Recently on Twitter, I was reflecting about the everyday encounters where the study of religion (and really “religion” as identity formation) becomes a topic of conversation.
In case it’s TL;DR, the long and short is that I’m convinced that there’s plenty of opportunity for scholars to contribute to public discourse if we hold vigilant in our commitment to observation and intelligibility. To me, the minute that we insist upon our expertise at the expense of our willingness to explain our point is when we’ve shifted a potential exchange with someone into an effort to change the other.
And while I prefer to see change as a social fact rather than an intrinsically bad thing, there is something disturbing about clearly veiled efforts at affecting change. They are all well and good when they go unnoticed, like the way I hand my kids a sealed salt shaker when they want to add more seasoning to their food. But when we know how this works, we label these acts differently–manipulation, lying, bait-and-switch, etc.
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”
I recently watched Ethan Hawke’s foray into documentary filmmaking, Seymour: An Introduction, about the great pianist Seymour Bernstein. While it’s characteristically Ethan Hawke-y in a way that made me think Julie Delphy would show up at any minute to play sounding board to Hawke’s musings, and while there’s a bit with a career-mystic that I could do without, I was charmed by Bernstein’s soft-spoken enthusiasm. There are also a few terrific stories along the way. Like this one:
“Who Are You?” is an ongoing series that asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.
The inevitable moment when people I meet for the first time ask what I do tends to be a bit of an awkward one. It goes something a little like this:
“So, what do you do, Merinda?”
“I’m a religious studies professor at the University of Alabama.”
“What sort of stuff do you work on?”
“I’m interested in how and why people make authenticity claims… I focus mostly on these claims in relation to gender, race, and the South.”
“…wait, but didn’t you say you’re in a religion department?”
“So that’s the kind of stuff you can study in a Ph.D. program in religion?”
“Well, sure! My Ph.D. is in English though.”
S. Brent Plate’s recent post at Religion Dispatches suggests that when it comes to religious studies, scholars are, in a sense, both insiders and outsiders at the same time. He comes to this conclusion through a comparison of the field of art to the field of religious studies. Iconoclasm in art, he suggests, is actually its own sort of iconification (my horrible word, not his). Artist Ai Weiwei, for instance, photographed himself destroying ancient Chinese artifacts. According to Plate, “iconoclasm is itself an iconic act. One image replaces another. Ai was careful to have his iconoclastic act documented, skillfully shot on camera and reproduced for many to see.” Recently another artist publicly smashed some of Ai’s art in an art gallery, where the act appeared to be partly protest and partly performance art. Iconoclasm is yet again a new iconification. Outsiders who are critical of the tradition are at the same time insiders, extending the tradition in new ways. Plate concludes that, “Tradition is itself a series of creative and destructive acts, stability and instability; the icons are the tradition as much as the images of iconoclasm. Nothing stays the same.” Continue reading “Differentiating Fields”
You can make a range of excellent arguments for the value of the study of religion. In my department, we have been highlighting the value of the critical and creative thought that many of our students develop in our courses, their understanding of human behavior and social formation, and the recognition of the power of labels to discipline action and construct identifications, to name a few. Continue reading “Why Is the Study of Religion Important?”