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Filtering by Category: Religion

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."

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.


Elizabeth Clark, Boss

Thomas Whitley

A piece by Elizabeth Clark has been making the rounds in the alcoves of the Internet in which I dwell. It is "The Retrospective Self," The Catholic Historical Review 101, no. 1 (Winter 2015), 1-27. In the piece Clark recounts her academic journey, beginning in high school with notes on King David that read:

I. David
A. He lived in a tent.

Clark discusses many of her publications, what led to them, and the shortcomings that she sees in some of them. Clark has had, by all accounts, a masterful career. Indeed, she is one of the reasons we now have a field of "early Christian studies" or "late antique Christianity." I was fortunate enough to attend LizFest almost two years ago, a symposium in her honor that included many of her former students. What stood out to me at LizFest and stands out in this piece is the care that she had for her students and her desire to helps others and to see them succeed.

Of what am I the most proud concerning my career? The contingent of graduate students who entered academia, equipped with their developed skills and interests to teach new generations of students.

I suppose that it is fairly normal to feel as if you were under-served or under-informed at an earlier time and to thus do what is in your power to make sure that those who come after you do not meet with the same ignorance and skills that you did. This is certainly how I feel about portions of my academic career and why I try to do the little bit that I can to better inform the undergraduates with whom I work that are interested in academia. Even heading into graduate school I feel as if I barely knew the field, or what to expect from it. Part of this is my own shortcoming, my own unwillingness to listen I am sure. But Liz Clark has set the bar for all of us, and it is a bar that her students continue to meet in their acceptance of graduate students from across the country, their willingness to engage with them in scholarly discussions and those less so (how I do love Twitter). She is the standard to which we all strive.

Also, she's a boss.

My Week (Or So) In Writing

Thomas Whitley

I am, as always it seems, plugging away at my dissertation. I'm currently working on a chapter about Carpocratian views on metempsychosis (transmigration of souls). It's going a bit slowly, but I think the reorganization I've done will make the chapter better. I've also been writing non-dissertation stuff too.

I wrote a paper for the upcoming FSU Department of Religion Graduate Student Symposium titled "Carpocratianism, Authority, and the Communism of Wives." I'll be presenting that next weekend. If you're in town, you should come to the symposium. There will be a lot of great papers and Bruce Lincoln is giving the keynote Friday evening. Some of the ideas in this paper led to the post that went up on Monday on the American Society of Church History's History of Christianity blog, Heresiology as a Zero Sum Game.

A little over a week ago I wrote Are We Fighting a "Religious War" Against ISIS? in response to a CNN interview that President Obama did. Then last Thursday, President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and made comments on violence committed by Christians. The response was swift and largely negative. I wrote On Differentiating Between Christian Violence and Islamic Violence the following day to examine the arbitrary and self-serving nature of such differentiations, which were a staple of the responses. That post was, by my site's standards, wildly popular. Thank you to those who shared it and for the feedback I've received. That post also resulted in my being asked to write for Marginalia Review of Books' MRBlog. My first post, The Rhetoric of Similarity: Republicans, Complementarians, and ISIS, went up yesterday and it looks at the response to the response to President Obama's Prayer Breakfast speech.

Religion is in the news as much these days as ever, but solid analysis is lacking in the pieces produced by large publications (Lawrence O'Donnell's recent segment was a welcome exception). The theme of much of my writing this week has focused on this need and tried, in a small way, to fill this gap.


Image: Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, via Wikipedia.

On Differentiating Between Christian Violence and Islamic Violence

Thomas Whitley

Two days ago I wrote about the criticism of President Obama for his reluctance to say that the US is fighting a "religious war" with ISIS. Yesterday he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and again addressed the topic of religious violence.

Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post, among others, took issue with parts of the speech. In discussing those who "hijack" religions "for their own murderous ends," Obama attempts to say, in a sense, we've all been there.

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Obama was apparently not very successful because the backlash was swift. Ingraham does not like Obama's invitation to "weigh very different forms of violence and suffering against each other, which is not typically a smart idea." I am unclear as to why this is "typically" a bad idea. I am clear, though, on how differentiating between the Crusades and modern Islamic violence benefits many Christians. Ingraham lays it out for us.

Of course, if you think about this for a bit you start to see the problems with the comparison. Some slave traders may indeed have sought justification for their actions in the Christian faith, but much of the trade was driven by economic reasons (a demand for cheap labor) and racism. The Crusades were just as much about political power as they were about religion.

And so, Obama’s drawing parallels between today’s acts of violence in the name of Islam and acts of violence through history in the name of Christ omits a key nuance.

The key nuance that Ingraham wants us to believe is missing is that the Crusades, slavery, etc. were all really about power or economics, but modern Islamic violence really is about religion. Such a distinction serves the dominant Christian ideology in two ways. First, it allows that some Christians did some terrible things, and they may have even said it was in the name of Christ, but it was really about politics, power, and cheap labor. In other words, "Christianity" is not tainted by these acts of violence. The implication is that since we can see "non-religious" motivations behind or benefits from these acts of violence, the religion is not implicated in the violence (besides, true Christianity isn't violent anyway, amiright?) Second, this distinction allows Christians to ignore the "non-religious" motivations and benefits of modern Islamic violence so that they can continue to believe that Islam really is violent. Issues of land, western imperialism, economics, and theories of governance can be ignored if the violence carried out in the name of Allah really should be connected to Allah.

When Ingraham says that "the Crusades were just as much about political power as they were about religion" he is missing that such a statement is true about every act that is ostensibly "religious." Christian bishops cutting off the grain trade to another city in order to starve that city and that city's bishop into (theological) submission was "just as much about political power as [it was] about religion." So, the problem is not that Obama did not pick an apropos enough comparison nor is it that Ingraham has misread the Crusades, but rather that Ingraham has read the acts of violence perpetrated by Christians as really being about power and politics and has failed to realize that the same is true for all acts carried out "in the name of" any religion.

P.S. Might I suggest that this is why the Washington Post and other news organizations should employ scholars of religion to write about religion (and why Religious Studies is a worthwhile major in college). Completely unrelatedly, you can always contact me here.

Image: Charles Dharapak, AP

What The Past Can Learn From The Now

Thomas Whitley

Yesterday I watched this documentary on Pompeii. It asks the sensational question, "was Pompeii the secret sex capital of ancient Rome?" I live-tweeted my viewing with quotes, questions, and thoughts prompted by the video. The bulk of my response to the video was centered around how we as historians do history.

This documentary talked about sex in Pompeii as if it were the only thing anyone there could ever think about and so I wondered, what will historians 2,000 years from now write about us? With the proliferation of sexualized images in television, print, and internet advertising, the ubiquity or pornography, and especially the advent of more amateur pornography will we be described as a "sex capital"? That is, if the bulk of what survives about our society in this time period relates to sex, what else will future historians be able to do, but to write about our obsession with sex?

Yet, if we were to write about our world now, while sex would certainly be a significant component, we know that it would not be the main focus, and it would be the over-arching narrative. We would write about economics, politics, higher education, sports, cell phones, wars, and oil. It is not difficult to see that a single narrative would not do justice to our society and thus neither does a single narrative do justice to the ancient world.

As a historian of the ancient world, I often try to liken the ancient world to the modern. I know that the differences in time, space, culture, language, etc. are significant, but I also think that the past is not completely foreign. We can know things about the past and I think that what we know about the present can influence how we view the past. Just as nuance is necessary today, so too is nuance necessary when we write and talk about the ancient world.

Our histories can only take into account the evidence that has survived. But what percentage of physical and intellectual material has survived from the ancient world? 10%? 5%? And I'm one of the lucky few who studies the ancient mediterranean world where the climate is a tremendous aid in preservation. We as historians, then, with all of our texts and archaeological findings and confidence are seeing only a fraction of the world that existed. And yet we have taken it on as our task to understand this world and describe it to others. The paucity of evidence should not be a deterrent - heck, my whole dissertation is about a guy whose writings don't survive and we only have what his opponents said about him - but it should give us pause, especially as we write grand generalizing statements about life or religion in the ancient world.

As much as anything else, this is a reminder to me that my often myopic focus should be expanded a bit. There existed an entire world to which we will never have access and so, as we write (about) the past, we should think of today. Our world is much more than a politician, or a philosopher, or a religious leader, or even a group of people. So too was the past.


Image: Cover of The Limits of History by Constantin Fasolt. It, along with Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, are great reads when thinking about these sorts of questions.

Heresy, Sexuality, and Christianity

Thomas Whitley

This is how my friend and editor over at Ancient Jew Review Krista Dalton tweeted about my piece for Ancient Jew Review in which I introduce Carpocrates, talk a bit about my dissertation, and discuss how we should think about "heretics" in early Christianity.

Who is Carpocrates? | Ancient Jew Review: To the opponents of Carpocrates, this theology was, as Clement mocked, “fornicating righteousness” and Theodoret said that they “make licentiousness law” . . . . These Carpocratian theological and philosophical explanations were simply excuses to more “orthodox” authorities, designed to justify licentious behavior.

Head on over, read the rest of the piece, and join the conversation.

Normativity and the American Academy of Religion

Thomas Whitley

aar Two weeks ago I returned from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, CA. A few days ago the New York Times ran a piece about the AAR's president, Laurie Zoloth: "Setting Aside a Scholarly Get-Together, for the Planet's Sake." The article outlines Zoloth's desire that the AAR observe a shmita - the Jewish concept of a once-every-seven-years year in which all work ceases, debts released, etc. - and cancel the Annual Meeting so that scholars of religion would "refrain from flying across the country, saving money and carbon." This is ultimately a futile proposal. The next shmita year is 2021, so the then-current AAR president would have to have the same desire to see such a thing take place as Zoloth does. The planes that we would not be taking in this hypothetical would continue to fly and so there would be no, or at the most very little, carbon offset. The proposal is also one that would disproportionately affect graduate students and contingent faculty, who rely on the Annual Meeting for job interviews, networking, etc.

The biggest problem with the proposal, though, is not its logistical difficulty, but rather its desire for normativity. "I decided it was the core moral issue of our time," Zoloth said about climate change. Zoloth's concern is now supposed to be shared by all members of the AAR. Indeed, the theme of this year's AAR Annual Meeting was climate change. It is not difficult to see how this is a rather problematic theme for many scholars of religion to fit their work in to. I, for instance, study heresy and orthodoxy in early Christianity. The result is that most sections at the AAR simply ignore the larger conference theme in favor of the rest of the necessary scholarship going on in other realms. Also problematic is that Zoloth apparently assumes that all AAR members share or should share her view of the Jewish concept of shmita and be swayed as she personally has been.

Zoloth envisions this "Sabbatical Year" as a time during which we as scholars of religion would give talks to “the poor, in local high schools, community colleges, or the prison, the hospital, the military base, the church, mosque, synagogue or temple.” Zoloth is close to pushing that scholars of religion become (if they are not already) practitioners of religion, a suggestion that would seem to fly in the face of the mission and purpose of the AAR.

Zoloth's quest to make scholars of religion more in her image also extended to diet.

Dr. Zoloth didn’t win all the victories she sought. A vegetarian, she was unable to persuade her fellow organizers to keep the conference catering meat-free. When asked why others resisted, she shook her head and said, “I don’t know. They just couldn’t imagine it.”

Requesting multiple options that cater to the various dietary needs/restrictions/wants/whims of the 10,000 conference attendees is appropriate; arguing that everyone should adhere to your personal dietary needs/restrictions/wants/whims is not. This strikes me as simply another example of the desired normativity of the AAR. You may say, "this is simply the desired normativity of one member of AAR," and you are right to a degree, but when this one member happens to be the president of the Academy, the likelihood that this person's normativity is imposed on the rest of the Academy's members increases exponentially.

A professor of mine from a few years back said that most critiques amount to nothing more than "why aren't you interested in what I'm interested in?" and that is not a legitimate critique. Zoloth's tenure as AAR president seems to be centered around just such an idea. To be good scholars - and good humans - we must all be interested in what she is interested in.

2015 SECSOR Call for Papers

Thomas Whitley

The 2015 meeting of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (representing the regional arms of the AAR and SBL) will be March 6-8 in Nashville, TN. The full call for papers can be found on the SECSOR site, but I wanted to highlight the call for the History of Christianity section, of which I am co-chair.

(AAR) History of Christianity We invite proposals that relate the history of Christianity to the theme of the 2015 meeting, “Disability.” Proposals may deal with any period of history and may be conducted from any methodological or theoretical starting point; the theme “Disability” may be construed broadly. There will be three sessions, one relating to myth-making, a session relating to disabilities and the history of Christianity, and a third joint panel with Method and Theory of Religion on Pierre Bourdieu and the History of Christianity. Undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to send proposals, provided that the proposal includes the name and contact information of a faculty member who agrees to mentor the student as needed. Send questions and/or proposals to Erin Roberts, University of South Carolina ( and Thomas Whitley, Florida State University (

The deadline for proposals is 6 October 2014.

The Journey Continues

Thomas Whitley

For Sam, that is. He's heading back to finish his Master of Divinity.

Back to Seminary | Sam Harrelson: However, incessant gentle prodding from a hand unseen drives me towards an extended realization that to be fully actualized I must throw myself into the fiery and mysterious darkness of Sinai where God's voice still hovers and beckons humanity to listen.

Sam has been (and continues to be) a great friend. I can't wait to see what the next leg of his journey looks like and to be involved in any way possible. Head over and check out the rest of the post where he lays out why and why now.

Also, be sure to check out ministrieslab.

Sin is Culturally Defined

Thomas Whitley

La Confession de Pietro Longhi, vers 1750 I've thought about writing this post for a long time. A very long time.

The reality of the title statement hit me sometime in my teens, as I attended a church that taught that the consumption of alcohol was a sin. Yet my parents, relatives, and family friends - all equally "Christian" - drank alcohol responsibly. I stepped closer to this statement when a very important time of my life ended in disappointment because my powerful conversation partner remained shut down to my claims that current religious prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol (and the subsequent labeling of such activity as "sin") were merely a holdover of our country's earlier legal prohibitions.

Through college and divinity school I became exposed to numerous groups of Christians who had different lists of "sins," different definitions - sometimes radically different. Why was this so, I wondered? Were some "better Christians"? Were some more "devout"?

It was, I think, during divinity school that I started openly telling others my theory that sin was culturally defined. I was rebuffed, often. Opponents of my view would quote Bible verses to me and I would quote them back. Romans 14 quickly became a favorite chapter of mine. Verse 5b: "Let all be fully convinced in their own minds." Verse 14: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." Even Paul was proclaiming the relativity of sin.

[Aside: This is the same Paul who cannot settle on what he even means when he uses the term "sin." It is sometimes very clearly doing things one ought not do, but other times it is very clearly some cosmic force which is able to indwell human beings and in fact does dwell in the flesh, while the Spirit of God dwells in the spirit. Yay, dualism.]

Recent conversations in our country and in various Christian circles about same-sex marriage have caused me to become more convinced than ever. Those who are opposed to same-sex marriage because homosexuality is a "sin," or at the very least that engaging in "homosexual acts" are sinful, employ the so-called clobber verses: Romans 1, Leviticus 20, etc. The selectivity of using these verses (and not verses that prohibit wearing clothing made of mixed materials, for instance) as a guideline has been pointed out and labeled hypocritical. Countless proponents of marriage equality have talked about Romans 1, the homoerotic acts discussed therein, and the invention of "homosexuality" in the 19th century as though they were experts. The text does not mean what it seems plainly to mean, but instead one must realize that there was no understanding of things such as "sexuality" and same-sex monogamy at the time, the arguments go.

While the authority of the Bible is regularly given as the reason for claiming that homosexuality is a sin, I have yet to meet someone who claimed that homosexuality was a sin that would claim the opposite about slavery, though the Bible clearly and repeatedly condones the latter. Claims have been made by religious leaders and politicians and Facebook friends that the "Biblical definition of marriage" is that of one man and one woman. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, after all. In response to this I am fond of posting this helpful chart:

Biblical Marriage

All of these miss the mark, though. For it is our culture, or our particular subculture, that has already defined "sin" for us. We need only to provide the explanations for our classification. When examined with a critical eye, it becomes apparent that there is no consistent list of "sins." My dad could not play cards when he was growing up, though I could and no one considered telling me that the activity was a "sin." Galatians 5.2 says, "Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you." Even so, most American Christians permit their male children to be circumcised. It is the cultural norm. Claims will be made of lax or weak Christians, though the hypocrisy runs rampant in all stripes of Christian. Merely pointing this out only takes us so far.

We do better to realize that intimately connected to what counts as "sin" is the power struggle over identity and legitimacy. Liberal Christians denounce conservative Christians as not really following Christ's example. Conservative Christians denounce liberal Christians as not accepting the authority of the Bible. The recent World Vision debacle gave us a trove of examples people from all sides engaging in these identity politics in the matter of a few days. Charges flew back and forth explaining who was a "true Christian" or who was worthy of the name "Christian." The ones leveling the charges always included themselves in the "true Christian" group. Self interest, FTW, huh?

At the heart of these struggles are people and groups engaging in the varied processes of identify formation and maintenance. For the authenticity of one's faith to be legitimated, his opponent's faith must be delegitimated, so the thinking goes. We see the same processes at work in the early Church when Paul fought vehemently with the Jerusalem Church over Gentile entrance requirements, when Irenaeus and Epiphanius produced their (in)famous lists of heresies, when controversies arose over the personhood or divinity of Jesus, when bishops used their powerful connections to oust competing bishops, when those in power feared the new-found popularity and increasing authority of the desert fathers and mothers, when "heretical" groups were excommunicated and then when they were no longer considered "heretical" because someone new was in power.

It seems a cynical and crass way to view history and to view the church, yet no other view suffices. No other view explains the arbitrary nature of what is considered "sin" at a particular time and place. We need only look to the sermons about the "curse of Ham" to justify the institution of slavery in this country and to couple these with their context: civil war America where one part of the country had a significant economic interest in maintaining that slavery not only should be legal and was not a "sin," but that it was actually part of God's plan. Such a sermon would never fly today in an America that has outlawed slavery, has outlawed Jim Crow laws, has continued to make progress in racial equality (though it remains slow, painful, and rarely steady), has elected its first black President, and recalls with fondness and humility Dr. King's dream. The context has changed. The culture has changed.

Similar examples can be given of how shifts in public opinion are directly tied to shifts in theological understandings and understandings of "sin" as it relates to issues such as same-sex marriage, drug usage, interracial marriage, drinking alcohol, etc.

It is true that in many circles I am considered a "heretic." I have been deeply influenced by being met with hostility and questions like, "How can you call yourself a Christian?" So I am keenly aware (and have become much more aware thanks to Foucault, Bourdieu, McCutcheon, etc.) of the role that power and identity politics play in claims of truth, authenticity, and normativity. Sin is no exception.

Noah, Irenaeus, and Classification (Or, Look Mom My Research Does Matter)

Thomas Whitley

Noah Movie ScreenshotEveryone, it seems, is weighing in on the new Noah movie that has just been released. My favorite "review" comes, unsurprisingly, from The Onion. By far, though, the vast majority of reviews of the film I have seen and read have come from evangelical Christians urging other Christians not to see the movie. This led me to stumbling upon one by previously-unknown-to-me Brian Mattson, Sympathy For The Devil. Mattson's review is interesting for a host of reasons. First, his review provides a stellar example of how classification works and why classification matters. For Mattson, Aronofsky was not making a movie based on the Bible, it was instead based on the Kabbalah and is highly "gnostic." Here's why this matters:

Darren Aronofsky has produced a retelling of the Noah story without reference to the Bible at all. This was not, as he claimed, just a storied tradition of run-of-the-mill Jewish “Midrash.” This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources. To my mind, there is simply no doubt about this.

You see, for Mattson Kabbalah and Gnosticism cannot equal anything close to Judaism or Christianity. Nevermind that many so-called "gnostics" likely self-identified as Jewish or Christian in some way, Mattson is now the one that gets to classify and they are not Jewish or Christian according to his classificatory scheme. (Aside: I will speak to "gnosticism" since that is squarely within my research and "expertise," Kabbalah is not. Further, I say "many" and "likely" because we do have sources that survive from "gnostics" that allow us to know this, but many "gnostic" sources were intentionally destroyed or simply did not survive the accidents of history, so we must speculate about their means of identity formation.) Aronofsky, then, according to Mattson, has not told a Jewish story (or a Christian story) - regardless of the Jewish texts that contain many of these traditions like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, etc. - he has told a pagan story.

The next aspect of Mattson's rewview that caught my eye was his use of the 2nd century heresiographer Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus wrote Against the Heresies in which he identified "heresies" and "heretics." Scholars have known for some time that Irenaeus is not the most reliable source, particularly in this text. For we should always be cautious about trusting one's opponents to give an accurate view of a person or group. That would be like trusting Sarah Palin to accurately describe Democrats or trusting Chris Matthews to accurately describe Paul Ryan. Yet, this does not stop Mattson from accepting Irenaeus as gospel.

Here’s a 2nd century A.D. description about what a sect called the Ophites believed:

“Adam and Eve formerly had light, luminous, and so to speak spiritual bodies, as they had been fashioned. But when they came here, the bodies became dark, fat, and idle.” –Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, I, 30.9

Mattson does not question Irenaeus' claims, though we know that Irenaeus and those who followed in his footsteps, like Epiphanius, often made up "heretical" groups whole cloth. Their project was about labeling those who were "in" and those who were "out." They would list out the "heresies" and urge people to avoid them. Some descriptions were loosely based on historical groups with whom Irenaeus happened to disagree on some matters, others were simply straw men used to strengthen his position, to scare his readers about those numerous and crafty "heretics," and to offer him a chance to denounce something that someone might come to think/believe or to denounce a group about which he had heard rumors. This is exactly the type of literature with which I work on a daily basis, which leads me to my last point.

I am in agreement with Mattson that more and more people should be reading Irenaeus.

In response, I have one simple suggestion:

Henceforth, not a single seminary degree is granted unless the student demonstrates that he has read, digested, and understood Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies.

Because it's the 2nd century all over again.

Now, Mattson and I will clearly differ on what it means to have "read, digested, and understood" Against Heresies, but more people reading it can only mean a bigger audience for my work (right? right?!).

There is more that could be said about Mattson's review: he rails against "Gnosticism" while apparently not recognizing the dualism and "gnostic" elements that are ever-present in his Bible (just a cursory reading of Paul or the gospel of John will reveal this); he went looking for Kabbalah, so he found Kabbalah; he legitimately believes that Aronofsky did all of this as one big, elaborate, expensive experiment to make fools of evangelical Christians; he derides the "elitism" and the prominence given to special knowledge in "gnosticism," but advocates a clear hierarchy between "rank-and-file" Christian viewers and "Christian leaders: college and seminary professors, pastors, and Ph.Ds."

But the most important point of all of this is that my research is relevant. The processes of identity formation are not new. Heresy and orthodoxy are both political creations of parties with something invested in who's in and who's out. Just as Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Augustine, Epiphanius, etc. drew boundary lines to demarcate "Christians" and "heretics," people today are doing the same thing. The data set is different, but the process and the goals remain the same. Place arbitrary significance on some aspect of difference, put yourself in a position to name and classify, and you'll end up in while your opponents end up out.

The Olympic Marriage Metaphor

Thomas Whitley

Ice Skating - McLaughlin_Brubaker_Death_Sp iral

An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives | Desiring God: They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given. They are not jostling about fairness. They are focused on doing their part well. No one yells, “Oppressor!” as he leads her around the arena, lifting her up and catapulting her into a triple spin. No one thinks she is belittled as she takes her lead from him, skating backwards to his forward. No one calls for them to be egalitarian. “She should get to throw him into a triple Lutz half the time!”

This blog post has garnered quite a bit of attention since it was post two days ago. Some have been humorous (Rachel Held Evans tweeted the link with the comment, "Egalitarians: Urging female figure skaters to toss male figure skaters through the air since *never*."). Some have been responded more thoroughly (like this post that draws on the author's dancing experience). And some have been more akin to the subject of an email I received about the article, "Really??"

If the author weren't so serious about why complementarianism is THE ONLY APPROPRIATE CHRISTIAN AND BIBLICAL MODEL FOR MARRIAGE, we could laugh at the absurdity of a piece which claims that a man should be the clear masculine leader of his appropriately feminine wife by means of a metaphor that includes men who dance, on ice, wearing make up, and often in costumes that contain beads, rhinestones, feathers, and glitter.

But as it is, John Ensor is serious. His larger point seems to be that pairs ice skating is an appropriate metaphor because everyone who watches it instantly realizes how each skater complements the other perfectly because they understand their roles. Esnor clearly does not fully understand pairs ice skating, as this piece points out. But the part of the blog post that bothered me the most was his suggestion that everyone agrees with his view of pairs ice skating. In truth, many of us realize the systemic sexism involved in many sports and in the Olympics as a whole. With many commentators making comments like, "She's even as good/fast/strong as some men we've seen here in Sochi," even the Olympics, with their high ideals and international appeal, leave a lot to be desired when it comes to promoting true equality.

So, no, I will not be telling my wife that I must now lead here and she must receive me because some guy thinks that pairs ice skating shows some inherent "truth" about how men and women should interact in all facets of life. Pairs ice skating is nothing like marriage, but you know what is a lot like marriage? Marriage.

I think I'll let my wife and I figure out what's best for our marriage and ignore the unsolicited advice of someone who expends so much time and energy on trying to make sure that a male hierarchy is maintained.

And God Bless The United States of America

Thomas Whitley

Obama State of the Union (2010)The State of the Union address is tonight. For the first time in as long as I can remember I will not be watching it live, though I will read it or watch it tomorrow. I think these kinds of things are important. No, these speeches do not usually change poll numbers or have a huge effect of legislation, but I think it's good to hear the vision that our President thinks is important to lay out for the next year(s). President Obama's vision for the next year is not all that will be on display tonight, though. No, we will see a great example of civil religion on display.

So, as you prepare to watch the SOTU, or after you have watched it, check out our latest episode of ThinkingReligion in which we take up the topic of America's civil religion.

ThinkingReligion 21:  American Civil Spirituality | Thinking.FM:

Thomas and Sam continue last week’s conversation on canon and discuss whether America really is moving toward a new civil spirituality and whether an American civil religion can survive in a religiously pluralistic society.

God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Identity Politics of Celebration

Thomas Whitley

MLK JrIt seems to be becoming more and more difficult to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The vast majority of articles I have seen leading up to this day seem to have done one of two things. They either co-opt King's words, name, and brand in an attempt to drum up support or sales. Or they tell me why I do not actually understand what Dr. King was about. Articles of the latter kind are, likely, more necessary than I would like. Many people do seem to have forgotten (or perhaps simply never knew) many of the issues about which Dr. King cared so dearly. Even so, it seems a rather arrogant position to announce to the world that you are one of the few chosen ones who really understands Dr. King, particularly when your own pet interests turn out to be "what Dr. King really fought for." The disingenuousness is palpable.

We are at a time when just about everyone desires to claim the mantle of Dr. King, to assert that he/she is continuing his fight. This is not, I think, a completely bad thing. For it means, at the very least, that, generally speaking, we as a nation recognize what Dr. King meant to our country and the power of his legacy. Yet much of it still strikes me as distasteful and a bit of a charade.

I am not questioning any single person's commitment to carrying out Dr. King's dream, but I am wondering to myself whether simply putting up a quote from one of his speeches or letters actually does anything to see this dream realized. Is it done out of more than desire to have a certain box checked - the box in question being something like, "Thinks Civil Rights are a good thing"? And what about other causes which I think are important and for which I voice my support? Is what I'm doing actually helpful? Am I advancing the causes of freedom and equality? Or have I become too comfortable with my slacktivism?

[Aside: I reread Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again today. It is one of the few modern texts that I reference in my Introduction to the New Testament class. This letter comes up when I talk about the process of canonization and how we got to the New Testament that we have today. I explain to my students that the canon has never been stable. The first list that we have record of that contains all 27 - and only these 27 - books that are currently in the New Testament is from 367. That's over three centuries after Paul wrote his letters. And the list-making did not stop there. I talk about other canon lists but my students perk up the most when I tell them of the suggestion that King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" be included in the New Testament. I always enjoy the surprise on their faces.]

My larger point is that I recognize how history-making and history-writing happens. I am quite familiar with famous people, ideas, and movements being used to advance various causes - some seemingly quite foreign to their ostensible inspiration. This is much of what I study in my own work as a historian of early Christianity. Doing history well is hard work - some would say impossible - even with a figure as recent and as well-written as Dr. King. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has shown us this quite well in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History and Constantin Fasolt reminds us that "history is in and of itself political" in The Limits of History. The days leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the States this year and the spate of articles, commentary, and social media posts they produced only make this reality more clear to me when I see the co-opting, revisionism, selectivity, etc. at work in how he is talked about, celebrated, and used to condone one's own views and actions while condemning everyone else's.

We are all of us, it seems, engaging in politics. Do I understand Dr. King better than another because I have read the authors he frequently references like Socrates, Augustine, Tillich, Buber, and Eliot? Or does someone who has grown up on the opposite end of the privilege-scale from me better understand Dr. King because of shared experience? No answer to these questions is free from some sort of political agenda (and I don't mean political in the Republican-Democrat sense). And this is what is so hard about being an actor in a society and not merely an observer distanced by time and space. For now I must think about my own use of a famous historical figure like Dr. King.

Just how deeply involved in these identity politics am I already? And is there another way?

SBL Paper

Thomas Whitley

Back in May I gave my word that I would post about my Society of Biblical Literature paper. The annual joint meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion will be in Baltimore at the end of the month and I'll be there with 10,000 of my closest friends . . . or something like that. I am excited to catch up with some friends and former professors most of all, and am quite interested in the conversations regarding the state of higher education, the humanities, religion, etc. and to attempt to garner a bit more information about what my job prospects may soon be. I will also be presenting a paper. My paper is a part of the SBL Rhetoric and the New Testament Section and is titled, "Docetism, Gnosis, and Laughter: The Rhetorical Reception of the Passion Narrative at Nag Hammadi." Here is my abstract:

There can be no denying that the death of Jesus was a watershed moment for Christianity. For some early Christians, the death - and subsequent resurrection - of Jesus was a sign that he had defeated death and could bring salvation to his followers. For other early Christians, however, the idea that Jesus, being fully God, could die was a heresy above all heresies. This paper examines the reception of the Passion of Jesus at Nag Hammadi, specifically in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and analyzes the rhetorical strategies employed by these authors in their retelling of the Passion story. These two texts have been chosen for the prominence they give to the laughter of Jesus, and it is this element of the text that provides insight into the rhetorical work being done by these texts. A thorough examination of these texts reveals that their use of a laughing Jesus serves rhetorical and polemical purposes. I will highlight three rhetorical strategies at work in these texts in regard to this laughter.

First, the laughter of Jesus emphasizes his full and utter detachment, reinforcing the generally docetic ideas found elsewhere in these texts and in broader gnostic literature. In Apoc. Pet., for example, Jesus is seen above the cross, “glad and laughing” (81.15-18). The “living Jesus” is fully detached from the material world in this retelling of the passion narrative. Thus, he can sufficiently mock the circumstances through his laughter. Second, Jesus’ laughter, by being continuously and systematically linked to the ignorance of others, reinforces the central gnostic tenet that the true followers of Christ possess a certain gnosis, without which salvation is impossible. Third, a Jesus who is able to laugh during these iterations of the Passion scene is discursively engaged in identity-formation by providing a means for the authors of the texts to deride and mock their opponents, rhetorically polemicizing the Other. In Treat. Seth Jesus calls multiple champions of the faith (Adam, Abraham, David, etc.) a “laughingstock” (60-63). This move reinforces that these characters do not possess adequate knowledge and thereby works polemically - by othering those who have followed in their tradition - to push back against the real or perceived threat to the identity that this author is working to construct and validate. Thus, these texts from Nag Hammadi, in their reception and recasting of the passion narrative, engage in real rhetorical work in attempt to accomplish specific theological and social goals.

So, you now have something to do in Baltimore at 9am on November 24.

Conservative Christian Slut-Shaming, Boys Will Be Boys, and Identity Formation

Thomas Whitley

Chances are by now you've read the recently viral post "FYI (if you're a teenage girl)." Many of us had our Facebook feeds inundated with people sharing the post and proclaiming its wisdom. Then, slowly but surely, less glowing responses began to show up. [See this fantastic example that brings in late antique Desert Mothers.] The post is framed as an open letter to a teenage girl (whom I hope is imaginary, or at the very least, a composite character) that has posted a picture which the author (a mother) perceives as overly sexual. The mother explains that her family sits around the dinner table and goes through the feeds of the teenage girls that are online friends with her teenage sons. When they come across what they perceive to be a too sexual post, the teenage girl is blocked.

Admittedly, the overall message of the post seems to be one of trying to teach children good social media practices, but it does much more than that. For starters, there is what appeared to many commenters as blatant hypocrisy: the mother decried certain photos of teenage girls while peppering her post with photos of her attractive and fit sons, bare-chested on the beach (the author has since replaced these pictures). But this only scratches at the surface.

There are two deeper issues that jumped out to me.

First, the post perpetuates the myth that females are responsible for anytime someone else views them as sexual beings. It is the girl's fault, the mother believes, when her teenage boys see pictures like this and have sexual thoughts about the girl. Many have said that the post is engaged in "slut-shaming," which is the practice of viewing a person as a "slut" because of some action such as the way he/she dresses, the use of birth control, etc. This is most often perpetrated on women. Whereas guys are often seen as heroes when they are sexually active, girls are often seen as sluts. In this blog post the mother comments that the teenage girl appears to not be wearing a bra in the picture (she is apparently in her bedroom, heading to bed) and then proceeds to lay all of the responsibility on this teenage girl.

know your family would not be thrilled at the thought of my teenage boys seeing you only in your towel. Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t quickly un-see it?  You don’t want our boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?

Besides the generally condescending tone, it is clear to the mother that it is the teenage girl's responsibility to make sure guys don't think of her sexually.

The second deeper issue is also demonstrated in the above quote: the myth that males always and everywhere are only ever capable of viewing females sexually. Apparently, after seeing one "sexual" picture of a teenage girl, guys are only able now to think of that teenage girl as a sexual object. The idea seems to be that "boys will be boys" is true and that it portrays a real, ontological truth about males. She talks about "a male" as if it were a specific scientific species whose inherent nature is the same across the board, as if her claim that a male cannot un-see a "sexual" image were as solid a truth as the law of gravity. Just like the practice of slut-shaming and implying that it is a female's responsibility to make sure she is not viewed sexually, so too this implication that males have no choice but to view females sexually is a sexist generalization rooted in issues of identity and power.

This particular blog post is not my first encounter with conservative Christianity's warped views on sex and gender. The particular conservative Christian culture in which I grew up preached what I now consider to be a very unhealthy sexual ethic. It said being sexually attractive or sexually attracted are "sins" that one must flee (unless one happens to already be married to his/her opposite-sex spouse). It bordered on saying that all sex must be for the purposes of procreation. It continues to perpetuate the idea that you are what others think you are - this is why the mother is blocking teenage girls because of who she perceives them to be after one picture and also why, for instance, I was always instructed to never have lunch with a female to whom I wasn't married.

My experience was of a culture that sent mixed messages when it came to sexuality. On the one hand, you should never think about sex (no lie, while in college I heard a speaker say that "sex" should be defined as anything that prepared your body for sex - this would include thinking about sex, involuntary erections, etc.), or look at pornography, or masturbate, etc., and you should be careful to "guard the heart" of the girl you were "pursuing" (guys always pursued girls, girls never pursued guys). Yet on the other hand, youth pastors and camp speakers were celebrated for talking about how "hot" their wives were - the underlying implication being that if you chose to really serve God, by going into "the ministry" for instance, then God would reward you with a "smoking hot" wife with whom the sex was always amazing.

There is a clear element of placing all of the blame on females for just being too attractive or not doing enough to strap down their breasts (i.e. not becoming enough like men). Gospel of Thomas 114 seems apropos here. Females were shamed and guys were taught that even looking twice at an attractive female was a sin (we were taught to "bounce our eyes"). Girls were always the objects and guys could never hope to be anything other than sex-crazed.

But there's more. I  see another process at work in how conservative Christianity talks about sex and gender and that's the process of identity formation. These messages and actions work to draw clear lines between "us" and "them," between those who are sexually "pure" and "chaste" and those who are "sluts" and are only seeking sexual attention. Because of this, the message must be presented in a very specific way and you must do very specific things to be considered part of the group. Sometimes this takes the form of signing a True Love Waits card (and of course, buying one of their purity rings to wear, proudly displaying your virtue and group affiliation). Other times it takes the form of proudly declaring to the world just how virtuous and godly you and your family are (like maybe in a blog post). The end result is always the same: "we" are clearly superior to "them."

I know the blog post was ostensibly about good social media practices, and that is a conversation that I think is very much worth having, but not in this way.

---------- P.S. There is another feature to this post that bothered me that wasn't immediately relevant to my above comments and that is the idea that our teenagers should never be having sexual thoughts, that the very fact that we are sexual beings is a "bad" thing. I understand that for many conservative Christians that is true. This is a view rooted in an anthropology of humanity that is informed almost solely by the doctrine of "The Fall." This is not a doctrine to which I subscribe for a host of reasons. Sexuality in and of itself is often viewed as evidence that we are "depraved" and "sinful" and just all around horrible beings. Messages like this abound, as do more blatant attempts to make other people feel guilty for who they are as a person and as a human being. I am all for sexual responsibility, but I think that we should be promoting better sex education, safer sex, and a sexual ethic that is overall sex-positive.

“Same Love” and Theology at the VMAs

Thomas Whitley

This was originally posted on the ABPnews Blog on August 27th. I watched the VMAs Sunday night, in their entirety, and I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. The show created a significant amount of buzz on social media platforms for a myriad of reasons. There were the rumors of an *NSYNC reunion, which happened for a song and reminded everyone why an *NSYNC reunion would be a terrible idea. There was the repeated and continual tribute to Justin Timberlake. And there was whatever that was that Miley Cyrus did, which I’m sure had Billy Ray Cyrus once again singing “Achy Breaky Heart.”

But what most caught me was the performance by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert of their song “Same Love.” The song won the award for Best Video with a Social Message. It’s a song many are familiar with, as it’s gotten a lot of radio play this year. But not everyone is a fan.

Many Christians have rebuked the song as not understanding God, or Christianity, or theology. I read one tweet last night that said Macklemore needed an “intro to theology,” implying that his understanding of God didn’t even meet the standards of an introductory Christian theology course. Let’s take a closer look.

In the first verse Macklemore says,

The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision And you can be cured with some treatment and religion Man-made rewiring of a predisposition Playing God, aw nah here we go America the brave still fears what we don’t know God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago

Reparative (or conversion) therapy enjoyed a few golden years, but as the recent apology and closing of Exodus International demonstrates, its days are quickly coming to an end. But the fact still remains that many conservative Christians do see one’s sexuality as a choice, at least when it’s not their’s that is under the microscope. Just as I do not wake up each morning and choose to be attracted to the opposite sex, my gay friends do not wake up each morning and choose to be attracted to the same sex.

Macklemore is offering a critique of the type of Christian message that  one minute claims “for God so loved the world” and then spews hate the next. He addresses the reality of a “canon within the canon,” which is the practice of elevating certain books and passages over the rest (I’ve written more about that here). Many Christians are quick to trot out Leviticus 20.13 but never seem to get as passionate about Deuteronomy 22.11 or Exodus 34.26.

Macklemore goes on to sing about the content of one’s Christian message:

When I was at church they taught me something else If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed That holy water you soak in has been poisoned

The message of Jesus, as I recall it, was not to hate each other and hate your enemies, but to show love for one another and love your enemies.

And then later he sings what is probably his most controversial line:

Whatever God you believe in We come from the same one

That this line would be controversial is not surprising, but it is not a new idea to Jewish or Christian theology. The Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) offers ample evidence of YHWH overtaking the personalities and traits of various local deities such as El, Baal, and Asherah. Many psalms and hymns are at heart henotheistic and/or homogenizing. Henotheism is the belief that many deities exist, but that there is one high God. We see God among the divine council, for instance, in Genesis 1.26 and Psalm 82.1. Other passages and beliefs are homogenizing in the sense that they make the claim that while God may be called something else by someone else, it is really God that is being worshipped. This is the basic claim made by theologian Karl Rahner when he spoke of “anonymous Christians” (with which I do not agree for a host of reasons).

I do fully understand the backlash that “Same Love” is getting from the conservative political and religious arenas, but the dismissive attitude exhibited toward the song that is meant to convey the message that it possesses an “un-Christian” message and “infantile” theology is misguided, at best.

There is no doubt that Macklemore, with his song, and MTV with its introduction of the song by Jason Collins, are making political statements. Jason Collins said, “I knew that hating someone for their sexual orientation was the same thing as hating them for their skin color.” To be sure, not every one agrees with Jason Collins or with MTV’s move. That is to be expected. But the theology behind it? Well, we’ve been down this road before.

Just as many today claim that one’s sexual orientation is a legitimate reason to hate them or cast judgment, many of our baptist ancestors used the same arguments, only then with a racial motivation. The so-called “mark of Cain” or “curse of Cain” was used as justification for slavery by the Southern Baptist Convention. But just because we’ve made these mistakes in the past does not mean we must make them again. Just as we rejected the notion that one’s skin color was an adequate indication of his/her character or relationship with God, so too we must reject using sexual orientation as a litmus test for whether one can call themselves “Christian” or whether one understands God or theology or ecclesiology.

So today I am applauding both the song and its high-profile placement at the VMAs Sunday night. The song does line up in some ways with my theology of God, my understanding of love, and my belief in equality for all, though not nearly a hundred percent. But beyond that I celebrate that the song works to make gay students and gay teachers and gay cousins and gay neighbors know that they’re not alone. It fights for one less person to take his/her life because of the hate they have experienced. It fights for love and life in a way that not much else in popular culture does right now, including many Christians. And it offers a healthy critique of our “Christian” messaging. That’s something we need. And as for the message that God loves all of God’s children? Well, that’s a theology I’m not ashamed to espouse.

Fox News Doesn't Understand How Academia Works

Thomas Whitley

In one of the more bizarre interviews I've ever seen, a Fox News host interviews Reza Aslan, author of the new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In the interview the host - Lauren Green, who is a "religion correspondent" for Fox News Channel" - can't seem to wrap her head around the fact that Aslan, a scholar who happens to be Muslim, has written an academic and historical book about Jesus. The very first question of her interview is about this:

Now I want to be clear about, you're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?

This is an odd question to anyone who has spent any time around the academic study of religion, which this host clearly has not, as Aslan's personal faith has absolutely zero relevance to his work as a scholar of religion. After Aslan explains that he has four degrees, one in New Testament, is fluent in biblical Greek, and has been studying Christianity for more than two decades, the host interrupts him to ask

It still begs the question, though, it begs the question, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?

For starters, no, it does not actually "beg the question;" that is a very specific logical fallacy and not simply another way of saying, "but it makes me wonder." But pet peeves aside, I was continually amazed at the host's inability to understand the very basic principals of how academia works. During the rest of the 10-minute interview, the host brings up Aslan's Muslim faith at least 7 more times, every time dumbfounded that a Muslim could write an academic work about Jesus and there not be some secret Muslim plot afoot.

On Fox's website where they have the video posted, the description of the video even hints at their disbelief that this is possible:

Reza Aslan, author of 'Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,' says he wrote the book as a historian, not as a Muslim. [Emphasis mine]

The persistence of the host to continuously bring up Aslan's faith, which is still completely irrelevant to his work as a historian, is bad enough, but she then quotes critics of the book (who seem to not have actually read the book) as if she has dismantled his entire argument. The first critic of the book she quotes is John Dickerson, a journalist and political correspondent - i.e. not an academic, not a historian, not a scholar. Aslan then proceeds to tell her how scholarship works:

Of course in any scholarly discussion of Jesus, as with any scholarly discussion of any ancient figure, there are going to be widespread differences.

Anyone who has even taken an introductory course in religion in college understands full well that scholarship is a giant, centuries-long discussion. Scholars put forth arguments and other scholars either agree or disagree with those arguments. Step by step, the field moves forward based on the evidence at hand and the application of theories and methodologies to our material. The process is exactly the same as it is in the so-called hard science fields like biology and math. Again, I am baffled.

But this interview has done more than just baffle me. It has renewed my conviction that groups like the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion must get involved in efforts to educate the media and the general public. These organizations, both of which I am a member, should be acting like trade unions, of sorts, and like lobbying groups.When news breaks that relates to our field, SBL and AAR should be contacting news outlets and putting them in touch with actual experts.

It is sad and immature that news organizations think that quoting a journalist's Op-Ed is a legitimate critique of an academic book, but I think that we too must bear some of the responsibility. News organizations, for the most part, wouldn't know who to contact if they wanted to and likely wouldn't even know where to start looking. We should bear the burden of pointing them in the right direction, or at least in a direction that is toward someone who actually has a PhD in the matter being discussed.

So, yes, we should be outraged and we should work diligently to shame Fox News and Lauren Green (as I know the academic community already is on Twitter and elsewhere). Yes, we as a general public and especially as scholars of religion should demand more from news organizations "religion correspondents." But then we need to get to work taking our job as educators seriously and in some cases that will mean that we need to move outside the classroom and on to the airwaves.