Dissertation Ideas, #47

In the same spirit in which I welcome the study of the totalizing mythic endeavors, the univers imaginaires, of an Ogotemmêli or an Antonio Guzmán, I would hope, someday, to read a consonant treatment of the analogous enterprise of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics….*

So wrote Jonathan Z. Smith, in his essay “Are Theological and Religious Studies Compatible?” (originally published in The CSSR Bulletin 26 [1997]: 60-61 and then reprinted in Chris Lehrich’s edited collection On Teaching Religion [2013: 75]).

I quote it here as an intellectual provocation, to challenge us as to how we generally privilege the familiar. For whether one identifies as Christian or not, such widely-known insider technical terms as grace, sin, and salvation, along with such proper nouns as the Holy Spirit, God, or Jesus, are more than likely so familiar to most scholars of religion that they would be hard pressed to study, let’s just say, Karl Barth’s magnum opus as a work of epic mythmaking, akin to the oral or written products of cultures with which we are not so familiar.

So it’s rather improbable that we would approach Barth’s text by historicizing it, understanding it as highly coded commentary on the world of its author’s day, perhaps as practical charter for how he thought his world ought to be…. You know, the way we’d surely read comparable texts from other groups. (That some would’t see his text as comparable to those others is part of the problem, by the way….)

It would therefore be a challenge — one well worth the effort, I think — to take Smith’s brief line, above, seriously, and approach the massive Church Dogmatics as nothing more or less than a myth and to then read it accordingly.

It would be a great dissertation project.

* Ogotemmêli, an elder of the Dogon group in Mali/west Africa, provided Marcel Griaule with esoteric insider teachings for the latter’s Conversations With Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (Oxford Univ. Press, 1965); Antonio Guzmán was an enculturated Desana Indian, from the Amazon, who Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff met in the city of Bogota, Colombia; see the latter’s book, Amazonian Cosmos (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971).

Aim High…?

jobtalkI was at one of the field’s doctoral schools a while back, to give a talk, and heard from a couple sources — both grad students repeating what they’d been told as well as from a faculty member — that the primary purpose for students to be enrolled in graduate school (or perhaps at that particular one) was “to write a field-changing dissertation.” Sure, being professionalized as a grad student, such as accumulated publications of your own and gaining teaching experience, can be important but, or so it was claimed, that can distract from your primary purpose: to write a field-changing dissertation.

I admit that I found this rationale a little odd. Even risky. Continue reading

Get Ready to Run


While working on a Masters degree, I recall an early-career professor in whose office a friend and I would regularly meet for one of our classes. As I recall, he was still working on finishing his own Ph.D. at the time and on his wall he had nicely mounted a large piece of interesting-looking driftwood, all gnarly and weathered, which had been signed by a bunch of people. One day we asked what it was. He replied with a story that, as I recall it now, went something like this: Continue reading