Tag Archives: Religious Studies

In RGST? Get a Comic Now.

26 Nov

Proof that Comics Have a Place at the RGST Table

Saturday morning’s AAR session on comic books, “Heroes, or superheros?,” was a spirited example of the vibrant dimensions of the study of religion in popular culture in religious studies today. In a room filled with both men and women, I heard four fascinating papers that used “religious transcendence” to bridge the gap between “comic books and comedic performances.” In conjunction with the Religion and Science Fiction group’s session on “Seen and Unseen,” however, the true merits of comic books emerged.

In the earlier panel, the overlap between film studies became a moment to reflect on the generous body of theoretical literature that exists for religious studies scholars to drawn upon to analyze visual material. Christine Atchinson’s paper was somewhat over-laden with theory, but it impressed upon me the truly interdisciplinary qualities of popular culture research. We are not an interpretive island but rather one archipelago of a vast continent of materials. The regionalism (or specialization) inherent in a topic as broad as popular culture fosters a vibrant pluralism. We can be syncretic in the best possible ways. Or, more meta-theoretically, pastiche is impressive when we’re all bricoleurs.

Then Brenda Beck gave a fascinating presentation on her work adapting an Indian folk epic into an animated TV series. I was way out of my area, but this didn’t stop me from seeing the merits of her work. Visual presentation of folk material allowed her to highlight and embed the animation with scholarly interpretations. Class was a big issue in her folktales, and she was able to help the artists emphasize this element. It’s an important lesson. When we translate items visually we must choose what to encode. All of those choices made interpretation matter. If you have a sensitive and careful analyst, then those choices can really inform your audience about issues they might have overlooked. Perhaps we should, hint hint, make more effort finding objects and ideas that deserve visual translation. I’ve long thought that I wanted to make YouTube shorts on religious topics. Getting students to make short Vines is another option. You don’t need your object to be long—just long enough to say one thing in an interesting way.

Finally, A. David Lewis’ paper (read by Isaac Weiner because Lewis’ had travel problems) was a provocative analysis of Islamic heroism as the solution to the denigrated Western superhero comic model. Lewis’ complex analysis merits its own post, and I think I may have agreed on Twitter to do that for him, but I took away a key meta-point. Provocative arguments are worth making. They help us rise to the challenges of using theory effectively. They focus our use of sources. They compel response. And they make excellent conference papers. A. David Lewis has created a Storify for many of these items. It’s well worth your time.

The value of provocation continued in the Science Fiction panel’s outstanding papers on comics.  The first, by Southern Methodist University’s Christopher Dowdy, used Captain America, both in print and film, to explain the many ways in which Captain America’s body became a place of inscription for racial and religious elements. The way Captain America (in a subversive retelling of Captain America’s origins as a eugenic collaboration between American and Germany) rejects and embraces bodies suggests the character can be located at the center of discussions of scarred black bodies. This is a messianic suggestion and Dowdy played freely with liberationist theological implications. His slides are online for you to get some sense of the material he highlighted. The final comic oriented paper in the session was Peter Herman’s “Rotting Corpses in Pulp Horror,” a Buddhist reading of the Walking Dead and its implication for the way one deals with decaying bodies in the world post zombie apocalypse. As I did for all the papers I heard, I tweeted extensively throughout.  Rather than risk mangling these authors’ arguments, you might look at the notes I took and contact them directly for the real deal. (Storify forthcoming to compile the comic tweets.)

So what else must be said to convince you (or your skeptical colleagues) that comics and graphic novel analysis has a true purpose and place in religious studies? We’re not only influencing the creation of animated items (Beck); we’re not simply skillful readers of race and embodiment (Dowdy); we’re not just using comics to demonstrate the power of classic Buddhist texts and their philosophical theses (Herman); we’re all of these things because every moment we spend with these items is a step closer to understanding how, why, and in what ways religion is drawn into, developed inside, and lived through popular materials. This is not mere finger pointing. We’re not simply saying “there it is.” We’re capable of saying what it means that religion is there. Often times that meaning is not only useful for our understanding of racism or a religious tradition, but the very construction of religion itself.

So if you haven’t picked up a comic lately, head down to the local comic book store and ask them for a recommendation. You won’t regret it.

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Disgust — Provocations from Trier’s Antichrist

6 Nov

When I was writing my halloween posts last week I came across a link to a film review blog called A Movie A Week. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a site where critic Shaun Henisey reviews one movie a week. As I read through his reviews, I realized that Henisey had reviewed a challenging film, Antichrist, which I had been failing to talk myself into watching until recently. Henisey’s review is both generous and cautionary. Lars Von Trier‘s film is notorious for its extended meditation on (or embodiment of) misogyny. It’s a sexually graphic and psychologically intense film that divided audiences and critics alike. Detroit News film critic Tom Long’s comments are typical of positive reviews: “Self-loathing, mean, ugly and perfectly made, Antichrist is probably the best film ever that you’d recommend to absolutely no one.” On the other side, Dallas Morning News critic Christopher Kelly wrote, “Antichrist is a unique form of cruel and unusual punishment: an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.”

You can see the overlap in the critical reviews of this film–it is a disturbing piece of cinema. For some there was meaning in the madness; for others there was only madness.

Antichrist by Lars von Trier

Antichrist by Lars von Trier (Photo credit: ‘Lil)

Rather than write directly about the film–I think Henisey’s review captures many of the essential religious themes–I want to say a few words about disgust. First, a basic definition of disgust is a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is a negative emotional response. It requires us to have moral, aesthetic, or religious boundaries. Disgust crosses the line. To bring Mary Douglas and Emile Durkheim to the discussion, disgust is taboo-breaking that places us in danger of becoming impure. Disgust assumes we are pure. It is a moral high ground. Consider the satellite of synonyms for disgust: revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, odium, horror, contempt, and outrage. Is it possible that these alternatives are varieties of emotional condescension?

When we watch a film that really gets down in the muck, what is the nature of our disgust? Is it reflective? Are we repelled by seeing any fraction of ourselves? Or is it alienating? Are we repelled by the lack of relation?

Disgust is an emotional that has received considerable study. What’s fascinating, however, is that there are few studies of disgust as a religious faculty in modern experience. (I know of several studies of monastic practices that deal extensively with self-mutilation and other ascetic practices.) Yet religious studies appears to have overlooked this emotion today (whereas our colleagues in the social sciences have not).

When a movie like Trier’s comes along that provokes such intense reactions of revulsion and offense, I wonder whether it has successfully manipulated foundational religious elements to these effects. The wrapper of visceral gore makes it difficult to judge. What disgusts us in the film? Can we segment the stimuli? If so, are there more centrally religious elements? For our students, can these elements be extracted from the film to be discussed with material more appropriate for the classroom. (Despite my firm belief that there are really no limits to the objects we study in the academy, I do believe there are a number of limits to the objects we teach with in the classroom. Antichrist violates so many of these I hardly know where to begin.) In short, can we approach a “disgusting” film didactically and then employ its lessons on less dangerously provocative material?

In the context of a class I am slowly developing on the supernatural, disgust is an emotion that I’m sure will be invoked at least once. After all, can you imagine watching The Exorcist and not being even a little disgusted by the demon’s provocations? So, at the end here, I have a very practical motivation for my inquiries. I expect to need a way to deal with disgust and its satellites of similar emotional responses. We cannot stop feeling when we watch horror films. In truth, and as I said in my post on horror and religion, I think those feelings are central to the genre.

Thus, how would you discuss disgust in a religious studies classroom? Do you see a place for it? How would you deal with it? If you have thoughts, let me know below.

Related articles on my supernatural course

Is Horror Religious?

1 Nov

Every Halloween is an intense reminder to me that religion and horror go hand-in-glove. All Hallow’s Eve has become a secular candy-infused target for conservative religious figures, and yet these critics are not wrong to lament the religious inversions that are on display. We become the monsters we should fear. We masquerade in identities it would be better not to claim. I find the thought of living in Superman’s world as equally disturbing as I believe it would be to live in Freddy Kreuger’s. If conservative religious voices express their concern that these actions make us less able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, I think they’re on to something. (However, they are decisively less persuasive when they claim that weakening this boundary means we are crossing the line separating good and evil.) Let me explain.

A basic interpretation of ritual, Emile Durkheim’s, for instance, suggests that ritual operates using cyclic rhythms to interrupt the banality of everyday life. Rituals express significant chronological and spatial differences. Eliade’s formulation of these ideas, especially in The Myth of the Eternal Return, suggested that this was a religious predisposition of all humans. In the modern world, Eliade feared, we have lost our religious bearings. Ritual has lost its ability to express sacred time and space.

English: Emile Durkheim's grave. Italiano: La ...

English: Emile Durkheim’s grave. Italiano: La tomba di Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jonathan Z. Smith came along to tear down the ritual model as built by Eliade and Durkheim, one of his significant contributions was to distinguish between the religious actor’s imagination and their expectation. Ritual became an act of imagining–not a true expectation of change. In this respect, Smith embodies every fear Eliade had about the demystified or disenchanted modern world. Smith’s ritual world is one where ritual agents imagine their magic works. However, at some level, even if unspoken, ritual agents know their actions are not magic. In a perfect world, Smith argued, it wouldn’t be necessary for us to speak symbolically. Our rituals would always have the exact effects that we ascribed to them. Rain when we asked for rain. Healing when we desired healing. And so on.

If this seems difficult to follow, consider this. One of the major theological elements in the divide between Protestants and Catholics is over transubstantiation. When the host (the bread as the body of Jesus) is consecrated, is that material truly changed into the body of Jesus? Even hardened Catholics have difficulty explaining why the wafer still appears to be a wafer. The theology of change in essence without change in form is a delicate bit of spiritual prestidigitation. Protestants, by contrast, more openly say that the wine had not changed from alcohol to blood. For them the change is symbolic.

Back to horror now. As a genre, horror begins in the Gothic era. Yet, as I noted in a previous post about ghosts, there is a much older tradition of paranormal experience–folklore. Folklore is a cultural expression where normative beliefs and practices are passed from generation to generation. In this sense, folklore is very much the mechanism for passing ritual expectations. It preserves the sense of imagination while sustaining expectations. What is the key to good storytelling? Getting the listener to ask “Then what?” What happened next is the folktale’s engine.

We have two overlapping but distinct genres. Folklore is not always horrific. Horror is definitely not always folklore. Horror is often fictional, which certainly makes a difference since folklore like myth always strives for truth. But that’s not the rub. Horror is the genre whose object is the production of terror. I say terror here for two reasons. First, I don’t want to confuse the genre with its product. Second, I want to emphasize the kind of terror the Rudolf Otto evoked in his famous use of mysterium tremendum et fascinas. This is the numinous–that which is wholly other, that tells us simultaneously to look away but also compels us to look. This is the beating heart of horror–actions which are beyond reckoning that both invite and discourage attention.

Let’s return now to horror and its Halloween critics. When we play as devils, they say, we risk becoming demoniacs. Smith’s ritual corrective suggests that religious agents can more readily separate the imagination they employ while wearing masks from the reality that they do not become what the masks represent. We are a society at play, not a society playing at becoming. That religious folks think becoming the monsters is possible is notable.

The challenge of the genre of horror is continually producing experiences that are wholly other. It shares with religious ritual the goal of playing convincingly while acknowledging that becoming is not ruled out. Despite Smith’s objections, we live in a world where a vast majority of people believe, beyond all factual evidence and reason, that becoming just might be possible. This explains the urgency in critics’ voices as well as the attraction of Horror. There is a remote possibility, the genre seems to say, that this could happen. That slim chance is what makes us share a protagonist’s doubt about whether they locked the back door. That possibility is not folklore’s “what happened then” but rather horror’s “what if this really happened?”

The speculative core of horror is one of the reasons I think it is inevitably, and fundamentally, religious. It is the spectrum of religious behavior and thought that preserves the terror of radical possibilities. A serial killer is some absurd form of hideous, blasphemous miracle. The return of ancient world-destroying gods? Another grotesque possibility.

Cthulu Jack O' Lantern

Cthulu Jack O’ Lantern (Photo credit: joebeone)

Finally, however, I think that beyond possibility, it is terror that pushes all horror into the religious. That of which we are terrified–physical, psychical, or mental harm–cut deeply into the core of religious bodies, souls, and minds. It causes us to question whether bodies are sacred. It make us wonder whether our souls are secure. It make us wonder whether our minds are whole.

The damage horror inflicts–and one of the reasons I don’t flatly reject horror’s religious critics–can be quite real. Terror opens interrogative room. This isn’t the same space as the miraculous. This is a space where reality is inverted, subverted, and rejected. It can be profoundly emotional.

Horror, when it is at its most horrific, is our own lives tipped just slightly out of balance. It makes the whole world unheimlich (unfamiliar in the sense of uncanny). We lose our sense of being at home. Thus while folklore preserves our world; horror breaks it down until it is no longer familiar to us.

Otto claimed that this disorientation was fundamentally religious. This Halloween week I find myself agreeing with him. So, is horror religious? Yes. Absolutely.

Thought Experiment Addendum

On Twitter Daniel Silliman suggested that one way to test my inquiry would be ask “could horror be irreligious?” He said he didn’t think so. I agreed. Can you think of a way for horror to be irreligious? I’ll note that to the best of my knowledge, Wikipedia’s suggestion that irreligion can be indifference, rejection, and hostility to religion seems unhelpfully broad. It notes right away that religious rejection (atheism, for instance) is different from hostility to religion (antitheism). This suggests we might be better off limiting the discussion to indifference to religion. After all, if one is hostile to religion then one is still dealing with religion. So, to be more precise, can horror be indifferent to religion?

Top 5 Scary Movies for Religious Studies

31 Oct

While I like candy and scary movies, I’m not one to dress up in costume. So here’s a list of my top 5 scary movies for religious studies.

I attempted to balance cinematic excellence with thematic diversity. I limited myself to one ghost, one possession, one cult, one psychological, and one monster film.

That’s a diverse five, but it means cutting out overlapping classics including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ghostbusters, Frankenstein, 13 Ghosts, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Frailty, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Omen, Hellraiser, Ringu, The Others, The Devils, Martyrs Videodrome, The Haunting, The Innocents, Night of the Living Dead, and Suspira. These all have their place in the annals of horror greatness.

I’m shocked to find myself leaving out Rosemary’s Baby, for instance. The joys of arbitrary limits! If you want an excellent top 100 list, the absolute best available is this one from London’s Time Out magazine. For the record, Rosemary’s Baby, Ringu, Martyrs, The Shining, and Elm Street were the next 5 up.

(I’m going to say very little about the films. That way if you haven’t yet seen one of them, I’m not ruining any great horror moments.)

Have a scary halloween.

5. Poltergeist (1982)

A classic haunted house story. It set a new bar for paranormal terror.

poltergeist

4. Cabin in the Woods (2012)

A self-aware monster movie that collects horror tropes like, well, kids collecting candy on Halloween.

cabin-in-the-woods-2sm

3. The Wicker Man (1973)

Forget the Nicholas Cage remake. This is the cult classic you want to watch.

Wickerman

2. Carrie (1976)

Don’t mess with telekinetically-gifted teenage girls at their prom. Seriously.

Carrie

1. The Exorcist (1973)

The classic possession film tops nearly every best-of horror list. Well deserved.

exorcist_posterbig

Serious Games — Studying Religion in Video Games

23 Oct

Over at The Critical Religion Association’s blog, there is an interesting post by Jonathan Tuckett (University of Stirling) about credibility and the study of video games. Tuckett recently presented on the religious theme of The Elder Scrolls at the BASR/EASR. He expressed his worries as “the “ludicrosity” of the whole affair.” Here’s what happened:

Later I was among the contestants for a recording of the second RSP Christmas Special (you can hear me make a fool of myself at the first one here). During the game, which had a large audience definitely featuring some prominent academics, I was joking with my colleague David that unless he started asking questions on Skyrim (where the latest Elder Scrolls game is set) I wasn’t going to know very much. I had already flunked the question on the books of the Bible and was then stumped by a question on the Unification Church. It was during this aside that I happened to get a glimpse at some of the prominent academics who were listening to our brief exchange. It was then that the idea of ludicrosity returned to me. The looks I saw can only be summed up in one way: “Is this guy serious?” I don’t mean to criticise them for giving me those looks or thinking in that manner. I can completely sympathise with them because on one level if I had been in their position I would probably be thinking the exact same thing.

Later, Tuckett demurrs, arguing that he does “do not wish to criticise those who would think that the study of video games in Religious Studies isn’t a credible activity. I understand their scepticism. We’re breaching new territory, charting a region on the social scientific map that we may very easily fall off.” Then he points to the work of William Sims Bainbridge, whose more recent blogs are a bit unusual for a religious studies approach, as both a representative of the possibilities and dangers of this subject.

Here’s my take on things:

1. William Sims Bainbridge’s latest work, eGods, is exactly the kind of work Tuckett appears to be doing with The Elder Scrolls. They may use different theoretical paradigms, but both Tuckett and Bainbridge take seriously the myth-making at the heart of the fictional worlds created in video games. Tuckett didn’t spend a lot of time explaining his project, but I’ve read Bainbridge’s work and it inspired my next project on the supernatural in interactive entertainment (i.e., video games).

2. Tuckett says there were 8 competing panels, so attendance was low at his session. Panels are not attended for lots of reasons. It’s tempting to assume that low attendance is because of our presentations, but more often it is because of competing panels, inconvenient time slots, or a half-dozen other factors that are out of our control. That’s rough, but there it is. Of course, one way to redeem the panel may be to publish its papers online and share them freely. We can’t be everywhere, so even a summary blog post can go a long way toward increasing the conversation!

3. I take issue with anyone who would criticize the serious study of video games. Unlike Tuckett, I would criticize them, and I don’t see a lot of reason to defend their hypothetical myopia. Nor does it seem appropriate for them to be casting dirty looks about. I think we all know by now that there are really no topics that are off-limits so long as we can clearly demonstrate the academic merits of a project. Just 20 years ago the study of material religion was in its infancy. Material religious objects have been around for millennia. But we didn’t put the pieces together until recently in a way that fit the guild’s model of study. Video games, by contrast, emerged just 40 years ago. In that time they have become one of the pillars of popular culture. They inspire fashion, fiction, and film. More important, they inspire fans–that word rooted in fanatic, which means one “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” Part of what I hope to show in my own future work on games is how devotion in games is becoming a substitute for more traditional types of devotion. The mythical worlds of the games may be the very thing that is satisfying the spiritual needs of many of our religious nones. The rising overtness of religious elements in video games attests to this trend. There’s no academic reason they should be left outside our field of vision.

4. Moreover, the religious aspects of video games are not even remotely in doubt. Even if the industry wasn’t worth more than a billion dollars, we could easily argue its merits on participation alone, which is also in the billions. Asia’s youth are rampant gamers. And games are now pervasive in our screen-laden Western societies. Even the most banal games–those which contain only the barest element of narrative context–often rely on religious themes and mythology as their premise. The sophisticated narrative worlds top-tier (a-list) games create are more detailed and more thorough than all but a few fictional worlds (say, Tolkien’s). [See my earlier post of The Binding of Isaac and blasphemous gaming for a bit more on this point.] The tepid religious elements of most science fiction novels, for instance, do not compare at all with the detailed mythology of the world where the Elder Scrolls takes place. Just as religion intersects fiction and television, so too does it exist in games and the lives of gamers. I’m incredulous that folks would think to exclude it from professional study.

The religious elements are overt, plentiful, and extremely well integrated into the experience of gamers around the world. These often include websites, real life roleplaying, and fan fiction (both professional and amateur). It is a global playing field that freely combines religious elements from major religions around the world. Buddhism can be found almost as easily as Christianity, and video games have even managed to depict a number of ancient religions in interesting ways that build on the work of archaeologists and ancient historians (see the Total War series). It’s a vibrant gaming world, and shutting our eyes to it won’t do us any good as we try to account for the way that religion and religious themes appear in our time.

5. In sum, I’m thrilled to hear that Tuckett is fighting the good fight for video games. I’m also frustrated to hear him give room for its critics. They do not have a place to stand. When and if they appear, they will need to be criticized. The best way to do that–unlike this hasty response–is to produce elegant and persuasive scholarship on the topic. That is the only response that is worth our sustained effort. It’s not worth fighting a territorial or canonical battle. Those of us that want to expand the canon will win out if we can demonstrate the merits of our contributions. It’s not about “reaching a sense of credibility.” That implies we are bringing something to the table that is not credible to begin with. For the social scientific world, this may simply be a question of method and paradigm, but in the religious studies world this problem is a phantom. We find “religion” wherever and whenever it may be and do our best to understand it with the appropriate methodological tools. The methods are not our masters–our religious subjects are. If video games help in the task of illuminating them, then let the parade of scholarship begin. Don’t aim to reach a sense of credibility; Produce work that matters.

Finally, this November’s AAR has several papers on games and an entire panel devoted to their study. I’ll be there. I hope to see you there, too. No cosplay required.

Mystical Pregnancies

15 Oct

Io9 strikes again with Katharine Trendacosta’s list of “The Most Ridiculous Mystical Pregnancies in Fiction.” It’s a solid compilation that ranges from Twilight to Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the end of the post, Trendacosta directs readers to Anita Sarkeesian’s take on Tropes Vs. Women.  It’s definitely worth 7 minutes of your time:

As Sarkeesian explains, pregnancy in speculative fiction is commonly a vehicle for reducing women from vibrant characters to incubators. Moreover, pregnancy is frequently made into a traumatic, monstrous experience. Just remember Bella’s pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, which featured the fetal vampire’s attempt to kill her human mother. Critics emerged en masse to complain not just about the representation of the female body during pregnancy, but also its deceitful portrait of the emotional lives of mothers. (See Think Progress, Adios Barbie, or Io9).

As I develop a course on the supernatural to add to my teaching portfolio, I’m on the lookout for thematic content that highlights a broad range of religious issues. Mystical pregnancies is excellent in this respect.

    1. There are  so many clear examples of mystical pregnancies in film that every student is likely to be familiar with at least one or two fictional examples. The abundance of examples also means that every student could research their own example. This fosters a climate of comparison that will help focus attention on the common dimensions of the trope.
    2. It focuses on issues of gender in a different way than horror’s more general application of the trope of the virgin. This is a chance to explore motherhood as a juxtaposition to sexual purity.
    3. This opens avenues to discuss Mariology–the prototypical mystical birth that I would expect all my students to become experts on.  What does it mean to be both immaculate and the mother of God? What do women think about Mary as a religious ideal? How do they reconcile Mary’s life with their own experiences with motherhood?
    4. Supernatural fiction is a vehicle for the discussion of reproductive and sexual rights. All too often demonic possession is an opportunity to highlight the boundaries of sexual norms. The Exorcist, for instance, sexualizes a young possessed girl through her intense, vulgar language. When monstrous pregnancies introduce demonic fetuses, is this a punishment for sexual acts? A test of faith or obedience? Under what circumstances does pregnancy become evil? How are infants imagined as violations of nature? (As when Bella’s child grows at an accelerated rate.) [Depending on time, this may also be a time to introduce the history of the culture wars that is the broader historical context for so many of these fictional works.]
    5. Supernatural fiction often demonstrates basic biological and human imperatives through inversion. Why is The Omen so shocking? It tells the story of parents who ultimately conclude they must sacrifice their demonic offspring. It’s a perverse adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac–only in this case Abraham tries to go through with the sacrifice and is narrowly stopped by the police. What are we to make of the triumph of evil here? Is obedience to the law a sufficient replacement for obedience to God? What are the limits of our parental instincts? Is infanticide ever natural?
    6. Finally, it discretely thematizes the vast supernatural canon. We can effectively group content with pregnancies or pseudo-pregnancies without worrying about the many other issues they raise. This frees me to deal effectively with movies that run a broad supernatural gauntlet (like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby). I can easily find another movie to deal with prophecy, the anti-Christ, demonic possession, etc.

Feel free to suggest more issues that you would raise! I’m also on the lookout for excellent secondary sources if you know of any! (I have this fascinating thesis by Natasha Lopusina with its many excellent sources. Thank goodness for the digital age!)

Altman on the “Eliadian Roots of Liberal Religion”

3 Oct
English: Stamp of Moldova; Mircea Eliade

English: Stamp of Moldova; Mircea Eliade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael J. Altman (U of Alabama) has a fascinating post about “The History of Religions in American Religious History” over at Religion in American History. He argues that Eliade’s sui generis or “religion on its own terms” approach became essential to the “liberal (post?) Protestant approach to religion as a meaning-making system.” Altman is absolutely right to laud the effect Eliade had on religious studies in the second half of the 20th century.

There is really no escaping the orbit of his scholarship or his academic progeny. I certainly haven’t been able to escape it. As a Master’s student at Miami University, I trained with several of Eliade’s former students, and their shelves were lined with books annotated by Eliade that they obtained after he passed in 1986. I freely admit that I fall into the camp of Eliadean critics such as J. Z. Smith, but my disapproval of Eliade’s work is fundamentally about the destructive consequences of his comparative approach and not my reluctance to acknowledge his intellectual legacy.

The issue I wanted to raise with Altman’s post is its obvious oversight of William James. I don’t blame Altman much. He’s teaching an Introduction to Religious Studies course, and he cannot possibly cover every angle. So when the material extends from Durkheim, Freud, Hume to Eliade, then it is natural to say “Then comes Eliade. In America.”

Cover of "Varieties of Religious Experien...

Cover of Varieties of Religious Experience

The problem is that Altman lays the “explanation is anathema” approach at Eliade’s feet. I could easily quibble with this description of Eliade’s theories–his descriptive categories are actually explanations and therefore explanation is anything but anathema to Eliade and other comparativists. But I think the bigger issue is that the presentation of religion as sui generis in America is really the product of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

We could have an interesting discussion about whether James’ Varieties or Eliade’s Sacred had a greater influence on the understanding of religion in America. There’s an element of periodization to grapple with, too. Altman suggests that Eliade is responsible for late 20th century liberal perspectives. Of course, James was pretty much the poster child for early 20th century liberal perspectives. He is a major part of the cadre of American progressives, right? How do we reconcile these?

For me, what Eliade brought to the table that James did not was his stress on the universalism of religious beliefs across time and space. Cultural and historical differences were no obstacle for his comparisons. Religious behavior was native to humanity. Descriptive categories of belief, symbols, and rituals were ways to demonstrate the nature of homo religiosus.

[If I were to pick a second item I might say that his perspective was inexorably tied to emerging theories of modernity’s disenchantment and critiques of modern religious sensibilities. This component of Eliade’s work feels inseparable from the ravages of WWII and the rise of strongly atheistic governments.]

Eliade’s critics–especially J. Z. Smith–have been forceful about Eliade’s arm-chair anthropology. Creative comparisons remain the lifeblood for historians of religion, but I think we’re more careful than ever about the serious implications of cross-cultural categories.

A lack of caution in that area is one of the traits of modern liberalism. Oddly enough, those who argue that God is one or that all paths lead up the same mountain sustain a difference-obliterating and culture-erasing practice that diminishes the diversity they claim to cherish. (This is an accusation laid against the work of, say, Diana Eck, in the recent work of Stephen Prothero.)

At the end of the day, many religious studies scholars agree that world religions (already a contested and constructed category) are rivals and not merely alternative versions of the truth (if we even have a right to make that judgment). I think Eliade would have a serious problem with that reality of today’s field, but that’s where we are.