“The Craziest Thing I’ve Ever Seen”

Over on social media the other day, I came across the following tweet, posted at NPR’s site.

My comment, used above as this post’s opening pic, wasn’t completely sarcastic. Continue reading

What if Harry Potter is Sacred?

boywholivedcroppedWhen we label something “sacred,” that designation often changes how we engage it. Discussing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a sacred text, the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text illustrates this engagement and the ways readers interpret from their own experiences. Both hosts in this podcast have a particular interest in the category of the sacred. Vanessa Zoltan is a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and Casper ter Kuile is studying to minister to those who identify as non-religious.

They explain the social nature of sacrality (think Durkheim), “The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement.” Describing their podcast, they hope “to glean what wisdom and meaning we can make from J.K. Rowling’s beloved novels.” That statement contains an intriguing ambivalence, as the verb “glean” generally connotes collecting something that exists while the phrase “we can make from” puts the creation directly in their hands, which reflects the tension between socially constructed sacrality and the common assumption that meaning comes from a text.

Declaring the text to be sacred encourages the slow, careful reading that they present in the podcast, but this respectful attitude also can generate a different acceptance of the narrative. In discussing loneliness in episode 2, they surmise that people who experience a traumatic childhood

can’t envision a future for yourself that is superior than the one you are currently in, but Harry seems to have the sense that there is something better than this.

It struck me that a critical reading of the novel might question Rowling’s narrative as unrealistic, making Harry too hopeful despite his trauma, but treating the text as sacred encourages the readers to accept the story as it is and see characters as exceptional rather than unrealistic. While they claim that they do not see the text as perfect, their discussion suggests that a sacred text is not questioned in the same way that a typical novel often is.

Engaging one chapter of the novel in each episode, they further illustrate how an interpretation of any text, sacred or not, derives more from the reader than the text itself. For each episode they choose a theme such as generosity (episode 3), promise (episode 8), and goals (episode 10), that reflects the issues and values that they bring to the text. Their discussions of these themes, moreover, frequently relate the events in the chapter to their own experiences with childhood birthdays or a life-threatening fall, seeing the theme through their own knowledge and experiences. They also identify allegorical meaning, such as connecting Dudley’s desire for 36 birthday gifts to the symbolism of that number in some groups that identify as Jewish. At this point, it is no longer important what JK Rowling thought when she inserted the number 36 into the passage, as the meaning is a construction of the reader.

Even their closing practice of offering a blessing to a particular character demonstrates the centrality of their own interests. Vanessa in episode 10 offers a blessing to the Fat Lady in the painting, respecting her commitment to protect Gryffindor while acknowledging how women frequently are dismissed because of their body. In other words, the text becomes the vehicle for discussing the interests and concerns of the participants.

While identifying a text as sacred encourages the reader to treat it differently, the meaning that the reader constructs becomes a product of their own interests, experiences, and imagination, as is true with any text. In this element, this podcast is no different from other constructions of meaning and relevance in literature, sacred or otherwise. Whether or not you like Harry Potter or the meanings that Zoltan and ter Kuile generate, the podcast illustrates the significance of labeling something “sacred” and the ways applying that label and constructing meaning both are a product of the reader, not the text itself.



For sometime I’ve been concerned that the American Academy of Religion would venture into the waters of learning outcomes and assessment. But now one of its committees is  working on this and its the topic of a leadership workshop, offered by the Academic Religions committee, at the upcoming annual meeting.

Continue reading

Factual Assertion or Persuasive Argumentation?

scholarreadingI finally got around to reading Tom Tweed’s recent Journal of Religion essay the other day, “After the Quotidian Turn: Interpretive Categories and Scholarly Trajectories in the Study of Religion Since the 1960s.” I’ve got a paper of my own in which I argue that we should turn our attention toward studying what I’ll just call the common, so I thought I should see what Tom had to say — those who advocate for studying so-called everyday religion, such as finding a small, simple shrine in a notch on a sidewalk’s wall, or those who go looking for, say, the implicit religion of baseball, are certainly talking about rather different things than I am in my paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing what they’re all up to. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 9: Broader Public

lecturehallThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

Much like the earlier post on doing human subjects research, we find a truism enshrined in the draft document’s eighth bullet point (at least in the opening clause; I include the ninth also since it too is related):

publicunderstandingI’m not sure if there are many scholars out there who decline to provide an account of what they’re up to — it would not be difficult to understand conference presentations, publications, and even the teaching that we do to be doing just that. So I’m unsure why this needs to be included as one of the thirteen obligations the AAR’s committee sees fit to put into their document. Even paying attention to the threefold grouping into which they divide this reporting — our research questions, methods, and findings — isn’t innovative and therefore doesn’t help to clarify why this item was included; for this reads as if it was offering instructions to a lower level undergraduate students on how to write a research paper.

In fact, given that this is pretty much what we, as scholars, all already do, without being told to, it’s somewhat surprising that we also weren’t advised to have a thesis when we write a paper. Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 5: Sources and Interpretations

fairbalancedThis is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

What should be clear from my previous comments is that I don’t think the draft document simply needs some editing or a few words added to it, in order to make it work. Instead, I think the entire exercise needs to be rethought, form the ground up. But to get there we first need to take the committee seriously and offer the response they solicited to what they’ve put in front of us, if for no other reason than to know how not to tackle such a topic.

Hence this series.

So, we turn to the fourth bullet point:

Picture 22There is much to comment on in this item, so much so that its two sentences really deserve to be elaborated into at least several paragraphs, so that readers understand what’s going on here — i.e., what are the issues and what’s at stake in this particular statement?

After all, modern hermeneutic theory’s been a few centuries in the making, suggesting that a “fair interpretation” is a little more complex to achieve than it here seems.

But I’m getting ahead of myself… Continue reading

What’s the (Sacred) Point?

motelofthemysteriesHave you heard the one about Howard Carson, the amateur archeologist, who, in the year 4022, landed “at the bottom of an ancient shaft,” and then discovers what he decides is “a long-forgotten tomb”?

But which readers know to be just the ruins of a motel? Continue reading

“A Reluctance to Put the Religious Label”

Picture 2Did you hear about the White House summit this past week? It was in the news a fair bit and was on “countering violent extremism” — not just those attributed to Muslims but, because such adjectives as Islamic or Jihadist are often glued pretty tightly, at least in some North American and European media and politics, to the words violence or terrorism, that angle on the event has received a lot of attention. Continue reading

The Difficult Art

Picture 4“What we labor at together in college is the production of individuals who know not only that the world is far more complex than it first appears, but also that, therefore, interpretative decisions must be made, decisions of judgment which entail real consequences for which one must take responsibility, from which one may not flee by the dodge of disclaiming expertise. This ultimately political quest for paradigms, for the acquisition of the powers and skills of informed judgment, for the dual capacities of appreciation and criticism, might well stand as the explicit goal of every level of the college curriculum. The difficult art of making interpretative decisions and facing up to their full consequences ought to inform each and every course, each and every object of study. This is the work of education, it is also the work of the world and of life. Let students and the public and, above all, the faculty be told this clearly. This is the only sort of work for which college trains. It is more than enough.”

– from Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Puzzlement” (1986), republished in On Teaching Religion (2013: 127; edited by Christopher Lehrich)