Religion and Culture Web Forum Archive 2014/2015

The September 2014-November 2016 issues of Religion and Culture Web Forum were edited by Emily D. Crews. 

November 2015

The Time for a Moratorium?: 3 Questions on "The Black Church" with Professor Curtis Evans 


RCWF: How do you understand the term "the black church" as it has been and is being used by both scholars and non-scholars alike?  How is it defined?  What do people mean when they use it?

EVANS: I don’t think most people are conscious of how much work this expression is doing and in what ways it has become a standard catch-all reference to the diversity of African American religions. For non-scholars it is a shorthand reference to black churches that have publicly confronted racial inequality and any number of problems particularly affecting black communities. Although a bit similar, I think it is principally a theoretical construct for scholars, having emerged especially in the discipline of sociology in the 1930s. It was an attempt to understand what was distinctive about African American religious life, especially in its dominant Protestant denominational expression. However, all our present talk about “the black church” has been deeply influenced by the Civil Rights movement when key religious figures such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. fought openly and directly against segregation and racism. But Parks was a Methodist, Malcolm X a Muslim, and King a Baptist. What careful historian would refer to their individual efforts and their distinctive religious traditions as “the black church”? I would go further in saying that Parks’ activism, for example, is more a product of her history with the NAACP and the Highlander Folk school than her association with and involvement in some amorphous “black church,” though this is not to discount the importance of her church work and commitments as a factor in her political activities.

So I think people usually mean “the black church” as a collective religious entity that has endured years of oppression and has a kind of admirable or heroic history that allows it to speak to issues of injustice. It is an implicit claim about what is distinctive in African American religion and normative association of progressive political reform with black churches.


RCWF: As a scholar of African American religions, what are your thoughts on the term "The black church"?  What good or harm has it done? 

EVANS: I understand that the history of African American life has been a powerful factor in the different ways in which black churches took on responsibilities and were held to great expectations than white churches, especially in view of the weakness of other institutions in many impoverished and oppressed neighborhoods. In general, however, I do not think the term “the black church” is helpful as an accurate description of the diversity of black religious life which ranges from Muslims to Catholics to members of the Black Israelite traditions. I also think it tends to essentialize black religions and elides individuality and diversity at a critical moment when all categories that were formerly regarded as stable and natural such as race, gender, and ethnicity are being questioned and problematized. In view of the essentialist and fixed identities that have been imposed upon peoples of African descent in the United States, I do not see how the continued use of this expression does justice to the varied meanings of black religious life. Furthermore, no historian who carefully studies the different denominational, theological, regional, etc. differences with black communities, even during the Jim Crow era, can with intellectual integrity use this term without either defining what is meant or noting why he or she uses it in a particular context. Doing so simply strikes me as good historical work and intellectual honesty.


RCWF: What, if any, alternatives would you suggest in place of the term "the black church"? 

EVANS: I don’t have a single referent to replace the term, though I am uncomfortable with any singular expression. There are, properly speaking, African American religions. Many black Americans identify as Muslim, Jewish or Hebrew, pagan, Christian, Protestant, and on the list goes. Black churches exist in different forms and in different contexts. Context and place are crucial, but I hope that scholars in particular will be more careful and self-conscious about the terms that are employed to describe African American religious life. Nomenclature has been so important to the identities of black Americans. For years, W. E. B. Bu Bois struggled to get the “n” capitalized when the word Negro was used. Prior to the 1920s, the place of blacks in America was dismissively referred to as the “negro problem.” Only in the late 1920s would the more fluid conception of race, “race relations,” emerge as a viable option and not imply this singular static notion of blacks as being a problem for the nation. Our time and the complex nature of black religious life demand a more nuanced and richer rubric than “the black church.” Perhaps some are right that the time for a moratorium on the term has come.

Curtis Evans is an historian of American religions. His teaching interests are modern American religion, particularly since the Civil War, race and religion in US history, and slavery and Christianity. His first book, The Burden of Black Religion (Oxford University Press, 2008), was an historical analysis of debates about the role of religion in the lives of African Americans and the origins of the scholarly category of "the black church." His research emphases are interpretations and cultural images of African American religion, examinations of religion as a force for and obstacle to social and political reform, and the question of how social problems become defined and addressed as moral problems at particular historical moments.

*Image: Clemetine Hunter


October 2015

As the Divinity School ushers in a new academic year, the Religion and Culture Web Forum is delighted to share an interview with Professor David Carrasco, the Divinity School's 2014 Alumnus of the Year and the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard University.  A graduate of the Divinity School's PhD program in the History of Religions, Carrasco has been called one of the world's foremost scholars of Mesoamerican religions and cultures.  He has authored and/or edited over 15 books, including the award winning Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire; Cave, City and Eagle's Nest: An Interpretive Journey Through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan #2; The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures; and Alambrista and the US-Mexico Border.  Carrasco is also the Director of the Raphael J. and Fletcher Lee Moses Mesoamerican Archive at Harvard's Peabody Museum and the recipient of the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle.

In this interview Carrasco discusses his experiences at the Divinity School, including the fundamental impact of famed History of Religions professor Mircea Eliade; the importance of his Mexican heritage in the development of his scholarship; and the significance of notions of sacred space, time, movement, and center vs. periphery in his research and teaching. 

Many thanks to Professor Carrasco for joining the Religion and Culture Web Forum for this conversation.

Please click here to download the audio file.

*A special thanks to filmmaker and Harvard doctoral candidate Lina Verchery for the recording of this interview. 

September 2015

"Encountering When Prophecy Fails, Encountering Cognitive Dissonance" by Betty M. Bayer

What does it mean to speak of encountering a work published decades ago--especially when that work exceeds the bounds of time, place and disciplinary field?  And how might we create an ethnography of these encounters to understand larger communities in which a book lives? Martin Marty Center senior fellow Betty M Bayer hosts this podcast on the many worlds and flights of imagination and belief one finds attending the well-known 1956 book When Prophecy Fails by social psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter and Henry Riecken. 

When Prophecy Fails is the subject of Bayer’s ethnography of encounters.  Why does she call her approach ethnography of encounters rather than a reception history or ethnography of reading.  To her, ‘encounter’ captures better that sense of how a book is experienced and how it is sometimes simply happened upon; how it intervenes in communities or becomes the impetus for creating community.  She likes how the word encounter draws attention to a book’s agency; sometimes intervening in meaning and worlds of ideas and other times unsettling us, haunting our days and nights by speaking to our private selves or revealing anew, regardless of religious tradition, something about our human condition.  An ethnography of encounters turns us to study of a book’s more intimate journeys across time and space, its habitus, how it takes up residence in the classroom, in our work, in our lives, and in our hearts and minds. 

This audio piece offers selections from Bayer’s senior fellow forum held in February, 2015.  It begins, as the forum did, with a dramatic reading by graduate student of the Divinity School Seth Patterson.  Here we encounter some of the newspaper coverage of the woman whose prophecy set in motion the study resulting in the book When Prophecy Fails.  Joining her in this forum after her own talk are University of Chicago Divinity School alumnus Lowell Bloss (’72, History of Religion) and alumna Susan Henking (’88 Religion and Psychological Studies).  Each offers studied reflection on teaching When Prophecy Fails over the last three (or more) decades.  Their contributions discern the book’s deep resonance with questions of humanity, belief, faith, hope, comparative traditions and religions and with how we remember--or misremember--our encounters with a work.  Their presentations direct attention to how disciplines, and, more specifically, fields within a discipline, encounter a work in ways that intervene in its meaning beyond ideas of a book (in the totemic sense) of being good to “think with.”  Ethnography of encounters thus opens onto a rethinking of how books participate in remaking the worlds they describe outside of specifics of time and space.  Their good reflections spark additional ones from Martin Marty Center co-director and professor Wendy Doniger (Hinuism and mythology) and alumnus and senior fellow Loren Lybarger (‘02, sociology of religion).  Each reveals further how this book--as perhaps many--unbound by time and place nonetheless speaks to us in the here and now, to what we care about.  

Please click here for access to the podcast.

Betty M. Bayer is professor of Women’s Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, where she teaches courses on notions of human nature in histories of women’s psyche, imagining peace, and debates amongst psychology, science, religion and spirituality. Most recently, she has published essays on Spirituality (2014) and Enchantment in an Age of Occupy (2012). Bayer recently completed a two year fellowship at the University of Chicago Divinity School's Martin Marty Center, where she worked on her book, “Revelation or Revolution? Cognitive Dissonance and Persistent Longing in an Age Psychological.” This book entails a history and rethinking of the same text discussed in this month's podcast. - See more at:

Religion and Digital Media   by Emily D. Crews

In 2010 The Immanent Frame, a website published in conjunction with the Social Science Research Council, released a report entitled, “The New Landscape of the Religion Blogosphere.”  The study traced the contours of the changing terrain of writing about religion on the web, highlighting significant blogs and religion commentary sites, interrogating why and how scholars of religion share their perspectives through digital platforms, and asking what the future of such an enterprise (well into its second decade by the publication of the report) might hold.  

Nearly half a decade later, many of the issues the Immanent Frame raised in its report continue to be relevant, even while there have arisen many new questions and concerns about the content, scope, and ultimately the significance of websites and weblogs written by academics.  From daily opinion powerhouse Slate to the Chronicle of Higher Education to University of Alabama’s Studying Religion in Culture, there has been consistent debate about how, what, why, and whether academics should share their research and ruminations via the internet.

In light of the persistence of this broader issue and the continued growth of websites devoted to the scholarly analysis and explication of religion, the Web Forum seeks informal comments from its readers about their own experiences with websites devoted to the scholarly analysis of religion.  We would like to know, How have they enabled you to share your own research or to engage with the ideas of others?  What is the value of such sites?  What makes them most appealing?  What are their limitations?  All comments may be sent to and may be shared publically unless otherwise requested.

*Image via

On Islam and The Events at Charlie Hebdo: An Exchange between Jean-Luc Marion, Bruce Lincoln and Anthony Yu, Matthew Kapstein, and Françoise Meltzer 

In this issue the Religion and Culture Web Forum features commentary on Islam in France in the wake of the events that occurred at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7th, 2015.  This issue includes an initial article by Jean-Luc Marion, responses to Marion by Bruce Lincoln and Anthony Yu and Matthew Kapstein, and subsequent letters exchanged between Bruce Lincoln and Françoise Meltzer. 


After the "Charlie Hebdo" Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself To Critique -- Jean-Luc Marion

This article was originally published in French in Le Point. It was translated by Myriam Renaud and published in Sightings on January 27, 2015.

France is at war; we can no longer doubt that this is the case. But this war has at least three fronts.
The first front is obvious: an act of war occurred in Paris, against a magazine, leaving more than a dozen dead. The government and the nation have started to respond. The government is taking up its principal role—the protection of citizens, handling the security concerns with which it has been entrusted. It is acting as quickly and as well as it can.
As for the nation, we have already witnessed that, far from crumbling and yielding to fear, it is uniting. A republican reflex will bolster this coming together, and extremists will not benefit in the slightest from the crisis.
Finally, the danger posed by Islam is not new—it is familiar to France since the Seventeenth-Century. In fact, the history of France proves that such wars have already been waged and won. The recent history of Europe confirms that democracies eventually vanquish totalitarianism and fascism. Thus, this front will hold. However, when it comes to the other two, nothing is certain.
The second front comes into view as soon as one considers that the attack targeted a political and satirical newspaper that caricatured (I underscore this point) all of the religions, based on the principle that one can laugh about anything “and mock everything else.”
If this newspaper was tolerated and even supported by the public, although it was often shocking, it owed this to a fundamental and ancient trait of French society—the freedom to think and to speak—first secured under the Ancien Régime. It rose to the level of principle in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, took effect when all legislation against blasphemy was abolished at the beginning of the Nineteenth-Century, and was reinforced by the law separating Church and State.
In a way, this crime targeted a central tenet of French society: secularism. Here the second front opens out. What is secularism worth today? We must recognize the ambiguity of this concept and its application. Because, if the State is secular, society is not.
More exactly: the State must be secular (it must refrain from showing favoritism for any particular religion, permit them all to exist under the protection of the law, showing a preference neither for religious belief, nor for unbelief), a stance that I hope no one contests.
But society is not secular and cannot be secular, because upon becoming citizens, men and women do not lose their freedom of conscience—their religious freedom—but, on the contrary, exercise it fully. Besides, the neutrality of the State must never be based on neutralization, forced or tacit, of the religious dimensions of the real men and women who make up society.
However, “French-style secularism” has too often tended to understand itself and to comport itself like an army fending off the religions (especially Catholicism), behaving as if it were another religion, substituting itself, in the name of Reason, for the historical religions. Today, this tendency reveals itself in so-called “social” reforms, more or less imposed on people who are more or less in agreement, manipulated or simply ignored.
This tendency is sometimes imposed on Christians but also Jews and henceforth, on Muslims, as a secularism of prohibition, of punishment, even of repression.
The second front consists of, and is much more difficult to secure than the first front, a reformation of the secular pact in France (and thus in Europe). To defend secularism, an emergency no one debates, we must redefine it, in positive terms, and not as a constraint. Because we can’t require all of France’s citizens to emasculate themselves religiously.
This is a problem with which we’ve struggled for the past twenty years. Will we know how to address it? It seems to me doubtful that French politicians, still extremely ideological and rather ignorant on the question of religion, are capable of this today.
There is also the third front, the most difficult of the three. The terrorist attacks have a common, though hazy, cultural and political origin: the world of Islam. To recognize this is not equivalent to a facile rallying to the banner of “culture wars,” or lack of integration, or discrimination. It merely entails acknowledging that our fellow citizens of Muslim faith (and also acknowledging, one hopes, that this is the case for a majority of the world’s Muslims) suffer from a terrible situation.
The situation can be summed up in this way: the religions demonstrate their excellence only by allowing—and even better, by choosing, for themselves, to undergo the ordeal of self-critique—tests of their religious validity. Religions that do not do this either disappear or degrade ideologically.
Islam has not yet opened itself up to a close analysis (including philological analysis to understand how its texts came into being, an assessment of the interpretations of these texts, in-depth research into their actual religious history, etc.) for historic reasons which themselves would be worthwhile to examine.
In contrast, other religions have done so and are still doing so, including the Catholic tradition, the Protestant traditions, and the Jewish tradition. This is the main reason that certain Muslims have so much difficulty stepping into the secularism that the other religions embrace in France.
This issue must not be set aside due to the emotion of the moment. It is essential not to confuse or stigmatize. But we owe that much to Muslims; we owe it to them to point out this difficulty. And, if possible, to help them confront it. That, more than the State and the elected class, is the help that the other religions, especially Christianity, can contribute.
The fundamental debate which has not set French society ablaze can play itself out in interreligious dialogue. During the attacks on the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, by some significant and providential irony, representatives of French imams were meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican. We cannot say or do better.

Marion, Jean-Luc. “Jean-Luc Marion: ‘L’islam doit faire l’épreuve de la critique.”, January 12, 2015, Actualité Politique.

Image: "Charlie Hebdo" march in Berlin, Germany, 01.07.15; Credit: conejota / creative commons.

A Reply to Jean-Luc Marion’s “After ‘Charlie Hebdo,’ Islam Must Critique Itself” -- Bruce Lincoln and Anthony C. Yu

This article was orignally published by Sightings on 
February 12, 2015.
Our University of Chicago colleague, Jean-Luc Marion, Andrew Thomas Greely and Grace McNichols Greeley Professor of Catholic Studies, wrote a passionate response to the horrific attacks in Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris this past January (see Sightings in References below). The final toll: 16 dead and 22 injuries.

Marion’s outrage and grief are not only understandable but also shared by countless individuals and communities around the world. We are grateful that in face of such repugnant atrocities, our colleague throughout his brief essay has emphasized setting aside “the emotion of the moment,” “to not confuse or stigmatize,” and that “our fellow citizens of Muslim faith . . . suffer from a terrible situation.”

Despite deep sympathy for our esteemed colleague and the French people at large, we also feel compelled to address some troubling aspects of Marion’s statements concerning religion, because our common profession is defined by its attempted study and understanding.

Announcing clearly from the beginning that “France is at war,” Marion’s essay proceeds to define the homicides committed by three militants, all of whom were French citizens, as an act of war, followed by a second point that such an act will more closely unite the nation to resist with greater courage and resolve.

Marion's prediction that the homicides would “unite the nation” was largely fulfilled as subsequent events have unfolded, although one must note the young Muslims who refused a moment of silence for the victims. Even so, construing the situation as “war”—something usually understood as armed hostility between nation states—is dangerous hyperbole or, worse yet, a self-fulfilling act of performative speech that initially misconstrues, then dramatically expands both the problem and conflict.

Such hyperbole is also evident in Marion's assertion that “the danger posed by Islam is not new—it is familiar to France since the Seventeenth-Century… The recent history of Europe confirms democracies eventually vanquish totalitarianism and fascism.” We wonder what evidence there is for so characterizing the entire faith of Islam as one endangering France for so long.

The implied equation of Islam with totalitarianism and fascism is even more inflammatory and disturbing. Western civilization, after all, owes an immense debt to Islam and to Arabic communities for helping to preserve and transmit the priceless intellectual legacy of antiquity, without which the modern West would have been immeasurably impoverished. There would have been no Descartes without Plato's and Aristotle's works, which were recovered and translated by medieval Arabic philosophers. The Arabic bequest not only benefitted Westerners, but, for example, Chinese and other Asian people also, who profited (in mathematics, astronomy, and medical knowledge, to name three forms coming to mind) from contact with Islam.

We do not disagree entirely with Marion's earnest plea for Muslims to engage in “self-critique,” but he seems to be unfamiliar with the cogent essays Talal Asad has addressed to this issue, demonstrating that “Islam” (if one must, for the sake of convenience, reduce a complex and diverse tradition to a simple monad), constantly reflects on itself, cultivates internal debate and critique, and identifies problems and shortcomings, which it then struggles to address.

Once this is recognized, Marion’s point becomes more problematic, for he is urging “Islam” to engage in the same kind of self-examination and revision that “Christianity” experienced during the Reformation and Enlightenment. What was an internal critique for one tradition thus becomes an imperative that one tradition would impose on another, something the latter experiences as alien to its own history, precepts, and sense of integrity; something it associates, moreover, with European claims of cultural superiority and a history of colonial aggression.

Even if “Islam” were to follow Marion's prescription, we wonder what criteria he would recommend that “they” follow to “test their religious validity?” Does a secular state have the final say in defining what is “religious validity,” much as the People’s Republic of China avers in its constitution that only those who practice “normal religion” will be tolerated by the state?  The question of how to make all religions equally acceptable to a secular Republic of the French sort is not identical to—nor easily reconciled with—the question of how to create a society fully tolerant of religious difference.

Marion justly urges us to avoid “a facile rallying to the banner of ‘culture wars,’ or lack of integration, or discrimination.” Noble as that counsel may be, one needs to say more about the social and cultural ground for breeding hatred and violence, i.e. the sharply disadvantaged situation of Muslims in France (and not just France) with regard to employment, education, housing, protection under law, and simple dignity.

It is one thing for Charlie Hebdo to mock the Pope, and quite another to mock Muhammad. To poke fun at the icons revered by the powerful is a courageous act of iconoclasm; to ridicule those of the weak is cheap bullying, as it subjects people who already suffer abuse of multiple sorts to public humiliation, making sport of their (perceived) inability to defend the things they hold sacred.

We understand the need to rally in defense of liberté and we also understand that free speech includes forms of critical speech that may be cruel and offensive, such as iconoclasm, blasphemy, ridicule and derision. But one also has to realize that when those who enjoy the full benefits of citizenship use their liberté to mock others to whom basic rights are abridged or denied, something has gone badly amiss.

The most important front on which France needs to wage a sustained struggle today is precisely the one Marion ignores: the struggle to extend égalité and fraternité to its Muslim population. Here, progress depends on understanding the criminal events in Paris not as salvos that open a new front or new phase in a long-running war, but as symptoms that follow on—and point to—sustained failures of socio-cultural integration, socioeconomic equity, moral sensibility, political accountability, and human understanding.

France may be the flashpoint of the moment, but the issues extend far beyond.


Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre, Islam Must Open Itself to Critique.” Sightings, January 29, 2015.

Asad, Talal. “The Limits of Religious Criticism in the Middle East: Notes on Islamic Public Argument.” Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.


Another Take on “After ‘Charlie Hebdo,’ Islam Must Critique Itself” -- Matthew Kapstein

This article was originally published by Sightings on
February 19, 2015.
Despite my agreement with my esteemed colleagues Professors Bruce Lincoln and Anthony Yu in most aspects of their response in last week’s Sightings to an earlier Sightings piece, “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself To Critique,” by a third distinguished colleague, Professor Jean-Luc Marion, their conclusions strike me as ignoring important dimensions of the issues at hand.

The terrible events of January 7-9 in Paris were not, as they aver, the symptoms of social and economic disadvantage, or similar factors. Symptoms of such problems manifest themselves in France, as in many other countries, in increased petty crime, gang activity, drug use, elevated unemployment, occasional car-jackings, arson and riot, and the like.

Among these symptoms, I do not see fit to include targeted, cold-blooded murder, which is what took place in Paris.

These acts of murder, moreover, are part of a pattern whereby certain individuals who regard themselves as acting on behalf of Islam take aim on two particular groups: “blasphemers” and Jews.

As none of my three learned colleagues addressed the wantonly anti-semitic dimensions of the crimes that were perpetrated, and the manner in which they continue an on-going series of related assaults on Jews in France—including the kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi by the so-called “Gang des Barbares” (2006), the slaughter of children at a Jewish day school by Mohammed Merah (2012), the carnage unleashed at the Jewish Museum of Brussels by French national Mehdi Nemmouche (2014)—I believe that there is an obligation to set the record about this straight.

If these are “symptoms,” they are symptoms not of the deficit of egalité and fraternité in France, but of the manipulative use of anti-semitic propaganda in large parts of the contemporary Muslim world, whereby the powers that be have encouraged political objections to Israel to morph into global hatred of Jews.

To achieve this, the tools of classical European anti-semitism, as exemplified in the calumnies of the czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, have been trotted out, dusted off, and given new life in the contemporary Arab media. The perpetrators of the acts under discussion here had all been trained by radical organizations in the Middle East in which they were indoctrinated in this poison, and this became one of their key motivations.

It must be stressed that Jews in France face similar circumstances to French Muslims in several respects.

Many, like France’s Muslims, hail from North Africa, and live in the same working-class suburbs. Jews who are observant (like those gunned down in the Hyper Casher supermarket by Amedy Coulibaly) share with Muslims the sense that France’s commitment to public laïcité—which prohibits Muslim head-scarves and Jewish kippahs in many venues, and ensures that halal and kosher meals are unavailable in most school and office cafeterias—presents them with particular obstacles, and sometimes indignities, that other French citizens and residents do not have to face.

French Jews and Muslims have both resented being the objects of derogatory humor and of far-right-wing polemics. And just as some parts of the French Muslim community have been susceptible to the lures of anti-semitism, so there are French Jews who have embraced Islamophobia. But even the French chapter of the Jewish Defense League, which is not prone to shy away from a fight, has not seen fit to express French Jewish discontent through cold-blooded murder.

The events of January were due to the legitimation and encouragement within some quarters of the Muslim world of the murder of “blasphemers” and Jews. And although the vast majority of French Muslims, as also Muslims elsewhere, by no means condone this, the condemnations have not been nearly loud or prevalent enough to diminish the attraction, for some, of extreme militancy.

This is not to say that the alienation from French society felt by some French Muslims, which is to be explained in large measure by socio-economic factors, has played no role at all here. It is this, in part, that has inspired French jihadis to reaffirm their Muslim identity by joining militant groups and seeking training in arms and explosives among them.

At the same time, we must recognize that the French social contract has historically been exceptionally generous and pace Professors Lincoln and Yu, Muslims in France who are citizens or legal residents—and most by far are—enjoy the benefits of France’s systems of public education, healthcare, unemployment insurance, aid to families with dependent children, etc.

It is true that those who live in poorer neighborhoods must deal with poorer facilities, particularly in the area of housing, and with elevated crime and diminished security. The poorer neighborhoods, too, harbor larger proportions of illegal immigrants, who are not eligible to receive all of the benefits others enjoy, a factor that does contribute to the overall impoverishment of some quarters.

Moreover, the French historical commitment to mixité, ensuring that neighborhoods are occupied by persons of varied social class, has increasingly given way to American-style economic segregation. None of this has been helped by the poor performance of the French economy in recent years, its inability to generate sufficient jobs and to secure long-term prosperity.

So France faces genuine challenges if it is to maintain its social contract and ensure that its Muslim population universally comes to be included within it. Part of that challenge, unfortunately, now inevitably involves the costly, divisive and painful task of identifying, surveilling, and inhibiting ideologically motivated killers.

Postscript. In the days since the above was written, Copenhagen has seen a murderous incident apparently copying the Paris attacks, 300 Jewish graves have been desecrated by a teenage gang in eastern France, and Roland Dumas, a former French Foreign Minister, has crudely castigated the present Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, for being "influenced" by his wife, who happens to be Jewish, in respect to Jewish affairs.

As the malediction of anti-semitism continues to spread, willful ignorance or silence are no longer acceptable options.


Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre, Islam Must Open Itself to Critique.” Sightings, January 29, 2015.
Lincoln, Bruce and Anthony C. Yu. “A Reply to Jean-Luc Marion’s ‘After Charlie Hebdo, Islam Must Open Itself to Critique’.” Sightings, February 12, 2015.’s-“after-‘charlie-hebdo’-islam-must-critique-itself”-bruce-lincoln.
Smith, Craig. “Torture and Death of Jew Deepen Fears in France.” New York Times, March 5, 2006, International.

Sayare, Scott and Steven Erlanger. “4 Killed at Jewish School in Southwestern France.”New York Times, March 19, 2012, Europe.

The Associated Press. “Deadly shooting at Jewish Museum in Brussels.” CBS News, May 24, 2014.

Wakin, Daniel J. “Anti-Semitic ‘Elders of Zion’ Gets New Life on Egypt TV.” New York Times, October 26, 2002, World. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Accessed February 17, 2015.

Alcindor, Yamiche and Elena Berton. “Four killed at Paris grocery store were all Jewish.” USA Today, January 11, 2015, News.

The Associated Press. “French president: Anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia are threats to the nation.” Haaretz, February 17, 2015, Jewish World News.

“La mixité sociale, définition, échelle et conséquence.” dialogues, propositions, histoires pour une citoyenneté mondiale. September 2007. Accessed February 17, 2015.

Adida, Claire, David Laitin and Marie-Anne Valford. “Terror in France: implications for Muslim integration.” Washington Post, January 14, 2015, Guest Post.

Friedersdorf, Conor. “Europe’s Increasing Targeted Jews Take Stock: Old fears are stoked as anti-Semitic attacks increase.” Atlantic Monthly, Februrary 17, 2015.

“Le CSA instruit un dossier après les propos de Roland Dumas sur l’ ‘influence juive’ de Valls.” Le Monde, February 16, 2015. Politique.

Image: Family and relatives of French Jew Yoav Hattab, a victim of the attack on kosher grocery store in Paris, gather around a symbolic coffin for his funeral procession in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, Israel; Credit: Oded Balilty / AP.


A Letter from Françoise Meltzer to Bruce Lincoln and Anthony Yu on February 12, 2015

Dear Bruce and Tony,

I think many of your comments are apt and well taken, and I am happy to see a productive dialog on this most fraught subject. The only quibble I have with your response is in the paragraph below, and this on several grounds. Charlie Hebdo did not just mock the Pope; it also mocked Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and God himself. That's my first point: you misrepresent Charlie's satires by making them seem harsher on Islam than on Christianity.  Secondly, you essentialize, I believe, when you seem to align all Muslims with the "weak" and all Christians with the "powerful." This is only true to a limited extent in France -- there are plenty of dispossessed Christians there (poor, unemployed, etc), even if the dominant culture is Catholic. The rural areas, and even some of the infamous banlieus, include Christians (as well as other religions-- African, e.g.). They are living in the same futureless prison as Muslims. And, of course, there are powerful and wealthy Muslims in France, even if they are an obvious minority.  

But even so, satire is satire, and can't be reduced to "courageous" if it attacks the icons of the dominant culture, but "bullying" when it attacks the minority's icons. Apart from the complications such an ethical compass would engage, it would follow that, for example, you could poke fun at the Prophet in Saudia Arabia or Egypt, but not mock the Virgin Mary. Nevertheless, the larger point is well taken and vital: until France helps to lift up all of those in the underclass, such problems will continue. It is the same problem as the ghettos in the U.S.

I should add that laïcité in France has a very specific history and valence, and is not to be confused with égalité (it is, technically, the neutrality of the State with respect to any religion). There was a good article in yesterday's NYT that described the changes in the mandatory course on civics in French schools. They are opening much more discussion on all of this, and on, among other issues, why satirists may be hateful, but not worthy of murder (this because some kids from the banlieus refused the minute of silence for the victims of the attack on Charlie, saying they deserved it). France has failed to integrate its immigrants--particularly African and Middle Eastern--and it has failed to raise them to a decent socio-economic level. That is clear. But legally, every citizen in France is equal to every other. That's where the complexity begins, and the challenge as well. 

With many thanks,


*This private corespondence was made available for publication on February 13, 2015.

A Reply to Françoise Meltzer by Bruce Lincoln on February 12, 2015

Dear Françoise, 

Many thanks for your kind and thoughtful message, which is much appreciated.  As for the three major items, I could happily accept two of them, at least in part, while I would resist your argument on the third.  As for the first, if Tony and I misrepresented Charlie as being unbalanced in the abuse it dished out to Islam and Christianity, this was not our intention.  Rather, we meant to point up the difference in the relative position, strength, and security of those who were ridiculed.  The Catholic Church and faithful may have been royally pissed off by Charlie's antics, but they had no need to feel threatened by anything published there; the situation is different for French Muslims, who feel more embattled and vulnerable, therefore more defensive (further still, more volatile and likely to overreact). 

A second point I would grant entirely.  For all that Americans take laïcité to equal secularism, the concepts are quite distinct, the products of different histories, reflecting different perspectives and attitudes.  We should have given more attention to this and might well do so, should the discussion continue.  

On your third point, I think you misread us and misunderstand the argument.  Of course there are wealthy, powerful Muslims and desperately poor, powerless Catholics.  This does not change the fact that all scarce and desirable goods--both tangible and intangible--are distributed in highly inequitable fashion along the line of religious cleavage internal to French society.  This situation is apparent to all and produces corresponding reactions in different sectors of the two religious communities such that, for instance, disadvantaged Catholics, Jews, and secular French may rally to the National Front in order to defend what little they have against the threat of any gains Muslims might make, while wealthy Muslims might still feel bitter resentment at the treatment of their coreligionists.  To speak about any complex social field, one is forced to begin with generalizations, which represent a summary of the average situation and do not claim to account for every individual case.  If discussion proceeds, one can nuance the rough picture via attention to ranges of distribution, standard deviations, and close attention to outlier examples.  Your comparison to the situation of African-Americans in the US seems apt to me.  After one has noted that wealth, power, prestige, dignity, and justice are systematically maldistributed along racial lines, there is much more to be said, but none of it falsifies the initial, deeply troubling observation.  

I hope that clarifies things a bit. 

With all best wishes,

*This private corespondence was made available for publication on February 13, 2015.


ed03d0db-3b23-4fdf-8fa3-ed723fbfd321.jpgJean-Luc Marion, is the Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Professor of Catholic Studies and Professor of the Philosophy of Religions and Theology. Marion studies the history of modern philosophy and contemporary phenomenology. He has written on ontology, rational theology, metaphysics, and is pursuing a long-term inquiry into the question of God, as in The Idol and Distance and God Without Being. He initiated a phenomenology of givenness in Reduction and Givenness. Marion is currently working on a study devoted to deconstructing the myth of Cartesian dualism, Sur la pensée passive de Descartes. He was awarded the Grand Prix de Philosophie de L'Académie Française, elected to the Académie Française in 2008, and received as an immortel (member) in 2010. He will give the Gifford Lectures in coming years.

b88728e9-e04f-4656-aa43-71f1cde5a671.jpgBruce Lincoln, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, Middle Eastern Studies and Medieval Studies. He is also Associate Faculty in the Departments of Anthropology and Classics. Lincoln emphasizes critical approaches to the study of religion and is particularly interested in issues of discourse, practice, power, conflict, and the violent reconstruction of social borders. His research includes the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran. His two most recent books (2014) are Between History and Myth: Stories of Harald Fairhair and The Founding of the State, and Disourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification, 2nd edition.

5d63f58b-822a-499a-ac6a-2703a975d7ff.jpgAuthor, Anthony C. Yu, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature, Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, English Language and Literature, and the Committee on Social Thought. Yu's research focuses on the comparative study of both literary and religious traditions. He also reinterprets classical Chinese narratives and poetry in light of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. His publications include comparisons of Chinese and Western texts, literary and religious histories, and issues of theory and criticism. In 2012, he published revised editions, with new Notes, of all four volumes of his translation of The Journey to the West.

7c0d1ed0-0d2e-41fe-8bfc-39dd9d1cf3e5.jpgAuthor, Matthew Kapstein, (Ph.D. Brown University) is Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Director of Tibetan Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris. He specializes in the history of Buddhist philosophy in India and Tibet, as well as in the cultural history of Tibetan Buddhism. His recent publications include his translation of the 11th century Sanskrit allegory, The Rise of Wisdom Moon(2009), an edited volume, with Kurtis Schaeffer and Gary Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Traditions (2013), and Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction(2014).

 Françoise Meltzer is Professor of the Philosophy of Religions; Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities, Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature; and a professor in the College.  She marshals postmodern critical theories in order to explore representations of the subject. Her new book, Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity,  published with Chicago in 2011, argues (among other things) that Baudelaire's modernity is largely informed by his obsession with Original Sin. 

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).


June 2014225px-1964_When_Prophecy_Fails_Festinger.jpg

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).




May 2014220px-Mosque_Foundation_1.jpg

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.