Trinkets from the Vatican Gift Shop

Vatican gift shop

On a 2015 trip to Florence and Rome (my first visit to both cities), I had the opportunity to take in some of the more popular sites, such as the Pitti Palace and the Roman Forum, along with several museums and basilicas that are as plentiful in those parts of Italy as Walmart and waffle houses are in the U.S. Both cities were flooded with tourists, which made popular attractions like Michelangelo’s David a challenge to see without advanced booking and marked virtually every experience as one that was shared with camera-totting strangers. At some of these sites, this meant being herded through an enclosed space by stern security guards, as I encountered at the Sistine Chapel:

Silence, silencio, no photos.

The sheer abundance of it all — from people to works of art to the rich and flavorful cuisine — was overwhelming at times, offset by more tangible realities on the ground, such as Nigerian merchants of black market leather purses and the many Indian migrants who traded in sunglasses, scarfs, and colorful tennis ball sized toys that would be tossed down on a wooden plank, splatter, and re-form in a matter of seconds … pick up and repeat. In Rome, unlike in Florence, they even made a noise — “whaaah” — that could be heard at uneven intervals on popular streets throughout the city. Continue reading “Trinkets from the Vatican Gift Shop”

Whose Meaning? The Debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside”

person carrying sign that reads

With renewed attention on harassment, sexual assault, and the importance of consent, the classic Christmas song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has generated renewed debate. Incorporating what we know about literary meaning, they are both right and wrong.

Detractors, including some who have convinced radio stations like one in Cleveland to ban the song, have suggested that it is a “rape anthem,” recognizing in the dialogue one partner pressuring the other to spend the night, despite the person continually saying “No.” This failure to take “no” as a final answer renforces, for those opposed to the song, “rape culture.” Some defenders of the song argue that it is a celebration of women’s sexual liberation when viewed in the context of its recording, when social retribution for spending the night with a man would be fierce. (See one early version from the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter below, including a gender reversal in the second half.) Continue reading “Whose Meaning? The Debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside””

Response: Center and Periphery

Two men sitting at a table having a conversationEarlier 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 “Response: Center and Periphery”

Reply: Reasons and Objectivity in the Study of Religion

Two men sitting at a table having a conversation

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 “Reply: Reasons and Objectivity in the Study of Religion”

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

 

a baby wearing a

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

Academic Style and the Voice of Authority

The cover of a book called Visions of Religion

I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.

One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading “Academic Style and the Voice of Authority”

Expected Meanings

A woman with her face painted the colors of the Argentina FlagThe meaning of words, even entire texts, reflect our expectations of them and our assumptions of their context. This point is apparent in the Argentine soccer ad that uses quotes from Donald Trump to hype the national team’s trip to the United States. If you missed this brilliant appropriation, take a look below.

Continue reading “Expected Meanings”

A Rabid Dictionary?

The word dictionary and its definitionAre the accusations of sexism in the dictionary definitions that have moved through social media last week reasonable? While problems in the entries seem clear, the situation is complicated. In case you missed it, Michael Oman-Reagan, a PhD candidate in Canada noted that the Oxford Dictionary presented “rabid feminist” as an example for the entry “rabid,” which he included as one among many examples of “explicitly sexist” entries. The dictionary editors responded that their “example sentences come from real-world use,” but, of course, they chose which everyday example they wanted to enshrine. For a term with a negative connotation like “rabid,” such a choice provides an opportunity to offend someone, making the choice significant. If they had written “rabid NRA member” or “rabid leftist,” different groups might be complaining. Continue reading “A Rabid Dictionary?”

The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion

Sun Never SetsLots of scholars of religion are focused these days on studying such things as implicit religion, the Nones, or almost any other so-called worldview that people might be said to work with or inhabit (e.g., many are hot on the trail of secularism). What I find interesting about all this is the way in which a professional identity is being recreated, by those who work in this field, in the face of twenty year’s worth of critiques of the category religion itself (pretty obviously the field’s primary organizing concept); for it seems that the more the term is criticized (as being a Latin-based signifier that was exported in the age of colonial contact, making it hardly the universal designator that it was once thought to be — see here for a good primer on this argument) the more data these scholars seem to have to study. Consider the so-called Nones — those who answer a few questions on a survey, about belief in God or attendance at church, and who are now thought by many to comprise a cohesive social, political force: scholars of religion are intent on studying them despite their adamant denial that they’re religious. What’s curious is that while many such scholars criticize those of peers who fail to take the insider’s viewpoint seriously, as they might say, yet here, in the case of the Nones, people’s refusal to identify as religious is hardly a barrier to eager scholars of religion. Continue reading “The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion”