Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
Kathryn Gin Lum’s review of John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel’s edited collection From Jeremiad to Jihad (in the June 2014 issue of Church History) offers a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of disciplinarity and genre in scholarship. Lum’s reaction to the book is similar to mine when I read it. It’s a somewhat cumbersome and disjointed book, and the tone and angle varies significantly from essay to essay. (As a side point, I should say that Lum’s review is a good model for how to review an edited collection, which is very difficult—especially when it has fifteen essays.) The book’s unevenness is valuable because it helps the reviewer and reader to focus on the organizing tropes of the book. What threads run throughout? One theme Lum highlights is what she calls the “moral undertones” of the volume. The essays, she writes, “are united in their refusal to essentialize religion as inherently violent and refusal to find violence in ‘every corner of American history and culture’…Despite the heavy subject, an undercurrent of hope pervades the volume as a whole…” It’s worth asking, about this book and about edited collections in general, if a volume’s “undercurrent” is a product of the likemindedness of individual authors or of their organization by the editors. How might the book be read differently, for instance, if the final five essays, on ethics, instead were the first five? Again, this is another peculiarity of the genre edited collection.
The book and Lum’s review call our attention to discipline and the potential and promise of interdisciplinary scholarship. For an interdisciplinary—or, perhaps, antidisciplinary—approach to be most effective, the theme or topic must be clearly and defensibly defined. Lum gestures toward this point in her review, though she does not address it head-on. She identifies an undercurrent that links the essays, but there is also a topic, and object of study. That object—data set, if you will—is religious violence in America. For all fifteen authors and the two editors to agree on the meaning of any one of these three words would be an unlikely feat. How, then, to organize a set of essays from multiple disciplines around a contested and malleable topic without it collapsing into a babble of confusion? One way would be to engage in an interrogation of the organizing categories themselves: religious, violence, America. And the volume, as Lum indicates, does this to some degree. Another way would be to define very clearly what each author means by these terms, which most essays do not do explicitly. We can be more specific here. Is “religious violence in America” a sufficient trope around which to organize essays written by historians, ethicists, political scientists More bluntly, what do reflections on religious responses to the Virginia Tech shooting, a historical examination of uses of the trope of the Amalekite, and a debate about the justness of war have to do with each other? That’s a lot of work for such a short unclear phrase, “religious violence in America,” to do. As Lum writes, the essays do share undertones. A mood, a disposition. Is that enough to organize a body of scholarship?
Charles McCrary is a Ph.D. Student in American Religious History at Florida State University. You can find him on Twitter.