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“Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?”: On Religiosity and Morality from Paul to Phil Robertson

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Jenny Collins-Elliott

Detective Martin Hart: I mean, can you imagine if people didn’t believe, what things they’d get up to?
Detective Rustin Cohle: Exact same thing they do now. Just out in the open.
Detective Martin Hart: Bullshit. It’d be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.
Detective Rustin Cohle: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

In the third episode of the first season of HBO’s gritty detective drama, True Detective, the protagonists Hart and Cohle have this exchange while observing a rural Louisiana tent revival. Detective Hart, while not joining in the service, nevertheless provides a defense for the worshippers when Detective Cohle, a newly arrived outsider from Texas with a nihilistic bent, wonders aloud what the average IQ of the group is. Det. Hart points to the enjoyment that belonging to a community brings and that this religiosity serves a common good, in part because it keeps people honest and law-abiding. The heart of this particular exchange centers around the relationship between morality and religiously-bound ethics—without religious obligations, would people merely behave immorally, and if so, what does this say about people who would behave in such a way? Can human decency exist without “the expectation of divine reward” (or divine punishment)?

This conversation from True Detective came to mind as I read about Duck Dynasty’s patriarch, Phil Robertson’s, recent comments at a Vero Beach (Florida) Prayer Breakfast. During his speech, Robertson says in a mocking tone that we’ve just “dreamed up” the problem of having a conscious, that “there’s no right; there’s no wrong. There’s no good; there’s no evil.” This leads him to describe a hypothetical situation in which an atheist family is forced to confront the ramifications of their morally-relative worldview:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’ Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

Atheism, for Robertson, is inherently moral and judgment free. Thus, by subscribing to an atheist worldview, you cannot expect anyone to behave morally, as there is no morality without the specter of sin (or the “problem of sin” as Robertson says just before this anecdote). Moreover, you cannot judge anyone for their behavior because there is no moral code against which to judge.

The Friendly Atheist blog published two response pieces to Robertson’s speech. In one by Hemant Mehta, Mehta mirrors Detective Hart’s sentiment: “I guess the only thing keeping Robertson from raping, shooting, and beheading other people is his fear of God and interpretation of biblical morality… in which case, I’m glad he believes.” The second post, by Terry Firma, suggests that Robertson doesn’t know any atheists, and thus simply “makes up” information about how he imagines atheists behave. Firma then turns the issue of moral judgment and behavior back on Robertson. First, he links to another Patheos post about incarceration rates among religious populations, and second, Firma cites—without any specific references—“people of faith” who behave immorally and criminally “either despite their professed religious creed or because they’re actually inspired by it.”

Between Robertson’s comments and the responses to them, the issue of morality apart from religion begins to become more complex. Added to this issue are claims and speculation of a clanish sort, with both sides digging into their othering. Each side is put into the position of defending their own worldview while challenging the hypocrisy of the other. This is, of course, not a new argument and neither are the types of accusations made by each side.

Paul, for example, confronts the question of lawlessness and immorality should people reject the Law (Torah) in his Letter to the Romans. According to Paul’s teachings, Gentile Christians were not expected, nor even to be encouraged, to follow the Law of the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, Paul taught in Romans that followers of Jesus were freed from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. Readers can see in Paul’s letters the ways in which he sought to address the questions that resulted from these teachings, namely, without the Law and with the freedom from the power of sin granted by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, won’t everyone simply behave immorally? In Romans 12:1-15:13, Paul answers this question in essentially two ways. First, that Christians are expected to present themselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1)[1] and to love one another, as this love is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10; 12:9-21). Second, they are also expected to submit themselves to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12). These two points function as Paul’s defense that a Law-less gospel would not lead to lawlessness, either with respect to fulfilling the commandments of God or with respect to civil authorities. Paul urges Christians to be proactive in demonstrating to their non-Christian neighbors that they are quiet, mind their own business, work hard, and are not dependant on anyone else (1 Thessalonians 4:11). In a 2011 post on The Friendly Atheist blog, similar advice is given to atheists in the conclusion of an article discussing public distrust of atheists. The author suggests that atheists do good works in the community and that they inform people that they are atheists. While Paul wanted Christians to demonstrate to their neighbors and critics that they could be law-abiding without the Law, Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist wants to “show people that we can be good without god.”

In addition to the broader point that Robertson is making about the connection between religiosity and morality, the subject of Robertson’s anecdote is also telling. He could have opted for a milder story, perhaps one better fitting a prayer breakfast. Instead, Robertson chose a brutal story, one meant to evoke horror and disgust rather than mild nods of agreement. Furthermore, his chosen imagery is meant to demonstrate the worst of what one would have to accept in a world without “right or wrong,” and thus Robertson drew from the deep well of taboo associated with human bodily defilement, particularly sexual defilement and dismemberment. I was reminded of Minucius Felix’s Octavius, a second or third century CE text in defense of Christianity. The author presents and then refutes pagan criticisms of Christians, including accusations of incestuous orgies, murdering infants, cannibalism, worshipping the genitals of their priests, and worshipping the genitals of their parents. Earlier, in 111/112 CE, Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bythinia-Pontus, wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking about the proper way to question, try, and punish Christians if they were breaking any laws. Seemingly to Pliny’s surprise, when he inquired about what Christians were actually doing, as opposed to what they had been accused of doing, he discovered nothing of interest. They met, took oaths—not to commit crimes, but rather to do the opposite—and had a meal together, not of babies but of an ordinary sort (Pliny the Younger, Letter 10.96.7). When faced with gratuitous rumors, Pliny questioned Christians and observed their practices only to discover that these rumors of eating unnatural foods and vowing to commit crimes were just that—rumors.

Ironically, then, Phil Robertson’s imagery was rooted in the same vein as the vile rumors about early Christians propagated by non-Christians. His speech was intended to shock his like-minded audience into fearing the worst about an ill-defined group of Others for the purposes of keeping these groups divided across a chasm of distrust and suspicion. As Hemant Mehta suggests, as Paul advised, and as Pliny discovered, the daily routines and moral codes of our neighbors—however alien they may seem to us—are often far more mundane and familiar than our grossest fears and most pernicious rumors would lead us to believe.

[1] Bart Ehrman reads this as a replacement of the cultic acts of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, thus suggesting that he, Paul, is not rejecting the Law so much as espousing a new way of fulfilling the spirit of the Law.

*Images courtesy HBO and Duck Commander.

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.

Facing Our Demons: What Does Satan Have to Do With Equal Rights?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Emily S. Johnson

A church in Knoxville, Tennessee sparked controversy this week when it posted this message on its outdoor sign: “Remember, Satan was the first to demand equal rights.”

One resident told local news station WBIR that the message was clearly “meant to offend a particular community – the LGBT community.” It seems equally likely that the sign was conceived as a response to ongoing national conversations about race – sparked by the violent deaths of several young black men and carried on through the mobilization of protests across the country insisting vocally that Black Lives Matter.

Pastor Tony Greene says that his message was misunderstood, and that he didn’t mean to offend anyone. “Our sign referencing Satan demanding his equal rights to ascend into the heavens and be God was simply ‘I’ and all about that individual,” he told local ABC affiliate WATE, “It was not a statement against any one group in particular, you know, what about the rights of the unborn babies, the rights of children, the rights of everyone?”

This response is telling. It closely mirrors the language that Christian conservatives have been using since at least the 1960s to simultaneously discredit and reappropriate the rights claims of groups on the political left. In 1976, Anita Bryant became one of the first visible leaders of a national backlash against gay-rights legislation, first in her local Miami-Dade county and then nationally. “The devil is walking around like a lion, ready to devour our children,” she warned in her 1976 book Raising God’s Children. Lumping contemporary feminists together with gay-rights advocates, she continued: “he tempts their mothers to take their eyes off the protection of their children and place them instead on the idols of personal liberation, self-indulgence, so-called ‘human rights,’ or ‘do your own thing.’”

Then, as now, the message is this: it is selfish to demand rights for yourself or for your community. The only acceptable activism is activism on behalf of the family, or on behalf of “everyone.” Asked to paraphrase the message he intended to send with the controversial church sign, Pastor Greene responded: “Be careful when you demand your equal rights that you don’t hurt others around you. You’ve got to consider everyone around you.”

This reasoning worked for Anita Bryant, and it arguably works even better in the context of the modern myth that we live in a “post-racial” society. According to this idea, which is present in many conversations about race, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s solved systemic racial inequality. There may be individual racists, and there may be isolated incidents of racial violence, but these are easy to identify and to deal with – on an individual level. Systemic racism is over, and demanding additional rights is selfish, even harmful to the community at large. This is one of the mythologies that Black Lives Matter protests seek to dismantle.

Commentators and commenters across the internet have framed this story as an example of religion gone wrong, or as a comical illustration a particularly Southern cocktail of stupidity, bigotry, and old-time religion. (The original Reddit post that drew attention to the story is titled: “Sometimes It’s Embarrassing to Live in the South.”) An article on Patheos’ Atheist Channel eloquently sums up many of the reactions to the sign: “If you can oppose equal rights because of your religion, you are a lesser person because of your faith.”

But this sign isn’t only about bad religion, and it certainly isn’t about a uniquely Southern problem. Pastor Greene’s defense of his message reflects a much more pervasive trend in reactions to civil rights claims, from across the political spectrum.

Several recent articles have called out well-meaning white activists for co-opting the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and attempting to replace it with the insistence that “All Lives Matter.” From Julia Craven at the Huffington Post: “Telling us that all lives matter is redundant. We know that already.” Black Lives Matter is a necessary assertion precisely because all lives do not really matter in the same ways. Another article articulated a similar critique, powerfully punctuated with the mantra: “Dear white protestors, this is NOT about you.”

This can be hard to hear. It can be difficult to understand what systemic privilege looks like if it’s the water that you swim in. It can even feel like you are being told that you don’t matter, that your problems don’t matter. And this is how many white Americans hear these protests: as demands for special rights from individuals with individual problems. As divisive, unnecessary, and even detrimental incursions into our national political discourse.

“My heart breaks in the dividedness of this country,” Pastor Greene told reporters. And our hearts should be breaking. But the country will not be less divided if we stop talking about race, or gender, or sexual equality. It is a privilege to have been able to feel like the country was not divided before these conversations started, and that is a privilege that we can do better without.

It is easy, comfortable, and safe to laugh at the Knoxville Baptist Tabernacle’s sign. Its fiery language and apparent illogic make it funny at the same time that it is offensive. But we would be wrong to dismiss it as nothing more than a literal sign of religion badly practiced. We are better served by understanding what it expresses about the ways that privilege and inequality really operate.

One of the myths of the post-racial society is that racists (and sexists and homophobes) are easy to spot. We can identify a racist chant on a fraternity bus and punish the perpetrators. We can laugh at a ridiculous church sign and be on our way. But if we are to really dismantle systems of inequality, we must do more than that. We must use these visible moments as opportunities to uncover the more pervasive, ostensibly innocuous assumptions that undergird inequality and protect privilege. We must seek to understand how racism, sexism, and homophobia are perpetuated by people who are certain that they are not racists, or sexists, or homophobes. We must be willing to understand that we can’t just scoff at this church sign and be on our way. Even in its absurdity, it tells us much too much about ourselves.

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.

Gender in Christianity: Immutable or Fluid?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

The Baptist General Convention of Texas has recently announced their position that one’s gender assignment is “immutable.” In a statement the group said that while “some people today are expressing a desire to identify themselves with the gender which differs from their biological gender”and some “are seeking to function in the broader society as if they are members of the gender that differs from their biological gender” they believe that “in creation God made male and female as biological gender assignment.”

This position is not new among conservative Christian groups in this country, but its foundation in the Genesis creation story should be further examined. I wrote late last year of the possibility of reading Thecla, a prominent legendary Christian woman from antiquity, as transgender. While Thecla is both feminized and masculinized in the Acts of Thecla, Thecla also self-presents as masculine (“I will cut my hair off and I shall follow you wherever you go”[25]) and thus appears to serve as an example of the fluidity of gender and gender presentation in early Christian understanding.

Gospel of Thomas 114 is another text that is frequently cited in discussions of early Christian views of gender.

Simon peter said to them, “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, being similar to you.”(But I say to you), “Every woman, if she makes herself male, will enter the kingdom of heaven.”[1]

This text seems to be an example of an ancient understanding of gender that placed it on a continuum (as opposed to a binary) along which people could move. Here masculinity is at the top and that to which all strive. As such, Jesus will help move Mary up the continuum to make her male. The text’s patriarchy notwithstanding, it is difficult to read this saying attributed to Jesus in a way that does not hold that at least some early Christians understood gender in a much less dichotomized way than do many today.[2]  Some have also read Galatians 3.28, which says that there is no longer male and female,”as a breaking down of this traditional dichotomy and “as a divine endorsement of those who are neither or both.”

The justification in question, though, reaches back to the creation story in Genesis. More specifically, it relies on the second creation story, found in Genesis 2, which states that God made male and then made female from a rib of the male. This contrasts with the creation story in Genesis 1, however, which states that “God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”[3] A more literal translation, though, would be that “God created the man/the human being (ha-adam) in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Some early Jewish commentators read this first creation story as meaning that what God first created in his image was an androgyne. This androgyne was then divided into male and female later. Here is how Genesis Rabbah interprets this:

AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN, etc. (1.26). . . . Rabbi Jeremiah b. Leazer said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, He created him an hermaphrodite, for it is said, Male and female created He them and called their name Adam (Gen. 5.2). Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: When the Lord created Adam He created him double- faced, then He split him and made him of two backs, one back on this side and one back on the other side.[4]

According to this interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis, it is not only possible to read gender assignment as fluid, but that the image of God is most fully captured in an androgyne. It is certainly possible to argue that even under such an interpretation God’s splitting of the androgyne into male and female served to solidify this traditional gender dichotomy.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore that at least some early Christians did not understand gender as adhering strictly to the male/female binary. We also see in the statement by the Baptist General Convention of Texas what we have long seen in Christianity, namely, Christians attempting to understand gender and God’s role in it. Moreover, just as larger social constructions of gender appear to have influenced how some early Christians viewed gender, so too our society’s increased acceptance of those who are transgender and those who are intersex has problematized a traditional binary understanding of gender that many Christians hold, prompting some to rethink their understanding of gender and prompting others to figure out how to reinforce their earlier understandings with particular hermeneutical strategies.

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

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[1] GosThom 114. Translation from Uwe-Karsten Plisch, The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008), 243.

[2] For more see Caroline Vander Stichele and Todd Penner Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse (London, T & T Clark, 2009).

[3] Translation from the NRSV.

[4] Genesis Rabbah 8.1, as translated in H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah (London: The Soncino Press, 1961), 54.

Image: By Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, Claire L. Lyons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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 jwheatley@u.northwestern.edu or on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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[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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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:

Intentions

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?

Implementations

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?

Implications

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 jl.krabbendam@zeeland.nl and prof. dr. Stefan Paas at spaas@tukampen.nl 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 jwheatley@u.northwestern.edu 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.