Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Shaun King, Classification, and Christianity

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Thomas J. Whitley

First it was Rachel Dolezal. Now it’s Shaun King.

King is a Black Lives Matter activist who, like Dolezal, has been accused of lying about his race. King’s accusations first garnered national headlines when Breitbart published a story questioning whether he had been lying about his race as well as whether he lied about numerous other details in his life story (such as whether he was the victim of a hate crime). The story gained steam with CNN and other major organizations picking it up. There’s even a posting on it.

Both Dolezal’s and King’s stories provide excellent fodder for discussing how classification works and what’s at stake in the act of classifying. In a lengthy piece in response to the accusations, King recounts his lived black experience.

Every friend I had was black, my girlfriends were black, I was seen as black, treated as black, and endured constant overt racism as a young black teenager. Never have I once identified myself as white. Not on forms, not for convenience or privilege, and not for fun and games, have I ever identified myself as white. I was never a white guy pretending to be black. Not once, ever, did it occur to me that I was being phony or fraudulent or fake. Quite the opposite — I always believed I was living the truest form of my self.

King writes quite openly of the impact that being told he was “mixed” as a young kid by other kids had on him. He recognizes how it shaped his perspective of himself. In this regard, King recognizes both the internal and external influences on his racial identity.

He has pushed back, though, when pictures of him as a child in which he “looks” white are used as evidence against him. Many of the outlets publishing stories about King clearly link him with Black Lives Matter and with Rachel Dolezal. Many appear, as King claims, to be attempts to discredit not only him but the BLM movement as a whole. King personally understands that classification matters.

It was a bit shocking to me, then, when a friend on Facebook shared a Shaun King post in which he takes issue with people who claim to be Christian and yet direct hate his way.

While King frames his post here as if he is having trouble with identifying as Christian, he actually has trouble with other calling themselves Christian when he thinks they shouldn’t be. King is now the one doing the classifying. He draws the clear line that he who is loving and caring and those who are hateful cannot be part of the same group.

“We can’t both be Christians.”

As all systems of classification do, his benefits him. “Hateful” Christians are not really Christians. True Christians look like King. This, of course, is not said explicitly. He doesn’t have to. He makes an unstated, but obvious, appeal to authority. In this case, the authority is the Bible. It is an authority to which both King and those “hateful” Christians would appeal, but King quotes 1 John 4:20 like a mic drop. There is no commentary. King doesn’t even have to make his point himself, the Bible has already done it for him, which only serves to legitimate his discourse. What’s at stake here is who gets to claim the label Christian, and King is very much engaged in this struggle. Or, as Pierre Bourdieu put it, what’s at stake in the classification struggle is “power over the classificatory schemes and systems” (Distinction, 479). The identity I claim for myself is only as useful as my control over that identity.

This is not a post about how Shaun King is a horrible person because he objects to being classified by others as something he doesn’t like but has no problem being the one to classify others as something they most likely would not like. Rather, what we see in the example of Shaun King is just how classification works, that is, for us. Or at least that is how it is employed. For when it is not working for us, on our behalf, and in ways that increase our power and capital, then classification is something that must be fought as oppressive and nefarious. But when classification is working for us, on our behalf, and in ways that increase our power and capital, it is presented as natural, as simply the way things are — “Everything that claims to be Christianity, isn’t.” — and when presented this way without commentary regarding the work that the classification is doing, it is rendered nearly invisible. This is possible because those engaging in acts of classification largely do see some classificatory schemes as simply the way things are, or at least the way things ought to be. That these particular schemes often happen to benefit the one who sees them this way . . . well, that’s natural.

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

*Image courtesy Shaun King on Twitter.

Thinking about Secularism Globally and Robert Yelle’s The Language of Disenchantment

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jeffrey Wheatley

I have spent the past few months reading books for an ad hoc summer reading group composed mostly of graduate students interested in thinking about secularism globally. Most of us research under the framework of American religious history, but we agree that there is much to be gained by thinking about secularism comparatively, by using the concept of secularism to trace the way the category religion can be a tool of statecraft and how ostensibly secular or religiously-neutral modes of governance can very much have presuppositions that bring into question their religious neutrality and the possibility of religious neutrality broadly. Under the program of secularism, the distinction between what is properly religious and what is properly secular becomes key, and this distinction is not natural or transcendent, but the product of historical contingency, especially (but not exclusively) the development of Western power across the globe. Some of the works we have read include: José Casanova’s Public Religions, the first chapter of Beth Hurd’s new book Beyond Religious Freedom (scroll to the bottom of this interview for a preview), Cassie Adcock’s Limits of Tolerance, Peter van der Veer’s Modern Spirit of Asia, and Webb Keane’s influential Christian Moderns. (Sidenote: if you can access it, I recommend looking at the first issue of the Journal of Religious and Political Practices.)

We also read Robert Yelle’s The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India, which resonates with many of my research subjects and questions. Yelle suggests that British reforms to disenchant India are best understood as an integral aspect of Britain’s Puritan-inflected Christian colonialism, not a straightforward process of secularization that diminishes religion, or at least relegates it to the private sphere. Disenchantment is a Christian conceit, and to make this point Yelle gestures toward various Christian critiques of Judaism, ancient mythology, paganism, and Hinduism, all of which Christian theorists at various historical junctures understood to harbor errant assumptions about how the world works. These imperfect religions, Protestant-influenced British colonialists asserted, lived in an enchanted world inimical to self-government and progress. These critiques mark these religions and their subjects as problems to be overcome—as pre-modern survivals lingering an all-subsuming (Christian) modern age. Some readers might be familiar with the argument that disenchantment might be better thought of as historically a part of Christianity rather than a radical parting from Christianity (think Max Weber), but it is Yelle’s decision to hone in on language, in particular, that makes this book useful for those interested in a critical approach to secularism.

Yelle explores the different semiotic ideologies that structured, on the one hand, British colonial projects of language reform and, on the other hand, Hindu oral practices. Many of the latter were premised on a confidence in the power of words, of mantras, to effect change (see Chapter 4). The former viewed such a confidence in “vain repetitions,” deserving the same iconoclasm British Protestantism directed at Catholic practices. Chapter 2, for example, examines Friedrich Max Müller’s attempt to produce of a “Science of Religion” in the context of Reformation theological aims. Müller famously argued that religion’s origins lay in linguistic confusion. According to his account primitive peoples eventually mistook the name for a natural object or force for an agential being. The sign and the signified become confused. In his account such erroneous views of language persisted. Such “verbal idolatry”—presumed to be theologically and scientifically unsound—would have to go. More broadly, as Chapter 3 demonstrates, British attempts to standardize, transliterate, or replace the variety of languages spoken in India were directly tied to Protestant desires for “plainness of speech” and undoing the confusion of languages that followed the Tower of Babel. Both were understood as necessary steps towards the fulfillment of a global reign of Christianity and British colonial power. Chapter 5 explores how British Christian colonialists understood Hindu law by comparing it with Jewish ritual law, which, within the Christian teleological narrative, was superseded by Christian law. It does not perfectly fit with the focus on language present in the rest of the book, but the chapter should be of interest to those studying religion and law nonetheless.

One take-away from reading these books together under the rubric “global secularity” is that it helps us re-conceptualize the project of secularism from a deployment of a religion-secular binary to the dynamic production of a trinary that often looks something like what Jason Josephson proposes in The Invention of Religion in Japan: religion/secular/superstition (or, as befits Yelle’s book, “idolatry”). The first two categories are mutually reinforcing and receive the imprimatur of the state through laws of incorporation, initiatives for religious freedom, and symbolic affirmations. That which the state puts into the third category is problematic. Practices, communities, and beliefs labeled “superstitious,” “primitive,” or “pre-modern” are consigned to anachronism or explicitly targeted for destruction for the sake of modernization, global recognition of sovereignty, and/or the suppression of political dissent. The concept of the trinary seems especially useful for those who want to engage secularism within the contexts of colonialism and capitalism, both of which depend on regulation and discipline.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. You can contact him at or on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

CFP: Religion and Medicine

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Editor’s Note: This CFP comes to us by way of Katherine Harvey of Birckbeck, University of London.




Birkbeck, University of London, 15-16 July 2016

Convenors: Katherine Harvey, John Henderson and Carmen Mangion

In the contemporary Western world, religion and medicine are increasingly separated, but through much of history they have been closely interrelated. This relationship has been characterised by some conflict, but also by a great deal of cooperation. Religious perspectives have informed both the understanding of and approaches to health and sickness, whilst religious personnel have frequently been at the forefront of medical provision. Religious organisations were, moreover, often at the heart of the response to medical emergencies, and provided key healing environments, such as hospitals and pilgrimage sites.

This conference will explore the relationship between religion and medicine in the historic past, ranging over a long chronological framework and a wide geographical span. The conference focus will be primarily historical, and we welcome contributions which take an interdisciplinary approach to this topic.

Four main themes will provide the focus of the conference. The sub-themes are not prescriptive, but are suggested as potential subjects for consideration:

  1. Healing the Body and Healing the Soul
  • Medical traditions: the non-natural environment and the ‘Passions of the Soul’.
  • Religious traditions (for example, the Church Fathers, sermons and devotional literature).
  1. The Religious and Medicine
  • Medical knowledge and practice of religious personnel, including secular and regular clergy.
  • Nurses and nursing.
  • Medical practitioners, religious authorities and the regulation of medical activity and practice.
  1. Religious Responses
  • Religious responses to epidemics, from leprosy to plague to pox and cholera.
  • Medical missions in Europe and the wider world.
  • Religion, humanitarianism and medical care.
  1. Healing Environments and Religion
  • Religious healing/ miracles/ pilgrimage.
  • Institutional medical care (including hospitals, dispensaries and convalescent homes).

Proposals, consisting of a paper abstract (no more than 300 words) and a short biography (no more than 400 words), should be submitted to by 30 October 2015. We will to respond to proposals by early December. For more information please visit our website, at, and follow us on Twitter @RelMedConf2016

Finding Apocryphal Gospels in Church

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Brandon W. Hawk

In a previous post, I hinted at the flexibility of the biblical canon, and the many related extrabiblical texts. From years of scholarly study, what is clear about these so-called “apocrypha” is that they derive from communities that found them useful for understanding their perspectives on Christianity.[1] For example, the Protevangelium of James and the related Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew narrate information about the life of the Virgin Mary and infancy of Jesus not found in the canonical gospels—foundational for Roman Catholic Marian devotion and doctrine from the medieval period up to the present. Although popular media like Dan Brown’s novels often present apocrypha as fictions at odds with institutionalized Christianity, many of these texts have been, at one point or another, valued as part of Christian tradition.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of anthologies of translations containing Christian apocrypha appeared in English (as well as among other languages, such as German and French). One representative of this trend is The Apocryphal Gospels and Other Documents Relating to the History of Christ, translated by B. Harris Cowper.[2] A more specific witness, with implications for considering the role of apocrypha in the history of Christianity, is a single copy of the seventh edition, published in London in 1910.

Although this particular book is relatively unmarked throughout, two ex libris notes appear in the front cover and first flyleaf. On the inside cover is written in pen, “Emmanuel Church | Pew 70.” On the right side of this opening (the first flyleaf) is a personal library stamp, identifying the book as belonging to “Hugh W. Ogden | Tremont Bldg. | Boston, Mass.” Both situate this volume of The Apocryphal Gospels at a specific place of Christian worship, in use by a specific parishioner.

Within the rich history of Boston’s Emmanuel Church (established 1861),[3] Hugh W. Ogden’s connections emerge from a variety of evidence. A draft document concerning the “Building history, stained glass windows, memorials and furnishings” of Emmanuel Church provides the following note about (and image of) a memorial donation: “Brass tablet 1938 in memory of Hugh Walker Ogden 1871-1938 by Gorham Ogden was a World War I Colonel, and presided over hearings on the Boston 1919 molasses disaster.”[4] More details about Ogden’s life and connections to the church are provided in Stephen Puleo’s book, Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919.[5] There Puleo recounts:

Ogden served as clerk of the corporation of the Emmanuel Church in Boston and as a member of the vestry of Christ Church (the Old North Church) in the North End. He was described as one of the ‘outstanding Episcopal laymen’ of Boston and an authority on canon law. One of his great delights was collecting rare books on church history.[6]

This information is corroborated by several other documents listing Ogden as “clerk” for Emmanuel Church.[7] It is likely, then, that Ogden rented pew 70 in Emmanuel Church, where he kept at least one of his books, the copy of The Apocryphal Gospels.

With the note inside the front cover about “Pew 70,” we may push observations about The Apocryphal Gospels further. This book was kept, and meant for use, alongside materials often seen as more traditionally orthodox in church, such as the canonical Bible and hymnbooks. While many already acknowledge the problems of setting up false dichotomies between “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy” in Christian history, this book presents a specific case calling for more nuanced perspectives. In other words, the apocrypha included in the anthology were viewed—at least by Ogden, it seems—not as marginal, but as relevant to Christian belief, worship, and practice. However The Apocryphal Gospels were used in these contexts, it is at least significant that they were, at one time, kept specifically within the walls of a Christian church.

Brandon W. Hawk is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Rhode Island College. His research interests encompass the afterlives of texts (particularly Christian works), including circulation, translations, adaptations, and re-presentations in various cultures and media. He may be contacted via email at brandonwhawk [at], or found on Twitter @b_hawk.


[1] For a helpful introduction, see Tony Burke, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

[2] The full title page runs as follows: The Apocryphal Gospels and Other Documents Relating to the History of Christ. Translated from the Originals in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Etc. with Notes, Scriptural References and Prolegomena, trans. B. Harris Cowper (London: David Nutt, 1910; repr. variously, in many editions).

[3] See

[4] Emmanuel Church, 15 Newbury St, Boston Massachusetts 02116: Building history, stained class windows, memorials and furnishings, compiled by Mary Chitty, Elizabeth Richardson, and Michael Scanlon, and Sam Myatt, photographs by Julian Bullitt, Matthew Griffing, and Donald Kreider (Dec. 2012 draft) [available at], 34, original emphasis.

[5] Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 (Boston: Beacon P, 2003), esp. 63-66 and passim.

[6] Ibid., 65.

[7] See, for example, various records of the Annual Meeting of the Convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts, such as Journal of the One Hundred and Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Convention, A. D. MDCCCXCVII (Boston: Damrell and Upham, 1897); Journal of the One Hundred and Twenty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the Convention, May 3, 4, A. D. 1911 (Boston: The Diocesan House, 1911), 230 and 236; and a list of “Officers of Emmanuel Church Elected Easter, 1912” in The Yearbook of Emmanuel Parish, Boston, Year Ending Advent, 1912 (Boston: Emmanuel Church, 1912), 3.

15th Annual Florida State University Department of Religion Graduate Student Symposium

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Thomas J. Whitley

The Florida State University Department of Religion is pleased to announce its 15th Annual Graduate Student Symposium to be held February 19-21, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Last year’s symposium allowed over 50 presenters from over 15 universities and departments such as History, Political Science, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Classics to share their research, learn from one another, and meet many of their peers and future colleagues. 

This year’s symposium will be held under the theme “Religion/Culture.”

Dr. Kathryn Lofton, of Yale University, will deliver this year’s keynote address.

Due to our commitment to collaborative scholarship, students from all fields with interdisciplinary interests in the study of religion and at all levels of graduate study are encouraged to submit paper proposals.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Church and State; Religion, Law and Politics; Ritual, Practice, and Performance; Religion and Violence; Space and Place Theory; Secularisms; Empires; Sexuality and Gender; Cosmology and Creation Stories; Method and Critical Theory on Religion; Possession and Displacement; and, Comparative Examinations of Religious Groups and Texts. 

Presentations should be approximately 15 to 20 minutes in length and will receive faculty responses.  In addition, every year respondents select the best graduate paper to receive the Leo F. Sandon Award, an endowed award named for the Religion Department’s former chair. 

Proposals including an abstract of approximately 300 words, a list of key terms, and a one-page CV should be submitted by December 4, 2015 for review.  Final papers must be submitted by January 24, 2016. Please send proposals to Matthew Coston at <fsureligionsymposium @>

Religion and the GOP Presidential Hopefuls, Part II

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Emily Johnson

Since I last wrote about the GOP presidential candidates in May, the already-crowded field has seen its membership double in number. It is time, then, for an update on the religious affiliations and moral positions of the nine candidates who have now joined the race. (Click the link above to go back and read about Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mark Everson, Jack Fellure, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio).

Such a “cheat sheet” is necessary not only for the pure pleasure of amassing trivia. Indeed, it’s not trivial at all. In recent years, a rapidly growing field of scholarship on the New Christian Right and the Culture Wars of the 1970s and 1980s has begun to reveal the significant, nuanced, and long-lasting influence of conservative Christian movements in American politics across the twentieth century. As we gear up for the 2016 election, the populous field of Republican candidates speaks to the continued relevance of this history as well as some important shifts over the past four decades. Many of the central issues are the same: abortion, homosexuality, government overreach, and the crumbling Christian foundations of the nation. The denominational diversity of the candidates reveals a continuing trend toward conservative Christian ecumenism, while the similarity of the rhetoric from candidate to candidate evinces the still-overarching influence of certain evangelical Protestant frameworks. More than anything, the prevalence of religious and moral framing among the GOP candidates contrasts sharply with the priorities and language of their Democratic opponents, indicating important assumptions about the place of religion in twenty-first century American politics, even despite a long history of leftist religious activism in this country.

Without further ado, then, part two of our examination of the religious orientations – personal and political – of Republican presidential candidates for 2016.

Chris Christie (announced on June 30): The governor of New Jersey (since 2010) has a reputation for outspoken brashness, which he embraces in his campaign slogan: “Telling it like it is.” He explains this tendency by way of ethnic identity in a video on the front page of his campaign website: “I had an Irish father and a Sicilian mother.” Readers of Matt Jacobson’s excellent book Roots, Too will recognize that this proud claiming of these national heritages ties Christie firmly to a particular narrative of American immigrant identity, connecting him to a romanticized notion of the Ellis-Island-era immigrant, once downtrodden but now firmly pulled up by bootstraps. Christie’s ethnic heritage is also deeply connected to his identity as a Catholic, which has informed his opposition to abortion and his support for government vouchers for parochial schools. His position on gay rights has been more complicated, however. Christie stated in 2011 that: “My religion says it’s a sin [but] . . . I think if someone is born that way it’s very difficult to say then that that’s a sin.” In 2013 he signed a statewide ban on reparative therapy (popularly known as “ex-gay” or “pray the gay away” therapy) but also vetoed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey, and he recently criticized the Supreme Court’s decision on this matter.

Lindsey Graham (announced on June 1): Graham has represented South Carolina in the U.S. Congress for twenty years, first as a member of the House of Representatives (1995–2003) and now as a Senator (since 2003). A lifelong Southern Baptist, Graham generally hews to the moral positions typical of the religious right. His campaign website identifies “Securing Our Values” as one of Graham’s top three priorities, elaborating that: “Strong families, constitutional liberties, and the sanctity of life form the bedrock on which our nation was founded.” He recently reintroduced a bill into Congress that would criminalize abortion after 20-weeks’ gestation, even naming the bill for himself on his campaign website. His opposition to “Radical Islam” is the centerpiece of his foreign policy platform and has also informed his response to domestic issues. Last month, he reacted to the massacre at a historically black Charleston church by comparing the shooter’s motivations to “Mideast hate.” He has also recently made headlines for advising the GOP to “accept” the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, but notably – in the same statement – renewed his commitment to “protect the religious liberties of those who believe that opposing same sex marriage is part of their faith.”

Bobby Jindal (announced on June 24): The son of Indian immigrants, Jindal was raised Hindu but converted to Protestant Christianity, based in part on the influence of a high school classmate (who was Southern Baptist). In college, he converted to Roman Catholicism and now identifies as an “evangelical Catholic.” Religiously and politically, Jindal speaks the language of evangelical Protestantism. In 2014, he gave the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, focusing on his conversion to Christianity but glossing over his move to the Catholic branch of the faith. At a Good Friday prayer breakfast in April this year, he eloquently captured a core premise of modern conservative Christianity in his statement: “I don’t know about you, but sometimes it feels like evangelical Christians are the only group that it’s okay to discriminate against in this society.” In May of this year, Jindal signed an executive “Marriage and Conscience Order” in response to Louisiana legislators’ refusal to pass a religious freedom bill similar to the recent Indiana law that sparked controversy for its potential to promote discrimination against members of the LGBT community. Jindal has also been an outspoken opponent of abortion and “radical Islam.”

George Pataki (announced on May 28): In a GOP field with a surprising number of Catholic candidates, some (like Jindal, Bush, Rubio, and Santorum) have foregrounded their faith and underscored their commonalities with other conservative Christians. Others (including Christie and Pataki) have chosen not to make religion a central feature of their campaigns. Pataki served as Governor of New York for nine years, from 1995 to 2006. He frequently highlights his service as governor during and after the September 11 attacks, and has said that “radical Islam” is one of the most pressing threats to American freedom. However, he has not made his opposition to radical Islam central to his campaign in the way that both Graham and Jindal have done. Instead, Pataki’s campaign announcement centers on an appeal overcome “those things which might seem superficially to divide us.” He has chastised the national GOP for focusing on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, which he sees as “a distraction” in federal politics. As governor, he signed an important 2002 gay-rights bill and more recently asserted his opposition to Indiana’s religious freedom law in light of its potential to authorize discrimination against gays and lesbians. Pataki’s record on reproductive issues is more mixed. He identifies as pro-choice, and signed a 2002 law requiring insurers to cover contraception regardless of religious objections. However, he also vetoed a 2005 bill that would have made emergency contraception available without a prescription, and he supported a measure requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions.

Rick Perry (announced on June 4): The former Texas governor (2000–2015) was raised as a Methodist, but now attends the nondenominational Lake Hills megachurch in Austin. In 2014, he publicly renewed his commitment to his faith with a baptism in Little Rock Creek, where Texas hero Sam Houston was baptized 160 years earlier. This easy mixture of religious and political symbolism is typical for Perry, who famously announced during his 2012 presidential campaign that he had “been called to the ministry,” while comparing his political career to a “big . . . pulpit.” Perry is also a staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage. As governor, he passed an omnibus abortion bill that included some of the most restrictive legislation in the country and that resulted in the closure of most of the state’s abortion clinics. His response to the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage neatly summarized his multivalent stance on this matter: as an issue of tradition, of states’ rights, and of government overreach.

Rick Santorum (announced on May 27): The former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania (1995–2006) is another Catholic candidate who fluently speaks the language of the religious right. He recently made headlines for criticizing Pope Francis’ stance on climate change, asserting that the pontiff should “leave science to the scientists.” His initial response to last month’s shooting in Charleston mirrored early Fox News coverage of the massacre, acknowledging it as a “crime of hate” but connecting it to “assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before” rather than to racial animus. (He later said that the shooting was “clearly racially motivated.”)The father of seven is strongest on “family values” issues, including his committed opposition to abortion and homosexuality. His 2003 statement that the “definition of marriage has never included man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be” prompted sex-columnist Dan Savage to “memorialize the scandal” by popularizing a new, sexually explicit definition of the word “santorum.” The former senator has also expressed broader concerns about threats to the institution of marriage, including not only the legalization of same-sex unions, but also declining marriage rates and a concern that “marriage is not about children anymore.”

Donald Trump (announced on June 16): Trump is Presbyterian, but religion has never been a conspicuous feature of his public persona. His most extensive commentary on his faith comes from an interview that aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2011, when Trump was considering a possible presidential run in the last election cycle. He emphasized his belief in God and asserted that “the Bible is certainly the book; it is the thing,” but he also made it clear that church attendance is not necessarily a top priority in his life, although he said that he goes to church as often as he can and always on Christmas and Easter. Not mentioned in the interview was his daughter Ivanka’s 2009 conversion to Judaism; he told the Jewish Voice this year that he feels “very honored” to have a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren. Trump has been an outspoken opponent of radical Islam, and this week criticized President Obama for being too “politically correct” on the subject. His campaign website largely focuses on his business accomplishments, but also asserts that Trump’s priorities include promoting “the Free Market, the importance of a strong family, a culture of Life, a strong military and our country’s sacred obligation to take care of our veterans and their families.”

Scott Walker (announced on July 13): Governor of Wisconsin since 2011, Walker made a national name for himself less than one year into his governorship, when the protests surrounding his Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill made national headlines. Walker is also socially (and religiously) conservative. He grew up as a pastor’s kid in the First Baptist Church of Plainfield, Iowa. He attended Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa, WI until 2003, when that church joined the LGBT-friendly Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Walker denied that he left Underwood for that reason, however, stating that his family wanted a church with a larger youth group for his two sons. He now attends the Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, which is nondenominational in affiliation but strongly evangelical in leaning, emphasizing Biblical inerrancy and the necessity of personal redemption. Walker has said that he would support a constitutional amendment to allow states to overturn the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage. He has also been a strong supporter of a Wisconsin bill that would ban abortion after 20-weeks’ gestation, with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. His campaign website centrally emphasizes personal freedom and small government: “In America we celebrate our independence from government, not our dependence on it.”

Emily Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate at Yale University, including a dissertation entitled “Authors, Activists, Apostles: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.” Her work focuses on gender, politics, and popular culture in recent American religious history.

*Image Credits: Christie (Official Portrait); Graham; (Official Portrait); Jindal (Gage Skidmore); Pataki (Michael Vadon); Perry (Gage Skidmore); Trump (Michael Vadon); Walker (Gage Skidmore).

On De-Reifying Traditional Boundaries: Christian vs. Greco-Roman

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Thomas J. Whitley

Last month I wrote about a group of early Christians that believed in the transmigration of souls (or, reincarnation). One of the factors that I suggested contributed to modern scholars not accepting the Carpocratians as Christians or transmigration as a “Christian” belief is the delineation between the categories “Greco-Roman” and “Christian.” Thus, when a person or a group looks less like the “orthodox” group that a scholar has set up as true Christianity, then they must be described in terms other than Christian. That is, a group that is found to accept transmigration must be removed from the “Christian” category and placed in another category, most often “Greco-Roman.”

Scholars have no problem admitting that many ancient Greco-Romans accepted transmigration, but often become much less accepting when one claims to be a Christian who accepts transmigration. In this case, they are moved out of the “Christian” category to the “Greco-Roman” category because they have “philosophized” or “Platonized” Christianity. In other words, they have perverted real Christianity by mixing it with Greco-Roman philosophy.

This tactic is not new with modern scholars, but is rather a continuation of the heresy/orthodoxy battles of late antique Christianity. The group that I study, for instance, the Carpocratians, are dismissed by other Christians as heretics for their belief in the transmigration of souls and are regularly connected with Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras pejoratively. Many modern scholars shirk their duty and belie their own acceptance of one form of Christianity as real when they uncritically accept the claims made about a group by that group’s opponents. Karen King laid out how modern scholars did this with the category “Gnostic” in her brilliant book What Is Gnosticism?. We as scholars of Christianity, though, should not stop our de-reification of categories and labels there, but rather should see where else we have blindly accepted the categories handed down to us.

Much work has been done to more accurately contextualize Jesus and his early followers within Second Temple Judaism and to not view them as completely and categorically different from their wider culture and the dominant social forces. But we as a field have been slow to do the same with late antique Christianity, allowing the division between “Christian” and “Greco-Roman” to remain unchallenged. When we examine the landscape without our preconceived notions of who and what counts as “Christian” and who and what counts as “Greco-Roman,” we see that ancient groups and individuals of many different stripes do not fit either category as they have been handed down neatly. Carpocrates is one such person, but so is Clement of Alexandria, a staunch opponent of Carpocrates who is deeply indebted to Plato and regularly praised philosophy, calling it “a gift granted to the Greeks by God” that served as a prefatory “guide to righteousness” (Stromateis;

We are not witnessing syncretism here, as earlier scholars have suggested. Rather, we are pushing against the very notion at the heart of syncretism by claiming that “Christianity” and “Greco-Roman” are not distinct, unrelated entities. For too long we have allowed those whom we study to determine the way we view the ancient world, accepting their classificatory schemes as truths as opposed to truth-claims. Yet, when we are able to divorce our work from the categories that have for so long guided the way we order the ancient world and simply examine the evidence as we have it, the dividing lines between many “Christians” and the world around them begins to fade.

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

*Image courtesy HUP.

Ministers Don’t Use Libraries, and Nobody Knows Why

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Meredith Ross

In 1970, Dwight A. Huseman contributed an article to Drexel Library Quarterly in which he argued for wider use of ministerial book allowances. He found that the Lutheran ministers he studied spent a great deal of money on books, and were often forced to choose between, Huseman evocatively claimed, “the book or the baby’s shoes.”

The image of the minister who lacks the means to access books is a well-worn one. Thomas Bray’s concern that young ministers sent to 17th-century Maryland would have nothing to read, after all, led to the establishment of some of the earliest libraries in the colonies. More intriguing than the noble, bookless minister, however, is Huseman’s finding that many of his subjects thoroughly rejected Bray’s solution: 26% reported using no libraries at all. [1]

This finding is not particularly shocking in and of itself. Huseman himself concluded that ministers in general made “reasonable use” of available library resources. A closer look at the data, however, reveals that Huseman’s work, like other early Information Studies research of ministers, does not account for what IS researchers call “work-role.” Huseman sought to determine ministers’ overall reading, book purchasing, and library-use habits. His approach assumes that the ministerial profession influences one’s information-seeking and use across all contexts – that if a minister expresses a particular information-seeking behavior when preparing a sermon, his information-seeking behavior will be similar when he has to, say, select the best pair of shoes for the baby.

But, of course, information-seeking is context-specific. We search for information differently depending on why we’re searching for it. Later studies accounted for work-role, and found that ministers searched for information differently in the context of their professional duties – their behavior differed, in fact, depending on whether a minister was wearing the hat of “preacher,” “administrator” or “councilor.” These studies bring Huseman’s data into focus. They consistently found that the “pastor-as-preacher” relies heavily on a limited number of formal information sources, often drawing from personal libraries and files.[2] Pastors in the early days of the internet behaved similarly, tending to stay within clearly-defined formal territory. They most frequently utilized the web-presence of their denomination, although a substantial number of those interviewed (30.1%) indicated that they did not use the internet in their pastoral capacity (a further 11.5% explained that they did not use the internet at all).[3] What ministers seeking information in their professional capacity generally do not do, researchers found, is go to a library.

In a 2010 study of ministers’ information use, all ten of the ministers interviewed indicated that they did not use libraries.[4] A 1974 survey intended specifically to aid in helping the Case Memorial Library of the Hartford Seminary Foundation better serve its patrons found that only 5.5% of respondents reported to using the library weekly, and that “the usage by others spread almost evenly among monthly, weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly, annually, and nil categories.”[5] Earlier studies that, like Huseman’s, do not account for work-role nevertheless indicate low library use. A 1961 article in Christianity Today found that of 100 ministers surveyed, only six reported regular library use[6]. A 1944 study – after bemoaning the number of Union Theological Seminary graduates who wasted their time on Readers’ Digest – found that most ministerial books were purchased rather than borrowed.[7]

This consistent finding across time and space is difficult to ignore. But anything one might extrapolate from such data is hamstrung by the lack of studies specifically targeting ministerial library use, and by a general lack of diversity in the studies that have already been conducted. The ministers focused upon are in many cases Southern and Midwestern, and almost exclusively protestant – sampling is limited to Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, members of the Church of Christ, two Roman Catholic Priests, and pastors of murkily defined “evangelical” communities.

So why do (many Protestant) ministers avoid the library? Could it be a lack of academic-theological materials in the collections of most public libraries? A lack of access to specialized religious libraries? A misperception of library resources on the pastors’ part? Or do ministers simply prefer the advantages of the personal library? Answers to these questions would help scholars better understand the information worlds of contemporary ministers, and how they choose and use information to create their religious worlds. Information matters. It must. Why else choose it over the baby’s shoes?

Meredith Ross is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, also from Florida State. Her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at or on Twitter @Memo_Ross.


[1] Dwight A. Huseman, “Books, Periodicals, and the Pastor,” Drexel Library Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1970): 26.

[2] Joshua D. Lambert, “The Information-Seeking Habits of Baptist Ministers,” Journal of Religious & Theological Information 9, no. 1–2 (June 30, 2010): 1–19; B. Porcella, “The Information Gathering Habits of the Protestant Ministers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” 1973; R.L. Phillips, “The Relationship Between Work Roles and Information Seeking Behaviors Among Selected Protestant Ministers in Tarrant County, Texas.” (University of North Texas., 1992).

[3] K.L. Smith and V.L. Smith, “The Impact of the Internet on Parish Ministry: A Survey and Annotated List of Web Resources,” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 4, no. 1 (2001): 9–24.

[4] Lambert, “The Information-Seeking Habits of Baptist Ministers.”

[5] Duncan Brockway, “Reading and Library Habits of Connecticut Pastors,” American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 28 (January 1, 1974): 125–27.

[6] “How Much Do Ministers Read?,” Christianity Today 5, no. 15 (1961): 647.

[7] H. Lancour, “The Reading Interests of the Graduates of the Union Theological Seminary,” Library Quarterly 14, no. 1 (1944): 28–35.

Image Credit

Purging Landscape in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Friday, June 19th, 2015

Brandon W. Hawk

Pope Francis yesterday released an encyclical letter addressing the environment, an event garnering quite a bit of discussion.[1] As others have noted, this encyclical is just one instance of the Catholic Church addressing environmental issues over the past few decades, but it marks a particular milestone.[2] Environmentalism as such may be a recent development, but Christian thinkers have long been interested in issues of space, place, and landscape. After all, the overarching narrative of the Bible is closely linked to issues of place and environment: the lost paradise of the Garden of Eden; the ecological catastrophe of the Flood; God’s promise to Abraham about the land his descendants would inherit; the Israelite conquest of the holy land—and this list of ideas linked to environment could go on. Early Christian and medieval writers also reflected on how their own lives related to the environments of this world.

One such author was the English monk Bede, whose many ideas about his own environment of England stand out in his Ecclesiastical History.[3] He begins with a geographic overview of England’s place in relation to the wider world: “Britain, once called Albion, is an island of the ocean and lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, Gaul, and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe, though at a considerable distance from them” (I.1). This is a historical convention of classical history (like Pliny and Caesar before him), but from the start it also establishes Bede’s interest in space and place—particularly the environment of the island of Britain.

Bede’s famous account of the conquest of Britain by the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes continues his interest in environment (I.15). After an invitation by the Britons to fight against the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons discovered how nice the island was and decided to take it over. Turning against their allies, they created a ruse to break their treaty with the Britons, threatening and then undertaking to “lay waste every part of the island.” All of this, Bede relates, was sanctioned by divine anger at the Britons for their sins: “To put it briefly, the fire kindled by the hands of the heathen executed the just vengeance of God on the nation for its crimes.” Bede alludes to divine anger in the Hebrew Bible to make his point: “It was not unlike that fire once kindled by the Chaldeans which consumed the walls and all the buildings of Jerusalem.” His more general historical trajectory points toward the inhabitants of Britain (now the Anglo-Saxons, soon to be Christianized) as typological descendants of the Israelites, inheritors of God’s promise of holy land and the role of the chosen people.

This narrative, it turns out, addresses not only the Anglo-Saxons as inheritors but also the land as subject. Indeed, throughout his Ecclesiastical History, Bede is concerned with spaces dedicated to God—including Britain generally as well as regions of land, churches, and monasteries more particularly. His account of the Anglo-Saxons scourging Britain includes a host of descriptions about effects on the environment, with the result that “the fire of their brutal conquerors should ravage all the neighboring cities and countryside from the east to the western sea, and burn on, with no one to hinder it, until it covered almost the whole face of the doomed island.” In this apocalyptic rhetoric, then, Bede establishes both the scathing of the old as well as the way it purges the land for the new inhabitants. In a sense, this account may be read as a microcosmic, typological foreshadowing of apocalyptic fires at Judgment Day: through retributive fire, Britain’s environment is reinstated to purity through purgation.

While they have largely shifted from Bede’s purposes, apocalyptic rhetorics concerning the environment similarly pervade our own television, film, and news media. While recent box-office films like Noah (2014) tap into longstanding Judeo-Christian anxieties, not all of our depictions are aquatic; post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) imagines a world much more suggestive of flames. The purge found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History may be read ultimately as positive in his overarching narrative, but it is a stark reminder of how environment has mattered to Christian thinkers considering the need to live in the world under our feet.

Brandon W. Hawk is currently a Teaching Post-Doc and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; in fall 2015, he will start as Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Rhode Island College. His research interests encompass the afterlives of texts (particularly Christian works), including circulation, translations, adaptations, and re-presentations in various cultures and media. He may be contacted via email at brandonwhawk [at], or found on Twitter @b_hawk.


[1] Excitement is so high, in fact, that a version had previously been leaked (read about it at, but this is only a draft of the official letter.

[2] For just a few stories at Catholic and secular media sites, see; and

[3] For accessible edition and translation, see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1969; repr. with corrections 1991), cited by book and chapter.

Image: Jeffrey Bruno on Wikimedia Commons.


Early Christian Reincarnation

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

Some early Christians believed in reincarnation. At least this is part of what I am arguing in my dissertation. Scholars of antiquity and early Christianity don’t call it reincarnation, though. We call it metempsychosis, a transliteration of the Greek, or transmigration, for the dominant Greco- Roman understanding that a soul transmigrated from body to body.

This is a well established belief in Greco-Roman philosophy, being espoused by Pythagoras, Plato, and a multitude of others. Yet, for many people, the idea that a Christian would accept such a belief is not just historically inaccurate, but bordering on blasphemous. Some may point to Origen, who taught that the soul pre-existed the body and was accused of teaching transmigration, and his denouncement as a heretic by the early church to make the point that Christians did not believe in reincarnation and that Christians were unified on this point.

I am trying to make the point with which I started, though, mostly with the little-known group known as the Carpocratians as my main example. The Carpocratians (named such after their apparent founder Carpocrates) were consistently labeled heretics in antiquity. Multiple sources indicate that this group believed in the transmigration of souls from body to body until one experienced every experience in life and the soul could escape this world (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius all make such claims about the group, though not all of these sources are independent). Indeed, the Carpocratians’ acceptance of transmigration was one of the main reasons that many other early Christians counted them as heretics and not as true Christians.

Unfortunately, modern scholars followed suit and often reproduced what ancient authors like Irenaeus and Epiphanius wrote about their opponents, accepting it as the unbiased truth. If, however, at least some portion of what their opponents from antiquity say about them is true —I think this is the case and argue as much in my dissertation —then we have a group that identifies as Christian and that teaches the transmigration of souls. It is at this point that two main factors come together that have prevented both our modern acceptance of Carpocratians as Christians and our acceptance of the fact that some early Christians found transmigration to be fully compatible with their faith. First, we see the blind acceptance of what ancient authors wrote about the group, including that they were not Christian. This is then reproduced in encyclopedia articles and other scholarship. Second, we see an understanding of the categories “Christian” and “Greco-Roman” as mutually exclusive. Thus, the Carpocratians are dismissed by ancients and moderns as more like a philosophy than Christians, or they are said to have philosophized Christianity, making it less pure.

Yet, I think the Carpocratians show us that there was even more diversity in early Christianity than we have realized and they offer us further avenues of study. Just how did they reconcile transmigration with other early Christian doctrines, for instance? How have modern scholars contributed to a reification of a particular “orthodox Christianity”? How much can we actually know about these “heretical” groups whom we know only through their opponents’ writings?* With the Carpocratians, and the numerous others about whom we have very little information, we are given a window into the world of early Christianity that is dim, to be sure, but that, if we look carefully enough, still has much to teach us, not the least of which is a realization that for at least some in the ancient world reincarnation and Christianity were not incompatible.

*While this post is not intended to be a “plug” for my dissertation, I do address these questions and many more. My dissertation is an examination and reconstruction of Carpocratianism and its place in early and late antique Christianity that examines not only the ancient literature about the group but also the sporadic modern pieces and how these have shaped our understanding of the Carpocratians and similar groups. It is titled, “The Greatest Blasphemy: Sex, Souls, and the Carpocratian Heresy.”

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.