Inertia, Broken Windshields, and the Boundaries of “Religion”

By Craig R. Prentiss

A decade ago, I was driving with my family on a highway in Tennessee when our windshield was hit by a stone. My focus soon shifted from the fresh crack in the glass to the signs on the back of each vehicle in a convoy of gravel trucks reading: “Stay Back 300 Feet: Not Responsible for Broken Windshields.”

Furious, I wailed, “How is it possible that they’re not responsible?!” I searched the trucks for a telephone number as I passed, to no avail. Reaching for an (absurd) analogy, I yelled, “What’s next? Serial killers wearing t-shirts saying ‘not responsible for accumulating corpses’?” I was quite proud of the analogy, but my family was more concerned about my rage than the $200 it would eventually cost to replace the windshield.

I thought about that windshield this fall when a former student shared an invitation she received from the Governor of Missouri to “The Thirtieth Annual Governor’s Student Leadership Forum: Faith and Values in Leadership.” Only the top students in the state receive the invitation, so she was rightly honored to have been selected. A description of the three-day event in Jefferson City was enclosed. It explained: “Each January, student leaders across the state gather with leaders in politics and business to discuss the servant leadership philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth . . . . The forum is not religious. We seek participants of all faiths . . . .” The forum is subsidized by the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. Selected students pay a fee of $350 to attend, and no tax dollars directly fund the forum. Continue reading “Inertia, Broken Windshields, and the Boundaries of “Religion””

Manufacturing Fast Food Founders

By Jason W. M. Ellsworth

Who founded McDonalds? The film, The Founder, tells the history of Ray Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s. It even opens, like many other Hollywood biographical films, with a simple set of words written in white letters set to a black backdrop — “based on a true story.” But, not everyone agrees that the credit should go to Kroc. The film’s title and focus on him gives the impression of a simple enough story, but, as the study of religion demonstrates, origins and founder narratives are usually highly contested with much at stake.

The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake appliance salesman in the 1950s. Unsuccessfully pedaling machines one at a time to various drive up diners, Kroc is curious about one restaurant in California requesting eight of the appliances. When Kroc arrives, he finds a well-oiled diner that runs like a Ford assembly line, one where every burger is consistently of the highest-quality and served lightning quick — “orders ready in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes.” Mac and Dick McDonald are the architects of this highly stream-lined kitchen where no stone is left unturned in the name of efficiency. They originally opened their first McDonald’s BBQ in 1940, and then reopened their newly improved McDonald’s in 1948. Continue reading “Manufacturing Fast Food Founders”

The Privilege of Being Unremarkable

Merrick_Garland_speaks_at_his_Supreme_Court_nomination_with_President_ObamaThe reporting surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice both reveals and complicates the concept of privilege in an intriguing manner. Many of the articles, such as this Politico piece, were notable for what they refrain from stating, that he is a white male. This contrasts with the emphasis on ethnicity and gender in earlier pieces about those being considered for the position, such as Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Judge Sri Srinivasan. After the Garland nomination announcement, one article noted Garland’s judicial experience and legal training and specified how he would not add diversity to the Supreme Court. The article continued, referencing Justice Sonya Sotomayor as Latina and Srinivasan as both Hindu and Asian-American. The choice not to relate Garland’s racial, ethnic, and gender identifications reflects the privilege of a white male in the United States. Continue reading “The Privilege of Being Unremarkable”

Making Meaning

6d61b38dff59187fb1a03b5c4cdccc0fThis semester I’m teaching a course on the uses of anachronism in the study of the ancient Greek world, one such anachronism being the concept of religion itself (for it is hardly a local term in the ancient Greek world). Last week, just before class, I happened to stumble across an article that made the rounds on Facebook entitled “Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May be Evidence of ‘Sacred’ Rituals.” The title of the article was enough to catch my attention: “mysterious” along with “sacred rituals”? Definitely this was something that I could share with my students. Continue reading “Making Meaning”

Now You Have Taken It Too Far

herodotusThis semester I’m teaching an introductory course on the Study of Religion, that is, looking at scholarly definitions and scholarly approaches to the study of religion. We’re exploring among other things, together with my students, questions like what is the study of religion? What is at stake in naming/defining/classifying things in this or that way? Although this early in the semester one question that prevails is: Continue reading “Now You Have Taken It Too Far”

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”

What’s Your Definition of Religion?

definitiontweetI had the good fortune the other week to do a virtual class visit, via Skype, with Brad Stoddard’s students at McDaniel College. To get things going, one of his students asked me a question; given that they’d read a little of an intro book I wrote, that’s concerned with issues surrounding defining religion, it concerned how I define religion. Continue reading “What’s Your Definition of Religion?”

Expanding the Terrorist Label

NYDailyNewsRobert Dear’s attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs just over a week ago and the shooting in San Bernardino last week have brought the question of who is identified as a terrorist back into the limelight. Lots of people have highlighted how the ethnicity or religious identification of the attacker has often influenced whether the attacker is identified as a terrorist or a mentally disturbed individual in a lone wolf attack. The Daily News cover following the San Bernardino shootings (4 December 2015, pictured above) illustrated this critique by identifying Ronald Dear, Dylan Roof, Adam Lanza, and James Holmes as terrorists, as well as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. In this cover and statements from figures like Mike Huckabee (calling Dear’s actions “domestic terrorism”), the critiques of the reluctance to apply the terrorist label to white Christian attackers have won a victory, of sorts. Continue reading “Expanding the Terrorist Label”

Freedom Fighter or Prophet

Indian_freedom_fighter“Look! . . . Up in the sky. . . . It’s a bird. . . . It’s a plane. . . . No, it’s Superman!” When someone points out something in the distance, like an object flying through the sky, it can be hard to recognize just what it is. We attempt to name it, place it in a clear category, but sometimes our categories don’t fit, especially when working with complex societies, and the category that we attempt to force it into often influences what we actually see.

Arkotong Longkumer, in Reform, Identity and Narrative of Belonging (a 2010 book on the Heraka movement in northeast India), analyzes an intriguing community and movement that engaged politics, economics, social change, ritual shifts, and ethnicity, to name a few areas of interest. The context of the movement was the increasing imposition of British rule in the region in the early twentieth century, including the British encouragement of immigration to the area that disrupted the traditional migration cycle and the agricultural system that required it. The simultaneous opportunity for education and government jobs combined with the necessity of alternative forms of labor in the wake of declining agricultural production. All of this required a revision in ritual practices and social restrictions to reduce the expense of animal sacrifices and the limitations on mobility and individual independence from the community, as they adapted to the changing environment. The contexts also fostered interest in uniting different groups politically in opposition to, at times, the British and other communities. In fact, the image above of one of the leaders is entitled “Indian Freedom Fighter”. Continue reading “Freedom Fighter or Prophet”

Green Means Go?

Picture 2Debates over religion and science have long bothered me and the problems could not be any better illustrated than this recent Tweet. Continue reading “Green Means Go?”