Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)

chipotle

Several years ago, at Chipotle, I realized that one of the workers behind the counter was a student of mine, one to whom I’d spoken the week before about his poor performance and a particularly compulsive (and, for me, wildly distracting) propensity to text during class. As we were suspended in an awkward moment where he was asking me what kind of salsa I wanted, another question came out of his mouth as well: Did he still have to call me “Dr. Smith” when he was at work?

My answer, as I remember it, was stumbling and incoherent, comprised of “uh” and the general surprise of not knowing what to say. On the one hand I didn’t really care what he called me, for plenty of my students call me by my first name. On the other hand, though, Dr. Smith was not mentally in the building, so to speak; I was not expecting anyone to call me by my professional title, so I was caught off guard when it came up in a weekend conversation about tacos and corn salsa.   But before I could think much more about the significance of what he had asked and how I had responded, the chatter devolved into guacamole and credit cards, and the exchange was over just as fast as it happened. Continue reading “Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)”

Shoots, Stabs, or Farts: Some Thoughts on Child’s Play

toy gun

My three school aged children recently stayed with grandma for the week, and while there, she took them to the dollar store. Going to the dollar store is one of my kids’ favorite rituals (so popular that they practice it with both sets of grandparents); among other things, it is a pilgrimage that feeds their unending appetites for cheap plastic stuff. Although we actively discourage violent play with our children, have never purchased them violent toys, and talk consistently in our house about the danger of weapons, my sons’ favorite dollar store items are almost always plastic guns, grenades, and knives.

So it was little surprise when grandma texted me to tell me how, upon entering the store, my eight year old son had declared that he was interested in “anything that shoots, stabs, or farts.” After I recovered from that proud parenting moment, I began to consider Michael Kimmel’s observation that male violent play is not a matter of genetic destiny. As much as we may love to utter the following words to one another, this is not an inherently “boys will be boys” situation, for, as Kimmel and other gender scholars have amply shown, violent play is a phenomenon caused by specific cultural patterns and power arrangements rather than an inbred trait of boys. Continue reading “Shoots, Stabs, or Farts: Some Thoughts on Child’s Play”

Who Is A Christian?: The Donald, The Pope, and the Rhetoric of Religion

Donald Trump

Donald Trump received some criticism from an interesting corner this past week when Pope Francis all but declared Trump “un-Christian,” an assessment rendered in response to the latter’s planned policy to build a wall between the US and Mexico if he is elected President. Predictably, Trump fired back with a series of remarks alleging that if ISIS were to attack the Vatican (a possibility in a world without Trump as President, he surmised), then the Pope would seriously regret his words. Although both offered more conciliatory statements later, the spectacle that remained exposed some of the very interesting seams of social identity, seams that should be particularly intriguing to anyone interested not just in the study of religion, but also in the dynamics of public life.

As a scholar of religion with an eye for social theory, one of the first rules of engagement that I use when analyzing a situation such as this is to presume that labels like “Christian” are more shifting descriptors of a particular group’s interests and place in a society rather than a finite, essentialist definition of them. In other words, there is not a single thing that characterizes all people who call themselves “Christian,” and so what intrigues me about the use of the term is why and how we use it when we do, rather than assuming that it is a neutral, self-evident category that objectively describes the world. Continue reading “Who Is A Christian?: The Donald, The Pope, and the Rhetoric of Religion”

Innumerable Shades of Grey

plannedparenthoodshootingYes — about a week ago there was yet another mass shooting in the US, this time at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO. (I won’t go into the even more recent mass shootings in Georgia or California yesterday.)

There’s not too many details in the public domain yet (at least when I wrote this post), but we know that a middle-aged, white male suspect was apprehended after a stand-off with police (pictured above), that three people (including a cop) were killed, and that several more wounded. Continue reading “Innumerable Shades of Grey”

Denaturalizing the Natural

dinoAs a little kid in the early 1960s, I guess I decided that the hooded sweaters I sometimes wore made me look like Dino the dinosaur — you know, from “The Flintstones”? I don’t think we had a specific name for them yet — at least we didn’t call them “hoodies,” as people do now. Instead, opting for brutal descriptivism (which sounds like a 1960s architectural movement), I’m guessing that we just uncreatively called them “hooded sweaters.” Continue reading “Denaturalizing the Natural”

When the Sledgehammers Come Out

Picture 9I keep seeing laments online for what the members of the Islamic State are doing in museums — laments that easily slide into virulent critiques of their humanity since they obviously have no civilized respect for our collective human past.

I’ve written about this before, but what I wish to highlight here is how quickly otherwise nuanced people forget their own understanding of such things as the ideology of the museum, the politics of world history and discourse on civilization/barbarity, as well as the constructed nature of the past — quickly, that is, when their own taken-for-granted narratives of progressive development, value, cultural authority, and historical interconnection/lineage are called into question by those who, presumably, subscribe to a rather different narrative. Continue reading “When the Sledgehammers Come Out”

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 2)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

2. Name one of your favorite theory books.

512fyAWdIqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After 9/11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)

This is one of my favorite theory books because of its approach toward and definition of religion. The definition, which has four parts, revolves around the first component: the foundation of religion, Lincoln asserts, is discourse. What makes religious discourse different from other types of discourse is that it appeals to a transcendent source (the most familiar version of which is “God”), which subsequently sets that claim beyond effective human critique significantly increasing the political weight of such claims. The other three components (practices, communities, and institutions) come to life only insomuch as they are socio-structural manifestations of that discourse. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 2)”

Everybody Plays the Fool

collaborate

When [Walter] Kirn was just starting his novel-writing career, he met a man who was a bold financier, an art collector, a fussy eccentric, a dog lover and a Rockefeller. They became friends.

But over the years Kirn began to learn that the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller was none of that — not even a dog lover. He was a psychopath and a killer.

How did Kirn fall for the fraud? Was Christian Karl Gerhartsriter — aka “Clark Rockefeller” — extraordinarily compelling? Or was the novelist, like a lot of other people drawn to the imposter, duped by his own desire to have an attachment to a famous name?

So opens a radio story on the curious case of Clark Rockefeller — or, might we say instead, the curious case of people, such as Kirn himself, who believed his friend to be the man he claimed to be. The difference between how we approach this story — is it about Rockefeller (pictured above) or Kirn? — tells us much about the social theory used to tell the tale. Continue reading “Everybody Plays the Fool”