Religion & Film in Global Perspective

I’m slated to teach “Religion & Film in Global Perspective” in Fall 2016 (second eight weeks) for Indiana University’s Global Village Living-Learning Center. Suffice it to say, I’m pretty excited for it. I’m imagining it as a Religious Studies meets Film Criticism meets Anthropology of the Media type of course. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. Scroll down to see some of the films (and portions of films) we will screen in the class. I tend to choose films that highlight fictional deployments and representations of boundary maintenance across the registers of nationality, gender, sexuality, religious affiliation, socioeconomic structure, but I’m also a sucker for choosing films I’ve enjoyed that do some sort of socioreligious work. Any suggestions? Inspired by this recent edited volume, I’m thinking about working in at least one Cohen brother film.





Picture credit: Jared Dunn, “My Philosophy Bookshelf (bottom)”

As an advanced graduate student in religious studies, among other departments, I’ve been advised by or have sat under for classes a number of different types of instructors in this hyper-eclectic field. The taxonomy below represents an incomplete, overly-essentialist, and (admittedly) biased listing of said types, followed by brief discussions of each category’s posturing in relation to others:

1. The Historian (not to be confused with subcategory 7.3 below)

2. The Philosophy of Religion Scholar

3. The Textualist (i.e., Biblical Studies, and/or the Study of Ancient Sacred Texts)

4. The Sociologist (of Religion)

5. The Anthropologist (of Religion)

6. Critical Method and Theory of Religion Scholar

7. The Hybrids

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian)

7.2. The Social Anthropologist (or Socio-Cultural Anthropologist)

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar

7.4. The Area Specialist

7.5. Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist

7.7. The (Academic) Theologian

1. History. Examines what the category identify as some form of religion—broadly defined and construed—as their study subject. Think: Historians of Eighteenth-Century Protestantism. Historians of Medieval Catholicism. Historians of Shia Islam. These scholars spend much of their time in dusty libraries digging through archives (or in their cozy, air-conditioned offices perusing through digitized collections). They construct high quality, relatively plausible, compelling narratives of factual and teleological value. Historians make rote occurences of past events mean something by placing them, via compelling theoretical and interpretive grids, within broader sequences of happenings. Historians tend to critique categories #4 and 5 for not paying attention to temporal situatedness and conditioned meaning in terms of past trajectories (e.g., regimes or institutions) of power.

2. Philosophy of Religion. Specializes in (the history of) philosophy dealing with religious topics and also dabble in what sometimes falls under the rubric of “theory of religion.” These scholars find it frustrating that categories #4, 5, 7.1, 7.2 (and perhaps 7.4) liberally employ classic and modern philosophers and/or theorists of religion but do so haphazardly, selectively, and at times incoherently. This category also critiques category #1 for tending to abstain from the overt application of philosophical/theoretical ideas to their historical analyses. Philosophy of religion scholars tend to underscore the idealogically positioned and perspectival understanding of any historical, cultural, and social phenomena, occurrence, or event and thus largely function in an interpretive mode of inquiry.

3. Textual Analysis. Employs a wide and eclectic variety of methods and approaches to the reading, interpretation (i.e., hermeneutics), and analysis of ancient religious texts. Skilled in languages, both ancient and modern, dead and contemporary. Critiques categories #4 and 5 for failing to realize how important a role texts, words, and languages play in the lives of human persons. Does not function as a discrete methodology, school, or category, per se, but draws on aspects diffused throughout the other listed fields.

4. Sociology. Following in the wake of the Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx, this category takes the mysterious “social” as its primary line of inquiry, especially as the social pertains to institutions, organizations, and other human groupings. Has an infatuation with numbers, graphs and charts, and predictive variables. Sees category #5—the field closest to it in terms of method and inquiry—as tantamount to glorified journalism. Finds category #1’s methods as speculative in nature and akin to detailed guesswork. Engages categories #2 and 6 consistently and uses theories from these categories to guide methodologies and the interpretation of data derived from said methodologies.

5. Anthropology. Specializes in the study of particular lived aspects of human life (e.g., kinship and/or ritual) and the overlap between the domains of religion, culture, and the social. Methods: Primarily ethnographic and field-work based. Believe that category #1 (and #7.3) makes at best obtuse guesses about how once living peoples might have existed, thought, believed, and behaved. Often pat anthropological comrades on the back for doing the “real” academic grunt work, that is, going out into “the field” to collect data from “actual” people in situ. Critiques a number of categories, including #2 and 6, from theorizing too abstractly and for failing to find compelling evidence of their hypothesizing on the ground in “real” time. Challenges category #4 for reifying culture and society through an overemphasis on numeric, quantitative analysis that ultimately misconstrues both how culture as well as social institutions work.

6. The Critical Study of Religious Studies. This group of scholars, difficult to pinpoint, tends to hail from category #2 but also engages in a smattering of methodologies common to #1, 3-5, and 7. Takes the methods and strategies of categories #1-7 as its subject matter. In other words, this category describes, analyzes, and critiques the work of scholars who consider religion—in all its descriptive and definitional manifestations—as a productive area of academic inquiry. Work in this category tends to be at least partially historical (read: genealogical) and by definition engages in the study of power, discourse, rhetoric, structure, and function of cultural and social institutions. Often—as this field engages in the study of the study of religion—critical religious studies scholars tend to be hyper-reflexive in that they take interest in the ways that religion scholars load analytically descriptive terms such as “religion” with meaning, and in the quest to understand why and for which reasons religion is cast as it is, pay attention to the dynamics of power (and boundary construction and maintenance) within the academy. Critiques category #5 (and perhaps 6) for failing to see that ethnographically derived data on “real” people constitute representations of human meaning as much as, say, the historical study of traditions through texts. Often engages in its own academic purity rituals, however, as the category is constantly on the look-out for scholars (with hidden agendas) hailing from sub-category #7.7.

7. Hybrid Methods.

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian). Made up of scholars who blend, to varying degrees, methods from categories #1 and 4 (or 5).

7.2. The Social Anthropologist. Scholars who fit somewhat awkwardly between categories #4 and 5.

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar. An older term which refers to a specific group of pre-twenty-first-century scholars interested in the academic study of religion (as opposed to theology proper).

7.4. The Area Specialist. Scholars who define their academic identity primarily on the geographic (or national) area studied (e.g., Americanists, Sinologists, or experts of Southeast Asian religions).

7.5. Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar. Takes ethics systems, writ broadly, as its primary area of interest and draws methodologically on many of the above categories. Invested in description and analysis of human ethics but finds as enlightening and productive the comparison of both similar and disparate systems and phenomena.

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist. Similar to category #7.4, above, traditions specialists define themselves primarily as scholars of a particular religious traditions (e.g., scholars of Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or Judaism), sub-traditions (e.g., Pure Land Buddhism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, etc.) or even further as sub-traditions clarified regionally or geographically, thus collapsing into category #7.4 (e.g., Pure Land Japanese Buddhism, Pentecostalism in the Global South, or American Judaism).

7.7. The Theologian. Since Abington v. Schempp (1963), do not exist in public schools funded by taxpayer dollars (or at least do so covertly). Tend to hail from seminaries and/or religiously-affiliated academic institutions. Methods vary and draw on a number of the above categories.

Finally, some questions: How accurate or descriptive are these categories and sub-categories listed above? Have any fields been grossly misrepresented (or omitted altogether)? (Combinations, mixtures, and sub-fields abound, so which would you add to the list? I’ve neglected to include, for instance, an important field in the study of religion—the psychological, cognitive, or neuroscientific study of religion—simply because, in my understanding, such scholars tend to hail from departments other than religious studies and this post focuses mainly on scholars in religious studies department proper. Related to categories #1, 4, and 7.1, I’ve also not included the field of social history as social historians tend to work within history departments.) Given the increasingly interdisciplinary direction the academy is moving in, do sharp distinctions between schools or categories pertain? And how are scholars such as myself—presently training at least partially in religious studies graduate departments—going about identifying themselves and their scholarly identities in light of these categories?

What are your thoughts?

Religion as Analytic Fiction

I thought a lot about the field of Religious Studies over the fall semester. Religion was an important theme in a course I took under ethno-historian Raymond DeMallie, titled History of Anthropological Thought. For my term paper, I traced the use of religion as an analytic construct in North America from the proto-anthropological era of the Bureau of (American) Ethnology up to Clifford Geertz’s famously encompassing definition of religion as a cultural system. I analyzed a number of important definitions of religion from the position of someone training in the methods of anthropology but working primarily from the Department of Religious Studies. I won’t bore you with a summary of that essay here, but I will highlight several theorists I consider relevant to these issues.

While I researched for the essay, I wrestled with a number of questions: What is Religious Studies? What is religion? What has religion to do with society or culture? Does religion produce societies and cultures or is it produced by them? If scholars can reduce religion to some vague postulate to be identified vastly across the spectrum of human socio-cultural formation, does the subject then deserve its own field of study? Is religion really a universalized special form of socio-cultural formation, something that is truly distinct from other analytic categories, such as kinship, politics, economics, and so forth? Like all scholars interested in the study of the study of religion, I wrestle with these questions every time I pick up a book or article themed in this direction. These are in no way new questions, although they are relevant to me at this important juncture of my academic training.

Unfortunately, the word religion has become so sedimented in our academic vocabularies I fear it is rendered meaningless. Is not the word an empty descriptor, a vague signal that has no substantive value with the exception of clarifying a field of study? Consider, for instance, this application of the term from my own university department’s web page. Religion, such a description infers, is universal, ubiquitous, and influential. It is a force that exists before other institutional categories (e.g., literature, politics, art, and economics) and serves to shape and influence said categories. Yet, other than a “major force in human experience” that shapes other important institutions, the description provides no concrete definition. Vague definitions, however, demonstrate another point. Scholars themselves don’t exactly agree about what religion is. I give this example not to criticize my department’s webpage but to show the difficulties in definition and description of contested secondary categories.

Claude Levi-Strauss, in an obscure passage in his Totemism, speaks to these issues:

But the human sciences can only work effectively with ideas that are clear, or which they try to make so. If it is maintained that religion constitutes an autonomous order, requiring a special kind of investigation, it has to be removed from the common fate of objects of science. Religion having thus been defined by contrast, it will inevitably appear, in the eyes of science, to be distinguished as no more than a sphere of confused ideas. Thenceforth, any attempt to make an objective study of religion will have to be directed to a domain other than that of ideas, one which has be distorted and adapted by the claims of religious anthropology. The only approach routes left open will be affective (if not actually organic) and sociological ones which will do no more than circle around the phenomena. . . . Conversely, if religious ideas are accorded the same value as any other conceptual system, as giving access to the mechanism of thought, the procedures of religious anthropology will acquire validity, but it will lose its autonomy and its specific character. . . . This is what we have seen happen in the case of totemism, the reality of which is reduced to that of a particular illustration of certain modes of thought (103-104).

Levi-Strauss speaks conjecturally, here, but his thoughts underscore my questions. Is religion really an “autonomous order”? Should scholars define it “by contrast” to other formative systems? Does religion require “a special kind of investigation”? Modifying his words for my own purposes, I worry that at worst Religious Studies departments constitute nothing more than “sphere[s] of confused ideas.” Bronislaw Malinowski, earlier than Levi-Strauss, warns against such artificial programs of inquiry. “An Ethnographer who sets out to study only religion, or only technology, or only social organisation,” he writes, “cuts out an artificial field of inquiry, and he will be seriously handicapped in his work.” By defining religion (“Religion is x and y and z but not a or b.”) and lifting it up and above and apart from other systems of socio-cultural formation (“I study religion, not economics.”), I worry that scholars construct an artificial field of inquiry.

To clarify, I don’t necessarily feel that religion as secondary term of analysis is a bad thing, although some recent anthropologists such as David Schneider go as far as declaring the “quartet of  institutions” [i.e., kinship, economics, politics, and religion] as “vacuous,” “empty,” and ultimately, useless. For these scholars, scholarly terms of meta-analysis, terms originated during periods of imperialist expansion, lose their meaning. I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s conceptualization of the simulacrum. In media theory, this refers to the idea that images-qua-symbols no longer retain external referents. The images themselves retain symbolic meaning (and possibly) apart from any historical linking to a concept, idea, or presence. This may be what has happened to the construct in focus. Scholars project religion, as a category, onto cultural practices (“This is religion; that is religion. That is not religion.”) and fail to recall that the term itself is second-order. Religion, in a way, is a fiction. It’s etically derived. The real issue, at least from my perspective, is whether or not religion is a productive fiction. Does the term help us? Is it useful? Does the term elucidate or obscure?

Scholars are human, too, just like Levi-Strauss’s anthropological subjects, and we look out into the world and try to make sense of various phenomena via analytical and classificatory systems. As academics, we need useful terms regardless if they are problematic. I think in the pragmatic sense, Religious Studies is important in that it draws together eclectic scholars who are studying analogous things and asking analogous questions of human histories, cultures, and societies. But religion should probably not be construed as anything more than an analytic construct. I don’t really believe in religion proper–religion as some vague thing spread across all human cultures, so to say. But I am committed to religion as a scholarly term of contestation. Religion as an analytic fiction–to be determined and defined per researcher, per research context–is helpful.

Serpents, Novelty, and Academic Fetish

Novelty draws academics. This is no controversial claim. We cluster around the odd, the uncanny, and the strange. We gather around scenes of violence and ecstasy, field-notebooks in hand, scribbling furiously.  Academics peddle novelty. Without novelty, historical accounts blur into the monotonous progression of historical minutiae, just damn things following after other damn things. Without novelty, anthropological accounts suffer the same fate. Without the strange and uncanny—the disconcerting—ethnographies of everyday life cycle into myopic drudgery. Everyday life, as beautiful as scholars such as Robert Orsi paint it, can be terribly dull.

There is good reason for the emphasis of the novel, of course. “Religion is not nice,” comments J. Z. Smith. “It has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” In the laboratory that is religions in America, religious peoples are increasingly exposed to religious peoples. At downtown famers’ markets or on public transportation, especially in urban centers or university towns, one can witness an eclectic blending of cultures only possible in a globalizing world. We are met, face to face, with difference. And difference, while it retains its identity, is novel. Often in American history, groups of people have responded to the novel in similar ways: xenophobic violence.

A form of violence also shrouds a frequent symbol of novelty in contemporary America: the serpent. Snakes, actually, are minor characters in a plot whose protagonists wield the slender bodies of the former, furiously, in scenes of religio-social ecstasy and embodied ferment. Although Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain forever changed the way I think about ethnographic research, it provokes more questions than it answers. What’s the job of the scholar of religion? Where does ethnography end and journalism begin? Where does the line between writing about interesting things and the fetishizing those very things begin and end?

Smith provides some insight. He writes in his provocative essay, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” that scholars must make intelligible. Scholars can work toward this goal by elucidating mythologies, ideologies, soteriologies, and sociologies. We must extract from the data in front of us its exoticism; we must override its novelty. No “human datum [is] beyond the pale of reason and understanding,” Smith writes of Enlightenment thought, implying that such a modernist endeavor is a more worthy option to “the refusal of the academy” to engage in interpretation.

I’m still thinking about Seth Perry’s recent post, “Adiaphora,” in The Martin Marty Center’s Sightings blog. Perry reflects on journalistic accounts of snake handler Randall Wolford’s death by snake bite, concluding that “we are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it.” Such discourse, I’m convinced, reinforces novelty and perpetuates intelligibility. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” says Smith, but comments such as Perry’s do nothing to make humanness ordinary or to reduce phenomena to “the known and the knowable.” Perry doesn’t seem to understand what he’s missing, even though it’s there in his post: snake-handlers have facebook pages. Snake-handlers are Americans. They have loved ones. Snake-handlers are human beings.  Respect, lauding, empathy: these concepts seem to me irrelevant, or at best, redundant. They’re mute points. Understand the phenomenon, says Smith. Explain it. Make it human. Use whatever means possible to make it known and knowable.

The issue as I see it is that novelty becomes a protective buffer, a defensive screen, of sorts, by which academics put distance between themselves and the subject matter. I won’t comment on the value of said distance; I’m an ethnographer by method, so you might be able to guess my position when it comes to first-hand, on-the-ground, fieldwork. But, drawing on Bourdieuian theory, I would advise fellow ethnographers and historians that this defensive mechanism is also an advertising ploy, a journalistic tactic. Our task, in Bourdieu’s words, is to “reveal that which is hidden.” Producing novelty does the opposite: it obscures. It hides.

And, of course, the million-dollar, pragmatic question: How? How do we get beyond novelty in our writing and research? How do we actually do it?

What are your thoughts?

Emergents as “Dirty” Evangelicals

For the past few months I’ve been working on a definitional essay of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), mostly because as an Americanist in religious studies and anthropology, I would like to know, in terms of the production of classificatory academic knowledge, (i) what the ECM is, (ii) where the movement originates, (iii) what it is like, descriptively, and (iv) where it fits in the spectrum of emerging North American Protestantism (notice: lowercase c).

That the ECM resists definitions, that it defies etic categorization, is by now truistic in every sense of the word. The ECM is diverse—there’s no question at all—and its practices and rituals vary per community or gathering. I concede the point. But enough primary source monographs have been written by emerging writers to begin the comparative program that is the core of religious studies. Emic definitions are ripe for comparison and contrast. Myriad blog posts bombard online discourse hubs, just waiting for analysis. As of yet, scholars have all but ignored the academic study of the ECM, with the masterful and recent exception of anthropologist James Bielo’s ethnographically multi-site Emerging Evangelicals.

At this point, I’m still collecting definitions and formulating my own. I’ve consulted the writings of many of the movement’s primary writers: Tickle, Jones, Ward, Knight, McLaren, Pagitt, Gibbs and Bolger, McKnight, Snider and Bowen, Rollins, and Scandrette, just to name a few. But as I’ve reflected on the diversity of the movement, especially as represented by these above figures, I’ve had a thought: Emergents—or those emerging, or those who self-identify with the ECM—are dirty evangelicals. Here I draw on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ famous theory of taboo and pollution, dirt and order. As she puts it in her own words, dirt is “a kind of compendium category for all events which blur, smudge, contradict, or otherwise confuse accepted classifications.” Dirt blends and smears categories; it blurs and obfuscates delineations. And while the term is certainly vulgar and possibly offensive at first glance, it does seem to instructively describe the state of the ECM. Emergents defy both academically descriptive as well as theologically-derived taxonomies. I’m thinking here of the ECM’s close identification with all things “postmodern,” which in some fields of the academy, most notably the visual arts, might be described in terms of hyper-eclecticism, combinativity, and juxtaposition. I’m thinking here of Tickle’s claim in The Great Emergence that emerging communities blend together the four quadrilaterals of Christian practice (which she calls the “Liturgicals,” “Social Justice Christians,” “Renewalists,” and “Conservatives”). I’m thinking of McLaren’s multifarious A Generous Orthodoxy.

One more point reinforces my use of Douglas’ theory to categorize the ECM. Within conservative evangelicalism, the reaction to this point has been primarily negative. Many see the ECM as theologically dangerous, and so construe it, unknowingly, of course, in Douglas’ theoretical terminologies. The ECM, to much of evangelicalism, operates at the margins of traditional Christianity (i.e., it is marginal) and its teachings heterodox. It operates at the fringes of Protestantism. Its practices are polluting.

So, what do you think? Are emergents “dirty” in the way Mary Douglas envisioned the term?