I wrote a piece last week over at Medium.com about the problems I saw in the U.S. State Department’s new Office of Faith Based Community Initiatives. Here’s a taste:
Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the new Special Advisor of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, Shaun Casey. I invite both the Secretary of State and Mr. Casey to read along with my Introductions to Religious Studies course this semester because, from the statements they gave yesterday, both men are dire need of a more nuanced approached to religion. As Kerry himself remarked:
In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.
Well, I invite you to my class Secretary Kerry.
If they took my course Secretary Kerry and Mr. Casey would learn three things.
UPDATE: Check out this piece from Gary Laderman on the State Dept. program. He has a similar take but with a different emphasis than mine.
Saturday evening I got to thinking about Jesus because of Ross Douthat. Not the third member of the trinity. Not the Son of Man. Not the Christ. But the “historical Jesus.” You know, the one that scholars are able to discover by searching through the first century sources. There’s a book that you may have heard about recently by a certain author who had an interview on a certain cable news channel that engages in this project. Like other scholars before him he says he can tell us who the REAL historical Jesus REALLY WAS. I summed up my problem with a tweet Saturday night:
(Why must folks always RT the one with typos?)
I then began to muse what MY “historical Jesus” would be like. He’d be awesome.
You get the idea.
Well, other folks began imaging there historical Jesus.
If you can’t get enough #HistoricalJesus, check out this storify: “The Very Best of #HistoricalJesus”
Towards a Symbiotic Relationship Between Academic Pundits and Academic Academics; Or, another post about Reza Aslan.Posted: July 31, 2013
I hope this is my last post about Reza Aslan. We’ll see.
A friend of mine posted to Facebook an excerpted an interview Nathan Schneider did with Aslan in 2010 where he discusses the guff he took for his early work writing for a general non-academic audience. As the questions of Aslan’s credentials, the role of religion scholars in public, and the difference between “academic” and “popular” work have come up this week it seemed to me my friend had a good eye for the timely. Aslan talks about the problem scholars have addressing the general public:
RA: ..That, to me, is an example of the problem academia has, which earns it legitimate criticism for being out of touch with the concerns of people outside of its walls.
NS: How do you think scholars can learn to take part in broader conversations?
RA: It’s often a total waste of time. You can’t be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper. You have to be immersed in the kind of world in which there is no division between the academic and the popular. I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn’t spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence. That kind of scholarship has a very small role in the world we live in now. We need scholars who understand that there is no division between the world of academia and the popular world. Trying to take staid academics and teach them to use words with fewer syllables is not the way to break that wall down.
I think Aslan misses something here. Through the wonders of Amazon’s “Look inside!” feature, I took a gander at Aslan’s bibliography for Zealot and No god but God. Guess what? They are both full of academic journal articles and books from academic presses! You know, those things written by folks in musty library basements. That stuff that “has a very small role in the world we live in now.” Aslan’s work does a fine job of offering Barnes and Noble customers and Fresh Air listeners an accessible account of “the historical Jesus” or an introduction to Islam. But his books are built from the work of other academics writing for an academic audience. Aslan is a translator and he needs that initial highfaluting academic work to fashion into his accessible prose and media punditry. And in doing so, he adds value to the original research by disseminating it more widely.
Some people are talented enough to do both sorts of this work. Some can only do one or the other. But accessible Barnes and Noble CNN work and hardcore ancient language dusty archive work need each other. They are so happy together.
Now which one is the rhinoceros…
I think there has been one thing missing from all the blogging and twittering and Facebook posting over the Reza Aslan interview with Fox News:
For many Americans, the idea of an expert in religion is impossible. Sure, you may have a Ph.D., you may know texts in their original languages, you may even have written some books about the history of religions. But you aren’t an expert, in their eyes. Because you don’t REALLY KNOW. You haven’t FELT IT. DEEP DOWN. For most of America, to be an expert in religion one must be a TRUE BELIEVER.
For these Americans, to be an expert in religion makes as much a sense as being an expert in someone else’s mother’s lasagna recipe.
So, when the host, Lauren Green, asks Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus she is channeling a popular understanding of religion in America. She is denying that Aslan could be an expert in anything other than his own Islam. Thus, Aslan’s response that he has a Ph.D. and that this is his job and that he has lots of footnotes will never satiate Green and her audience because they all fall short of expertise. Unless he is a true believer in Jesus, these folks believe, it is impossible for Aslan to be an expert.
It’s like being a true vegan.
What does a real commitment to a certain way of thinking, speaking and behaving look like? Internally it means the idea gets such a hold on your brain that it would be impossible to abandon it without tearing apart the fabric of your being. You must tie yourself to the mast and make it neurologically impossible to change your mind on this one issue. You must be equivalent to your veganism such that to end your veganism would be to end yourself.
So how does one externally manifest this and, short of dying, authenticate a lifelong commitment to veganism? Some suggestions:
- Refer to meat eaters as “carnists” and “corpse munchers.”
- Address nonhuman animals in an inclusive manner that doesn’t obscure our own animality. Nonhuman animals are “other animals” or “animal others,” not “beasts” or “it.”
- Get a visible and potentially career-undermining vegan tattoo.
- Include a reference to anti-speciesism or sentience in your email address.
- Bring most IRL conversations back around to the oppression of nonhuman animals.
- Get a vasectomy, if a man, and an IUD if a woman.
- Write a living will in which you ask to be euthanized if your memory degrades to the point that you don’t remember what veganism is.
- Denounce so-called former vegans and call ex-veganism impossible.
- And most important: Don’t stop believing.
Don’t stop believing, indeed.
I’ve already posted about it on Facebook and I think someone sent out a tweet about it but I’ll post it here and make it official. I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted a one year faculty appointment in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for 2013-1014. I’m really excited to join such a great group of faculty members for what should be a great year. I’m even more excited because I’ll get to teach a seminar on Asian Religions in American Culture that I’ve wanted a chance to teach for some time now. I’ll also be teaching the honors introduction to religion course, which should be a blast.
So, I guess all that’s left to say is….Roll Tide!
Much of the recent coverage of the newly named Pope Francis I has focused on his role as a reforming pope for a church in crisis (e.g. this and this). It struck me that the “reforming pope” seems like an easy narrative to tell about a new pope so I did a quick search of the Making of America digital archive for “new pope” during the nineteenth century.
From the August 1846 issue of The American Whig Review regarding the new Pope Pius IX:
It is hoped, and confidently predicted, that he will administer the Papacy with moderation and discretion, and that he will introduce into the Papal states some of the reforms which have been so long and so greatly needed…
Caution and sou discretion, as well as boldness and vigor, will be required to introduce a new order of things.
From The Atlantic Monthly May 1878 regarding Pius IX’s successor Leo XIII upon his election:
Leo XII is certainly no fanatic, nor is he ignorant of the times in which he lives…Whatever the ends he may propose to himself, he will not seek to meet political antagonism by organizing medieval crusades; nor will he attempt to resist Protestantism or to put down infidelity by decreeing new honors to saints in paradise, or by accumulating new dogmas upon an already seriously overladen faith…
[If he] is to be an ecclesiastical reformer, as so many hope, he is not the name to make effusive announcements of his designs to the world beforehand, nor prematurely to arouse the violent resistance of the ultramontane party and the Jesuits by abrupt innovations or startling reversals of the measure of his predecessor.”
My point with these two examples is not to say anything about these popes and their status as reformers, but rather to highlight how American observers are always imaging and hoping for a reforming pope. For
Protestant non-Catholic American observers, the new pope is always hoped to be a reformer, whatever that may mean at the time.