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Hey Bud

Thomas Whitley

Almost every conversation I had with my dad started with two simple words: Hey Bud.

I'd always known my dad was a creature of habit from his (rather lengthy) morning routine to his scientific rotation of the suits he wore to his public prayers. But I only came to see this particular pattern after he died. I recognized the pattern immediately when listening to voicemails he'd left me over the last two years. (There are benefits to archiving everything.)

Even knowing how much of a creature of habit my dad was, I was still struck by the near verbatim similarities in these voicemails over the last two years. As I've listened to them in the nearly nine months since he died suddenly, I keep coming back to those first two words: Hey Bud.

They are just one of many connecting points with my dad, but they have become part of how I partake in the sacred act of remembering. This is why I chose to get a tattoo of them in my dad's handwriting recently. These two words help me remember who he was and who he pushed me to be. 

These two words are neither profound nor unique, but in their habitual simplicity they were quintessentially him. And now they are indelibly me.


He Is Who We Thought He Was

Thomas Whitley

I usually like being right.

Not this time.

Ten months ago I wrote about Donald Trump's dangerous nativism, saying that while it had survived in the shadows for a long time, it now looked poised to thrive in the light. Even as prescient as that looks now, I could not fathom what we are seeing today.

By July, I had written that Trump combined "the racialized nationalism of Hitler with the erratic strongman facade of Gaddafi and the opportunism of Mussolini." I have not ceased since then to do what I believe is my duty: point out the dangers that I believe Donald Trump poses - to our country and to the world.

On Friday, Trump signed perhaps his most pernicious executive order yet. The order makes sweeping changes to our country's immigration system by suspending the entire refugee admissions system for 4 months, suspending the Syrian refugee program completely, and banning entry to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, among other things. The immigration ban also applies to green card holders who are legal permanent residents of the U.S. This is, quite simply, despicable. In the midst of a dire refugee crisis (that the U.S. is at least partially responsible for) - and on Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less - Trump did what he promised all along that he would.

Donald Trump has now said with his actions - as he has said before with his words - that Christian lives are more valuable than Muslim lives. This order will tear families apart. It will send people to their deaths, just as our actions did when we turned away Holocaust refugees. This ban will make our country less safe. But it should not surprise us.

This is who Donald Trump said he was. This is what he promised to do.

Less than a week after the election I wrote that Donald Trump did not deserve the "chance," the blank slate that many were calling for. His past actions simply did not merit it. But I also wrote that he did have a chance - a chance to prove us wrong, a chance to unequivocally denounce autocracy, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. But that was not to be. For Donald Trump is an insecure nativist wannabe autocrat.

I have been inspired by the resistance that has formed so quickly in the wake of Trump's election. I was honored to march with millions of men and women around the world in the Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration. People are beginning to live fully into their role as citizens and fight for what this country can be, what this country should be, what this country must be.

This first week has been exhausting, but this is a fight worth fighting, and it is a fight we must win. Our country, our lives, and our souls depend on it. Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.

Yes, Donald Trump is who we thought he was. But we are better.

Sexual Slander in American Politics

Thomas Whitley

On the latest episode of Thinking Religion we discussed, among other things, how the same sort of sexual slander I study in early Christianity is alive and well in American politics. The examples just in the past week are too many to enumerate, so a few will suffice.

Earlier this week, Marco Rubio attacked Donald Trump for his small fingers (a particular area of sensitivity for The Donald, dating way back to 1988 when Spy Magazine began calling him a "short-fingered vulgarian").

You know they say about men with small hands . . . you can’t trust them.

It's obvious what Rubio was alluding to, even if the media chooses not to say it explicitly. The pregnant pause after the first half of his statement is designed to allow people to finish the phrase themselves: "they have small penises." 

Today, after Mitt Romney went after Donald Trump in a speech, Trump responded by saying that Romney begged him for his endorsement in 2012, but he didn't stop there.

I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees,’ and he would have dropped to his knees.

Yes, on the one hand, Trump's statement conjures up images of people on their knees begging, but it is also designed to conjure up the image of Mitt Romney dropping to his knees to perform fellatio. The clear insinuation being that Trump is the stronger man and Romney is the weak man who would have allowed himself to be orally penetrated by Trump.

But the sexual slander works the other way around too. Just think of how often you've heard a Republican say on the stump or on the debate stage that someone else (usually liberals) are going to "ram [something] down our throats." This is a particular favorite of Marco Rubio. Here, the tables have been turned such that Republicans can cast themselves as the victim of liberals, who are apparently raping Republicans with their Hollywood values.

Sexual slander is ubiquitous in American electoral politics. Start looking for it and you'll see it popping up everywhere.


Image via Michael Vadon

The Invention of "Normal"

Thomas Whitley

Todd Rose has a piece over at The Atlantic titled "How the Idea of a 'Normal' Person Got Invented." The piece is an excerpt from a book at his and tells the fascinating story of Adolphe Quetelet. Quetelet was the first person, Rose tells us, to apply the common astronomical practice of averaging measurements to humans. His research expanded out from measuring chest sizes to include work on suicides and other aspects that had been previously neglected as too messy and unknowable. While Rose tells an interesting story, his fundamental argument is wrong because his fundamental assumptions are misguided. Rose concludes:

Quetelet’s invention of the Average Man marked the moment when the average became normal, the individual became error, and stereotypes were validated with the imprint of science. These assumptions would eventually prompt generations of parents to worry if their child did not develop according to the average milestones, and cause almost everyone to feel anxiety when their health, social life, or career deviated too far from the average.

The first problem with Rose's claim that Quetelet marks the beginning of "average" or "normal," is that for Quetelet, as Rose points out, the Average Man was the perfect man, not the person most like everyone else who would never stand out from the crowd and make a name for himself.

But for Quetelet, the Average Man was perfection itself, an ideal that Nature aspired to, free from error.
“Everything differing from the Average Man’s proportions and condition, would constitute deformity and disease,” Quetelet asserted. “Everything found dissimilar, not only as regarded proportion or form, but as exceeding the observed limits, would constitute a Monstrosity.” He also pronounced, “If an individual at any given epoch of society possessed all the qualities of the Average Man he would represent all that is great, good, or beautiful.”

By Rose's own admission, our conception of average is actually almost exactly the opposite of Quetelet's. Beyond that, though, Rose's fundamental assumption is that the idea of "normal" did not exist before it was measured mathematically, but historians such as myself know that the idea of "normal" did not first come on to the scene in the early 19th century. Indeed, in my area of study - early Christian heresiology - we can trace ancient attempts to define certain beliefs and practices as normal (read: orthodox) while defining those of opponents as abnormal (read: heretical).

Quetelet was clearly an influential figure, but the leap from Quetelet's Average Man in the early 19th century to 21st century parents worrying whether their child's head is a "normal" size is a bit too much. A study of normalcy that I would find much more interesting would examine how the concept is defined by different people toward different ends and through different means. Many early Christians defined is with respect to belief and practice, Quetelet defined it with respect to mathematical averages, contemporary American politicians define it with respect to that portion of their base that is most active in voting.

Normalcy (or normativity) is not a stable concept that can be seamlessly traced throughout history. What we can explore, though, are the constant redefinitions of "normal" and the constantly renegotiated attempts to define normalcy in such a way as to benefit one group and hurt others. A project like that would be less interested in finding some mythical conceptual origin and more interested in studying the authority given to the "normal" in different times and places.


Image via Wikimedia

Why Do (Some) Bernie Sanders Supporters Hate Hillary Clinton So Much?

Thomas Whitley

I wrote recently about how some of Bernie Sanders’ supporters are hurting him with their seeming inability to allow anything positive to be said about Hillary Clinton or anything negative to be said about Sanders. The term “Bernie Bros” has been coined for this group, though they are certainly not all men. Some Sanders supporters have also been on the receiving end of negative comments by Clinton supporters, though not to the same degree. I am not interested so much in casting blame as in trying to understand the intense hatred that some Sanders supporters harbor for Hillary Clinton.

In doing some reading this morning for my class — Sex and Sexuality in Early Christianity — I was rereading Stephanie Cobb’s fantastic book, Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts, and it hit me. Hillary Clinton is the progressive proximate other.

The radically ‘other’ is merely ‘other’; the proximate ‘other’ is problematic and hence of supreme interest.*

In other words, the proximate or near other presents a greater threat to one’s identity than does the radically or far other. Thus, the Republican candidates for President pose very little threat to the identity of Bernie Sanders and his supporters as liberal, progressive, democratic socialists. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, a moderate mainstream Democrat, posses an enormous threat to his and his supporters' identity because she claims to be one of them. “I am a progressive who gets things done for people,” Clinton said in her speech Monday night after the Iowa Caucuses closed.

Stephanie Cobb uses the proximate other theory to explain early Christian group identity as seen through martyrologies and the danger that Jews pose (as opposed to pagans) to the identity of Christians as well as the danger that an apostate poses. The theory is applicable here as well. Many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters do not think that Hillary Clinton’s actions “conform to group norms” and thus she is “perceived as a threat to group identity and is rejected” (Cobb, 22). Cobb goes on to describe the reaction to those in-group members who have not, to some, adequately performed their group identity.

It is typical of group behavior for undesirable in-group members — i.e., members who fail to perform specified group characteristics — to be disliked to a greater degree than out-group members; they may even be denied association with the group altogether. . . . One way to protect social identity is to propagate negative attitudes toward in-group members who deviate from normative standards. (Cobb, 87)

And so, according to Cobb, we should expect to see some Sanders supporters viewing Clinton as even more undesirable than the Republican candidates and to see them propagating negative attitudes about her. Unsurprisingly, this is precisely what we have seen. I’ve heard some Sanders supporters say they would vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, for instance. And Clinton has been labeled a “liar,” a “cheat,” a “shill,” “cold," “calculating,” etc. — and all of this by other Democrats.

When it comes to the “progressive” identity, Hillary Clinton is the proximate other and as such is more dangerous to the identity of progressives who support Bernie Sanders than even Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Because of this she must be exposed as the imposter they perceive her to be.


Image via Wikipedia

* Jonathan Z. Smith, "What a Difference a Difference Makes," in "To See Ourselves as Others See Us": Christians, Jews, "Others" in Late Antiquity, ed. Jacob Neusner and Ernest S. Frerichs (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985), 25.

Why It’s Getting Difficult for Me to #FeelTheBern

Thomas Whitley

I like Bernie Sanders, I really do. I like a lot of his policies and respect his passion. I also think he has some shortcomings. Not least of which is his insistence that economic inequality is the only real problem in this country and that racism, sexism, etc. would all be solved by breaking up the big banks, enacting campaign finance reform, and raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. Thanks to the continual prodding of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, he has begun talking more about the realities of race, but even in his answers at Monday night’s #DemTownHall it is evident that he still really believes fixing economic inequality should be our main (if not only) focus. I’m all for fixing economic inequality, but it is more than a little disheartening that the most “progressive” candidate in the race seems not to realize that structural racism cannot be fixed through economics alone. But I digress.

I have some legitimate concerns with some of Sen. Sanders’ stances and policies, but those are not keeping me from supporting him. In fact, I have been inclined to support him since he got into the race, though I am still far from convinced he has any chance at winning a general election. But what is making it the hardest for me to #FeelTheBern is his supporters. Support for Bernie Sanders has become something of a litmus test on the left; support him or else you’re not a true “progressive.” No matter that I am probably left even of Sen. Sanders. And beyond this, many of his supporters appear to have made it their life’s mission to track down any Democrat who doesn’t support them and berate them, as if this would suddenly open their eyes.

I experienced more of this while live tweeting Monday night’s #DemTownHall than I have to date. In response to a question that Hillary Clinton was asked about young people believing her to be dishonest, I remarked on the gender bias in politics and how women in positions of power are perceived as less trustworthy than their male counterparts (Carly Fiorina has been on the receiving end of similar claims). You would think I had said that Hillary Clinton was Jesus and that Bernie Sanders was the anti-Christ. Some Sanders supporters could not stand that I was suggesting that gender bias is real (and apparently that I wasn’t being effusively positive about Sanders). Because they believe Hillary Clinton to be a “liar” and “crooked,” then she must be and this must mean that gender bias doesn’t exist.

But just as winter does not disprove climate change, feminist women who support Sanders and think Clinton is a liar do not disprove the existence of gender bias in politics.

I was not the only one who felt the burn of Sanders’ supporters. It was so bad during the #DemTownHall Monday night that Sanders’ own Rapid Response Director had to tell Sanders supports to be respectful.

I am not so naive as to think that all of Sen. Sanders’ supporters are acting like this; in fact, many of my close friends support him and are nothing like this. But those followers of Sanders who cannot stand for any non-negative thing to be said about Hillary Clinton and who are focused not on dialogue but on telling you why you’re wrong are having the opposite of what I imagine is their intended effect. They are pushing me towards Hillary Clinton.

I remain undecided. I think that Clinton is much more electable than Sanders and that even though her policies are fairly mainstream Democratic policies (and are mostly right of Sanders) she has a greater chance of getting any progressive policies passed as President and that a Clinton presidency would thus result in a the enactment of more progressive policies than an ideologically more-liberal Sanders presidency. But what may push me over the fence are Sanders’ supporters who are not determined to join together to defeat Donald Trump or Ted Cruz and ensure that the Affordable Care Act is not rolled back, that we win more protections for the LGBTQ community, etc. but rather to lecture all of us Democrats who are not head-over-heels in love with Bernie Sanders about how we don’t understand politics, how we’re supporting a crooked liar, and how we aren’t really progressives.

I know that Sen. Sanders doesn’t control his supporters, but I’ve had enough of the demands for ideological "purity," the arbitrary litmus tests, and the more-progressive-than-thou attitude. So, well done, supporters of Sen. Sanders, you just may have succeeded in getting me to vote for Hillary Clinton.


Image via Gage Skidmore




My 2015 Writing in Review

Thomas Whitley

Today Marginalia Review of Books published a selected anthology of the commentary, radio, forums, series, reviews, essays, blogs, and films the MRB community produced in 2015. I’m honored to have a few of my pieces are highlighted. The anthology caused me to think back on the writing I did in 2015.

Online I had pieces appear in the American Society of Church History’s History of Christianity blog (see here and here, for instance), the University of Alabama’s Studying Religion in Culture blog, the Ancient Jew Review on Carpocrates (the subject of my dissertation), Religious Studies News on ISIS’ destruction of antiquities in Mosul (this piece was co-written with my colleague at Florida State Sam Houston), and Marginalia Review of Books. And I’ve written a few pieces for this space as well.

Offline I finished my dissertation (and there was much rejoicing), which I’ll be defending in just a few weeks. I also wrote two pieces that will be appearing as book chapters in 2016, one on fabricating difference in a book edited by Steven Ramey and another on the role of the scholar and the relevance of critical theory in a book edited by Aaron Hughes. Both of these writing opportunities came as a result of my online writing; the latter was first presented as a response to an excellent paper by Merinda Simmons at the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion in Atlanta this past November. I also finished the revisions on and had accepted an article on the rhetoric of poison in Epiphanius’ Panarion.

I occasionally make goals and at the start of 2015 I made a goal of writing every day. By “writing” I meant activities related to writing. This could be composing, editing, revising, etc. I don’t think I met this goal, but I do think I wrote more in 2015 than I’ve written in any other year (in terms of number of pieces, number of words, time spent on writing, etc.). In many ways, 2015 has been the year in which I feel like I have really found my own voice as a writer. Probably more than anything else, the freedom that the top of the masthead at Marginalia gave me with the MRBlog allowed this to happen. I experimented and saw some things flop and other things soar. I explained concepts more clearly and succinctly. My dissertation is better as a direct result of the voice that I was able to find writing so much for public audience.

And this last point I think is especially important. Writing for a broader public has been fun and it has helped my writing. It forced me dispense of jargon and better grasp the concepts I hoped to explain. Some academics still look down their noses at writing for a non-academic audience; that’s their loss. Apart from the fact that I have had a venue in which to write about topics that are not directly relevant to my current academic research, I’ve had the good fortune of writing pieces that people read. The same cannot be said of my academic work. I was humbled at the number of people whom I’d never met who approached me at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Atlanta this past November just to tell me that they liked what I was writing for Marginalia. That people read my work is not something I take for granted.

So 2015 was a good writing year for me. It may well not lead to an academic job (yes, I am on the dreaded academic job market this cycle), but I have grown as a writer and renewed my passion for it. I’m not sure that 2016 can compare, but here’s to finding out.

P.S. My podcast Thinking Religion, with Sam Harrelson, has really taken off this year too and I think we're really hitting our stride over there (even if we are expanding our discussions beyond just "religion"). And we have a new tech venture on the horizon that we're really excited about too. Stay tuned and don't be a stranger.

Old Wine, Old Wineskins (Or, SBL and 20th Century Communications Strategies)

Thomas Whitley

The Society of Biblical Literature has been taking a lot of heat lately, the most recent of which has been directed at its sudden and unilateral decision to move its book review publication, the Review of Biblical Literature, behind a paywall with very little explanation for why. Revenue is one reason, but even this is counterintuitive. The RBL has so many issues right now — the noncritical and unscholarly nature of so many of its reviews, the apparent lack of any sort of vetting process for reviewers, the overwhelmingly male composition of reviewers, etc. — that the number of people who would choose to become a member of SBL just to gain access to RBL reviews would seem to be minuscule, thereby not actually addressing the revenue question. This is still an issue, but the SBL executive director, John Kutsko, has said that changes are coming to RBL that will make it a better and more useful publication (we do not know what these are and we do know that the RBL Board was not consulted before the decision was made to move the RBL behind a paywall), but whether and how this will be borne out is yet to be seen.

I’m more interested today, though, in the communications strategy (or lack thereof) of the SBL and how so many of SBL's recent controversies could have been avoided by a communications strategy that was not stuck in the 20th century. Carrie Schroeder has addressed some of these concerns already in her post recounting her phone conversation with John Kutsko.

I'm still concerned that the SBL has one foot in the past.  I’m concerned that the decision to try to increase the “value” of the membership through member initiatives reflects a view of an academy that no longer exists.  John and I spoke a lot about the changing landscape of academia, and why people join the SBL.  Members, he noted, have more of a utilitarian, contractual relationship–more and more people join because they want to go to the annual meeting, rather than because they feel a sustained, long-term relationship with the “guild.”  The new programs are designed in part to reinvigorate membership, as well as promote scholarship in the field.

As Carrie notes, this is a view rooted in the past. That the SBL is stuck in a 20th century communications model is on display even more in SBL public statements policy and in the email John Kutsko sent the SBL membership this morning regarding that policy. The policy (“The Role of the Society in Making Public Statements”) evinces a fear of offending any of its constituents, which might lead to the non-renewal of membership and a loss of revenue for the Society. It is further concerned with explaining why it should not and will not “espouse particular ethical and political positions and issue public statements on them,” but its most recent controversies are not about ethical or political positions, but rather about the goings-on of the Society and its lack of clear and comprehensive communication with its members that these changes are going to take place, why, and to what ends.

While some members have asked the Society to make ethical and political statements, most who are concerned with what has been going on with RBL are concerned not with ethics (aside, of course, from the ethical question of the staggering underrepresentation of women and people of color, though this does not seem to be what is meant here by “ethics") and politics but with transparency. SBL, though, still understands Society communication in a press release model: a committee or the director drafts a statement and then blasts it out to all members. The Society rarely engages its members or the wider public in any sort of public conversation (on social media, for instance, where many of these discussions are happening), but expects its members (those who provide the Society with a bulk of its revenue) to accept that the decisions that have been handed down are the best and seems to scoff at requests for clarification and explanation or does provide this but through private conversations with bloggers they hope will distribute the message widely (with how seriously this backfired last year, it’s astonishing that Kutsko has used this same model with Carrie, which she also notes).

John Kutkso’s email today justifying the Society’s policy on public statements is further evidence that the Society is stuck in a 20th century communications mindset.

This policy is intended to ensure that, while fostering biblical scholarship, we are a forum for members to practice values that advance respect and dialogue. On occasion, issues may arise that Council deems relevant to SBL’s mission, thus requiring public comment. To be sure, there are times when not all members will agree with a response to such issues. With that said, this policy is intended to highlight that SBL takes its diversity seriously and weighs carefully when to speak for its members and its mission.
Subsequent to this policy, approved in December 2015 following nearly a year of deliberation, Council will begin work on procedures for making statements initiated by Council or the SBL membership. Council expects to provide these guidelines in advance of the 2016 Annual Meeting. The procedures will include steps for raising substantive issues with Council such as the implementation of new policy, making amendments to bylaws, and proposing changes to existing policy.

As a Society member (full disclosure: I am also a member of the Society’s Student Advisory Board), I appreciate that the Society is working to be judicious about when it should issue public statements. However, the Society has failed to realize that they can no longer control the message. I experienced this desire to maintain control of the message when I did some consulting on social media for churches and non-profits. There remains among many a fear of losing control of the message. Thus they want Facebook pages where no one else can comment because those comments will not have been vetted by a committee and their Twitter feeds are nothing more than press release machines. There is no desire for openness, transparency, or conversation. But that model of communications simply does not work in the world today where communication has been democratized.

Further, in 2016 it should not take nearly a full year to develop and provide guidelines/procedures for initiating a public statement by the Society. But again, the Society is still clearly thinking only in terms of a press release model. In such a model, every sentence has to be cleared by a committee (and sometimes lawyers). This is not only a dead model, this isn’t even what I think most of the Society desires (at least not most of the portion of the Society I know). At the very least, this is not what is being asked for with regard to RBL. Society membership wants to know that its concerns are being heard. Yet, when it comes to the changes to RBL, SBL is performing cosmetic surgery when it needs multiple organ transplants.

See, for instance, the teaser offered in the initial email about changes to the RBL:

In fact, we are currently imagining and beginning to develop an entirely new resource that will stand on the shoulders of RBL and usher in a new era of online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research. All this will require significant human and financial resources, but the resulting product will certainly be worth the investment.

How exactly is this mysterious new resource supposed to “usher in a new era of online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research" when RBL has just been put behind a paywall? The SBL is rapidly being left behind with its lack of a clear and comprehensive communications strategy and its apparent inability to understand the world of communications as it exists in 2016.

There remains another important issue that is germane to this discussion. Carrie mentioned John Kutsko’s desire to foster more of a commitment to the guild:

Members, he noted, have more of a utilitarian, contractual relationship–more and more people join because they want to go to the annual meeting, rather than because they feel a sustained, long-term relationship with the “guild.”

Yet this commitment to the guild is going to remain impossible to foster as long as the guild continues to have no commitment to those who wish to join it. As Carrie pointed out in her piece, contingency and the adjunctification of the humanities labor force is drastically reshaping the field, but the SBL appears concerned only with the”increasingly smaller slice of the population” who are on the tenure track or who have already earned tenure. As long as our guild continues to produce significantly more PhDs than there are positions, continues to replicate ourselves in our students preparing them for a world that no longer exists, and continues to sit idly by as graduate students and contingent faculty are further exploited, our guild is doomed. The Society cannot hope for more members to have a sustained, long-term relationship with the guild while ignoring the economics that make such a relationship untenable for so many.

A 2016-ready communications strategy will not fix all of the Society’s (and the field’s) issues, but to paraphrase Macklemore, it’s a damn good place to start.


Image: “The Drunkenness of Noah” by Giovanni Bellini via Wikipedia

Audi and the Study of Religion

Thomas Whitley

In March 2015, German automobile manufacturer Audi announced a new creative campaign to promote its 2016 Audi A6. This campaign was inspired by the company's new tagline: "Challenge All Givens."

Their "Drones" commercial (above) ends like all of their 2015 commercials, with the imperative to "challenge all givens." It is this imperative that connects Audi to the study of religion. For I know of no better tagline for what we religionists do than "Challenge All Givens." It is our job, as scholars of religion, to challenge that which is presented as given, as natural, as just the way things are. Thus we ask questions of these givens. What assumptions are at work in allowing one to present this as a given rather than that? Or, for instance, what is at stake in proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace (or of violence)? 

The most obvious "given" when discussing the category religion is that religion speaks of "things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal" (Bruce Lincoln, "Theses on Method," Thesis 2). Scholars of religion challenge this given by "insist[ing] on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine" (Lincoln, Thesis 2). Since the temporal, contextual, interested, human, and material dimensions are all we have access to, that is what we analyze. Whether religion really does speak of things eternal and transcendent is irrelevant to what we do as scholars of religion. That is presents itself as such, however, is not.

Such "givens" taken on numerous forms: arbitrary boundaries between what counts as "Greco-Roman" and what counts as "Christian" in the ancient worldrepresentations of terror in the aftermath of the Paris Attacks, an inconspicuous religious test for office, the demand for black forgiveness, and dog whistle politics, to name a few. Because we as scholars of religion have developed a skill set that is not limited to one area of study, our skills are transferrable. So, while I study early Christian heresiology and need my Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac skills to do this well, I am not resigned to only being able to study early Christian heresiology.

As soon as I recognize that what I am doing is studying how difference is made meaningful, my skill set is instantly applicable to myriad other realms, from politics to economics to racial violence. So, next time someone asks what I do as a scholar of religion, I think I may just tell them that I "challenge all givens."

No Peace for Paris

Thomas Whitley

 Peace for Paris.

This is the prayer of many and this has been the sentiment shared almost nonstop across social media these last 24 hours, illustrated rather cleverly in the Banksy Eiffel Tower/Peace sign mashup. But I can neither pray nor hope for peace for Paris because there is no peace to be had in Paris.  

The gunfire may have been quieted and the explosions may have ceased, but Paris will not experience peace. Daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, friends and lovers have been lost. They will not be brought back. No amount of "pitiless" war will bring them back. No justifications of retaliation will soothe the pain. No body count will be high enough to satisfy. 

French soldiers will be dispatched. A war has been promised; it will be long and bloody, but it will not bring peace. More deaths — French and Syrian; soldiers and civilians — will come. This will be pseudo-solemnly lauded as tough but necessary. The French dead will be honored in the West; their “sacrifice” celebrated. The Syrian dead will be forgotten in the West; their expandability will be their silent legacy. Brown bodies will be demonized and vilified because of our fear, a fear that we will not seek to combat, nor even seek to understand, because we do not believe in fear. And yet this fear has just condemned thousands to death.

There is much I do not know, but this I know: in the wake of the attacks in Paris, there will be war, there will death, there will be hubris, there will be xenophobia, there will be loss, there will be loneliness, there will be despair, there will be unquenchable pain, and we will have been the author it. But there will be no peace for Paris, for it is we who will not allow it. 

In Defense of Religious Studies

Thomas Whitley

Two weeks ago on our weekly podcast Thinking Religion Sam and I asked whether religion departments were doomed. We settled on a shaky maybe. It of course depends on larger national conversations, public funding, etc. Then, in a hopeful moment last week we asked whether you should major in religion, apparently assuming that's a question some undergrads would have the opportunity to ask. Today we learn that UC Berkeley is canceling its undergraduate degree in Religious Studies. The future of the study of religion at UC Berkeley is unclear, as Carrie Schroeder has pointed out on Twitter. (They have a Center for the Study of Religion, but it is not clear whether they will house the major. Also, they have recently received significant grant money from the Henry Luce Foundation to examine "public theology.")

To be sure, this does not necessarily suggest that all religious studies departments will be gone in 5 years. I don't know any of the particulars regarding the situation at UC Berkeley and how this decision was reached. This move, though, serves to highlight the increasingly difficult predicament of religious studies departments across the country (and elsewhere, like the UK). Further, this move comes in the midst of a time when little seems as important to local, national, and international conversations as religion. Here's how Carrie Schroeder put it after tweeting about the canceling of the major at UC Berkeley.

Because apparently, ISIS, Charleston, Chattanooga, gay marriage all show the utter irrelevance of religion for understanding the world.

Indeed, in a time when more and more news organizations are devoting more resources to covering religion - and often doing a less than stellar job - now seems to be exactly the time to double down on our commitment to the academic study of religion at the university level. Emily Vork, a Religious Studies major at Alabama, gets it.

After taking just a handful of classes in the department, each of which covering a variety of different topics, I’ve found that my capacity for critical thinking has increased tremendously. Things are no longer quite so cut-and-dry. News headlines that I would have previously accepted without a second thought I now find myself wondering: who wrote that? How did they write it, and why did they write the way they did? On top of that, I notice now that I’m more willing to take a step back from anything and give it a critical glance. Why are social norms the norm? To quote one of our department’s business cards: “Why do we cheer for the home team?”

While I don’t have all the answers—give me a break; I’m only a sophomore—I can certainly say that I am a better student for having thought about the questions. When I took the Introduction to Religious Studies course my first semester, I didn’t just think about these questions—I realized that they existed. That realization has been one of the best things to happen to me as far as my academics are concerned. I’ve applied the knowledge that I learned in just one Religious Studies class to courses in History and American Studies, my other two majors. I wish that every student—Humanities, Social Sciences, Engineering, anything—would take that introductory class. They’d be better for it, and, subsequently, so would everyone else, since eventually we the students will be the ones in charge.

We religionists are often quite poor at explaining why what we do matters to the "real" world (I took a stab at it when discussing the new Noah movie here). The headlines of late should make that an easy enough conversation, but we often fall back on the amorphous ideal of "critical thinking." Yet we fail to adequately explain just what that means. Vork has done that here as well as I've seen from many long-time religion professors.

The academic study of religion does not just teach good reading and writing skills (though it certainly does that), it does not just teach content about various "religions" and traditions (though you'll certainly pick up more than your fair share along the way), it does not just offer the opportunity to learn new languages (though it does and you should seize those opportunities without hesitation), the academic study of religion teaches you that questions exist which you never knew existed. The academic study of religion pulls the veil back on the world around us and examines its attempts to present as "natural" that which is arbitrary and contested. It tells us that history is never objective or neutral. It gives us the tools for recognizing the rhetorical work being done in political speeches, viral illustrations, and the latest sci-fi movie.

As Bruce Lincoln put it in his Theses on Method:

To practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline’s claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.

We need religious studies - not to tell us what is true or what is the meaning of life, but rather to show us how such claims work, how they naturalize themselves, and what they hope to gain.

There is a phrase over the main door to Dodd Hall on Florida State's campus, the building in which our religion department is housed, which says, "The half of knowledge is to know where to find knowledge." We cannot expect our citizenry, our journalists, or our politicians to understand religion if we do not know where to find those best suited to explain it to us. If we continue this nationwide attack on the liberal arts in general and on the study of religion specifically, there will be nowhere left to look for this knowledge that we so badly need.


Edit: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Center for the Study of Religion at UC Berkeley was solely concerned with public theology.

13 Out-of-Context Quotes From Pope Francis' Climate Change Encyclical

Thomas Whitley

I read all 191 pages of Laudato Si, so you don't have to. But, instead of giving you a nice guide to what it says and the salient points Francis makes (you can find that here), I thought I'd just offer a few quotes sans context. The numbers in parentheses refer to paragraph numbers, should you want to put these quotes back in context.

  1. "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (21)
  2. “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” (23)
  3. “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.” (36)
  4. “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature." (44)
  5. "Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor." (49)
  6. "We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family." (52)
  7. "It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims." (57)
  8. "Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures." (68)
  9. "Injustice is not invincible." (74)
  10. "Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties." (120)
  11. "We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity." (159)
  12. "The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments." (178)
  13. "Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change." (202)

And yes, you did read that correctly. Francis used his discussion on climate change to once again oppose abortion. I wrote briefly about that here.

#CharlestonShooting: The Relevant Context

Thomas Whitley

What's the relevant context for the Charleston shooting? Is it mass shootings? Is it attacks on places of worship? Is it white supremacy? Is it attacks on Mother Emmanuel? Is it the lives of the victims?

This is the question Rachel Maddow asked on her show last night. What's the relevant context? This question is important, as she points out, because what we determine is the relevant context shapes how we make sense of this event, how we make meaning.

What counts as context here for what happened in that church last night, it all either feels too obscene or too sacred to tie it down, right? All we really, really know is that this keeps happening, and every single time it’s unbearable.

Some want to point to the lack of gun control laws in this country and the fact that we are the only developed world where this type of thing happens at this rate. Others [*cough* the NRA *cough*] are blaming the pastor himself for voting against guns in churches. Many are questioning why we continue to speak of white shooters as lone wolves who probably have some mental illness and seem unwilling to label this event "terrorism." Fox News is grasping for any explanation other than racism. All of these are attempts to provide context, and thereby to provide meaning to this event.

Yet, as Rachel said, it seems impossible to tie down the context. it is all either too obscene or too sacred, to one person or another. One person's obvious context is the next person's harmful activism. But it is the decisions we make early on, the context within which we set this event, that determine how the story is told, how it is understood, how it is made meaningful, or how it is dismissed.

Context matters here. Context matters every time we sit down to write history. The context we choose determines the history we will write.

Be More Handsome, Buy A Truck

Thomas Whitley

Chevrolet's newest ad campaign for their 2015 Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck makes it clear. If you want to be considered more handsome, more resourceful, and to have an awesome pet, buy a pickup truck, preferably the 2015 Colorado.

The focus-group style of the commercial, of course, wants audiences to think that the statistics are objective. According to Chevy, truck guys are

  • 85% more handsome
  • 76% more resourceful
  • 100% more likely to have an awesome pet

It's an amusing commercial, even if it is one that strains credulity (are really supposed to believe that no one recognized that it's the same guy in both pictures?). 

The commercial seems to be self-consciously playing with the socially constructed natures of "handsome," "cool," "resourceful," etc., and it instructs would-be buyers that they too can be all of these things like "Scott the truck guy" if only they would buy the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado.

We can deconstruct this commercial and analyze its complicity in reinforcing these social constructions. We can ask questions of the commercial of the "why this rather than that" sort, such as why the truck picture was juxtaposed with a small bland sedan and not a sports car. Would the focus group still have said that truck guy was more handsome and more likely to have an awesome pet, or would the sports car guy have won in that matchup? Or what if we push back against the categories focused on (handsome, resourceful, awesome pet owner)? What if the questions were instead about who is more sensible, a better money manager, and more likely to be a family guy? Would small bland sedan guy have won out in that competition?

It is not simply enough to recognize the socially constructed nature of categories, but also to see how these categories continue to be constructed and reinforced through various means (comparison, standards of judgment, etc.).

I try to use this same approach in my research. In my dissertation, for instance, I do not just talk about the arbitrary and socially constructed nature of the categories "Christian" and "Graeco-Roman," but also explore how these categories have been constructed, how they're maintained, and to what ends (or in the words of Bruce Lincoln, " Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?"). As this recent TechCrunch piece argues, "we need to develop thinkers, not information processors." This is what I try to accomplish in my courses with my students and, I think, what a good liberal arts education provides.

So, you can buy the new 2015 Chevy Colorado and become more "handsome," or you can ask why that's a category we should be concerned with, how that category came to be constructed such that "truck owner" would fit it, and what might be gained or lost by those who choose to accept or reject this particular construction of this category. The choice is yours.


A Disconnected Narrative in Baltimore

Thomas Whitley

The activities in Baltimore yesterday sparked a national outcry. Just about everyone is calling for calm and peace. Leaders are speaking out against the violence and looting that took place yesterday. (There are conflicting stories, but the riots yesterday seem to have come about as a result of a few factors: social media organization, schools being let out early, and public transportation in the area being shut down, leaving people no way to get out.)

My Twitter and Facebook feeds have been quite full with those who don't understand why people would riot in such a situation. Others have posted about the numerous times white people have rioted, often over sporting events. Ta-Nehisi Coates summed it up beautifully on Twitter last night:

It is an expression of anger. Some humans riot because their school lost the big game. Others because the State can’t stop killing them.

The juxtaposition should cause us to pause. The burning of cars, smashing of windows, and general lawlessness barely gets a mention on the news when white people engage in these activities after a sporting event. Chris Hayes did an excellent job demonstrating this double standard with a satirical segment back in 2013.

More than I can remember from past events like this, I've heard leaders not only condemning the violence, but also speaking to the larger systemic issues that are at the root. Staggering unemployment, blight, regular and violent encounters with police are the norm for many communities like West Baltimore. I have been pleasantly surprised by this, though it may simply be that I have paid more attention to this part of the narrative this time around.

But another portion of the narrative seems wholly disconnected. The national guard was activated by the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, at the request of the Mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Hogan then, in a statement last night, said that violence "will not be tolerated." This will likely come as news to residents of Baltimore that have lived on the receiving end of State-sanctioned violence for years. Last fall the Baltimore Sun published a scathing piece cataloguing just a few of the many issues with the Baltimore Police Department.

Baltimore has paid $5.7 million since January 2011 for settlements and court judgments in lawsuits accusing city police officers of false arrests, false imprisonment and excessive force. Virtually all of the people who won large awards were cleared from criminal charges.

The city of Baltimore is paying millions of dollars to victims of police brutality and they have just continued to increase the part of their budget concerned with legal fees, judgments, and lawsuits. The residents of Baltimore are paying for the cops that are beating up their citizens, taking them along "rough rides," and harassing them, all while also paying for the Police Department to shield and defend these officers.

The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody is merely the latest in a long string of State-sanctioned violence against the black community. In case you're unfamiliar with the details of the case, here's what we know so far. Freddie Gray ran from the police, apparently after only making eye contact with a cop. He was taken into custody by officers. Video of the incident shows Gray screaming in apparent pain, legs limp, and being loaded into a police van. We now know that police did not properly secure Gray in the transport vehicle, against their own policies and procedures. We also know that police did not seek medical attention for Gray in a timely manner, multiple times, after he requested. Freddie Gray's spinal cord was severed apparently at some point during his encounter with police. He died a week later.

The protests in Baltimore were peaceful for some time, until yesterday's events. And now some are asking why people are rioting. Politicians and law enforcement officials are calling for non-violent protests, invoking the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. to make their point. Yet, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, calls for non-violence ring hollow and are a form of control through compliance.

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

Our narratives matter. When black people loot and burn property in response to State violence, they are called "thugs." When Egyptians did the same, we called them "revolutionaries."

Indeed, it is in the interest of the State to call for nonviolence when property is being damaged and their officers are being pelted by rocks. It is, apparently, not in their interest to call for nonviolence when their officers are brutally beating up and maiming their citizens. Russell McCutcheon asked the question appropriately on Twitter this morning:

You learn all you need to know about our society when we call up the national guard for damage to property not people, no? #BaltimoreRiots

Calls for nonviolence seem to have become the necessary antecedent to any substantive comments, but we cannot with a clear conscience call for the ending of riots and looting if do not also call for the ending of the killing of our brothers and sisters at the hands of State actors.

We cannot fail to see that those who are disrespecting the law do so because the law has never respected them. 

We cannot allow the State to continue its campaign of violence on black bodies and then reprimand the black community for responding with anger and rage. 

*This post has been updated to clarify that the National Guard was activated by the governor at the request of Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

Image via Wikimedia


Why I Blog

Thomas Whitley

I was prompted by Russell McCutcheon, professor of religious studies and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Alabama, to write a post on why I blog. This was after he wrote two such posts (here and here) and after Adam  T. Miller also wrote a post taking up the same question (here). These posts came in response to McCutcheon's recent trip to the University of Chicago Divinity School and conversations he had with students there who were earnestly concerned about whether those on, or about to go on, the job market should have an active social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc.). McCutcheon, if you don't know, is quite active on a number of social media and blogging platforms and he rightly points out the connections he has made with other scholars (particular early career scholars - like myself) through these means.

This question, as McCutcheon and Miller have tackled it thus far has been largely focused on blogging as an academic and the role that it might have as an academic tool. My blog archives go back to 2008, though I'm sure I was blogging before then. Blogging has never been for me solely academic. In the early years I wrote a lot about politics (still do), religion (still do), and technology (a little less so now), though I think I provided more "hot takes" back then. For me, then, the question is more, "why do I continue to blog?" There is plenty in my archives, I am sure, that would be less than flattering for me now, and by blogging on a regular basis, I open myself up even more to this possibility (which, obviously, could be problematic in my quest to find a job in academia). Even so, I continue to blog for three main reasons.

Connections and Conversations
Social Media and blogging are all about making connections and having conversations. It may be cliché, but it's true. It is a direct result of my social media presence and blogging that McCutcheon even thought to ask for such a post from me (or even knew my name in the first place). I have long been a proponent of Twitter (ever since Sam finally convinced me to join in July of 2008 - yes, my first tweet was as mundane as most first tweets: "trying to figure out this twitter thing."). It has allowed me to follow the "Arab Spring" from people on the ground in Cairo and to connect with other scholars of Late Antique Christianity across the country. Most of the new people that I meet in academia now, I "meet" first on Twitter. The ability to have these conversations and to make the world feel a little smaller are why I keep coming back.

Blogging allows me to extend these conversations, to share what I'm reading or watching, my thoughts on these things, and to serve as a curator of sorts for those in my social networks, pointing people toward news items they may have missed or pushing them to think of something differently than they did before. These conversations don't usually happen on my blog, but rather on Facebook posts or Tweets where I've linked to something I've written. (Side note: We seem to have moved past the "should you allow comments on your blog?" discussion and have settled into one of two norms. Either don't allow comments or allow them but never read them.)

These conversations, though, are able to happen much more quickly as a result of social media and blogging than they do as a result of traditional print publications. These are still important, and, indeed, much of the conversation is about print media (the success of Marginalia Review of Books is a prime example). Thus I am able to discuss a new book or journal article that came out with scholars from across the country and across the world in real time.

Further, social media and blogging have allowed me to get involved in conversations in which I'm not usually a participant. I am a scholar of early Christianity but write a decent amount about ISIS, for instance. These platforms allow me to pursue other interests in a thoughtful and informed way while not necessarily trying to publish articles about them right now.

The second reason I continue to blog is that it increases the reach that I can have. I write here, but I also write for the American Society of Church History's History of Christianity blog and for Marginalia Review of Books' MRBlog (I have written for other outlets in the past too). I even recently wrote a guest blog for Alabama's Department of Religious Studies' blog (here). None of the latter three would have been possible without my first writing here and making the conscious decision to write more regularly. This coincided with a "resolution" of sorts to "write every day" this year. The more I write, the easier it is to write, and, I think, the better my writing gets, even if only incrementally.

My reach has been significantly increased over the past year or so because of my blogging and the opportunities that have resulted from it. I now have people reading and sharing stuff I write with whom I have no connection at all (we have no friends in common, they don't follow me on Twitter, etc.). My ideas, my name, and the way I think about the ancient world, early Christianity, and modern politics now have more reach than they used to, and significantly more than they would were I not blogging at all. Indeed, people I have never met have talked about how much they've enjoyed reading my work. This is encouraging for most, I would imagine, but quite so for a graduate student. My increased writing in multiple outlets even led to my being asked to be a respondent for the North American Association for the Study of Religion's Annual Meeting this fall. In other words, the "non-academic" practice of blogging helped me land an academic invitation (and allows me to add another line to my CV, every graduate student's dream).

What is more, blogging has forced me to write for a public audience. It is no secret that much of the academic writing that one reads is dense and difficult to understand. Some of this, I am convinced is done intentionally as a status marker, but a lot of it is done because many academics have trouble translating what seems so clear to them to someone who has not been studying the text in question for two decades. This is an important skill to have for teaching and for the inevitable conversations in the airport. It may be even more important, though, at a time when those of us in the humanities are being forced to defend our fields and to explain their "value" and "worth" to administrators and politicians. If we cannot do this for ourselves in ways that non-specialists can understand, then we have no future. Appeals to the intrinsic worth of the humanities simply will not suffice.

Beyond this I think it is important, if we want an educated public, for us to do the work of taking our knowledge and expertise to the public in a way that they can understand. We cannot lament that people do not understand what we do if we are unwilling to explain it to them in non-patronizing means.

My friend Sam (mentioned and linked above) has been relentless in our almost decade-long friendship about preaching the idea of "bringing it all back home," or, in other words, publishing your material on your platform so you have control. Blogging allows me to retain control of my message as well as what happens to my content in a way that a Facebook post does not. I do, of course, lose some of this control when I write for other outlets, but in a different way (and the outlets I am writing for have missions with which I can identify and often license their content via Creative Commons). Being able to control my content (and import of from one blogging iteration to the next) allows my content to have the home I want it to have.

Related to this is the larger idea of controlling my "brand." Though many academics have resisted the move toward "branding," it has long been a part of academia. One's credentials, what they've written, and where they've taught make up their brand and determine, to a large extent, who reads them, who assigns them, and who thinks of them for panel invitations and professional society nominations. Branding has only become more important with the ubiquity of information readily available on the internet. It is important for me, as an academic in general but also as someone on the job market, that when someone searches for me on the internet, they find me and find what I want them to find about me (namely, my website, my work for other outlets, etc.). Moreover, as I think about my personal brand, it forces me to think about where my priorities are and what impression I want people to get of me. This is, of course, no different than how we should be thinking even sans internet (the same thinking goes into job application materials, for instance).

I am fully aware that this may hurt me on the job market. Potential employers may not want someone so publicly engaged, as it might be perceived as potentially bringing negative attention on a department or school. However, I work to combat this by trying to make sure that what I write for public audiences is produced with as much care as what I write for academic audiences. In other words, do good work. Doing good work is never a guarantee of opportunities or a job, but not doing good work is a guarantee that these will not come your way. This is another way, then, that I have control over my narrative.

Final Thoughts
Writing regularly for an audience brings with it a certain amount of pressure, and this is a good thing. The pressure to perform well/write well/be engaging has pushed me to work harder at what I do and to try to be a better writer. Blogging can be this, but it takes time and commitment. A graduate student must weigh their current commitments to coursework, conferences, teaching, etc. It is probably not a coincidence that I have become more active blogging at a time when I am writing my dissertation. I am mostly able to set my own schedule, which makes things like blogging easier.

As with everything these days, everything you post on any social media platform, regardless of your privacy settings, should be considered public. Breaches happen, people can screenshot your posts, and data can be sold. Much more of our lives are public now and this should force us to be diligent about what we share, but it does not mean that we should not share. Testing out ideas is helpful and can help you hone arguments you're making elsewhere (in class papers or conference presentations, for instance). You do not need to blog about the main thesis of your dissertation (in fact, you should not), but the feedback you receive can seriously strengthen your thinking and sharpen your skills.

Finally, because I often blog about "current events" and politics and attempt to relate them to what I study, I am forced to actually stay current on world events. Likewise, I am also forced/able to stay current on what scholars both in and outside of my field are reading, writing, and thinking in a more real-time way than even the latest journal articles allow. Blogging should not be reduced to mere thought exercises, but it has helped me more closely examine the lenses through which I typically analyze. So, while I rarely write about my dissertation in any detail, I am convinced that my blogging has helped me think through larger issues I am dealing with in my dissertation so that I can (hopefully) provide a more coherent and cogent argument.

I can't tell you if blogging is for you, but it's definitely for me.

"Today's mob will not listen to my argument"

Thomas Whitley

A piece over at the American Conservative (Cake and Cosmology) today attempts to make the point that supporters of same-sex marriage need to at least try to understand why Christians oppose it.

same-sex marriage supporters ought to at least understand why Orthodox Christians int he Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions have to stand firm on this issue. It is not blind prejudice.

I appreciate what this piece is trying to do, but it still seems quite tone deaf to me. The main point is that those who support same-sex marriage don't understand "why . . . [opponents] have to stand firm on this issue." The "mob" that supports same-sex marriage simply is not listening to the arguments of "intelligent Christian men of goodwill."

Rod Dreher includes lengthy excerpts from pieces written by Chris Roberts and Ross Douthat. Roberts says that "today's mob will not listen to my argument, will not listen to my attempt to make my case plausible, because they are convinced I'm a homophobe." 

Yet it seems to me that many have heard that argument and simply don't accept it. Losing an argument does not mean that your argument is not being heard.

Similarly, Douthat puts forth his argument for why he thinks opposition to same-sex marriage by some Christians is completely unlike Christian support for slavery.

The debate about race was very specific to America, modernity, the South. (Bans on interracial marriage were generally a white supremacist innovation, not an inheritance from Christendom or common law.) The slave owners and segregationists had scriptural arguments, certainly. But they were also up against one of the Bible’s major meta-narratives — from the Israelites in Egypt to St. Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.”

That’s not the case with sex and marriage. The only clear biblical meta-narrative is about male and female.

One can easily put forth an argument against Douthat here by pointing out that "marriage" meant a lot of things in the bible including a man and his concubine, a man and his slaves, a soldier and prisoners of war, a rapist and his victim, and a man and his many wives. One can also argue that slavery had just as much justification in the Bible as those who oppose same-sex marriage. Many interpreters spoke of the "mark of Cain." The entire letter of Philemon and the rest of the Pauline corpus do not oppose slavery, even when seemingly given multiple opportunities too. People can, and do, disagree about how the Bible should be interpreted, but Douthat does not have room for other interpretations. Dreher agrees with both Roberts and Douthat and laments that people simply do not understand why this issue is different and why he and others must stand firm on this issue.

It must be said again, someone hearing your argument and disagreeing with it does not equal "I'm not even allowed to make my argument."

The deeper implication, of course, is that if only people would listen to my argument, they would see its wisdom and logic (and probably come to agree with it). That is, if you actually listened to what I'm saying, you'd see that I'm right. This approach, which is implicit in this piece, fails to do just what it's asking for its opponents to do: engage in a conversation where people can understand the arguments of each other and yet still respectfully and intelligently disagree. Insisting that those who disagree with you don't really understand your point is patronizing and an attempt to discredit their positions without engaging their arguments or engaging in the debate that you profess to want.


Image: St. Paul by El Greco via wikipedia, to whom is attributed Ephesians 6.5, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ" and Titus 2.9-10, "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our savior," and who did write 1 Corinthians 7.21, 24, "Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. . . . In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God."

My New Standing Desk

Thomas Whitley

Well, technically, it's not new. I've had the Ikea desk for 5 years now. I decided a few weeks ago, though, to try out a standing desk and wanted it to be economical (remember, I am a PhD student). As a student, I live a fairly sedentary life, regularly sitting at my desk for 8-10 hours a day with few breaks. All of the research of late making the point that sitting is bad for you health prompted me, as did some weight gain even as I workout regularly and run (a little less regularly).

So, I raised the desk as high as it could be, but was still some 8 inches short for the proper placement of my keyboard. My fantastically brilliant wife had the idea of building nesting shelves. The larger and taller shelf would hold my computer and the other shelf would hold my wireless keyboard (which we already had) and my wireless trackpad (which I bought). We built the shelves out of a single piece of 1 x 12, then sanded and stained them. I have a particular affinity for dark stained wood (as can be seen in our apartment and in the wooden tray on the desk). The shelves are built such that the keyboard and trackpad can remain on the lower shelf while it is slid under the upper shelf, giving me more desk space and a cleaner look. I also purchased the mStand Laptop Stand by Rain Design, based on Sam's recommendation to get my screen at an appropriate height and an anti-fatigue mat.

The result is cost-effective and a somewhat minimalist standing desk that is appropriately ergonomic. I am able to store 2 white Ikea boxes that hold regularly used supplies as well as my backup hard drive under both shelves when the lower shelf is pushed in and my Blue Snowball mic that I use to record Thinking Religion sits nicely on the upper shelf.

Because I was out of town for much of last week, I have only had a few days working full time at my new standing desk, but have noticed a few things already.

  1. My knees and feet are sore. This was somewhat surprising to me, as I stand a lot during activities like watching tv. This is no match for standing for a full work day, however. I expect this to dissipate some over time. If it does not, I'll probably try a different anti-fatigue mat.
  2. I move around a lot more. I fidget, I squat, I walk around the room. I have found myself walking around to think whereas I used to lean back in my chair. I'm even quicker to pull a book off the shelf (which, because of space constraints, often means walking to another room in the apartment).
  3. It's easy to forget about posture. I try to stand upright, shoulders back, etc. but often find myself needing adjustment. I still think that my overall posture is better than when I sit and hunch over my laptop.
  4. I feel less guilty when I do sit. Because I'm standing so much, sitting for lunch or to watch a game on tv or at my desk on campus is simply a nice change and I don't think, "I should be standing or moving around." After all, being in one position without moving, regardless the position, is not good for you. Standing, sitting, walking around, squatting, etc. are all important parts of a healthy routine.

So far I'm happy with my transition. We'll see how I feel in 6 weeks or 6 months.

1. Yes, that is the latest issue of Esquire with Nick Offerman and Chelsea Handler naked on the cover.
2. That is a Swedish flag. I'm a German-American, but Sweden has a special place in my heart for many reasons and so I'm currently showing my support and affinity for the country (and some particular inhabitants) with their flag over my desk.

3. The picture was taken on my iPhone 6 Plus..

Abetting Moral Relativism

Thomas Whitley

My colleague Sam Houston and I recently wrote a piece for Religious Studies News about the destruction of antiquities in Mosul that reflected on the reaction to this destruction, particularly among those in the academic community. The piece, Idols or Artifacts? An Exercise in Self-Reflexivity When Pondering ISIS's Destruction of Mosul's Antiquities, makes the point that the nearly unanimous decrying of the group's actions takes many things for granted, especially that these things are worth preserving while other things are not. We point out not only the arbitrariness with which categories such as "antiquity" and "art" get created and maintained, but also the thoroughly political nature of these antiquities in Mosul and the colonial history of this museum in Mosul.

Religious Studies News is a publication of the American Academy of Religion, so the piece was promoted on the AAR's Facebook page. Russell McCutcheon pointed me to the posting and the sole comment on the post:

The comment says, "It is an unfortunate situation when academics abet moral relativism in the guise of scholarly objectivity." I admit that I had to think a bit about how our piece could be perceived as abetting moral relativism. My conclusion was that since we do not outright condemn the actions of ISIS, but rather try to understand the reaction to their actions that we are advocating a moral relativism. After all, who can say that the actions of ISIS are "bad" if the categories used to label the pieces they destroyed as "art" are ultimately arbitrary? I can see how the commenter could get to that point, though I do think that the last half of our piece addresses this point.

What is more, the commenter's point seems to actually prove our point for us. That is, for the commenter it is self-evident that the actions of ISIS are "bad," and Sam and I deserve blame for not unequivocally calling them such. The commenter presents his perspective as natural, as obvious, and as having a firm (and true) moral foundation. Because he possesses this self-evidently true moral foundation, he is able to easily recognize when others do not likewise possess it. Further, he clearly understands our motivations. We really have an agenda of pushing moral relativism, but have hidden this agenda in talk of "scholarly objectivity."

In 16 words, then, the commenter has demonstrated precisely the response to these actions that we had in mind when we worked on this piece. What factors have led to the commenter seeing the actions of ISIS as so obviously bad? What has caused him to value these pieces over other pieces?

I can assure you that Sam and I do not have any secret moral relativism agenda. Indeed, this piece was exceedingly difficult to write because not only were we analyzing responses like those made by the commenter above, but also because we were analyzing our own responses to this situation and those like it. We were attempting to be honest about our perspectives and the ways in which we present them as natural and self-evident while also trying to provide a way forward in thinking about and caring about such events that is honest, nuanced, and not orientalizing. This was quite difficult and we're still not sure that we've moved the conversation forward at all.

Apparently, however it was not difficult for the commenter to dismiss what we wrote and the work we were doing because we did not fit neatly into the categories under which he is working and which he is attempting to oppose on the world around him. Pierre Bourdieu spoke of the desire of every social agent to have the power to create the world through naming. The commenter is acting on this desire by dismissing us as "moral relativists," which I gather is meant in a pejorative sense (though certainly not all would understand this label as such). He then connects his naming-act with a questioning of our trustworthiness (we were writing under "the guise of scholarly objectivity," according to him). The comment, then, is an attempt to be productive. That is, it hopes to accomplish something. By discrediting us, the commenter's perspective is able to gain ground against us nasty moral relativists - at least in his mind. Such a struggle, though, is not a zero sum game, as I have pointed out before. Nevertheless, for the commenter, we are moral heretics who cannot be trusted and he is going to make sure that everyone who sees the AAR's posting of our piece is aware of this.


Image: Poster of Hitler, who is often used as the modern depiction of pure evil, via wikipedia.