On the Spot with Richard Newton

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

This is a fun question for me as a scholar and an advisor. Usually I tell people that I study “the anthropology of scriptures.” And as I tell students of religion preparing for job interviews, the response to the original question isn’t designed to satisfy so much as it is to peak the asker’s curiosity. I like to turn a point of information into a point of interest by pairing something presumably familiar (e.g. scriptures) with something presumably strange (e.g. anthropology). And in so doing, I hope to have provided an answer that is interesting enough that I’m granted the chance to elaborate.

If I’m successful at this, then I get to say how I’m interested in how and why some of the cultural texts people read also appear to read them back. We know people and social interests are at work in creating these media, yet we are also aware of instances where people relate to texts in and of themselves. What’s up with that? Quite a lot actually…. Continue reading “On the Spot with Richard Newton”

On Jewish Studies and the Study of Islam


The following excerpt is from Sarah Imhoff’s contribution to the newly released volume Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: Current Dilemmas in the Study of Religionswith Culture on the Edge Books Series (Equinox Publishing).

The field of Jewish studies is full of Jews. This is obvious. It is also surprising, for two reasons. First, the diversity of Jewish studies scholars compares unfavourably with other religion-related fields. Islamic studies currently has a sufficient mix of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars to create a heated debate about epistemology, apology and the study of Islam. Jewish studies still has relatively few non-Jewish scholars of Judaism, although the number is growing. … While Islamic studies in American traces much of its history through Orientalism — non-Muslims studying Muslims and Islamic civilizations–the dominant narrative of Jewish studies begins with Jews studying Judaism. Although Jewish studies is my primary field, I have found that reflecting on Islamic studies has made me think more clearly about Jewish studies. I hope the reverse also proves true — that reflecting on Jewish studies will offer fruitful parallels with, as well as distinctions from, many of the larger issues at play in Islamic studies (121-122).

– Sarah Imhoff, “Jews, Jewish Studies and the Study of Islam”

Teaching “Just the Facts”

In the course I’m TAing for (a Masters level American Religious History course), I was given the opportunity to give a class lecture. The professor wanted me to bring my own work and knowledge, given that the lecture material was related to my own area of study (Catholic immigration and nationalism in the US). While I have had the opportunity to lecture in the past (and design my own portion of the syllabus to then teach), this was the first time I taught material chosen by someone else.  Continue reading “Teaching “Just the Facts””

Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: An Interview with Matt Sheedy

This interview is part of a series of interviews on new books from the Culture on the Edge book series with Equinox publishing. 

This edited volume began in response to a debate between two scholars who study Islam, Omid Safi and Aaron Hughes. Can you introduce the main issues of that debate?

The idea for this book came out of a “debate” between Omid Safi and Aaron Hughes back in early 2014. The initial salvo came when Safi published an essay on Jadaliyya, “Reflections on the State of Islamic Studies,” where he characterized Hughes’s work as “grossly polemical and simplistic,” though without providing any specific evidence for this claim. Hughes replied on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog (where I was then editor), challenging Safi to “do what the Western tradition of scholarly discourse demands and respond to my ideas in print as opposed to engaging in innuendo and identity politics.” After some preliminary discussion on Facebook, where we considered the possibility of a more substantive exchange on the Bulletin blog, Safi decided not to engage further on this forum.

In the interest of expanding the conversation I asked a number of scholars of religion to comment on some of the issues raised in these two blog posts, with an emphasis on the following tension: whereas Safi’s reflections on Islamic Studies stress the role of feminist, post-colonial, and anthropological approaches, and laud scholars who work between the academy and the community for political ends (e.g., see Safi’s edited book Progressive Muslims), Hughes argues that the emphasis on identity politics in much of Islamic Studies contributes to the persistence of apologetics and inhibits the kind of critical scholarship that religious studies ought be striving for. Subsequent to this, more responses were published in a special issue of the Bulletin’s journal, which became the starting point for this book. In this volume a few of the same contributors expand their original pieces, along with five new essays, including an afterword from Russell McCutcheon. Continue reading “Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: An Interview with Matt Sheedy”

Real Cheese and the Eucharist: On the Rhetoric of Dietary Restrictions

The other day, I went to a local coffeehouse for breakfast. The restaurant is an entirely gluten-free facility that also caters to other dietary restrictions. The restaurant is somewhat of a hot-spot for those of us with food allergies or dietary restrictions because it accommodates most all of them. While the entire facility is gluten-free (not to be confused with wheat-free), they also have vegan breads and cheeses, so anyone can order most anything on the menu. Continue reading “Real Cheese and the Eucharist: On the Rhetoric of Dietary Restrictions”

The Blind Spot of Dissent

Have you heard the uproar about the decision not to televise the presentation of some Oscar categories on this year’s upcoming broadcast? It was reversed the other day, but the plan had been to deal with the ever-increasing length of the annual telecast by excluding four presentations from the live show that viewers would see — and awarding them instead during the commercial breaks. Continue reading “The Blind Spot of Dissent”

Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice – Part II


Social Justice for Sale (
Part I of Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice) addressed how recent advertisements from companies like Coca-Cola, Nike and Gillette promote varying aspects of social responsibility via campaigns of unity, diversity, and social justice. Is this the dawn of the ethical corporation? Is this about changing minds and perceptions to create unity? Do these campaigns challenge the system or is this just about maintaining a status quo?

(To read the first half of the series click here for Part I)

Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice Part II:
The Hidden Costs of Super Commercials of Unity & Social Justice

Since that Coca-Cola hilltop commercial first played 50 years ago, the image of inclusivity the brand portrays today is salient as ever. Yet, the company is accused of dehydrating communities around the world of one of the most vital resources: water ( In Town With Little Water, Coca-Cola Is Everywhere. So Is Diabetes). Greenpeace notes that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé were found to be the worst plastic polluters worldwide in global cleanups and brand audits. The company is also charged with violating workers’ rights in a number of countries such as Columbia, Turkey, Guatemala and Russia (Coca-Cola: Drinking the World Dry). Who are they really including in their messages of “unity and positivity?”

Continue reading “Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice – Part II”

Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice – Part I

 

Just before the Star-Spangled Banner ceremonially started Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, a minute long commercial with a message of “unity and positivity” kicked off one of the most commercialized events on the planet. No, the NFL did not welcome back Colin Kaepernick. And PETA did not join forces with Tom Brady to promote veganism (is Tom Brady even vegan?). Rather, Atlanta hometown sweetheart Coca-Cola was promoting diversity and inclusion in their Warhol inspired advert “A Coke is A Coke.” The company is purported to be rolling out the red carpet for everyone, including rival Pepsi. As other companies like Nike and Gillette join the social justice crusade with their own campaigns, is this the dawn of the ethical corporation? But, is this really about changing minds and perceptions to create unity?

Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice Part I:
Social Justice For Sale

Continue reading “Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice – Part I”

Am I Middle-Aged?

A few weeks ago, after being dismayed at finding my rain gauge broken after a particularly bad snowstorm, my teenaged daughter asked me when I became interested in stuff like rainfall amounts. The question was not snarky; it was a genuine interest in what happens to certain adults who do not grow their own food that they begin to have conversations about the amount of moisture falling from the sky.  And I get it.  I can remember as a teen hearing adults talk about absolutely boring things (Insurance! Advanced dentistry!  Mortgages!  Their joints!) and wondering why everyone seemed so intrigued.  Was adulthood, after all, merely an extended stage of pain, weather-watching, and paper-shuffling? (I’ll leave it to you to answer that). Continue reading “Am I Middle-Aged?”

“Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation

When I was a kid, “Guess Who?” was a very popular game with me and my friends at my after school program. It was always a pretty quick game, which had friends gathered around while waiting for their chance to play the winner. Perhaps you recall the game — two players, each choose a yellow card, which had the picture of one of the faces on the board, and take turns guessing which card the other person has. While each of the pictures has a name on it, players can only ask yes or no questions about physical appearance: hair color, hair style, age, etc. Continue reading ““Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation”