Katie Lofton’s recent review essay of On Teaching Religion in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion has generated significant feedback on social media, both favorable and not. One point of debate is the appropriate classification for the essay. While the journal editor labeled it a Review Essay, others have described it as a tribute to J. Z. Smith’s scholarship, a teaching evaluation, a memoir essay, etc. Other terms describing the essay (a different manner of classification) ranged from narcissistic and Oedipal to a great read.
So, what difference does the classification make? Certainly, the classification of published materials influences the ways a reader approaches the words on the page. Readers typically expect a different topic of analysis in a review essay than in a memoir. The standards of argumentation also frequently differ in a scholarly journal as opposed to a letter to the editor. When a reader’s expectations are not fulfilled, the disconnect can create a pleasant surprise or exacerbate frustration.
Classification in these ways also implies a certain level of authority, such as the difference between a peer reviewed publication and a Facebook comment. Thus, classification becomes a strategic point to contest the worth of writing. In other words, my sense of the debate over the classification of Lofton’s essay is that the classification becomes a way to express broader responses to the essay and through the classification support or diminish the authority of her assertions, for she makes some bold statements that, surprisingly to me, have not been secondary to the issue of classification in many of the discussions that I have read. For example, while respecting Smith’s influence on her own scholarly habits, Lofton basically discounts the value of his method in rather stark terms. She asserts,
Yet, there is an imperceptible center to all this talk of difference and its management, a coldness that often leads readers of Smith to feel he is explaining well the abstract meaning behind a ritual, myth or community decision, but that he is not capturing anything like their anthropological or psychological reality (537).
Following this, she suggests that Smith’s approach fails to work “in life,” a claim that probably needs a little more development than the simile of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings (what seems to be a bit of an overstatement in itself). Lofton’s apparent assertion that other methods better convey “reality” and reach students on a more complete level enters into a significant debate in the academic study of religion. While I find the empiricism implicit in her assumptions problematic, I know that many in our field do not. That the debate about her essay has not explicitly tackled these assertions, either supporting or rejecting them, suggests to me that the act of classification here (as often happens) is a proxy for the debate over method and reductionist approaches. Lofton suggests as much in relation to the responses to Smith’s assertion that “religion is solely the creation of the scholar” when she declares,
This passage [of Smith’s] seems utterly idiotic, argumentatively important, or perfectly axiomatic, depending on your relationship to religion as a problem for humanistic inquiry.
And that is to be expected. Descriptions, definitions, and classifications typically have embedded within them particular assumptions and interests of the person presenting the description, definition, or classification. That is why I am skeptical of Lofton’s assertion that other methods get to that “anthropological or psychological reality,” since these representations also contain the representer’s assumptions rather than some purified description of reality.
Thus, all of our representations are data for analysis, including my own construction of what is really at stake in these debates over classifying an essay.