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The Costs and Benefits of Attendance: A Retrospective on the SBL/AAR San Diego Meeting (Part II)

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

By  Jenny Collins-Elliott and Tara Baldrick-Morrone

This concludes a two-part post by Tara and Jenny in which they reflect on the 2014 SBL/AAR meeting in San Diego. The first post in this series can be found here.

Leading up to 2014’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion there was a sustained conversation online regarding the function of this conference for those on the job market: graduate students, post-docs, and contingent and adjunct faculty. I myself am a graduate student, currently working on her dissertation, just shy of entering the job market. Thus, in the weeks before the meeting I paid keen attention to those sounding the call to reform—or end—what Michael J. Altman called the “$200 handshake.” Concerns over pay-to-play, lack of travel funding, and less-than-ideal job prospects are not unique to the field of Religious Studies, as critics in many other humanities departments have made clear. Thus, in light of the vibrant conversations that are being held in terms of how to make such large annual meetings (cost-)effective, I wanted to write about what the annual SBL/AAR meeting can provide for a graduate student like myself, one who is writing her dissertation, building her resume, and preparing for the job market.

A respite from solitary work

Writing a dissertation can be an isolating experience, so the connections made at conferences like SBL/AAR can prove invaluable for breathing new life into one’s work done largely in solitude. The annual meeting is the natural place to meet colleagues working on similar subjects who can provide a fresh perspective on work that can become overly familiar and mundane in the process of writing every day. One of the challenges of graduate school and the process of professionalization is learning how to naturally and productively connect with others outside of one’s own program and department, those who could be potential colleagues and research partners. Smaller conferences, such as the North American Patristics Society annual meeting, are ideal for high visibility within a more specialized community. The large annual meeting, however, often serves as the main hub, a place to reconnect with those whom were met at the smattering of smaller regional and national conferences that occur throughout the year. This year I was able to more fully take advantage of this aspect of the meeting. My time in San Diego was spent, in part, working with a group of young scholars with whom I am presenting as part of a workshop for the International Conference on Patristics Studies later this year (1). Since the five of us are at different universities, SBL/AAR was a chance to talk in person and really make some progress on our collective work. At this point in my career, the meeting has become a place to be re-energized by the work of others and by the new connections I’ve been able to make and sustain at previous conferences.

Finding the “conference within the conference”

The size of the SBL/AAR annual meeting can be overwhelming. As such, it can be easy to lose sight of why exactly one bothers to attend at all, especially when there’s always more that could be done than is physically and mentally possible (I didn’t even get a chance to look for any of the hidden zoo animal plush toys). This year I decided to focus on finding papers and panels most relevant to my dissertation work. As Tara discussed before, her agenda looked quite different from my own because she was focused on discussions of pedagogy. While I had a plan each day about what papers were “must-sees” (I could go on about how my meeting app agenda kept getting erased, but I will refrain), I was using Twitter to hear about other panels and the conversation they were generating while still in session. Following the meeting hashtag, I found myself in a packed room watching Bart Ehrman, Dale Martin, and Craig Evans, among others, have a spirited debate about Dr. Ehrman’s newest book. While this wasn’t a session that I had put on my “must-see” schedule, I did stop by because of the big-tent issues and humorous conversations the panel was generating on Twitter. This was my first time using Twitter in this way at the annual meeting, and I found that it actually kept me more engaged during panels rather than serving as a distraction. Twitter gave me the ability to watch a parallel conversation unfold even before a paper was finished being delivered. Thus, the increased integration of media tools like Twitter helped me to find the “conference within the conference.” People with whom I share digital ties could help to point me in interesting and useful directions, thus leading me to maximize my time spent in panels, absorbing new information related to my research and learning about the state of the field. And now that the conference has finished, I have a digital record of quotes that piqued my interest and connections with more people than I could ever hope to meet personally in such a short period of time. In this way, I have felt more integrated into the broader academic community during and after the annual meeting.

While my primary agenda this year was to focus on dissertation-related papers and panels, I also ended up attending panels related to life in academia, such as the panel on scholarship and social activism, thanks in large part to the conversations surrounding equity in academia leading up to the meeting. These conversations haven’t stopped, and reflection on the conference has yielded many useful articles assessing what has and hasn’t changed in our professional groups and in our annual meeting. That we’re still talking about our annual meeting, for better and for worse, is, I believe, a sign of health as we move forward more aware of what these meetings can accomplish as well as what goals we must still strive toward.

(1) Abstracts for this conference will be published at the end of January on their blog, “Oxford Patristics: The Conference Blog.”

Continue the discussion with Jenny Collins-Elliott here, and Tara Baldrick-Morrone here.


The Costs and Benefits of Attendance: A Retrospective on the SBL/AAR San Diego Meeting (Part I)

Monday, January 26th, 2015

By Tara Baldrick-Morrone and Jenny Collins-Elliott

This begins a two-part post by Tara and Jenny in which they reflect on the 2014 SBL/AAR meeting in San Diego. Look for the second post in this series on Wednesday.

Mining for data

When Jenny and I first started talking about writing this post together, I initially wondered if I would have enough to say, especially given the fact that the meeting was two months ago. But this year’s Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Diego left me with a lot to consider, especially in terms of teaching. There was, of course, the pedagogy workshop that I ran as part of the North American Association for the Study of Religion’s meeting, but I also found ideas to use not only in my own research, but that I could also extend to my classroom. One session that stands out to me, even now, was a Saturday morning panel that was also a part of NAASR’s meeting schedule. The panel, which was organized by Erin Roberts (who also gave a paper on the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida), was titled “Strategies of Mythmaking at Christian Tourist Attractions,” taking Bruce Lincoln’s idea that “myth is ideology in narrative form” as its starting point. Each of the five papers addressed a site that, in the words of the panel’s proposal, “enable[s] visitors to interact directly within mythic configurations.” As each scholar argued, “this direct interaction functions as a type of pilgrimage, whereby visitors locate themselves within a mythic trajectory.”

As my previous post about Gregory of Nyssa’s complicated views on Cappadocian pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem indicates, one of my areas of interest within late antique Christianity centers on pilgrimage, specifically reading it in terms of social, political, and economic factors or, as I mentioned before, using Lincoln’s language, “the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions.” From actual theme parks that focused on rebuilding the ark of Noah and experiencing the creation of the Earth as it is described in the book of Genesis (there’s even a zip line!), to an actual “pilgrimage” to Israel and an “anachronistic” walk through the Bible (one of the more interesting examples of how the creators of these attractions and those who visit them “locate themselves within a mythic trajectory”), these papers showed how these sites play an active role in the constant making and remaking of mythic Christian narratives, ones that perhaps place a new emphasis on pilgrimage to “holy sites,” even those in the United States. This has led me to think about the economic and sociopolitical motivations for such a place as, say, the Holy Land Experience (e.g., it’s significantly cheaper than traveling to the “real place,” issues of one being safer in Orlando than in Israel might also arise, etc.), but these are things that I think Erin’s paper acknowledged, and that I could explore more fully in a future post.

Application and analysis

With a toolbox of ways to read these sites, I realized that I could use them as engaging, relevant examples (since a few of these places have been in the news in the past few years) when I discuss the ways that the language of legitimation and claims of authenticity mean to authorize and grant superiority to a particular group (and, in this case, a place) in my introductory course. One such claim of authenticity comes from the Holy Land Experience’s mission statement on their website: “Likewise, HLE displays and exhibits one of the world’s largest private collections of authentic, ancient artifacts, manuscripts, Bibles and other archeological archives.” In just a few weeks, when my students read chapters from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion that focus on concepts of authority, legitimation, and authenticity, I will present them with claims such as the one above so that they can learn to recognize and understand the kind of work such a statement “does”; in other words, that the claims of  authenticity and antiquity in relation to these artifacts and manuscripts serve Trinity Broadcasting Network in a number of ways, such as legitimating its very existence. For though we all might know that Orlando is not Jerusalem, the claim, I think, works to reduce that distinction. This notion brings me full circle to Gregory, for just as he said that “it is just as easy to reach the portals of Heaven from Cappadocia as from Jerusalem,” so might we say the same in terms of Orlando?

This panel, as well as others that I participated in, presented me with a wealth of data to use this semester, which is what I was hoping the outcome of the meeting would be. Before I get too far afield, though, and appear as if I am looking at the meeting through rose-colored glasses, I am all too aware of the very real concerns that emerge for people like me (i.e., graduate students) who attend such events. While it’s true that they allow those of us who are low on the academic totem pole to meet and engage with area scholars, fellow graduates, adjuncts, and other contingent faculty, as Jenny will go on to say in her references to Michael Altman’s and Kelly Baker’s important and urgent critiques about how the annual meeting operates (especially in consideration of the last three groups mentioned above), there are numerous, lingering economic issues that can no longer afford to be ignored.

Continue the discussion with Jenny Collins-Elliott here, and Tara Baldrick-Morrone here.

The Day the Navy Saved Christianity

Monday, January 19th, 2015

by James Hinton

In 1571 The Christian nations lining the Mediterranean and in Eastern Europe were at a very dangerous point. The Ottoman Empire had been comfortably expanding its way from Asia Minor into Europe and conquering the coastal regions of the Mediterranean. Suleiman the Magnificent had conquered modern day Serbia and Hungary, and in the Med had taken Rhodes. Combined with Turkish control of nearly the entire southern coast of the Med the Empire dominated the sea and thrust into Europe on repeated raids.

In the spring and summer of 1571 two key events had demonstrated the power of the Turks as a force arrayed against Christian Europe. The first was the May sack and burning of Moscow by an army of Crimeans and Turks. The other was the eleven month long siege of Famagusta, the last holdout of Christian Vienna against the Islamic Ottoman Empire on Cyprus. Moscow proved the Ottomans could go nearly anywhere in Europe they wanted, while the fall of Cyprus showed their ability to land large bodies of troops anywhere in the Med.

Desperate for help, Vienna reached out for allies to help against the Ottomans. They found one in Pope Pius V. Pius V was greatly concerned about the state of the Church, with a significant amount of his time spent resisting the growing Protestant movement. Part of his efforts in this had included creating reformations from within the Catholic Church while getting rid of many of the more corrupt elements in the clergy that exposed doctrine to criticism.

When Vienna came to him asking for aid in repelling the Ottomans he immediately exercised his influence in order to create the Holy League as a force to fight against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean. Several states that had previously declined requests to help, particularly Spain, allied together to provide a force sufficient to resist the non-Christian threat.

By September 16th a fleet of more than 200 ships and 68,500 men had been assembled in Sicily under the command of John of Austria. Unaware that Famagusta had fallen on August 1st, the fleet set sail to raise the siege. Reaching Corfu in Greece they learned of the end of the siege.

Their initial purpose no longer relevant, John chose to go hunting the Ottoman fleet. To some this seemed a risky decision. The Ottoman’s fleet was significantly larger in terms of ships, though the individual vessels were smaller in size on average. The Holy League’s galleys had twice as many guns, but this advantage was not nearly as significant as it might seem on paper. These weapons were slow firing and short ranged, allowing thousands of rapid firing Ottoman archers to come to bear, picking off sailors and gunners alike. Most tellingly, the Ottoman fleet had been the dominant force for 40 years and had built up vast experience in galley combat in comparison to the navies of the League.

The League ran into the Ottoman fleet near the Ottoman’s Greek port of Lepanto. The largest and most powerful ships in the League’s fleet had been positioned well ahead of the main force to destroy any small, fast vessels that might attempt to dart in to sabotage the League’s ships. Instead, the main Ottoman fleet mistook them for merchant vessels and attempted to capture them. The surprising firepower these few League ships poured into the Ottomans was a shock that completely disrupted the attack.

In spite of the initial disruption the Ottomans pressed the League hard for a while, particularly in the southern portions of the battle. However, the careful and timely intervention of John’s reserves, built around several large and powerful ships, smashed the center of the attack, splitting the Ottoman fleet into two forces that could be dealt with separately. By the end of the battle the Ottoman fleet had lost nearly 80% of its ships and half of its men. The League fleet, however, had lost only 20% of its number in what would be the largest oar-powered naval battle in history.

The defeat was a hammer blow to Ottoman ambitions in the Mediterranean and Europe. Though they were able to rebuild their lost fleet within a half a year, most of the sailors were as green as their ships. This force had sufficient power to retain Ottoman control over the Eastern Med (and most critically, Cyprus), but could not push Ottoman holdings any further against an encouraged and united League.

Though the Ottoman fleet would remain extensive for years to come, and the Empire remain in Europe until the end of the First World War, Ottoman expansion into Europe was over. The potential threat of a non-Christian conquest of Italy or retaking of Spain melted away in the waters off the Greek Archipelego. The Battle of Lepanto would end 200 years of Ottoman expansion into Europe and bring an end to the fear of further invasions for another three centuries. The Navy had saved Europe.

James Hinton (Boise State University) is a history buff who hangs his hat in Idaho. When not busy writing about his latest fascination he spends his time annoying his daughters with all the reasons “300: Rise of an Empire” does history a grave disservice.

The Imagined Atheist in the Early Republic

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Acorns small to large cropped
by Paul Putz

Last year I wrote about the imagined atheist in colonial America, and discussed the potential for looking at the ways that atheists were depicted in popular discourse. With this post, I’d like to move ahead chronologically and share four widespread popular depictions of the atheist in the early national United States.

First up, a poem titled “The Atheist and the Acorn.” The poem was first printed in the United States in 1760s, and it was routinely reprinted in almanacs and newspapers over the next few decades. In 1794, the poem was included in Joseph Dana’s A New American Selection of Lessons, in Reading and Speaking. In 1807, the poem received a new life when it was turned into prose and printed in a collection titled Select Fables of Esop and Other Fabulists. Here is the poem version:

Methinks the world seems oddly made,
And every thing amiss!
A dull complaining Atheist said,
As stretch’d he lay beneath the shade,
And instances in this;

Behold, quoth he, that mighty thing,
A pumpkin large and round,
Is held but by a little string,
Which upward cannot make it spring,
Or bear it from the ground:

While on this oak an Acorn small,
So disproportion’d grows,
That whosoe’er surveys this all,
This universal causal ball
Its ill contrivance knows!

My better judgment would have hung
The pumpkin on the tree;
And left the acorn slightly strung,
With things that on the surface sprung
And weak and feeble be.

No more the caviller could say,
No further faults decry,
For upward gazing as he lay,
An acorn, loosen’d from its spray,
Fell down upon his eye.

The wounded part with tears ran o’er,
As punish’d for the sin:
Fool! had that bough a pumpkin bore,
Thy whimsies must have work’d no more,
Nor skull have kept them in!

For a taste of the prose version, here’s how it begins: “It was the fool that said in his heart, ‘There is no God’: into the breast of a wise man such a thought could never have entered. One of those refined reasoners, commonly called Minute Philosophers, was sitting as his ease beneath the shade of a large oak, while at his side the weak branches of a [pumpkin] trailed upon the ground….” After the story was completed, the author took care to explain the moral: “He who disputes the existence of a Deity, will find himself confuted by every part of nature.”

A second popular anti-atheist tale involved David Hume, and was printed in a variety of American newspapers in the 1790s. According to the story, Hume was once traveling between two towns and had to trek over a swamp. He attempted to cross a bridge but it gave way and “our illustrious Philosopher found himself stuck in the mud.” At that moment an old woman, hearing his cries for help, ran to help him. But recognizing him, she refused to give him any aid. “Why, are you not Hume the atheist?” she cried. Hume responded: “Oh no! no! no! I am no atheist; indeed, you mistake good woman, you do indeed!”

The woman responded, “Let me hear then if you can say the belief.” At that point, the story went, “Hume accordingly began the words, I believe in God, &c. and finished them with so much propriety, that the old woman, convinced of his Christian education charitably afforded him that relief, which otherwise she would have thought it a duty of religion to deny.”

A third tale was titled “The Atheist and the Artificial Globe.” It was printed in numerous almanacs (and, I should note, T.J. Tomlin included this story for analysis in his wonderful new book A Divinity for All Persuasions: Almanacs and Early American Religious Life). According to the story, a famous astronomer was friends with a man who denied the existence of God. The astronomer decided to convince his friend “of his error upon his own principles.” Taking an expensive new globe, the astronomer placed it in a conspicuous corner of the room, and then invited his friend to visit. The friend immediately noticed the globe, and asked who made it. The astronomer replied that no one made it, that it “came here by mere chance.” After a brief back-and-forth the story ended happily, as the friend “was at first confounded, in the next place convinced, and ultimately joined in a cordial acknowledgement of the absurdity of denying the existence of God.”

The fourth and final story was printed in at least a dozen different American newspaper in 1808. As the story went, a “young girl about seven or eight years of age of pious cast, and uncommonly fond of attending church on the Sabbath, was asked by an Atheist, how large she supposed her God to be; to which with admirable readiness replied – ‘He is so great that the heaven of heaven cannot contain him, and yet so kind and condescending as to dwell in my little heart.’”

These caricatures of the atheist point towards some of the fundamental assumptions that eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century Americans held about atheism. As the Hume story revealed, atheists could not be trusted and would not stand by their principles when in danger; the atheist and the acorn story showed that atheists were both foolish and arrogant; the atheist and the artificial globe demonstrated that atheists were at odds with established sources of knowledge; the story of the atheist and the young girl pointed towards the emotional comfort and sentimental appeal of belief in God that atheists could not experience.

Of course, ideas about atheism were not uniform and there was some debate in the United States about atheism. But those debates rarely centered on the intellectual viability of atheism. Everyone from deists to Congregationalist preachers seemed to take the foolishness of “true atheism” (that is, the proposition that God did not exist) for granted, and there were no self-identified atheists to defend the label. Rather, debate centered on the social implication of avowed atheism. Would the legal acceptance of atheism lead to social chaos? What would happen if an atheist were allowed to serve as an elected official? Thomas Jefferson famously took the side that people should be free to profess their atheism if they felt so inclined. But arguing for the innocuous foolishness of atheism was a far cry from adopting the label oneself. And in the wake of the French Revolution and the politicized “infidel” controversies of the 1790s that Amanda Porterfield and Eric Schlereth have documented, arguing for the innocuousness of atheism was difficult enough on its own.

Atheism in America has come a long way since the eighteenth century, and yet, as a recent story in the Washington Postput it, “[a]theists are still the most mistrusted group in the U.S.” The more recent negative opinions of atheism are surely influenced by twentieth-century developments, like lingering Cold War animosity. But the roots of anti-atheist views in America go back much further and can be found not just in state constitutions that prohibited atheists from holding office or a common law tradition that deemed atheists unfit to be legal witnesses or to serve on juries: it can also be found within the pages of newspapers and almanacs, in the short stories and poems that helped to maintain the negative connotations associated with the atheist label even as the United States slowly moved towards the legal acceptance of avowed atheism in public life.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He can be found online at or you can follow him on twitter @p_emory.


#JesusIsCharlie: Of Typos and Identification

Monday, January 12th, 2015

By Thomas Whitley

Yes, that does say “Jesus is Charlie.” It is what the Wall Street Journal has, for some reason, termed a “typotag” (why was typo insufficient?). #JesusisCharlie is a misspelling of the viral hashtag #JesuisCharlie, which is French for, “I am Charlie.”It is an expression of sentiment and solidarity for those who were killed in the attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015. The mistake is easy enough to make, and most who have made it appear to remain completely unaware.

Others have commented on it, though. Most of these are attempts to be corrective. A few, though, have seized on the moment to make larger points of identification.

@igdstrachan: Intriguing #JeSuisCharlie has mutated to #JesusIsCharlie – he also got killed for criticizing religious hypocrites. History repeats itself?

@Mediterranean_Z: This hashtag #jesusischarlie can read as JeSuisCharlie or JESUS is Charlie. Let that one sink in. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can

@laurcaro: #JeSuisCharlie is not #jesusischarlie. Or is it? Religious fanatics murdered them and Jesus for their words and actions. Prayers for France.

We could analyze these and offer corrections of our own - Jesus was not killed for criticizing religious hypocrites and the Roman empire was not even close to being “religious fanatics.” Or we could talk about how this is just another example of Christians co-opting things that do not belong to them. What interests me, though, is the way that these tweeters push the idea that Jesus somehow identifies with those who were killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack - never mind the fact that Charlie Hebdo lampooned religion in general, and Christianity in particular, quite often.

Using the idea that Jesus identifies with a particular class of people because he experienced certain things in his life that are like what this class of people experiences is not new. Early last year, a statue of “Homeless Jesus” by Timothy Schmalz made the news when it was first installed in Davidson, NC. The description of “Homeless Jesus” on Schmalz’s website says that it was inspired by Matthew 25 and that it represents that “Christ is with the most marginalized in our society.”

“Homeless Jesus” by Timothy Schmalz

James Cone’s 1970 A Black Theology of Liberation spoke very clearly of a God who “identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience”(63).

Long before Schmalz and Cone spoke of Jesus or God identifying with a particular group of people, the author of the Gospel of John used the same tactic to comfort those who were being persecuted.

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. (John 15. 18-20)

While the author puts these words in the mouth of Jesus and directs them at Jesus’disciples, it is better to read them as words intended to comfort followers of Jesus toward the end of the 1st century. As John 9 shows, those in the Johannine community were in the midst of a struggle with “the Jews,”with those who confessed Jesus apparently being thrown out of the synagogue (John 9.22).

Connecting the real world experiences of a person or group with those of Jesus or God serves to infuse those experiences with meaning. It is a way to fit one’s circumstance (e.g., poverty) or the actions of another (e.g., oppression or the Charlie Hebdo attack) into a previously developed system. While #JesusisCharlie may have begun as a simple and amusing typo on Twitter, those who capitalized on it have jumped into a long stream of those who speak of Jesus not only as being with them but as being like them.

Thomas J. 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.

Images: Wikimedia Commons and Wikimedia Commons.


The New Pew Study: A Victory in the War on Christmas?

Friday, December 19th, 2014

by Emily Johnson

“The War on Christmas is Over,” reads the headline at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, “Jesus won.”

Reporter Christopher Ingraham is referring to a new study from the Pew Research Center, which asked 1,507 American adults about their religious and political beliefs surrounding the holiday, as well as their feelings about various Christmas activities.

Two sets of questions within the study are especially relevant to the rhetoric surrounding the War on Christmas: those asking respondents about their belief in various miraculous aspects of the Christian nativity story and those asking respondents whether nativity displays should be allowed on government property.

The study asked respondents whether they believe that four elements of the Christian nativity story are “events that actually occurred,” including: 1) that Jesus was literally born to a virgin, 2) that the “baby Jesus was laid in a manger,” 3) that “wise men, guided by a star, brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus,” and 4) that “an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds.”

A strong majority (between 73% and 81% of respondents) answered in the affirmative for each question, and a total of 65% said that they believe in all four elements that the survey mentioned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, positive responses were highest (between 94% and 96%) among those identifying as evangelical Protestants. What is more surprising is the rate of positive response among “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation. More than 1 in 5 (21%) of respondents in this group said that they believe in all four of these elements of the Christmas story, while 37% said that they believe in at least one element but not all of them. (Among almost all groups, the greatest number of respondents believe that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger. Among evangelical Protestants, the virgin birth and the angel’s announcement received slightly higher rates of affirmation than did the other two elements of the story).

The second component of the study that is particularly relevant here has to do with respondents’ support for Christian displays on government property.  A plurality of respondents (44%) said that they support the display of Christian symbols on government property “whether or not they are accompanied by symbols from other faiths.” Another 28% support these displays as long as they are accompanied with symbols of other faiths, while 20% say that Christian symbols should not be displayed on government property at all.

It’s worth noting here that the Pew survey question did not specifically reference Christmas displays, but rather asked: “Should Christian symbols be allowed on government property?” However, the question was asked in the context of a survey focusing on Christmas, after 23 other questions about Christmas had already been asked. It would be interesting to see how the same question would be answered outside of this context.

So, is the war on Christmas over? The majority of Americans believe in Jesus’ nativity as a literal historical event. An even stronger majority believe that Christian symbols should be allowed on government property, at least within the context of Christmas, as long as other religious symbols are also allowed.

But while these findings would seem to bode well for Bill O’Reilly and his fellow champions of Christmas, it is much too early to strike up the band or to roll out the ticker-tape parade.

Indeed, these data are much more likely to serve as ammunition in the ongoing battle than to signal its end. Those who worry about the War on Christmas have never doubted that a majority of Americans are Christians. Nor are they likely to be surprised that many “nones” also support the holiday. That is precisely the point. The rhetoric of the War on Christmas is not about whether the United States is a Christian nation. That is an idea that is taken for granted. Instead, believers in this war emphasize the persecution of an American majority (including, in this case, devout Christians as well as religiously ambivalent celebrators of Christmas) by a culturally powerful minority that includes militant atheists, misguided liberals, and the “political-correctness police.”

From this perspective, the recent Pew study does more to affirm the War on Christmas than to refute it. If the majority of Americans believe in the Christmas story and (at least conditionally) support Christmas displays on government property, then the ire raised by stories of elementary school “winter” parties, or pet store “holiday” displays, or atheist “X-mas” billboards may seem that much more justified.

The War on Christmas is likely to keep its place as a new American holiday tradition for years to come, because it so succinctly captures so many of the contradictions that sit at the heart of the ongoing culture wars. The United States is a Christian nation, demographically speaking, with just over 78% of adults claiming some Christian affiliation. But this is also a country that is at least nominally committed to pluralism and to a separation between church and state, however divergently defined and ambivalently implemented both of those concepts might be. These are tricky issues for any American to unravel, but they are especially resonant for conservative evangelical Christians whose faith calls on them to “courageously defend” a belief system that is both already widely accepted in this country and that is typically used as the standard model in state decisions about appropriate and inappropriate religious expressions.

Discussions about Christmas decorations and holiday nomenclature are easier to have than are direct conversations about national identity, pluralism, and privilege, but the War on Christmas is bursting with all of these things. As scholars of religion, we must not dismiss or ignore it, nor should we too quickly accept rumors of its demise.

Emily S. 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.

Five “First Books” of Note in 2014

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

by Paul Putz

‘Tis the season for arbitrary end of the year lists. In the spirit of the season, I’d like to recognize five of my favorite “first books”* (revised dissertations) published this year that cover the history of Christianity in the U.S. Due to the constraints of the arbitrary boundaries I’ve imposed upon myself and the limits of time (I can only read so much), I am undoubtedly leaving off numerous worthy books. Feel free to add to my list in the comments.

*technically, Matthew Bowman’s book listed below is not his first. However, it is his revised dissertation.

Shelby Balik, Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England’s Religious Geography


The Gist: Balik examined the ways that competing religious denominations organized space in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in the years between 1780 and 1830. She argued that there were essentially two competing religious geographies in play: the town-church system, represented by the Congregationalists, and the itinerant system, represented by Freewill Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists. In Balik’s view, the changes to northern New England’s religious landscape in the early nineteenth century were not determined by a new democratized theology, doctrinal disputes, or disestablishment. Rather, they were determined by the way denominations mapped out new religious communities.

More Context: I briefly discussed this book at the Religion in American History blog.

Kathryn Gin Lum, Damned Nation: Hell in America from Revolution to Reconstruction

The Gist: Subverting the notion that all Americans thought of themselves and their new nation as harbingers of progress (a “redeemer nation”), Gin Lum explored the prevalence and impact in America of the idea that one (or that someone else) might be damned rather than saved. From the Revolution to Reconstruction, Gin Lum argued, hell was a powerful force. Far from being marginalized by Enlightenment thought and the challenge from upstart denominations like the Universalists, the doctrine that some would be damned grew in power and importance in the new American republic. It provided urgency to evangelize and to reform both oneself and the nation, and it loomed large in debates over slavery and in missionary campaigns to “tame the savage.” While it also inspired a backlash in which some rejected the evangelical understanding of hell, the idea was not – and is not – going away.

More Context: Check out interviews at Religion Dispatches and The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Matthew Bowman, The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism

The Gist: Bowman used late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Protestantism in New York City as a lens through which to analyze the fracturing of American evangelicalism. He argued that liberal and fundamentalist forms of evangelicalism are best understood as responses to the crisis of the city (i.e. the loss of evangelical Protestant cultural authority). As evangelical Protestants sought to maintain the authority of the Word in their changing urban environment, they relied on the pulpit. But liberals and fundamentalists developed divergent ways of understanding how the Word was to be proclaimed in the city. Importantly, Bowman argued that evangelicalism should be seen as a religious style, a “set of behavioral expectations and methods of practice” rather than a “coherent theological proposition.”

More Context: I wrote a review of the book at the Religion in American History blog.

Lerone Martin, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion

The Gist: Martin set his story primarily in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when America’s leading record labels turned towards black performers to record “race records” and give the phonograph industry a spark. While black musicians and singers became celebrities as a result, Martin focused on the black ministers like James Gates who became just as popular, selling tens of thousands of sermons on wax. Martin not only brought the voices of forgotten black ministers to life, but he also contextualized them, placing them within the currents of cultural, commercial, and religious change in interwar America. Martin’s work speaks to numerous themes: urban migration, the commodification of religion, the transformation of African American religious authority, and racial politics, to name a few.

More Context: This book was just released about a month ago, so I haven’t seen any interviews or reviews yet. However, at NPR’s First Listen they are currently streaming a newly remastered collection of black gospel tracks from 1926-1936. Included among the tracks are some by the “preachers on wax” who Martin featured in his book, including J.M. Gates.

Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

The Gist: Gasaway traced the development of a progressive evangelical public theology as it emerged from the 1960s until today. He organized his study thematically, demonstrating how the theology of community articulated by progressive evangelicals (represented by Sojourners, ESA, and The Other Side) was applied to and transformed by issues like racism, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, economic injustice, and militarism. By organizing his chapters thematically, Gasaway was able to demonstrate how progressive evangelicals’ theological ideas and articulations on specific issues were shaped over time by their American political and cultural context.

More Context: David Swartz had a two-part interview with Gasaway at the Anxious Bench blog.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He can be found online at or you can follow him on twitter p_emory.


Emmanuel Goldstein, Simon Magus, and Early Christian Propaganda

Monday, December 8th, 2014

By Thomas Whitley

In George Orwell’s famously popular dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Emmanuel Goldstein is the former Inner Party member who strayed and started the revolution. Goldstein, the story goes, authored The Book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which every member of his group, The Brotherhood, was required to read. As I have been re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four I have been struck by the similarities between Emmanuel Goldstein and Simon Magus, especially as regards how Goldstein was used by the Party and how Simon was used by early Christian authors.

Simon Magus was, according to early Christian heresiologists, the quintessential arch-heretic. Irenaeus calls him the heretic “from whom all heresies got their start” (AH 1.23.2). The same claim is made of Goldstein:

He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. (14)

The Party employs the same genealogical technique that early Christian heresiologists used. All who have strayed from the Party find their origin in Goldstein and his teachings. Likewise, all who have strayed from the Truth find their origin in Simon and his teachings. The similarities do not end here, though.

Perhaps the most interesting bit about Goldstein and The Brotherhood in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the ambiguity surrounding their existence.

“Does the Brotherhood exist?”
“That, Winston, you will never know. If we choose to set you free when we have finished with you, and if you live to be ninety years old, still you will never learn whether the answer to that question is Yes or No. As long as you live, it will be an unsolved riddle in your mind.” (214)

The strong implication is that the Brotherhood does not exist, but is simply a creation by the Party to identify and trap would-be members of a resistance. O’Brien has trapped Winston in just this way. The Brotherhood is a tool of propaganda. It serves to unite the citizens of Oceania behind the Party and to establish clear boundaries for what counts as being inside and what counts as being outside.

Simon Magus is first mentioned in Acts as one who formerly practiced magic, comes to believe the message of Peter and John, and then attempts to buy the Holy Spirit from them. Acts suggests that Simon repented of his wickedness (Acts 8.9-24). The tradition that springs up around Simon, though, does not build on his actions after his repentance, but rather continues to associate him with magic and fornication. Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Epiphanius all offer highly augmented critical assessments of Simon. Their portrayals all seem to ignore the conclusion offered by Acts. Is Simon Magus, then, especially as he is used by post-New Testament Christian authors, an invention? This certainly seems to be the case.

The result and usefulness of this invention is the same as that of Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty- Four. Goldstein and Simon Magus are both tools of the propagandists. Simon is the enemy against whom all Christians can unite, no matter the particular heretic being addressed at any given moment. The numerous mentions of Simon in heresiological literature as the forbearer of all other heretics can be likened to the Two Minutes Hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both serve to regularly and repeatedly remind the audience whom it is that they should hate, and, by extension, whom they should support. The stakes are life and death in Nineteen Eighty-Four and they are one’s spiritual life and death in early Christian heresiological literature. Neither the propagandists in Nineteen Eighty-Four nor the early Christian authors who employ propaganda as regards Simon Magus and others are overly concerned with the veracity of their claims about their opponents, only that their claims serve their purposes and affect a particular outcome — namely, support and adherence to orthodoxy among their constituencies.

Thomas J. 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: Wikimedia Commons.

A School Calendar’s Reminder about U.S. Public Education and “Civilizing”

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Today’s post is from our newest contributor, Leslie Ribovich. Leslie is beginning a dissertation at Princeton on moral education in New York City public high schools after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed devotional exercises unconstitutional. Her research interests include religion and law, women’s religious history, race and religion, and the history of education.

by Leslie Ribovich

When the Montgomery County, Maryland Board of Education removed the names of religious holidays from their academic calendar last month, the story went viral. While commentators discussed whether the decision was equitable or equal, the Board’s decision also reflected a significant aspect of the history of public education: the United States and its public schools have privileged Christian, particularly Euro-Protestant, holidays and constructions of time—not to mention Euro-Protestant understandings of pedagogy and moral formation.

Although Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur will not be listed on the Montgomery County school calendar for 2015-16, school will be out on the dates of those religious holidays. The reason for the change? Muslim community leaders wanted the calendar to list Eid al-Adha, the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. For years they had requested that the county close school on one of two major Muslim holidays. Although the effort had not succeeded by the time the Board was deciding on the calendar for next year, Muslim community leaders encouraged the Board to list Eid al-Adha with equal billing to Yom Kippur since the two holidays will take place on the same date in 2015. In response, the Board decided it would not recognize any religious holidays on its calendar. News outlets quoted Board member Rebecca Smondrowski remarking: “‘This seems the most equitable option.’”[1]

Muslim community leaders have questioned the Board’s rationale, using the language of equality, not equity. For instance, the Washington Post quoted Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition: “‘By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality.”[2] The Muslim community leaders indicated that the Board’s decision to treat religions “equitably,” or technically the same and therefore fairly, did not match their request for equality. When Board member Smondrowski used the word “equitable” instead of “equal,” she acknowledged, deliberately or not, that the calendar change would not afford Muslims equality. In fact, Smondrowski implied that the conditions of the public school could not provide Muslims with equal rights, even as the Board said it did not want to disrespect Muslims. The most practical solution, according to the Board, was to continue with a calendar that privileged a Christian understanding of time.

An assumed Christianity, specifically an assumed Euro-Protestantism that by the 1950s was framed as “Judeo-Christianity,”[3] has historically undergirded public school calendars. Indeed, it has done more than that: an assumed Euro-Protestant pedagogy has aimed to “civilize” “uncivilized” populations through public education—a practice that identified the “uncivilized” as inferior because of disobedience of Christian laws, appearance, phenotype, country of origin, or religious practice. Although nineteenth century public education proponents were considered progressive in their time and claimed to provide education for everyone, public schools were never as inclusive as supporters maintained they were. For instance, common school creator Horace Mann hoped to “civilize” Catholic immigrants into Euro-Protestant norms in the nineteenth century, as Tracy Fessenden has described.[4] In this light, the Board’s decision demonstrated acceptance of the assumed Euro-Protestantism codified by the Federal government and school districts around the country. Yes, school has been closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah since the 1970s, but Jewish holidays were recognized because of high absenteeism, not because of substantial structural changes to the Euro-Protestantism framing of public education. Furthermore, rates of Muslim staff and student absences did not convince the Board to close school on Muslim holidays. [5]

Given that Muslims have frequently been targets of racial, religious, and ethnic bias in the United States, the Board’s decision invites further attention. Even if the calendar itself does not aim to teach particular Euro-Protestant values, it is helpful to remember the Euro-Protestant history of public schools as “civilizing” “uncivilized” populations when an assumed Christianity is reiterated in the public school context. From examples in my own research on the moral education of juvenile delinquents in special public schools in the 1950s, I suggest that the 2015-16 calendar decision participated in the history of U.S. public education as a “civilizing” process, with Euro-Protestant standards for what the civil looks like.

Indeed, providing Muslim students and families with equal rights in public schools would be far more difficult than even allowing them a holiday off. Even if Eid al-Adha became a school holiday, Muslim students might still have to miss school for Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. Furthermore, Jewish students who observe the Sabbath are not able to participate in Friday night arts or athletics events. Many religious calendars do not mirror the Gregorian, Christian calendar.

Repeating familiar arguments on religion and public life, supporters have claimed that the Federal law is on their side and opponents have said that the decision does not provide anyone equality, and even that the overwhelming inequality may unite religionists of different faiths.[6] Nevertheless, the public and media analysis in the last few weeks has taken for granted that the United States and its public schools run on a Christian calendar.[7] In particular, the calendar change demonstrates how deviations from a Euro-Protestant norm bring the norm into relief.[8]

In my research, I have recently been thinking about deviations from the generally Euro-Protestant norms of public education. I currently focus on students in the 1950s whom court or school authorities labeled “juvenile delinquents.” These students defied the Euro-Protestant norms of the public school by allegedly misbehaving or seeming emotionally, mentally, or physically unstable to authorities. Although the context is quite different from the recent events in Montgomery County, some approaches to preventing juvenile delinquency similarly drew on the idea that Euro-Protestantism was universal and therefore the assumed logic of the school day.

Throughout the country in the 1950s, many religious leaders, educators, and even students believed that religion could prevent delinquency. In addition to turning to religious institutions,[9] some educators thought schools could teach moral values derived from the country’s assumed Euro-Protestantism—at this time framed as its “Judeo-Christian heritage”—to prevent delinquency. One op-ed stated: “In a time when our national morals are at a record low, when our crime and juvenile delinquency rates have become objects of shuddering horror to the rest of the world, we need more moral and spiritual values in our schools, not fewer. And you just can’t duck the fact that there are no spiritual values without God.”[10]

Educators addressed delinquency in many ways, including through film. For instance, one New York University research project studied the impact of showing films to male students in the “600” schools, New York City (NYC) special public schools created “for children who are in conflict with themselves and at variance with and rejected by their homes, schools, and society…for such children with grave emotional and behavioral problems, for whom regular school procedures had been unsuccessful.”[11] “600” represented the name of the schools, for example, P.S. 612. Many students in “600” schools were students with disabilities, from “broken homes,” and likely from racial and ethnic minorities, immigrant families, poverty.

The researchers began by showing the Academy Award winning 1952 short antiwar film Neighbours, which told the story of two male neighbors, played by live action actors, whose fight over a flower turned into a bloody turf war that ended with both men killing each other.[12] Animated fence pickets that the characters had built to distinguish their territories reassembled on screen to form crosses over the men’s graves. Then the New Testament phrase “Love Thy Neighbor” appeared on the screen in many different languages, including languages in countries where Christianity was not the predominant religion, and, finally, in English. The assumption was that all cultures and religions shared the belief that everyone should love their neighbor; and therefore, they could practice that phrase and learn to stop fighting with each other.[13]

Underlying the film was the notion that in order to really get along, everyone around the world must live by the New Testament. And, by showing the film to the “600” schools student population, the researchers aimed to reform the “600” students into moral, “civilized” young adults in accord with the ideals of the New Testament. Neighbours displayed an implicit assumption that particular people did not love their neighbors—the particular people who spoke the languages on the screen. The film was supposed to remind the people who spoke those languages, and by extension the students in the classroom where it screened, that it was their duty as participants in American public (school) life to do so.

The “600” schools’ researchers addressed students they saw as defying Christian ideals through delinquency or disturbed behavior by implying that all cultures could understand the values behind “Love They Neighbor.” There was no attempt to show the equality of all the cultures by identifying significant values to each culture; rather, the presentation of the film’s moral was more equitable. Every language could translate and grow to live by the phrase. An assumed Euro-Protestantism aimed to “civilize” students out of their deviance.

Montgomery County in 2014 and NYC “600” schools in the 1950s differ. Different places, different decades, not to mention different kinds of public schools, contribute to different contexts. But the “Love They Neighbor” message in Neighbours serves as a reminder that the context for assuming that everyone shares certain values has historically been a vehicle for “civilizing” non-rule abiding, non-Euro-Protestant populations in U.S. public schools. I do not intend to critique any of the individuals involved in the Maryland situation but rather to suggest that the choices they have made are entangled in a public school system, legal understanding, and country that have privileged Euro-Protestant conceptions of behavior, morality, and time.

I use entangled as Courtney Bender and now Winnifred Fallers Sullivan do to talk about how spirituality is entangled in history, religious institutions, and “religious experience” as a sociological category, as well as in U.S. law, where a prominent legal test on whether an activity has violated the First Amendment presumes it is possible for statutes to avoid government entanglement with religion.[14]  With religion entangled in public schools in the Bender/Sullivan understanding, the questions surrounding the school calendar are not about whether the Board should have removed the names from the calendar. Instead, I have asked what the Board’s removal of holiday names illuminated about the historical conditions of the public school. I have suggested that it underscored public education’s project of “civilizing” non-Euro-Protestant, non-rule-abiding peoples and communities. The Muslim community leaders in Montgomery request equality within the terms of this historical project.

Leslie Ribovich is in the PhD program in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. 


[1] Valerie Strauss, “Why a Story about a School Calendar Went Viral,” The Washington Post, November 13, 2014,; Donna St. George, “Holidays’ Names Stricken from Next Year’s Montgomery Schools Calendar,” The Washington Post, November 11, 2014,;  Donna St. George, “Muslim Leaders Seek Equal Billing with Jewish Holiday on Montgomery School Calendar,” May 18, 2014,; Andrea Noble, “To Appease Muslims, School District Drops Christian, Jewish Holidays from Calendar,” The Washington Times, November 11, 2014,

[2] St. George, “Holiday Names Stricken.”

[3] See: Kevin Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press)

[4] See: Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 66-67.

[5] Noble, “To Appease Muslims.”

[6] On supporters and opponents: “Montgomery Co. Schools Scrap Religious Names from Calendar,” The Baltimore Sun, November 12, 2014,; “School District’s Decision on Religious Holidays Outrages Community,” CBS News, November 14, 2014, On interfaith coalitions uniting in opposition to the same educational decisions, see: Kathleen Holscher, Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7]The influence of agricultural demands on early public schooldays also deserves attention—but that is a different story.

[8] Although the district does not hold school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the main cited reason is because of high level of absences—an argument born of the secular purpose test in the second half of the twentieth century that Christian holidays never had to live up to. Although school is closed on these two Jewish holidays, the rest of the school calendar, as the rest of the federal calendar, is still marked by Christian understandings of time.

[9] David W. Barry, “Religious Values as Aid to Juvenile Delinquents,” Letter to the New York Herald Tribune, July 12, 1955.

[10] Max Rafferty, “Spiritual Values Stem From God; Schools Need More, Not Less,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1965.

[11] Carol Cordes Smith, “The 600 Schools,” Education 80 (1959): 215-218, 215.

[12] Ibid.; Smith, “Using Films in Group Guidance With Emotionally Disturbed Socially Maladjusted Boys” Exceptional Children 24 (1958): 205-209, 206.

[13] Neighbours, Film, directed by Norman McLaren (1952; Montreal: National Film Board of Canada),

[14] Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 5-18, 182-83; Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 9-10. On the entanglement of race, religion, and citizenship: Judith Weisenfeld, “Post-Racial America? The Tangle of Race, Religion, and Citizenship,” Religion and Politics, October 24, 2012, The legal test is the Lemon test, derived from Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), a U.S. Supreme Court case on government aid to parochial schools. One prong of the three-part test is that a statute must not produce “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

* Image courtesy Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post.

Demonization and Racialization in British North America: Slave Revolts, Devilish Priests, and Infernal Landscapes

Monday, December 1st, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley 

(Although in my last post I proposed that I would use the next few posts to explore historical and historiographical trends related to the study of capitalism, I want to take a brief detour. I have adapted what follows from a paper I gave at the Florida State Department of Religion graduate symposium in 2014.)

The two things that British North Americans feared most in the colonial era were slave revolts and the Catholic Church. Within the colonial imaginary these two threats occasionally coalesced into one. The result was an infernal spectacle that forced colonial anxieties about the basic structures of colonial society to the surface. The soundness of the institution of slavery, emerging conceptions of the public, and the British Protestant beachhead in the overwhelmingly Catholic Americas all came into question.

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