answer. For, come to think about it, that’s what the course is all about: studying how we create knowledge, make spaces sensible and habitable, by establishing and then managing a host of relationships of similarity and difference—our field’s been known as Comparative Religion, after all, no? So the multiple test exemplifies the method at the heart of our discipline: comparison.
But it doesn’t just test this, for I tend to write rather long questions, making it a test of reading comprehension as well. (Who among them will write the GRE or the LSAT someday…?) Often, students perform unsatisfactorily though they say that they know the information—their difficulty is linked to reading, to being able to simplify the sentence, to find what it is actually asking, in distinction from the background info it’s also giving them. Did they see the word “not” in the question, to then realize that I was asking the exact opposite of what they at first thought? So, instead of asking how Karl Marx defined religion I’ll instead start off the question by writing two or three lines, beginning with something like: “A 19th century political economist whose functionalist definition was concerned with distinguishing…”; it’s a confusing approach for some students, for they get lost in the verbiage, but, for others, they see that I’ve just given them all sorts of hints and prompts, inviting them to make certain sorts of connections—especially helpful if he’s the only political economist, let alone from the 19th century, whom we’ve studied. But the goal—which I let students in on should they take the trouble to make an appointment to talk over the problems they seem to be having in the course—is, again, to exemplify how knowledge itself works: by making links and moderating that series of like/unlike relationships. And those who come to office hours start to “get” this and, as you’d hope, they tend to stick around a little longer during the tests (why do they all race through them?) and their grades inevitably improve. And since it strikes me that the course—by the way, like a lot of 100-level classes, it counts for what we call a Core Humanities credit, as part of our General Education curriculum—is actually about learning how to learn, late in the semester I often offer all the students a chance to reweight their tests, to minimize on poor early performances by maximizing on their newfound skills.
And for many it pays off. Sometimes dramatically.
It’s not ideal, of course—who wouldn’t rather be teaching 10 students in a small seminar room à la Dead Poets Society, where you can look each student in the eye to figure out whether they understand the material or not, having them each do weekly writing assignments on which you can comment at length, to see them incorporate your feedback and continually improve across the semester. But that’s not where many of us work—and, in the modern university, those conditions are getting further and further away from many of us. So it seems to me that one is challenged to figure out what’s important to you, as an instructor, and to devise assignments that take your time commitments into account but which also strategically address those pedagogical values and goals you have and on which you’re not willing to compromise. And being placed into a setting such as that, where the teaching situation might be far from ideal, is what I think makes good teachers for it prompts us to be deliberate and mindful about what we’re doing and how we’re going doing it.
So yes, I use multiple choice tests in my 100-level intro course, but because of some of the choices I’ve made, I think they’re doing a lot more than meets the eye.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Religious and The Political, Or, Why the Nation of Islam Bamboozles My Students

By Matthew J. Cressler

*This post originally appeared on the Religion in American History blog.

What we usually call "the religious" and "the political" have been practically inseparable in my course on African American religions this semester. After all, how can students think about practices, communities, institutions, and experiences born in no small part of involuntary migration and servitude - born of Atlantic world empire and slavery - without thinking about power, governance, and resistance? I would venture to guess that this is true of many (maybe most) courses on American religions and it carries special weight in African American religious studies. One way I tried to impress this upon my students was through a discussion of Eddie Glaude's "very short introduction" to African American Religion (Oxford, 2014). In it, Glaude argues that, if the category is to have any usefulness, the study of "African American religion" must be more than simply the study of the ways African Americans happen to be religious. Instead, Glaude draws on J.Z. Smith and others to insist that
"African American religion is the invention of scholars who, with particular aims and purposes, seek to describe, analyze, and theorize the religious practices of African Americans under a particular racial regime [white supremacy in the United States]" (8).
Glaude's approach, as well as that of my course, thus "assumes that the political and social context in the United States is a necessary though not sufficient condition of any study of something called African American religion" (7). To this end, we have examined and entered into debates about the inseparability of Christianity, slavery, and slave revolt; imaginings of "Africa" and the construction of African American (religious) identity; and black churches as a counter-public sphere, among other topics. All this is to say that, for my students and myself, the realms of "the religious" and "the political" have never been far from each other.

Then we came to the Nation of Islam and these blurred boundaries were built back up in no time. What better example, I had thought, of the impossibility of separating the religious from the political than the Nation of Islam (NOI)? Yet our discussion of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, along with other "black gods of the Metropolis" as Arthur Huff Fauset termed them, revealed that students were not completely comfortable calling the Black Muslim movement "religious." What they read about the NOI struck them as more "political" and "cultural" than "spiritual." What they saw in the images I provided, such as this one of the Fruit of Islam, seemed to militate against (pun intended) their instinctive understanding of "the religious." When I asked them to categorize "the religious" - to better articulate what they thought the NOI contained less of - the words brainstormed included morals, belief, worship, faith, and, again, spiritual. Once these words were on the board and out in the open, so to speak, students seemed to waver a bit in their initial assessments. The NOI did, of course, include all of these things. Their point had been made, however. The NOI challenged their working definitions of "religion," particularly with regard to the boundaries between what constitutes "the religious" and what constitutes "the political." It left them, in short, bamboozled.

Now, this novice professor will be the first to admit that what we've got here, this problem of deciphering how the religious relates to the political, stems in part from a failure to communicate. (As we all no doubt do, I'm already thinking through different in-class exercises designed to interrogate these assumptions further.) Nevertheless, I find these moments of discomfort instructive. The NOI conjures cognitive dissonance for students, something I've experienced in other classes as well (and I'd be interested to hear if others have had similar experiences). Why is this? Proximity is part of it. It is often the newness of new religious movements that makes them suspect to outsiders. Most students are less comfortable with the thought of gods and prophets walking the streets of 1930s Detroit and Chicago than first-century Palestine. But, in this particular class, it seemed the specter of "the spiritual" reigned. The Nation of Islam was deemed not religious, or at least less religious, because its basis was not spiritual but cultural and political - a statement I took to mean that the NOI was born of a (nationalist) critique of white supremacy, not a belief in Allah or an interpretation of the Qur'an.

This assertion, of course, is not new. It served as justification for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's surveillance and disruption of the NOI and other new religious movements, like the Moorish Science Temple of America, that the FBI labeled "black nationalist hate-type organizations." This is something I've blogged about here and that Emily Suzanne Clark recently referenced. It is also akin to what Mike Altman meant when he blogged on Citizenfour, surveillance, and how "religion became a space for managing dissent." If "religion" as a modern category is meant to establish boundaries around certain phenomena in order to distinguish them from things deemed properly political, it seems to me that "the spiritual" removes those phenomena even further from the realm of politics and power. These are issues the Fourth Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture is poised to address, with panels on What do we mean by “religion” in a time of “spirituality,” “lived religion,” and “non-religion”? and Whither New Religious Movements? In the meantime, I plan to have my students help me categorize the Nation of Islam one more time. Our source: Elijah Muhammad speaking on "what the Muslim wants and believes." The only words they can't use to describe it: religious and political.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

“We’re here to talk about religion”: A Few Examples for Teaching Classification

By Charles McCrary

*This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion's blog.

This post’s titular sentence was spoken Friday morning by a student during first lecture of the semester. It was a protest, playful but betraying frustration. She was sitting in the front row of a packed classroom, spending fifty minutes of her day on a class called “Religion in America.” But, ten minutes into class, she and her classmates were working to come to a collective decision as to whether or not a platypus is mammal. The main point of the lecture, like the point of most first-day religious studies lectures, I assume, is to argue that classification is not inherent. Nothing is intrinsically “sacred” or “secular.” Acts of classification are political acts, etc., etc. This point isn’t new, of course; it’s the cornerstone of religious studies, or at least a certain kind of religious studies. I think students can grasp it pretty easily. Many of them believe “religion” is so personal and individual that a sort of relativism about it doesn’t bother them. In the lecture, though, I did not talk much about things normally called “religious,” lest they think the point applies only or especially to “religion.” So, instead, I used a few examples from that supposedly unconstructed realm, “science.”

The first exercise was to place animals into categories. I showed a list of animals—alligator, marlin, box turtle, gray whale, sperm whale, platypus, jellyfish, fur seal—and asked for classification suggestions. The first was “land” and “sea,” so I made a T-chart on the board and we divided them up thusly, with alligator and fur seal triggering some ambivalence. The next suggestion was “mammal,” “fish,” and “reptile,” which raised not only the exasperating platypus question but also highlighted the curiosity of the jellyfish, whose name makes an unfulfilled promise of easy classification. The final suggestion was “big” and “small,” which is a fascinating choice since they’re thoroughly comparative categories, dependent entirely on the data in the larger set. I followed this exercise by describing the 1818 case Maurice v. Judd, drawing from D. Graham Burnett’s entertaining and excellent book Trying Leviathan. The trial hinged on the classification of whale oil as fish oil and, thus, the question, “Is a whale a fish?” The judge, after hearing a variety of testimony from naturalists and other experts, sided with common sense and popular opinion that the whale was indeed a fish. Some of the students seemed disconcerted by the notion that Jesus seems to have classified whales as fish (see Matthew 12:40).

The last anecdote I used is about James Dwight Dana and nineteenth-century American geology. I became aware of Dana only recently (my main sources here are Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory and the sixth chapter of David Igler’s recent book, The Great Ocean, both of which I read over winter break), so the example is a new one, but I will use it again. Dana was a scientist on the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), and he was particularly interested in volcanic activity and erosion in the Pacific. He wrote a number of books based on his research on the Expedition, including Geology (1849).

In his work, he relied on an oceanic-centric geology and discussed California as a part of the Pacific. By the 1850s, American geologists, including Dana, were much more interested in continental geology, situating California as part of the North American land mass. Why? What changed? For one, California became a U.S. state. During the Expedition it was part of Mexico. But why did it become a state? The answer, of course, is gold. Dana’s works from the 1840s never mention gold, nor do they show much interest in North America. By 1855, though, Dana gushed over the North American continent. He lauded its remarkable simplicity and symmetry, contrasting it with Europe, “a world of complexities,” “one corner of the Oriental Continent—which includes Europe, Asia, and Africa,” mapping geology and patriotism onto each other seamlessly.

“What is California?” The land itself was mostly unchanged—at least in geological terms—between the 1840s and 1850s, but the way geologists studied it changed dramatically. The question “What is California?”, like the question “What is religion?”, is not a question worth asking in a history course. We’ll do better to ask what’s at stake in a definition of California or religion or America or the good life, how those definitions have changed over time, who gets to decide, and so on. It is in this way that we study verbs, not nouns.

The lecture’s final PowerPoint slide, titled “religious things and secular things,” is just a list of things—Morality, Incense, George Washington, Crying, Cows, The Book of James, Oprah Winfrey, A Christmas Tree, Science. By the time we get to this slide, students (are supposed to) see the potential of studying acts of classification, as well as the lack of self-evidence for those categories themselves. Thus, “We’re here to talk about religion” is exactly the sort of claim whose employments we’ll be studying, because, well, that’s what we’re here to talk about.

Interview with the Author: From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage, by Véronique Altglas

1. What is the main argument of your book?

This book is about religious exoticism. Surprisingly it is a theme that has not, as yet, been investigated by the sociology of religion. Yet, the popularisation of yoga and meditation, the curiosity for shamanism and the recent craze for kabbalah all demonstrate the appeal of these religious resources in western contemporary societies. It is in part their perceived otherness that lends them authenticity and nourishes hope for the discovery of mysteries and hidden truths. However, such popularisation has not led to mass conversions to Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism. Indeed, religious exoticism implies a deeply ambivalent relationship to otherness and to religion itself: traditional religious teachings are uprooted and fragmented in order to be appropriated as practical methods for personal growth. As a consequence, religious exoticism tells us as much about the ways in which religious resources are disseminated globally as it does about the construction of the self in contemporary societies. How these ‘exotic’ religious resources cross cultural boundaries and become global, what makes them appealing in western societies, how they are instrumentalised and for what purposes, are the questions that this book addresses, by drawing on cross-national research about ‘neo-Hindu’ religions in the West since the 1960s and the recent interest for kabbalah. While it is often written that individuals increasingly craft their religious life and identity by picking and mixing from a wide range of religious traditions, this book by contrast insists on the fact that bricolage is neither personal, playful nor eclectic. It shows that in bricolage, otherness matters tremendously and arouses ambivalent feelings. It also identifies the historical and socio-cultural logics that shape social practices of bricolage.

2. What motivated your work?

The desire to define a common framework allowing us to understand ‘religious exoticism’ (the fascination for the religion of others), and hence the features of the popularization of Hinduism, Buddhism, shamanism, Sufism, or kabbalah. In addition, I wanted to contribute to sociological debates about bricolage and religious individualism: the sociology of religion has often approached the exploration of foreign religious traditions as a characteristic of a social world which has broken with tradition and historicity. In such a world, emancipated individuals are believed to choose, consume and combine religious resources of all kind in unique assortments, thereby elaborating personal, hence unique, religious identities and systems. This book aimed to demonstrate that this understanding of bricolage with foreign religions largely over-estimates its eclecticism, takes for granted the availability of religious resources, misunderstands religious individualism. Overall, inflating the eclectic and personal nature of practices of bricolage has led to a neglect of their social and cultural logics. Ultimately, beyond an understanding of religious exoticism and the logics of bricolage, this study is inscribed inside a larger effort to address important weaknesses of today’s sociology of religion, in particular what we could call the ‘the demise of the social’. Indeed, the sociology of religion often remains isolated from wider sociological debates; it privileges the detailed descriptions of religious experiences and beliefs to the detriment of consideration of social class, family organization, power and authority. The current tendency to over-estimate personal subjectivity, “choice” and “freedom” in the making of bricolage, or in the study of “spirituality”, makes these flaws of the sociology of religion even more acute.

3. What theory or theorists inform your methodology?

The book argues for the need for the sociology of religion to reintegrate issues of power, class formation, social interactions, and practice, and to renew the understanding of religious individualism. Accordingly, it draws on the sociology of religion, but also on mainstream sociology dealing with class (ie. Bourdieu, Skeggs), neoliberalism (Castel, Rose, Ehrenberg) as well as work, gender, consumption, therapies and wellbeing etc.

4. How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

While covering popular and topical issues such as kabbalah, the ‘mystical East’, and celebrities’ engagement with religious exoticism, this book enhances our understanding of the globalisation of religion (how religions are disseminated transnationally), syncretism and bricolage (how religions are modified through cultural encounters) and of religious life in neoliberal societies (how contemporary forms of religiosity reflects core features of contemporary social life). An in-depth investigation of ‘religious exoticism’ is in itself innovative and fills a void, but the book’s strength is also that it engages equally with French-speaking and English-speaking academic works that are rarely combined and confronted in today’s sociology of religion. This allows English-speaking students to access debates within the subfield which are not published in English.

5. How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

Drawing on research I have undertaken among Hindu-based movements in France and Britain since the mid-1990s, and more recently on the Kabbalah Centre in France, Britain, Brazil and Israel, this book offers an example of how one can undertake qualitative and cross-cultural empirical investigations and of the benefits of such approach. Ultimately, this book suggests an agenda for the future sociology of religion; it is hoped it will inspire future scholars to adopt a more critical approach and to reintegrate the social in their understanding of religion.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Way of the Road

By Adam T. Miller

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

With two exceptions–Outline of a Theory of Practice and “The Forms of Capital”–I have others to thank for my exposure to Pierre Bourdieu’s thought. In some ways, I count this as a good thing–after all, Bourdieu is not exactly famous for clarity of expression. Consider this definition of habitus:

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.

With this theory of habitus, Bourdieu was trying to explain how/why social groups tend to reproduce themselves through individuals without appealing to notions of pure freedom or hard determinism. The basic idea is this: the self is a result of socialization, and what the process of socialization looks like varies among social classes; therefore, by just “being oneself,” an individual tends to reproduce the social group in which she was raised.

After unpacking Bourdieu’s theory of habitus in the fourth chapter of A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, Craig Martin draws our attention to the fact that societies are rarely homogenous and, therefore, often contain multiple social groups, each with its own class habitus. He writes:
Much like so-called “common sense,” what is taken to be “normal” (or a normal habitus) varies from community to community and from society to society–in which case these things are not, in fact “common” or universally “normal.” Even within the same society, different subgroups have variable ideas about what is “normal.” What we have are societies where there are dominant and subordinate groups, and where each subgroup has its own idea of what is normal.
I happened upon one particularly humorous example of this idea on an episode of Trailer Park Boys titled “Way of the Road.” Watch the clip below. (Fair warning: strong language abounds; those of a certain habitus–that is, those with certain ideas about when it is [and is not] acceptable to use swear words–may find it offensive.)

Although he hasn’t driven a rig for twenty years, Ray continues to urinate into gallon jugs and toss them into the street (a practice apparently common among truckers, at least in the world of the show). On one hand, Ray’s son Ricky does not see this practice as odd; in fact, he gladly supplies his father with new jugs. Bubbles, on the other hand, thinks Ray ought to abandon the practice–it’s been twenty years after all. If anything, habitus is durable

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Interview with the Author: Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America, by Leslie Dorrough Smith

Interview with Leslie Dorrough Smith.

1. What is the main argument of your book?

The gist of Righteous Rhetoric is that scholars have generally overlooked the source of the Christian Right’s social clout by focusing mainly on its member groups’ beliefs or rigid moral rules.  Instead, I’m convinced that the greatest asset of the Christian Right is quite mundane:  it’s the way that they speak.  

The bulk of the book examines the speech of one prominent Christian Right group, called Concerned Women for America (CWA), and demonstrates that the group is persuasive because it employs a rhetorical technique that I call chaos rhetoric.  Chaos rhetoric is a type of speech that invokes widespread public appeal through its deployment of specific symbols designed to create a heightened sense of social chaos and threat (rather than the order and security that scholars often tout when describing the Christian Right).  By carefully manufacturing these negative emotions, the group is in a prime position to offer its own political platforms as the resolution to the threats that they construct. 

One could simply call chaos rhetoric a fear tactic, but I thought this was too simplistic, since I was more interested in looking at how, when, and under what circumstances CWA chose to portray certain things as chaotic or fearful rather than presuming that those emotions were self-evident or natural.  In other words, what is deemed frightening or threatening at one moment is often a non-event several years, or even months, later – it all depends on how the political and cultural winds are blowing. 

If chaos rhetoric is a technique of persuasion, it is also one of masquerade.  In the book I detail how chaos rhetoric serves four critical functions, two of which – creating urgency and inciting activism – are fairly predictable persuasive techniques.  But CWA’s chaos rhetoric also performs the dual functions of defensive argumentation and rationale-deflection, which are processes by which attention is shifted away from CWA and its perhaps less popular rationales for advocacy and onto more emotion-evoking platforms.  These are both really effective ways for the group to change more imperceptibly simply by convincing the audience to concentrate its attention elsewhere.

For example, CWA has frequently attempted to portray homosexuality as a public health threat, which it has done through studies that show things like an elevated risk for domestic violence among gay couples, or that pinpoint higher rates of suicide among gay teens.  Rather than describe the more subjective discomfort that characterize its members’ homophobia, or talk about anti-gay theologies (neither of which is a particularly persuasive tactic if the point is to attract a diverse audience), CWA persuades best by portraying homosexuality as a threat to something that virtually everyone values – their health.  Perhaps it goes without saying that if CWA were really concerned with public health issues, then they’d be discussing more than just the health risks associated with homosexuality (and ironically, the studies show that these risks are actually generated by an unaccepting culture rather than anything intrinsic to sexual orientation).  Nevertheless, deflecting the rationale from religious particulars or gut feelings onto what is perceived to be a more “legitimate” concern helps to make the message sound relevant.

This technique is also useful over time.  Focusing attention on its opponents (but less on itself) allows CWA to shift its own agendas more imperceptibly.  As the message about gay rights as a health threat grows stale, loses public appeal, or is otherwise debunked, it is abandoned for a new one that accomplishes a similar effect.  But once the similar effect is no longer possible to maintain, the group will be pushed to rework its stance on homosexuality, even if incrementally, so as to preserve its public relevancy.  For instance, this might involve the shift from seeing homosexual identity as a sin to regarding the practice of homosexuality as a sin; that nuance, however slight, provides some wiggle room that gives the group material to work with in crafting new rhetoric.  What this shows, then, is that the real persuasive force of chaos rhetoric lies in knowing how to repeatedly rework an opponent’s identity so that they remain perpetually threatening, and crafting one’s own rationale so that it always seems relevant.

2. What motivated your work?

Generally speaking, I was dissatisfied with the models and presumptions scholars were using to study the Christian Right, and, in turn, I was interested in asking a different set of questions about how social groups work.  I’ll elaborate a bit more:

First off, I was stumped by the way some scholars criticize the Christian Right for their persuasive tactics but then fail to notice that they are using virtually identical tactics in their own analyses.  Although there are many examples of this, I’m referring here to the fact that such scholars often describe the rhetoric of the Christian Right as a brand of fear-mongering, but then impart a similar message of fear when talking about why one should politically oppose them.  This common approach to the Christian Right was what actually inspired the last chapter of Righteous Rhetoric, wherein I provide examples of how chaos rhetoric is used by progressive groups just as easily (and frequently) as it is by conservatives.  That chapter’s function is not only to argue the normalcy of chaos rhetoric as an act ubiquitous to almost all groups trying to persuade, but also to interrogate the manner in which scholars have often treated the Christian Right as some sort of religio-political aberration rather just a common interest group doing what all other interest groups do.

On that same note, scholars also tend to describe the Christian Right as something unusual when they offer psychological explanations for its existence.  Many such models describe the movement as one embraced primarily by psychologically fearful people who need order and absolutism in order to function in the world.   I don’t doubt that this is the case with many conservatives, but I also think it applies to loads of other people, too, so these particular analytical frames that emphasize some sort of radical distinction have never much appealed to me.

I was also inspired to write this book because I found it interesting how frequently scholars point to theology as the key to a specific religious group’s allure.  That’s not to say, of course, that the attractiveness of this or that theology has nothing to do with it, but it overlooks the large number of social factors at play in the persuasion process, and it also glosses over the glaring reality that social groups are comprised of incredibly diverse populations of people who are members of the group for just as many different reasons.

This is why I was drawn, methodologically, to a rhetorical study, since no matter the smattering of beliefs that are out there (not to mention people’s relative lack of adherence to many of their stated beliefs), it’s very difficult to live in American culture without having some interface with these sorts of openly political messages. I think it’s a popular explanatory scheme to point to theologies or beliefs because it’s a frequent insider claim – that is, religious people often think that their theological positions are what make them attractive, true, or distinct – but I have never been particularly satisfied with the explanatory potential of that position. 

My motivations, then, were fueled in large part by the sense that scholars’ own biases (not only about the Christian Right, but religion in general) were causing them to overlook other, perhaps more fundamental, phenomena.

3. What theory or theorists inform your methodology?

For this particular project (and many others, besides), I relied heavily on Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Susan Friend Harding, and Pierre Bourdieu (among countless others I could probably name).  While they individually contribute to my methodology in a variety of ways, what they all share is the notion that social phenomena should not be gauged as things in themselves, but as a reflection of certain power dynamics that are naturalized through language.  Since Foucault and Bourdieu’s contributions on discourse, sexuality, and habitus (respectively) are probably quite well known, it might be helpful if I illuminate something more specific about how the other figures helped me to take a theoretical position and use it to influence my methodological approach:

Roland Barthes was the first scholar I encountered who actively provided an explanation on how persuasion (as it occurs in naturalization discourses) happens.  Methodologically speaking, he helped me to stop thinking about a group’s claims as “worldviews,” insomuch as this term implies a relatively neutral description of reality.  Rather, his model of mythmaking asserts that the claims groups make often involve the fusion of a specifically chosen set of symbols that perform an equally specific sort of task upon which the group depends in order to fulfill its goals.  The more that the public sees these issues being presented together, the more they will believe that those things are connected. This different perspective allowed me to see “beliefs” as specific descriptive strategies that, if adopted by others and systematized in a larger sense, have enormous potential to transform social groups, even apart from whether the individual members of those groups buy into these notions. 

I also relied quite heavily on Butler’s concept of the signifying chain, which is a term she employs to describe the way that groups assign authority to a particular idea.  To illustrate this, Butler draws on the figure of a judge, whose legal power doesn’t come from any sort of specific quality of that individual judge per se, but only from the judge’s ability to refer to past precedent.  The past precedent to which that judge refers is also the result of another judge’s ruling (based, again, on that judge’s reference to past precedent, and so on).  Butler’s point here is that so many of the most enduring ideas that frame our social norms are authoritative because they have been around for so long, and yet no one can point to an actual reason for their authority apart from “the last generation did it.”  The usefulness of this concept, to me, is that it permits scholars to get outside of the contest surrounding the truth of a particular idea, and to focus, instead, on what dynamics, symbols, and often implicit rhetorics made possible the construction of that idea in the first place.

Finally, I need to give a large amount of credit to one of Susan Friend Harding’s works, entitled The Book of Jerry Falwell.  There are some really key concepts that Harding uses that have influenced my own analysis quite heavily.  For instance, she talks about flexible absolutism as a type of speech that argues for the enduring or eternal value of a particular position, but then changes as that idea becomes less popular.  Many scholars might argue that this is simple hypocrisy (particularly if it’s being used by a group that they don’t like), but Harding’s treatment of it as a rhetorical phenomenon (rather than moral failure) helped me to also reframe this apart from the hierarchical positioning that goes along with that common moral tone. 

But perhaps more than anything else, I’m really struck by Harding’s description of language as the instrument of conversion.  She notes that conversion is often something that we associate with a “change of heart” when it’s really a process of adopting a new type of speech.  If we can understand that our words directly shape the concepts that subsequently frame reality, then our choice of new words to describe the world – an important part of what happens when we persuade or are persuaded – forefronts rhetoric as a critical component of understanding social politics.

4. How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

I wrote the book to have specific applicability across a lot of fields.  It would be at home just as readily in a sociology, anthropology, political science, or rhetoric course as it would in the more obvious religious studies or gender studies setting.  I also structured it so that each chapter has the capacity to stand alone or perform a specific function, so there are lots of possibilities on how to use it. 

For instance, on a very simple level, I’ve used portions of chapter 1 to demonstrate that certain concepts have a history.  Chapter 1 provides an overview of conservative American attitudes towards sex, gender, and reproduction, so this is a great way for students to see that the current rhetoric on things like abortion and sexuality are not new, but have had a very long lifespan, indeed, and one often couched in racism and other unbalanced power relationships.

I also know of several others who have used the conclusion as a stand-alone essay to introduce/discuss methodological issues with upper level undergrads and early graduate students.  As I mentioned earlier, the conclusion questions the notion that chaos rhetoric is unique to the Christian Right, demonstrates that various other diverse groups use the same techniques, and then holds scholars to task for the manner in which they have treated otherwise similar groups much differently based on their own political commitments.

The chapters in between, while dealing more specifically with CWA as a group, also have a lot of usefulness outside of their specific inclusion in the book.  The more theoretically-focused chapter (chapter 2) provides an introduction to the way that ideas are naturalized in a culture through a discussion of rhetoric, discourse, and mythmaking.  While I end up tying this naturalization discussion directly into the normalization of sexual and gendered identities, these principles remain helpful to discuss almost any social norm formation.  Chapter 3 deals with CWA’s portrayal of itself as an expression of “true” feminism and women’s rights (a move being seen more and more by conservative women’s groups), and chapter 4 addresses the ways in which CWA manages to frame sexual issues as national issues.  So as you might guess, although I’m examining this through the lens of CWA’s rhetoric, there are many avenues, disciplines, and topics that might be mined from that material.

5. How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

Topically speaking, there are some more obvious benefits in the sense that CWA is a relatively understudied group, and the Christian Right is an enormously powerful force in American politics.  But one of the greatest benefits of the book, in my mind, is more methodological, because my hope is that this book normalizes the social process.  Put differently, it provides some overarching principles for understanding how many, if not most, groups work.  I think that many students (undergrads, in particular), are accustomed to learning about various phenomena by focusing on distinction (“this group is different from that one in this way”, etc.).  to the detriment of situating this group or that event as just one example of a much larger phenomenon.  I hope that this book can, at least to some degree, trouble that trend.