Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore

On Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver delivered a really entertaining bit on the duel between–or conflation of–facts and feelings that played out during the Republican National Convention:

We talk a lot on this blog about the vested interests present in any interpretation or identification. Appeals to facts and empiricism all too often present them as implicitly neutral or self-evident. Vaia Touna calls our attention to the sticky wicket of interpretive acts in this post, for example, on the hermeneutical quicksand that attends reading maps and recording history. Continue reading

No Words

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If you have read Susan Sontag’s arresting book, Regarding the Pain of Others, you’ll know that Sontag believes there is something unique about the way that a photograph — particularly a photograph that reveals suffering — is received by its viewers. This uniqueness is partially tied to the content of the image itself, but is also a function of how we, the public, think about images.

On the one hand, she notes, we judge images as something uniquely truthful in a way that we do not with words. Photographs seem like they’re portraying ‘just the facts,’ while we can more easily acknowledge that words are crafted, edited, tweaked. For this reason, the public is often disillusioned by the actual work that is involved in photojournalism, she remarks; that is, we do not want to be aware of the processes of thought, selection, and framing that goes on because we want our images to be ‘the truth.’ In this sense, “Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs” (47). And yet, she notes, we are terribly contradictory in this conviction, for we deny the power of photographs every day when they do not suit our particular purposes. Continue reading

Response: Center and Periphery

Picture 3Earlier this week Stephen S. Bush responded to one of my posts on his recent monograph, Visions of Religion. In my post I suggested that Bush’s work arguably props up the status quo in our field, and as such he could resort to rhetorical enthymemes that leave certain assumptions unstated and unargued — particularly since sympathetic readers in the mainstream of the field already share those assumptions. In his response Bush claims that I’m unfair to him, since he did provide argumentation for the assertions or assumptions I claimed were unstated or unargued. In addition, he objected to my characterization of his work as representing the center of the field. According to Bush, my work — which focuses on discourse analysis, ideology critique, and power — is closer to the center of the field, and his work — which includes a focus on experience and meaning — is more likely to be considered passé and thus on the periphery. Continue reading

Reply: Reasons and Objectivity in the Study of Religion

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By Stephen S. Bush
Stephen S. Bush is an associate professor of religious studies at Brown University. He is the author of Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power, and he is presently working on a book on William James’s political philosophy and philosophy of religion.

This guest blog is a response to Craig Martin’s recent post.

In Visions of Religion, I critically engage the three most prominent theoretical approaches to the study of religion in the past hundred or so years, which prioritize respectively experience, meaning, and power. I embrace key insights from all three schools of thought, but I correct them all on important points. I integrate the valuable contributions of each into a theory of religion according to which religion is a matter of social practices.

According to Craig Martin, in my book, I frequently leave off reasoned argumentation. He says I make undefended assertions that have no other basis than how I “feel.” Or perhaps, he says, the problem is not with my personal preferences, it’s with him. He is, he tells us, an outsider to religious studies. I can afford to make undefended assertions, because the rest of the field unquestioningly buys into my assumptions, which are those of the “status quo.” From his vantage point, he can see them as the unexamined prejudices they are. Continue reading

Always Historicize

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You know me, I’m all for critiques of authenticity — the way we authorize happenstance interests by portraying them as normative, inevitable, timeless….

But what about croissants? Continue reading

On Privileges that are Not Universally Shared

privilegeAnyone who knows me knows that I walk my dog early each morning — lately I’m regularly going to a nearby park where, well, Izzy goes regularly as well. But every now and then I change it up a little — variety is the spice of life and all that — and so I park here and we walk there or park over there and then we walk here. Sometimes I park in one of the lots but other times I pull over off the small loop of a road and park on the grassy shoulder. Continue reading

S.O.B.

SOBI’ve written before about the curious relationship between form and content — and the manner in which (despite how we usually think about it) meaning is the product of the former.

As but the latest example, consider this Lipton commercial currently on TV here in the US.

Recognize the song? Continue reading

The Narratives We Like

PlotmountainGun fights, political intrigue, and a race against time. Reading fiction is one activity that provides a little excitement. While I enjoy a range of authors and styles, my favorites are the pulp espionage and legal thrillers from authors like David Baldacci, John Grisham, and Steven Martini. The exciting plot keeps me highly engaged and turning the pages to see how the hero or (sometimes) heroine fight off or outwit the dangerous, enigmatic threat. Like many people, I appreciate a good narrative, and that desire for a manageable, linear plot is not limited to reading novels.

Reading in Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse (yes, I also read some academic works during the summer) has prompted me to reflect on these preferences and their connection to my own writing. White argues that the construction of a historical narrative has important similarities to fiction writing, as the historian selects data from the range of sources she peruses and pieces them together into a narrative, choosing particular “modes of emplotment” (such as romance, comedy, or tragedy) that generally correspond to particular explanatory approaches in the field of history. Continue reading

Christianity as Logo: Is Donald Trump a “Baby Christian”?

 

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As you might have seen recently in the news, James Dobson, noted evangelical leader and founder of the Focus on the Family empire, has made the public claim that Donald Trump, the Presidential candidate to whom he has lent quasi-official support, is a born-again Christian.  This statement was made largely in an attempt to explain how Trump’s string of unsavory comments and crude vocabulary need not offput the “values voters” who Dobson represents and whose support Trump so desperately needs.  Rather, Dobson located the reason for Trump’s language and attitudes in the fact that he is a “baby Christian,” or very recent convert.  In other words,  Dobson has argued, Trump should be given a pass in the matter of his foul language and otherwise distasteful comments since he was not raised in an evangelical environment, and is just learning the cultural ropes, so to speak.

It will surprise no one that a wave of anti-Trump folks responded to the “baby Christian” comment by claiming that Trump’s ethics are so bankrupt that this news couldn’t possibly be taken seriously.  Yet as Russell McCutcheon himself recently argued, the progressive clamor over whether Trump’s religiosity is “genuine” — that is, reflective of some inward personal shift —  is actually a conservative move in the sense that it presumes the existence of some sort of authentic religious experience that is deemed authoritative and positive precisely because it is presumed apolitical.  McCutcheon’s analysis points to the fact that since every religious act is designed to have some impact on the power relationships shared by people, every such act is political in one way or another.  So while Trump may be among the more colorful candidates to invoke religion while on the campaign trail, there’s nothing particularly unique in how he’s doing it. Continue reading

Which “Tradition”?

I recently came across the following video (somewhat dated now in the US, since federal rulings have made this political issue a moot point), which offers a clever critique of appeals to “traditional marriage,” specifically regarding appeals used to justify heteronormative marriage laws. It works by drawing attention to the massive variety of all that fits into our collective past, history, or “tradition.”

From this video it is clear that there are always multiple pasts to draw from, and our choice of which elements we pick out and lift up as the real “tradition” — which we want to make normative for ourselves and others — is always motivated by our interests in the present and for the future.

In the classroom, when I point out that people pick and choose from their “traditions,” students often take that as if I were criticizing practitioners, or as if I were calling them hypocrites. Then I point out that although most of them are Americans, none of them wants to hang onto the 3/5ths rule in the constitution. The point? We’re all picking and choosing, all the time. Rather than refereeing which truth claims, or in this case which traditions, get to count as legitimate, I encourage my students to consider the issues at stake in these debates and the speakers involved. In doing this, we are able to see how different social groups construct contradictory, if not competing, historical narratives in very stragic ways to further their own social agendas. Cherry-picking historical traditions isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, but rather is just social group formation.