Religion and Culture Web Forum Archive 2014/2015

February 2015 

Banned Books, Recognition Narratives, and the CIA: A Conversation with Professor Wendy Doniger (Playing with Fire Series)

This month The Religion and Culture Web Forum is pleased to introduce Playing with Fire, a new series of audio interviews and conversations about religion with academics and public intellectuals.  The series title is drawn from "Playing with Fire: The Task of the Divinity School," a 2010 talk and essay by Margaret M. Mitchell, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School. In her talk Dean Mitchell argued that it is the "profession" of the Divinity School (and, indeed, all scholars of religion) to "play with fire"--to think, write, and talk about religion across differences and boundaries in spite of (or, perhaps, even because of) the risk it might entail.  Since its inception the Web Forum has contributed to that conversation; with the addition of audio and video content it hopes to continue to do so, finding new conversation partners and new topics for discussion that make it possible to re-think its central concerns of religion and global public life.  

To begin the series we invited Professor Wendy Doniger, one of the country's leading scholars of religion, to talk to us about how she has "played with fire" across her long career.  From dusty libraries to lunch with presidents and debates with Indian intellectuals, Professor Doniger has been part of shaping the global conversation about religion for nearly fifty years.  Listen to Professor Doniger's interview here.


January 2015

A Conversation between Andrew Durdin and Brent Nongbri on Brent Nongbri's Before Religion 

This conversation emerged from remarks given at a 2014 AAR/SBL panel dedicated to exploring Brent Nongbri's Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.

Andrew Durdin's paper, rather than offer a full review of Nongbri's engaging text, attempts to converse with, test, and offer constructive criticism of certain aspects of Nongbri's considerations, most generally the viability of "religion" as a category useful for understanding the ancient Roman world. It specifically focuses on his conception of "prematurity" in Chapter 3.

Brent Nongbri's response to Andrew Durdin offers a critical rejoinder to Durdin's assertion of the need for a second order category like "religion" and the potential issues with how such a category might be used in the academic study of the ancient Western world.

December 2014

A Note from the Editor

In accordance with the winter holidays and its custom of recent years, the Religion and Culture Web Forum will be on hiatus for the month of December.  The Web Forum will return with scheduled features in early January 2015.

During this time we would like to thank those authors and respondents who contributed to the Web Forum in 2014.  They are:

Matthew J. Milliner (Wheaton College)

Rachel Fulton Brown (University of Chicago)

Robert Nelson (Yale University)

Glenn Peers (University of Texas at Austin)

Richard Foltz (Concordia University)

Carlo G. Cereti (Sapienza, University of Rome)

Eszter Spät (Central European University)

S. Brent Plate (Hamilton College)

Lisa Bitel (University of Southern California)

Jonathan H. Ebel (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Kristi Woodward Bain (Northwestern University)

John Craig (Simon Fraser University)

Katherine French (University of Michigan)

Loren D. Lybarger (Ohio University)

Louise Cainkar (Marquette University)

Naomi Davidson (University of Ottawa)

Alain Epp Weaver (Mennonite Central Committee)

Kathryn Lofton (Yale University)

Betty Bayer (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)

Seth Perry (Princeton University)

David Swartz (Asbury University)

Fred M. Donner (University of Chicago)

James K. Wellman (University of Washington)

Jon Pahl (The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia)

Justin Tse (University of Washington)

Alexander (Ari) Joskowicz (Vanderbilt University)

Gil Anidjar (Columbia University)

Thomas Kselman (University of Notre Dame)

In 2015 we look forward to exciting pieces from David Carrasco (Harvard University), Andrew Durdin (University of Chicago), and Curtis Evans (University of Chicago), among others, as well as new types of features that include podcasts, videos, interviews, and reader-submitted photography.  Until then, we thank you for your readership and wish you all the happiest holidays, end of the semester, and beginning of the new year.

November 2014

"Learning to Be Muslim--Transnationally" 

by Louise Cainkar (Marquette University)

"Learning to Be Muslim--Transnationally" discusses the religious upbringing experiences and reflections upon them articulated by fifty-three Muslim American youth who were interviewed as part of a larger sociological study of Arab American teenagers living transnationally. On extended sojourns in their parents’ homelands, these youth--most born in the US although some migrated to the US at a young age--were taken “back home” to Palestine and Jordan by their parents so they could learn “their language, culture, and religion.” They were asked about learning to be Muslim in the US and overseas in the context of a much larger set of questions about their transnational life experiences. The data provide insights into the various types of early religious learning experiences Muslims have access to in a US Christian-majority context. The essay then examines how these youth later experienced and interpreted being Muslim in a place where Muslims are a majority. 

Read "Learning to Be Muslim--Transnationally." 

October 2014

Antisemitism, Anti-Catholicism, and Anticlericalism

by Alexander (Ari) Joskowicz (Vanderbilt University)

"Antisemitism, Anti-Catholicism, and Anticlericalism" is the first chapter in Joskowicz's book The Modernity of Others: Jewish Anti-Catholicism in Germany and France, now available through Stanford University Press. The most prominent story of nineteenth-century German and French Jewry has focused on Jewish adoption of liberal middle-class values. The Modernity of Others points to an equally powerful but largely unexplored aspect of modern Jewish history: the extent to which German and French Jews sought to become modern by criticizing the anti-modern positions of the Catholic Church. Drawing attention to the pervasiveness of anti-Catholic anticlericalism among Jewish thinkers and activists from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, the book turns the master narrative of Western and Central European Jewish history on its head. From the moment in which Jews began to enter the fray of modern European politics, they found that Catholicism served as a convenient foil that helped them define what it meant to be a good citizen, to practice a respectable religion, and to have a healthy family life. Throughout the long nineteenth century, myriad Jewish intellectuals, politicians, and activists employed anti-Catholic tropes wherever questions of political and national belonging were at stake: in theoretical treatises, parliamentary speeches, newspaper debates, the founding moments of the Reform movement, and campaigns against antisemitism.

Read responses from Gil Anidjar (Columbia University) and Thomas Kselman (University of Notre Dame)


September 2014

The Oprahfication of Rob Bell?: The Question of Desire, Resistance and the Megachurch Culture of Celebrity

by James K. Wellman, PhD 1995 (University of Washington)

The Megachurch is a logical extension of the American (and global) marketization of religion in a culture suffused by an economy of consumer desire. In the midst of our culture of consumption, we consume a religion that fills the needs of our desires. And megachurches are expert at that task. However, Bell's megachurch, I will argue, reversed that trend; he built in his short tenure at Mars Hill Bible Church, an economy of desire oriented toward community, a way of descent, solidarity with the poor and independence from state loyalties. The question is how did he do it? I would argue this experiment was a kind of sociological miracle. Capitalism absorbs most critics, and in the end, it seems to have absorbed Bell as well. Or, at least, that is one of the questions for this paper.

         Read responses from:

         Jon Pahl (The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia) and Justin Tse (University of Washington)

         Image: VCU World Religions and Spirituality Project  


          July-August 2014

The Bible in America, America in the Bible

By Seth Perry (PhD'13), Princeton University

Seth Perry investigates "Americanized bibles" – bibles that include an array of extra-scriptural material emphasizing the Bible's importance to America.  These bibles participate, Perry argues, in a "longstanding tradition of American biblicism: emphasizing the singular efficacy of the bible while heavily supplementing, summarizing, and explaining the Bible."  

Read The Bible in America, America in the Bible.

Read the invited response by:

David Swartz (Asbury University).

Image: The American Patriot's Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America, edited by Richard G. Lee (Thomas Nelson 2009).


Update, May 2014: A new response to David Nirenberg's "To Every Prophet an Adversary": Jewish Enmity in Islam (October 2013) is now available from Fred M. Donner (University of Chicago).


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Endings Without End: When Prophecy Fails and the Rise of New Age Spirituality and Cognitive Dissonance

by Betty Bayer (Hobart and William Smith Colleges; Martin Marty Center Senior Fellow 2013-14

Martin Marty Center Senior Fellow Betty M. Bayer explores the history of the renowned 1956 book When Prophecy Fails and its place in the longer and larger history of debate amongst religion, psychology, spirituality and science on the soul or psyche.  She writes, "To pursue this history into the modern subject is ... to sound a dissonant tone, the kind intended to stir up new hearings of old compositions, to hear anew the constituent relation amongst science, psychology, religion and spirituality in that larger pursuit of asking what does it mean to be human, what’s it all about."

Read Endings Without End: When Prophecy Fails and the Rise of New Age Spirituality and Cognitive Dissonance.

Read the invited response by:

Kathryn Lofton (Yale University).




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A Disenchanted Exile: Secularism and the Islamic Revival among Second-Generation Palestinian Immigrants in Chicago

by Loren D. Lybarger (Ohio University; Martin Marty Center Sr. Fellow)

In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Martin Marty Center Sr. Fellow Loren Lybarger describes ideal-typical varieties of secularism among Palestinian Muslim immigrants in Chicago. Lybarger's fieldwork demonstrates that Muslim immigrants "do not necessarily identify primarily in religious terms," and that "secularization, which creates distinctly non-religious milieus, and religious revitalization, which seeks to re-sacralize society, are interactive and mutually constituting processes"  Furthermore, Lybarger argues, the persistence of secularism among Palestinians reveals "the capacity of secularism to reproduce across generations either through its own institutional mechanisms or as a consequence of the contradictions intrinsic to regimes of piety."

Read A Disenchanted Exile: Secularism and the Islamic Revival among Second-Generation Palestinian Immigrants in Chicago.

With invited responses by:

Louise Cainkar (Marquette University); 
Naomi Davidson (University of Ottawa); and 
Alain Epp Weaver (Mennonite Central Committee).

Image: The Mosque Foundation, Bridgeview, Illinois; from Wikipedia.


April 2014

Community Conflict and Collective Memory in the Late Medieval Parish Church

by Kristi Woodward Bain (Northwestern University)

"What role does conflict play in the formation of community identity? And how do powerful, even violent, moments sustain that identity throughout centuries of change and transformation? Questions such as these galvanize this present study, which undertakes to illustrate the vibrancy of parish life in late medieval England by examining fifteenth-century monastic-parochial disputes, that is, when parishioners fought against monks with whom they shared their church buildings."

Read Community Conflict and Collective Memory in the Late Medieval Parish Church.

Read the invited responses by:

John Craig (Simon Fraser University); and
Katherine French (University of Michigan).

Image: Wymondham Abbey, Wikimedia Commons


March 2014

A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects

by S. Brent Plate (Hamilton College)

"Religious history is incomplete if it ignores the sensing body, and the seemingly trivial things it confronts," argues S. Brent Plate in this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum.  "Beginning with our incomplete half-body," Plate discusses "five types of objects that humans have engaged and put to use in highly symbolic, sacred ways: stones, crosses, incense, drums, and bread."  

Read A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects.

Read the invited responses by: 

Lisa Bitel (University of Southern California); and
Jonathan H. Ebel (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).


**Plate's essay is adapted from his book, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses, now available from Beacon Press.


February 2014

Religions of Iran: Pool Theory as a Non-normative Approach

by Richard Foltz (Concordia University, Centre for Iranian Studies)

In Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present, Richard Foltz seeks to understand the diversity of Iranian religious history by applying "Pool Theory," which "posits that religion/culture is best understood not in terms of essential features, but as a set of possibilities within a recognizable framework, or 'pool.' (xiii)."  From Foltz's book, we feature his methodological discussion and two chapters, "Mithra and Mithraism" and "Two Kurdish Sects: The Yezidis and the Yaresan."   

Read Religions of Iran.
Endnotes for the book can be found here.

Read the invited responses by:

Carlo G. Cereti (Sapienza--University of Rome); and
Eszter Spät (Central European University).

**The selections from Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present are presented with the kind permission of the publisher, Oneworld Publications.  © Richard Foltz 2013.


January 2014

The Sexuality of Christ in Byzantine Art and in Hypermodern Oblivion

by Matthew J. Milliner (Wheaton College)

Leo Steinberg's controversial 1983 book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, argued that Renaissance artists depicted Christ's genitalia in order to underline his full humanity.  Steinberg's argument invoked Byzantine art as a foil: the absense of Christ's penis from Byzantine art reflected according to Steinberg a "puritanical ethos."  Byzantine artists managed to "decarnify the Incarnation itself."  In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Matthew Milliner uncovers the theological motives behind the Byzantine refusal to depict Christ's penis--a refusal "grounded in the comparatively less essentialized Eastern view of gender."  "[I]f Steinberg's Renaissance penises 'regained for man his prelapsarian condition,'" Milliner argues, "the exact same rationale" lay behind "Byzantine demurral."  On the other hand, according to Milliner, the Byzantines did offer a "somatic highlight to drive home the humanity of Jesus," but one shared by men and women--namely, the foot.

Read The Sexuality of Christ in Byzantine Art and in Hypermodern Oblivion.


Read the invited responses by:

Rachel Fulton Brown (University of Chicago);
Robert Nelson (Yale University); and
Glenn Peers (University of Texas at Austin)*.

     *Images referenced in Dr. Peers' response are available here.

Image: Panagia tou Arakou, Lagoudera, from Wikimedia Commons.