“All of the evil that he represents for me…”

screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-27-13-pmSeeing cheering crowds in Miami, first thing this morning as I checked my phone for overnight news, celebrating Fidel Castro’s death, made me think a little about our disdain when there were rumors of people cheering after the twin towers collapsed (Trump routinely cited this early in his campaign); when is death — or better, whose death — worth cheering, I wondered?

But as the morning wore on and more news came out, my attention shifted to an issue that has long preoccupied me: our authority as scholars.

In fact, it’s a topic I spoke on last weekend, at our field’s main national conference, as part of a panel commenting on this year’s conference theme: revolutionary love. It struck me as entirely inappropriate for scholars of religion (but for liberal theologians, sure, why not?) for a variety of reasons, one of which was the problem of assuming that just because we study religion we therefore have something relevant to say about social issues, i.e., the ability to diagnose ills and provide remedies. For that’s what the panel was on: whether love was an effective political force. Continue reading

Democracy is Risky

Picture 9A couple years ago I gave a talk at Lehigh University (a lecture that became chapter 8 in a book I published not long after). The topic was on my frustration with how scholars of religion — because they define their object of study as a universally present and deeply meaningful human impulse — often assume their research is always relevant. As evidence I drew on a recent national conference where scholars of religion were encouraged to think about how their work on this or that ritual or text could contribute to solving the problem of climate change. I could just as easily have cited the program for that very annual conference (something I wrote on long ago, actually), and how the “religion and…” rubric was infinitely variable (e.g., Religion and Literature, Religion and Film, Religion and Science, Religion and Politics, Religion and Food, etc., etc.); we often presume our object of study always to be relevant because we think that it somehow points outside of, and thus before and beyond, the happenstance of history. So it is assumed to play a role in anything that happens.

The problem, though, is that we also claim to be historians, e.g., historians of religion — but, defining religion in this way, makes us historians who study the transcendental. And that’s very unhistorial if you ask me. Continue reading

The Relevance of “Church”

512px-NYC_IRS_office_by_Matthew_BisanzIn our classrooms, we often discuss the challenge of defining categories like religion or the sacred. While those questions sometimes appear quite abstract, separated from the issues that intersect with daily life, the relevance of such analyses can be particularly relevant. An NPR story last night on Daystar, a “religious TV network”, focused on questions of categories and their practical implications. In short, since Daystar classifies itself as a church, a classification that the IRS accepts, the TV network does not have to report its finances publicly or account for how it spends the donations, reportedly averaging $35 million annually, in the ways that non-church non-profit organizations must. So, being classified as a church has significant advantages. Continue reading

Extra Extra, Read All About It

adWhereas an earlier generation of scholars of religion — say, those in the 1960s — argued that the relevance of our field was to be found in its uniqueness and autonomy from all other disciplines, we here at the University of Alabama think that our field’s contribution is in its ability to contribute to our understanding of culture-wide processes and effects. Continue reading

On the Shoulders of Others

Tyson

Challenging the insularity of academic research is important for all fields, including the human sciences, as Kelly Baker writes in her recent post about Neil deGrasse Tyson. This departmental blog, and several others where faculty in the department publish (Culture on the Edge, Huffington Post, Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Thinking Out Loud . . .), are an aspect of this process of making scholarship accessible to a wider audience, as these sites attract non-academic readers, no matter how widely each author conceives the audience. Of course, helping non-specialists engage difficult concepts is what professors do continually in the classroom. Continue reading