On Experiences and Institutions

A demonstrator raises his hands in front of police in riot gear during protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., July 10, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“From the outset, people’s experiences of desire and rage, memory and power, community and revolt are inflected and mediated by the institutions through which they find their meaning—and which they, in turn, transform.”

—Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest

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 “Response: Center and Periphery”

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

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

Academic Style and the Voice of Authority

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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

164281467_0fa7216091_zThe 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?

5510506796_dff8c07b64_bAre 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

Picture 7Lots 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”

They’re Just Old Buildings, Right?

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Prompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously…, and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.

My brother, Elliot, who died in 1996, was mentally disabled. That’s him above, with my two sisters. And that’s me on the far right; he was 12 years older than me and, as a baby, had taken a particularly bad fall from his highchair; presumably, that’s what caused what, just a couple years later, became painfully apparent to my parents: he had no speech development and began suffering from repeated grand mal seizures. I won’t belabor the tragedy of his life and death, but suffice it to say that in the 1950s there was little choice but to institutionalize him, when he was a young boy, in a government-run institution. So his profound cognitive problems were quickly compounded by a number of physical problems — who knows what all abuse he was subjected to over the course of his life, but from the “cauliflower ears” and missing teeth that soon resulted, well…, it was apparent that life in the institution was horrendous. Continue reading “They’re Just Old Buildings, Right?”

Social Media Is Out of (Your) Control, So Is Life

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Liking a post and favoriting a tweet serve as excellent examples of the complexity of life that is out of our control in ways that we often don’t realize. The meaning of liking, favoriting, etc., clearly shifts depending on the context. Sometimes clicking the star or thumbs up literally means that I like something; sometimes I want to say that I hear you, acknowledging someone’s comment or post. This varied meaning is true throughout language. Words and symbols have a range of meanings that also can shift radically over time and place (a computer used to mean “one who computes;” a Swastika is a positive symbol in multiple cultures today). That simple click (like other forms of communication) has other complexities, too, that illustrate the lack of control that any of us have.
Continue reading “Social Media Is Out of (Your) Control, So Is Life”