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The Buffered Self and Movie Buffs

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Jeffrey Wheatley

The Academy Awards took place this past Sunday, so I thought a post on movie-going would be appropriate. Plenty of religious studies and American religious history books have engaged religion and cinema in one way or another (Judith Weisenfeld’s stellar Hollywood Be Thy Name comes to mind), but, despite a once tepid response to what I thought would be a compelling lecture (I now know better), I want to use movie-going in this post to take a tour through some of my side research interests and to think rather suggestively about the metaphysics of secularism, about the theoretical and methodological openings and foreclosures implicated in recent work on secularism, and about Frank O’Hara.

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues that one of the central transformations of the past five-hundred years is a shift from the porous self to the buffered self. The porous self is open to transcendent external forces like demons, spirits, and witches. In our contemporary secular age, we have buffered selves, meaning that we are largely autonomous agents resistant to external forces. Movie-going, Taylor argues here and elsewhere, is an example of our disenchanted age’s nostalgia for enchantment:

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.[1]

Here Taylor is really talking about the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, in which non-physical, yet physically felt and affective, forces flow through the characters. But we might do better to think about the metaphysics of the movie-going experience rather than the stories. These genres, after all, have precedent in other mediums, but it is the film industry’s emphasis on medium itself that signals the particular cultural niche of movie-going in the United States and abroad. Movies have stories, characters, and tropes, but Hollywood presents itself as a particular type of enchanter. The industry runs on the promises and dazzlers of technological innovation, the visitations of the celebrities, and the theater’s experiential aspects.

On the one hand, we certainly can analyze “enchantment” as but one claim of Hollywood myth-making—and how could we be surprised? For instance, take the idea that early film audiences were terrorized by trains rushing toward the screen. Late nineteenth-century audiences losing it might be a compelling testament to the affective power of cinema in a theater, but, as at least one scholar has argued, the terrorized crowd is likely a myth developed decades later by journalists and the film industry.[2]

On the other hand, recent works that explore the metaphysics of secularism have opened up avenues of inquiry that take enchantment (or, to be more specific, the porous self) as an assumption rather than an exception relegated to the past. They do so while largely resisting, or at least sidelining, secularization narratives that proclaim the decline of religion. Consider John Modern’s exemplary Secularism in Antebellum America, which explores the flashes of nineteenth-century Americans’ recognition of the intimacies between the self and the world, especially as selves are made through and by machines. That is, Modern traces the ways in which the mutually reinforcing relationship between expanding and densifying technological networks and the individual will (Taylor’s buffered self) became evident and necessary to his historical actors.

From this perspective, movie-going—far from a backwards-pointing sign post in a disenchanted age—can be taken as efficacious enchantment, albeit of a very different sort than what Taylor meant. This is an enchantment openly reliant on technology’s capacity to present and distribute affective simulacrum. Accordingly, we have never been modern in the sense Taylor describes, but perhaps we have been un-modern (that is, desiring enchantment and enchantable in ways that defy our supposedly buffered selves) in different ways.

Allow me to provide one rather dramatic example by way of mid-twentieth-century American poet (New York poet, in truth) Frank O’Hara, whose poetry is full of ruminations on his Catholic childhood and his ecstatic devotion to movie-going. His love poem “To a Film Industry in Crisis” provides one useful example. The second stanza begins: “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love, / And give credit where it’s due . . . ” He does not give credit to his starched nurse, nor to the American Legion, nor to the Catholic Church, which is “at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment,” but “to you

glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope,

stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all

your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!

His paean begins with the technologies of the film industry. O’Hara goes on to also give credit to a number of actresses and actors; the last stanza addresses the celebrities and the technologies:

Long may you illumine space with your marvellous appearances, delays

and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you

as you rest after a long day under the kleig lights with your faces

in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night

but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent

you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

Far from a nostalgia for a pre-secular enchantment that can be merely approximated through the genres of cinema, O’Hara seeks to affirm through his poetry his enchantment with the medium (and its characters who illumine the space of the theater). In “Ave Maria,” he makes the theater a key site where work is done on the soul (not vice versa!):

Mothers of America

let your kids go to the movies!

get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to

it’s true that fresh air is good for the body

but what about the soul

that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images

That O’Hara, who was a self-described atheist but a Catholic when he was younger, sets up movie-going as a sort of substitute Catholicism seems clear by his vocabulary, which plays on associations with Catholic saintly visitations, especially in “To a Film Industry in Crisis.” O’Hara is flippant about Catholicism, but the persistent citations of Catholicism in his work, even if they are rather derogatory, might point us to a particular genealogy of enchantment that cannot be adequately captured by reference to a singular “secular age.”

In American Catholic Arts and Fictions Paul Giles makes the intriguing argument that many American Catholic artists, including O’Hara, display an aesthetics (often secularized) of Catholic culture through their work. Sketching the contours of a Catholic aesthetic in contrast to a Protestant/Enlightenment aesthetic that literary scholars have presumed to dominate American media, Giles emphasizes characteristics such as parody, ambivalence, the sacralization of the immanent, an analogical view of the world, and a greater openness to the passivity of the human—something akin to Taylor’s porous self. This aesthetic persists, Giles claims, even if the artists reject identifying with Catholicism.

For those interested in exploring secularism through this rather open framework, this might introduce a number of questions. If Modern’s work describes evangelical secularism, might we say that O’Hara’s poetic bonds between Catholicism and movie-going disclose a Catholic secularism? Is this type of categorization useful in the first place? And if so how might such a claim disrupt the persistent salience of a narrative of secularization conceptually and/or historically tied to Protestantism? Have we become too comfortable gesturing towards an amorphous Protestantism undergirding “secularism”? Derridean hauntology and projects that rely on the language of epistemics make these types of questions difficult to answer. But one of the things I find compelling about these approaches is that they open up the options of conceptual and organizational tropes available to the scholar. Very particular examples, such as movie-going as a cultural artifact, the Zong massacre,[3] the novel Moby-Dick (as in Modern’s case), or fitness trainer Shaun T (great for language play on the “buffered self”), for better or worse, can do a lot of work, they can capture quite a bit, which makes for (in instances not this blog post) compelling and provocative reads. The difficulty of discerning the temporal or spatial boundaries of epistemics—a discernment I desire in my more historical moods—seems to me both a constraint and an opportunity.

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.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 38.

[2] Martin Loiperdinger, “Lumière’s ‘Arrival of the Train’: Cinema’s Founding Myth,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 4, no. 1 (April 1, 2004): 89–118.

[3] In a work both incredibly tragic in its content and astonishing in its presentation, Ian Baucom, in order to explore the epistemes undergirding finance capital, emblematizes the slave-ship Zong and the massacre of Africans as the crew threw them overboard to collect insurance. See Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2005).

Image by Fernando de Sousa from Melbourne, Australia (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Heresiology As a Zero Sum Game

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

Marcus Borg’s recent death has spurred many to speak out about his contributions to scholarship and to Christianity. Many celebrated Borg; some celebrated his passing. One reflection that caught my attention, though, was by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In speaking of Borg’s “progressive Christianity,”Mohler says that “when you’re looking at liberal Christianity and biblical Christianity, you’re not looking at two variants of one religion, but two very different religions.” Mohler’s understanding of “Christianity” does not—cannot—include Borg’s understanding of “Christianity.”

Al Mohler

Reading these comments from Mohler reminded me of a paper I’ve been working on for an upcoming presentation on the use of authority and authority claims in ancient heresiology. In it I suggest that while the heresy/orthodoxy dichotomy does not actually function as a zero sum game, it is approached as such by its participants. Bruce Lincoln has shown that one’s authority can corrode by a multitude of means. “[G]ossip, rumor, jokes, invective; curses, catcalls, nicknames, taunts; caricatures, graffiti, lampoon, satire; sarcasm, mockery, rude noises, [and] obscene gestures” are all sorts of speech that eat away at authority.”[i] The group that I study —the Carpocratians —are called “heretics,” rumors are spread about their sexual improprieties, and they are often mocked (Clement of Alexandria speaks of the “high-born Carpocratians”). Clement certainly hoped that as Carpocrates’authority eroded, his own authority and that of his “orthodoxy” would be built up. This is not necessarily the case, though. Rick Perry’s famous “oops” moment where he could not name the third agency that he would dissolve were he president during a November 2011 Republican Presidential Primary Debate was quite successful in corroding his authority but it did not necessarily increase the authority of any of the other Republican hopefuls.

That this is the case, though, does not mean that the Carpocratians, Clement of Alexandria, and others viewed it this way. In fact, I think that it was perceived as a zero sum game by the players. Indeed, Al Mohler works tirelessly to wrench authority from “heretical”groups and give it to the “orthodox.” As he said of Borg, he may not have been an atheist, “but he was also in no sense an orthodox Christian.” Clement needs for Carpocrates and the hordes of other “heretics” to be delegitimated so that his project can be successful. Many are adamant about who can and cannot be called “Muslims” as the recent popularity of the hashtag #ISIS_are_NOT_Muslims shows.

If Pierre Bourdieu is right that “the fate of groups is bound up with the words that designate them,” then we can see this struggle over who should bear certain labels —“heretic,”“orthodox Christian,”“Muslim,”“killer”— as a struggle for a group’s very existence.[ii] The juxtaposition of “heresy” and “orthodoxy” as binary oppositions means that for those engaged in this authority struggle, their social hierarchy can only be “recoded,” to use Bruce Lincoln’s term, in a way they see fit by the expansion of their own authority as a direct result of the diminution of their opponent’s. In other words, “orthodoxy” only wins if “heresy” loses.

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.

[i] Bruce Lincoln, Authority: Construction and Corrosion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 78.

[ii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 481.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

CFP: “Return To Sender: American Evangelical Missions in Europe”

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Call for Papers

Return to Sender: American Evangelical Missions in Europe, 1830-2010

Roosevelt Study Center, Middelburg, July 15-16, 2015

In 1830 American agencies sent out the first missionaries to continental Europe to establish new churches. This act signaled the beginning of a reverse movement of missionary activities. After two centuries of European efforts to take care of the souls of North America peoples, missionaries in North Americans began to return out of concern for Europe. These trips inaugurated the first stage of reverse mission in the modern era. Studies such as Ian Tyrrell’s Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (2010), Mark Hutchinson and John Wolffe’s A Short History of Global Evangelicalism (2012), Brian Stanley’s, The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott (2013), revealed the growing global network of Anglo-American evangelicalism. These books are more interested in the impressive list of engagements in the “global south” than in Europe. However, despite the modest investment in Europe, this return movement signaled and previewed the eventual global and multidirectional missionary movement of evangelicals. The central question of this conference is how the experiences of American evangelical missionaries in Europe helped or failed to bridge the contrasts between the two continents.

This conference seeks to enrich existing scholarship by bringing together experts who examine the patterns of American evangelicals’ interaction with European audiences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, the organizers seek to examine the intentions, implementation, and implications of American evangelical missions in the Old World. The organizers invite interdisciplinary, long-term and comparative contributions rather than strictly organizational histories of individual mission posts or agencies, The goal is to reveal the similarities and variety in evangelical missionary patterns in Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or mixed countries in Europe. Ranging from Ireland to Russia, Iceland to Sicily, these studies should help to identify the impact of levels of economic development, ethnic make-up, political order, social conventions, gender relations, etc. in the structure of transatlantic religious exchange.

Individual papers might address the following questions:


Why and when did evangelical churches and organizations identify Europe as a mission field? How did they perceive subdivisions in Europe? What did they hope to achieve? How stable and enduring (or adaptive) were their programs in the context of a changing international environment? What was the impact of military campaigns and peace operations and other political realities on the missionary enterprise? What and when did they consider the best windows of opportunities? Which competition and which support did the missionaries expect from “colleagues” or in the receiving nations? Did American church and free mission agencies differ in their approach to Europe? How did the missionary intention change over time?


How important were transnational contacts, such as immigrant connections, official denominational structures for the missionaries in Europe? How did the missionaries involve, circumvent, or challenge civic and ecclesiastical authorities at home and abroad? Which instruments did the missionaries favor: proclamation, humanitarian assistance, education? How did political, technological, and communicational developments shape and change the patterns of outreach? How did the confrontation with European Christendom and ideologies such as fascism, communism, existentialism, color the American missionary approach? Has the European scene attracted pre-selected groups, with less racial and ethnic diversity than in other receiving areas? How did mission projects in European countries intersect with similar projects in the European colonies? Did the transfer of leadership of the mission to the receiving cultures (indigenization) resemble similar processes in other parts of the world?


What did the presence of American evangelical missionaries change in the religious relations and proportions in the target areas? How did Americans understand conversion and how did European subcultures respond to that call? Did they increase pluralism or weaken the traditional religious institutions? How did they benefit or suffer from political pressures? Why did some missions succeed and others fail? How close did the recipients identify evangelicals with the broader expansion of American power in the world? Was this a positive or a negative force? Did the incorporation of Europe in the international evangelical network lead to a transfer of American concerns in Europe, such as gender relations, biblical inerrancy, charismatic religion, abortion, intelligent design, prophecy? How did returning American missionaries shape their home churches, communities, programs, and policies in their perception of Europe? Did the European experiences affect evangelical discussions and enterprises at home? Did European evangelicals as a result of these activities gain a hearing in North America?

Proposals (300 words) outlining topic, methodology, argument and significance, plus short CV, should be submitted to Dr. Hans Krabbendam at and prof. dr. Stefan Paas at by March 16, 2015. Three-person panel proposals (1000 words) are also welcome.

The conference is organized by the Roosevelt Study Center, Middelburg, and the Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands in cooperation with the Centre for Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies, University of Southampton, the David Bruce Centre for American Studies, Keele University, the Institute of North American Studies, King’s College London. The steering committee comprises Dr. Kendrick Oliver (Southampton), Professor Axel Schäfer (Keele), Dr. Hans Krabbendam (RSC) and Dr. Uta Balbier (KCL). The conference organizers are Hans Krabbendam and Stefan Paas.

American Views of Cuba during the Spanish-American War

Friday, January 30th, 2015

Image from America’s War for Humanity Related in Story and Picture, Embracing a Complete History of Cuba’s Struggle for Liberty, and the Glorious Heroism of America’s Soldiers and Sailors . (New York: N.D. Thompson Publishing Company, 1898), 253.

by Jeffrey Wheatley

For the first time in decades radical changes in US-Cuban relations are a distinct possibility; this past week the United States began to lift a few of the long-standing restrictions. As a number of historians have pointed out, the histories of US-Cuban relations provided in media coverage and popular American memory typically start the narrative around 1961, focusing on Cold War politics. Undeniably, Cold War politics have been central in defining the relationship for the past five decades, but such a narrative truncates a longer history, one that includes periods in which US-Cuban relations were defined not by a global battle between capitalist liberal democracy and Communism, but by earlier imperial contests that had discourses of race, religion, and development (simultaneously moral and economic) at the center.

Contemporary US news reports’ wide use of “normalization” to describe how US-Cuban relations may transform in the future invites critical interrogation. (If anything, “de-normalization” would be a more apt term!) “Normalization” conceals a host of assumptions about US views of the world and its role in it. I want to investigate the assumptions of “normal,” not in our contemporary situation or in the Cold War, but around 1900, when American imperialism re-oriented from a westward continental push to the management of overseas colonies.

Among Americans, the Spanish-American War prompted both joyous celebration of a reborn, progressive, muscular Christian nation and stinging criticism. However, proponents and critics shared a common dilemma: few knew anything about Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, or Guam. In response to the glaring gaps in the American worldview, journalists, historians, and war correspondents rushed to publish “authentic” accounts of the colonies and the Spanish Empire.[i] I want to tentatively propose that these publications serve as one possible starting point for thinking about the assumptions undergirding American views of the world and influence abroad in this period.

Often self-described parts of the war effort, these accounts sought to bring Spain’s colonies into the mental purview of American citizens. Some of these histories were also written to teach the inhabitants of the islands their own history.[ii] Although not without their variety, these histories, which ranged from military field guides (containing numerous photos of US Navy ships) to school books (listing which groups would likely be exterminated for the sake of progress), generally served to normalize within the American imaginary Spain’s colonial mismanagement; the ambivalence regarding of the islands’ inhabitants capacity for self-rule, self-care, or self-improvement; and America’s benevolent developmentalism, vouched for under the sign of Christianization (often implicitly or explicitly Protestantism), moral education, and US-managed economics that would benefit all involved.

The language that framed Cuba and Cubans shifted depending on the political context in question. In their introductions, histories typically focused on the island’s natural resources, defining the land in terms of raw potentiality. Consider the descriptions in E. Hannaford’s The Handy War Book: Containing Authentic Information and Statistics on Subjects Relating to the War. Cuba had a climate so delightful as to seem a perpetual summer, a soil inexhaustibly rich, tropical luxuriance of growth in field and forest, varied loveliness of natural scenery, no less than twenty-seven good harbors—these combine to make Cuba one of nature’s most favored regions; while its commanding position at the entrance of the Gulf of Mexico might well stimulate the acquisitive ambition of nations. “It is so near to us,” said President Cleveland’s message of December, 1896, “as to be hardly separated from our own territory.”[iii]

Cuba was recognized as a key strategic location and rendered as already part of the United States due to its proximity to Florida. Spain, these histories insisted, had failed to develop Cuba, relying on lazy, static value-extraction rather than dynamic, landscape-transforming economic activity. The assumption that Spain did not develop Cuba’s economy—Spain was not a vibrant, progressive empire that took its wards’ interests into account—helps explain that when writing about the United States’ need to intervene against Cuba, Hannaford, among others, often framed the problem in terms of class. Beyond the sinking of the USS Maine, the United States justified its intervention against Spain to support the aspirations of Cuba’s liberty-loving laboring classes, especially in light of Spain’s brutal reconcentrado policy.

If US intervention was rendered justifiable for the sake of Cuban economic well-being, American histories deployed a different language when considering the question of Cuban sovereignty. Generally speaking, if economic developmentalism and the plight of the long-suffering populations was the rallying cry for war against old Catholic Spain, more cautious talk of racial and religious deficiencies served the platform for maintaining formal and informal US influence. Christianization and white supervision—missions, education, political and juridical surveillance, and, ultimately, the assertion of the United States’ right to intervene—could overcome these deficiencies, leading, these authors argued, to the type of development Spain had long failed to cultivate.

Much space is given to describing the racial constitution of “the perfect American citizen,” born, one history claimed, of a mixture of northern European immigrants who had traveled to the United States. Immigrants’ negative racial qualities were filtered through common schools, “a mill which converts them into Anglo-Saxons,” making them a “new and strong race, born of freedom, and destined to rule the world.” The Cuban, on the other hand, was “an advance of only one degree above the Spaniard; but liberty and the right and the opportunity to choose his own environments will, in time, make a man of him.”[iv] Protestant education and missionization were framed as the keys to modernity, here closely associated with whiteness and masculinity. This was contrasted with a feminized, superstitious Spanish Catholicism that had done little to ameliorate, and perhaps exacerbated, the feminized, superstitious value-systems of Cubans deemed racially inferior. (This critique, I should note, was more frequently applied to the Philippines than Cuba.)

The “choice” Cuba made, these histories drilled into readers, was to take up the American model, with American oversight. Such white-guided developmentalism would also act as a safeguard and prevent what the authors viewed as a potential disaster: a black state off the coast of the United States. The prolific author Trumbull White, in the most extreme examples of racial anxiety I have found in the sources I have examined, pleaded:

We should, however, be recreant to our duty, be unworthy of our gallant forefathers, and commit base treason against our posterity, should we permit Cuba to be Africanized and become a second San Domingo, with all its attendant horrors to the white race, and suffer the flames to extend to our neighboring shores, seriously to endanger, or actually to consume, the fair fabric of our union.[v]

Although the United States had never “acquired a foot of territory except by fair purchase,” he argued, it had a mandate for self-preservation, which he understood to mean the exclusion of Afro-Cubans from full participation in Cuban governance. If this required the United States to intervene and manage Cuba to prevent it from becoming another Haiti (i.e., a black state), so be it. “We can afford to disregard the censures of the world,” White noted.[vi] Cuba, even at this time, was considered both an opportunity and a threat to the United States.

These strategic deployments of race, religion, and developmentalism gesture to the assumptions undergirding “normal” relations during and after the Spanish-American War. Obviously, this context was not the global ideological conflict of the Cold War that has dominated American memory and media this past month. This was the context of early twentieth-century imperial desire (e.g., Cuba’s naturalized seductiveness and an equally naturalized “acquisitive ambition of nations”) steeped in a normalized paternalism. These were the very contexts within which deployments of “race” and “religion” garnered such vitality, even as these American histories often strove to distance themselves from Spanish empire, here rendered as overly dedicated to rigid racial and religious differentiation. Calls for “religious liberty” and appeals to “humanity” that adorned many frontispieces and illustrations in these histories sought to conceal many of the continuities between old and new imperialism. At the same time these calls co-existed rather comfortably with more familiar modes of hierarchical difference-making thoroughly normalized in this period.

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.


[i] Matthew McCollough has recently explored similar questions from a different medium—Christian pulpits. See Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).

[ii] See Prescott Ford Jernegan, A Short History of the Philippines, for Use in Philippine Schools (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908).

[iii] E. Hannaford, The Handy War Book: Containing Authentic Information and Statistics on Subjects Relating to the War . . . (Springfield, OH: Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1898), 11.

[iv] America’s War for Humanity, 439, 441. For more on the varieties of Anglo-Saxonism (both imperial and anti-imperial) in relationship to the war and conduits of foreign policy formation, see Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Knopf, 2012), 207–232.

[v] Trumbull White, Our War with Spain for Cuba’s Freedom… Including a Description and History of Cuba, Spain, Philippine Islands, Our Army and Navy, Fighting Strength, Coast Defenses, and Our Relations with Other Nations, Etc., Etc. (Chicago: Monarch Book Company, 1898), 77.

[vi] White, Our War with Spain for Cuba’s Freedom, 76.

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.