The Death of the Blogger: On the Limits of the Public Intellectual in the Digital Age

“We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but it is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting form the thousand sources of culture.” — Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

Over the weekend the twin gods of algorithm and chance saw fit to take a post I wrote for Religion in American History Blog and excerpt it over at Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. One one level I’m stoked that the Dish found my piece on Mircea Eliade interesting and relevant to their readers. But the relevance and interest they found was not necessarily what I had in mind when I wrote the post. Here’s what they excerpted from my writing under the title “Religion on Its Own Terms” with the preface that I was paying tribute to Eliade:

Eliade refuses to explain religion. Rejecting the reductionism of psychoanalysis or sociology, Eliade demands that religion be understood ā€œon its own terms.ā€ We do not explain religion, rather, the historian of religion describes and categorizes religion. The historian of religions looks for symbols, myths, and archetypes through comparison. Because the sacred is sui generis, unique, irreducible, we should seek understanding, interpretation, and pattern. Explanation is anathema.

But was I paying tribute? Or just describing Eliade. Here’s the following two paragraphs of the original RiAH post:

It was this approach–comparative, descriptive, phenomoneological–that dominated the field of religious studies in the latter third of the twentieth century in America. It was this approach that as a student I was warned away from and handed a J. Z. Smith article.

And it was this approach that had a profound effect on the way Americans would imagine something called “comparative religion” and the ways Americans imagined the sacred and spirituality.

So here’s the irony. The Dish excerpted my description of Eliade’s descriptivist approach to religion that I would, in the end, critique. The real gist of the post, as I imagined it, had nothing to do with paying tribute to Eliade or celebrating “religion on its own terms.” Rather, I was pointing out how Eliade’s brand of comparative religion, a search to understand “religion on its own terms” had become a popular approach in the United States through his influence in religious studies departments in the late twentieth century. A point proven by The Dish and their interpretation of my post as a tribute to Eliade. Eliade’s approach to religion is so deeply rooted in American culture that we can’t even see it when it’s right in front of us!

But there’s a further lesson here. As the Barthes quote above reminds us, the author has not control over the meaning of the text. Neither does the blogger. And neither does the public intellectual. While academics are used to their words and quotes suffering under the edits of the media–the twenty minute interview turned into a ten second sound bite–digital technologies were thought to signal a change. Now the academic would control the microphone. The recent move of The Monkey Cage to the Washington Post is a fulfillment of that hope. Academics writing for the people to the people! No reporters necessary.

But we can’t all be The Monkey Cage. Even in the world of the blogosphere where academics hope to take their ideas and research to the masses or even just to other academics, the author has no control over his or her meaning. What is the link but one piece in “a tissue of citations?” A blog but one of the thousand sources of culture? Indeed, the blogger is dead.

As Barthes closed his essay, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” But perhaps things are not so finite for the blogger. Because the blogger is both reader and author. The blogger is both murderer and midwife. On the one hand the blogger kills the author. But on the other hand the blogger gives birth to a new reading, and new meaning to the text in through their posts and links.

The blogger is a beneficent cannibal, eating its own for sustenance and offering itself up as sustenance for others.

Hope Blog Relay: Hope, Worry, and the Future

Ed Blum handed me the baton. Now it’s my turn to take a leg in a blogging relay race. We’re writing about hope.

I struggle with hope because I am a worrier. I worry about everything. When I was in middle school there was a day that my parents had a mix up about who was going to pick me up at school. One of them finally arrived an hour late. I had spent the last forty-five minutes of that hour imagining that my parent’s had died in a terrible car crash. That’s why no one was there to pick me up. I was going to go live with my Uncle Stephen, at least that’s who I think I was suppose to go to, I wasn’t sure. My brother and I would have to move to Wilmington. I’d start at a new school. What if my brother was in the car too? It’d just be me and my uncle. At least he lived at the beach. I’d learn to surf.

I worry most about the future–not my own personal future, the big time where is humankind headed future. I worry about politics. I worry about civil society. I worry about public discourse. I worry that the systems are broken. I worry that the institutions are rotten. I worry that whatever I do will be futile to change the world for the better. I worry that evil is winning.

And yet, I hope. I hope because I have the privilege of takingĀ  part in a community of scholars and students. I hope because of the students I taught last year, the questions they asked and the energy they put into understanding the material. I hope because of the colleagues I have who are dedicated to academic work that really matters. I hope because of their books and articles that make me marvel at their incisive analysis. I hope because of the bloggers who speak truth and decency. I hope because I hear other voices shouting answers to the worries I feel. I hope because there are places I look and see good triumphing over evil.

I hope because hope is the answer to worry. Hope refuses to give in to worry, fear, and, anxiety. Hope dispels fear, melts anxiety, and calms worry. I hope because to not hope would be to give up. So, I hope that my work amounts to something. I hope that my teaching impacts someone. I hope that my writing touches an audience. I hope that cooler heads prevail. I hope that wisdom is heard. I hope that institutions reform, minds expand, hearts grow, and good triumphs. I hope because in hope we can find strength for action.

Passing the Baton

I’ve run my leg of this relay, now it’s time to hand it off to….

Ta-Nehisi Coates- I figured I’d at least ask him if he’d do it.

Kelly J. Baker– She usually writes about hate but now we’ll see if she’ll write about hope.

Jermaine McDonald- My favorite ethicist and a source for all things civil religion.

James McCarty III- My other favorite ethicist.

Take it away folks!



Places to Send Students in Search of Religion Blog Topics

UPDATE- This post has been updated with new sites. (2/20/2014)

I gave a couple of talks around Emory last week about my experience teaching with social media last semester. In the wake of those I’ll be posting some resources for folks looking to use blogging or Twitter in their classes. Here is a list of good sites I recommended to students for looking for articles/posts to write their posts about. While I didn’t require them to use these, almost every one of them did and they had great results.

Sacred Matters:

Sacred Matters twitter feed:

Religion & Politics:

Religion Dispatches:

CNN Belief Blog:

NY Times Religion:

NPR Religion:

Religion News Service:

Huffington Post Religion:

Religion in American History:

The Immanent Frame:

The Revealer:

Killing the Buddha:

The Anxious Bench:

American Society of Church History- History of Christianity:

John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Warren Throckmorton:

Engines of Change and Chronology in American Religious History

Cross-posted from Religion in American History

While we are all aflutter over this weekends’ American Academy of Religion, I would ask us to take a moment and turn our attention to another scholarly society–the American Society of Church History. Earlier this month the ASCH launched its very own blog that is open to contributions from any of its members (ahem, AAR are you listening?) So far there has been some quite interesting content covering Christian history in America. Yesterday’s post from W. Clark Gilpin, “Wanted: A New Chronology of American Religious History,”Ā especially caught my attention.

Gilpin points out that one of the central tasks of the historian is to track change over time and this requires some sort of chronology. How one builds that chronology, though, will depend on what one sees as the engine driving change.

In no small measure, decisions about periodization depend on the issues that a given author or group of authors have identified as the principal engines of change. Historians who link American religious history to immigration are likely to produce a different chronology from historians focused on the intersection of religion and politics, or the history of religiously motivated movements of social reform. And yet, a momentā€™s reflection will also suggest that these three sets of concerns display interesting chronological convergences, for example, with changes in U.S. immigration law and movements for civil rights during the 1960s.

The entire post is worth a read, but this point was especially interesting to me. As we think about the narratives we tell about religion in America, what are the engines driving our chronologies? What do they allow us to see? Where do they give us blindspots? For my current work I’d have to say “religious difference” drives the narrative. Gilpin names immigration, politics, and reform. Lately on the blog we’ve been talking a lot about the market. Are there other engines we’ve yet to put to use? Where could they take us?

2011 Cliopatria Awards: My blog’s not great but maybe you could nominate my tweets

The 2011 Cliopatria Awards are now open for nominations. These awards are given out for the best bloggers, blogs, and posts in the field of history. But this year there is a new category: Best Twitter Feed. I’m not going lie, I’d love it if you nominatedĀ my feed for this award. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

Also, please think about nominating my friends at Religion in American History and The Way of Improvement Leads HomeĀ for their great posts and writers.

(Image:Ā John James Audubon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m Now at

…so check your RSS feeds and what-not. I decided it was time I grew up and got my own domain. So, now you can find me at Pretty cute, eh? You should get redirected here from the old URL but I don’t know how this will affect RSS feeds. Of course, if you read this blog via RSS you might never get this post, so you’ll never know. Spread the word and tell your friends.

REL100 Syllabus: Blogging, Tweeting, and Deconstructing Religion

I finally finished the syllabus for REL100. Good thing, too. The first day of class is tomorrow morning. It’s all filled up–40 students. Here goes nothin’!

REL 100: Introduction to Religion

Christian and Hindu Traditions

Michael J. Altman


Office Hours: Thursday 9am-noon, Callaway S220 (or by appt.)

I. Course Description

This course introduces the academic study of religion through a comparative approach to Hindu and Christian religious cultures. The central question of our course is “What is religion?” We will attempt to answer this question by drawing on a range of examples from Hindu and Christian religious cultures. These case studies will come from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in both India and America and range from Hindu pilgrimage to Catholic devotionalism to yoga to evangelicalism. These case studies will be organized around three themes: the body, ritual and devotion, and space and motion. In each case and through each theme we will pay special attention to the ways “religion” is constructed, authorized, and maintained. Turning to the ways religion was constructed in the past will shed light on the ways it is understood today. By the end of the course we will have an understanding of the rich variety of religious cultures found within Christianity and Hinduism while also gaining theoretical tools for analyzing various constructions of “religion” in public discourse and culture.

II. Course Outcomes

We will develop expertise in interpreting the plurality of religions (especially Christianity and Hinduism) in their historical settings.

We will critically assess the influence religions (again, especially Christianity and Hinduism) exert in shaping experience and society.

We will investigate the diverse of ways of “being in the world” in Christian and Hindu traditions.



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