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Blog

How Should We Guard Against Link Rot?

Thomas Whitley

Earlier this week Anna Neima wrote on History Today that "historians need to address the threat to footnotes by wholesale adoption of the permalink." Neima lays out the problem quite well.

An American study of two leading history journals found that in articles published seven years earlier, 38 percent of web citations were dead.

Regardless of the difficulty of tracking down obscure references, one can almost always eventually track down the source with enough diligence. Link rot, the process by which internet links become dead or point to pages that are no longer available, however, means that some sources can never be tracked down. This is something that needs to be addressed for a variety of disciplines. While I don't often include hyperlinks in formal papers that I write due to the nature of the sources with which I work, I regularly include them in the online-only writing that I do for Marginalia and the History of Christianity blog. Neima suggests that everyone adopt the permalink, specifically calling for readers to use perma.cc. Perma.cc "allows users to create citation links that will never break." This is accomplished by archiving the webpage in question, which is then stored by perma.cc. On the surface, this seems like the perfect solution to link rot, but at least two issues arise.

1. What happens when perma.cc goes out of business? To be sure, perma.cc plans to be around for a long time, but what happens when they inevitably go the way of MySpace and Friendfeed (R.I.P.)? Perma.cc is trying to combat this eventuality by partnering with many large libraries and law schools as well as "other organizations in the 'forever' business." Yet with the funding cuts in higher education that have become rampant lately and that are beginning to affect libraries, we cannot be confident that these partnerships, and likely funding sources, will themselves be around forever, putting perma.cc in a precarious position. If perma.cc goes the way of AltaVista (remember them?!), what happens to all of their archives? (They do have a Contingency Plan, but is hardly one that should result in confidence that one's Perma Links will actually be permanent.)

2. Perma.cc is not open and democratized. My biggest contention with perma.cc is their vesting process.

Because perma.cc is a service mainly for scholarly journals, courts, and libraries, and because they no doubt have limited storage capacity for hosting archived pages, all Perma Links must be "vested by someone with vesting authority." That is, I can create a free perma.cc account and begin making Perma Links for the articles I write, but if someone does not "vest" them in 2 years, they will disappear. And why would one of the "vesting authorities" vest the random things I link to when I write (like stories about Russians burning effigies of Obama for Lent)? Or, what's to stop someone from "vesting" a Perma Link for less-than-noble reasons? Vesting, according to perma.cc "signifies that an individual affiliated with a journal, court or library has confirmed that the archived materials support these goals and should be preserved as a part of the permanent collection of participating libraries." On what grounds are these decisions made? A Perma Link must support perma.cc's goal "to provide lasting links to online materials cited in academic scholarship, judicial opinions and educational materials." Will questions arise as to what counts as "academic scholarship" or "educational materials"?

In other words, what sort of official discourse will the archiving of certain pages, but not others, produce? If the main reason for not archiving simply everything that everyone wants archived due to storage constraints (after all, we probably reached peak cat-video-saturation years ago), why not offer paid accounts? This would, of course, still result in those with money making sure that their pages are archived while those without would be left with no such assurances. And, lest we think that perma.cc is not fully aware of their role in curating only authorized content, they state up front that their vesting process is "to ensure that vesting only occurs when warranted."

So, how do we, as internet users, historians, and others guard against link rot? Perma.cc is one option, but it only serves a small population of internet users and has an authority structure that seems at odds with the open and democratized web that many are fighting for. Should not a permalink service be more like RSS, in that it becomes a standard protocol and not simply a service is controlled by one (or a few) company for its specific demographic (Vint Cerf is working on future digital compatibility though his focus is less on the internet and more on digitally stored files)? Archive.org seems like a possible alternative, but its Way Back Machine does not contain everything you may want it to, for a variety of reasons.

I think link rot is something we should be guarding against, but I'm not sure that we've found a viable solution that is comprehensive, user-friendly, and democratized.

Moral Truths and The Fact/Opinion Dichotomy

Thomas Whitley

The New York Times' Opinion Page from Monday included a piece by Justin P. McBrayer, associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College, that has been making the rounds. The piece, Why Our Children Don't Think There Are Moral Facts, is McBrayer's attempts to link his son's second grade homework assignments and the fact/opinion dichotomy to moral truth. At issue are two signs hanging above a bulletin board:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

A problem presented by this approach for McBrayer is that these are presented as mutually exclusive; something is either a fact or an opinion. McBrayer points out that someone can believe something that is also a fact (or would this person know this thing rather than believe it?). He then turns to his son's homework, which asks the student to determine whether the following sentences are facts or opinions:

— Copying homework assignments is wrong.

— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

— All men are created equal.

— It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

— It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

— Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.

— Drug dealers belong in prison.

The "correct" answer is that all of these are opinions because they are value claims. I agree with this answer because each statement speaks from a particular normative point of view and does not express any universal truth. To take but one example, a founding principle of this country is that "all men are created equal." It is a principle to which we have yet to live up in any meaningful sense, but most in this country do strive for it. If McBrayer had his way, this would be classified as a fact, but on what grounds? If facts (or things that are true) need not necessarily be provable, then by what measure are we to judge whether something is a fact or not? There are at least three problems with the statement that "all men are created equal." First, it is androcentric. Second, are men (or human beings, if we are offering an inclusive reading) "created"? Doesn't this imply a "creator"? Some people believe in a creator while others do not. There is nothing about the creation of humanity by a creator that should be classified as a fact. Third, human beings are not created (or born) equal. The location and socio-economic means of a child's family play a significant role in the health, life expectancy, and opportunity of a created/born person. Indeed, we would likely be on more solid ground stating that "all men are not created equal," as this would at least speak to the reality of our circumstance. That we may think or believe that human beings are equally deserving of worth, value, fair treatment, and opportunity does not simply make that so.

McBrayer thinks he has found the fatal inconsistency in the system when he juxtaposes his son's homework assignment and the school's student rights and responsibilities handbook.

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.

McBrayer's reading of the code of rights and responsibilities is actually right. It is not a fact that his son's classmates deserve to be treated in a certain manner. That the school enforces such a rule does not tell us that this is actually a fact, but rather speaks to the school's power of enforcement. That is, the school, with the backing of the state, has the power (some would say hegemony) to craft a code of conduct and to require its students to abide by it. If a student does not, the school, again with the backing of the state, has the power to punish that student. That McBrayer believes that the existence of such a system means that it is a fact that classmates should be treated with respect speaks to the success of the school system to naturalize itself. In other words, what a person does or does not deserve is not based on moral facts but rather on arbitrary (and self-serving) decisions made by social actors over a long period of time and the subsequent implementation of a policy that states what one does and does not deserve. This system then presents itself as natural, as obvious, as "they way things really are," as fact. Indeed, the success of the system is predicated on its ability to self-present its rules as facts. This simply makes it that much easier to police the behavior of students, now with buy-in from their parents and, of course, the backing of the state.

McBrayer attempts to further make his point that there really are moral facts by referencing the Charlie Hebdo attack, among other things that appear to him to be self-evidently wrong.

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

It is just this outrage that McBrayer references that is so interesting to study. For many were outraged at the Charlie Hebdo attack, though are decidedly less outraged at the killing of civilians in other countries by our government. Just as McBrayer believes that it is wrong to kill cartoonists who offend a religion, so too did the attackers believe that it was wrong to depict their Prophet, not to mention the depiction of their prophet in intentionally provocative and demeaning manners. One man's terrorist attack is another man's religious war. The relativism becomes clear when groups (religious or not) begin to talk about their own past. Think of the narrative around how we can differentiate between Christian violence and Islamic violence. Think of the narrative of manifest destiny in our country. What our ancestors did was to divinely displace Native Americans; it is other countries who commit genocide.

McBrayer ends with a call for us to do the hard work of determining which moral claims are true.

The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.

I will end by suggesting that that is precisely not the sort of work in which we should want our schools engaged, but rather that the hard work in which we must engage is self-reflectively realizing the ways in which we justify and present as true and natural our existence, our beliefs, and our behaviors while attempting to call out our opponents for engaging in exactly the same project.

 

Image: Immanuel Kant, 18th century German philosopher who is well-known for his moral philosophy, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

#FSUReligion Grad Symposium

Thomas Whitley

The Florida State University Department of Religion's 14th Annual Graduate Student Symposium just ended a few hours ago and I wanted to offer a brief recap.

The symposium was a huge success by all accounts. Putting together a 3-day symposium with 5 meals for over 100 people, scores of presenters, many panels, a keynote, and a roundtable is not easy (I know, because I did it last year), but Andy McKee, this year's director, has worked for months to make this year's symposium a success and the fruits of his labor were borne this weekend.

The symposium consisted of 17 separate panels, wherein 67 graduate students presented their research. The graduate students represented at least 25 different programs and 3 different countries. The theme of the weekend was Resistance and Religion and was highlighted by a truly riveting keynote by Bruce Lincoln entitled, "A Seventeenth-Century Werewolf and the Drama of Religious Resistance." As I understand it, an audio version of his keynote will soon be posted on our departmental website. I will post it when it goes live.

Graduate student conferences seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but the FSU Religion symposium remains, in my humble opinion, one of the best. I'm grateful that so many bright graduate students from all over came this weekend. Scholarship was discussed excitedly and new friendships were forged. If you didn't come this year, you should plan to come next year. You won't regret it.

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.

Lawrence O'Donnell Demonstrates How To Talk About Religion

Thomas Whitley

In a welcome shift from the usual platitudes that fill cable news, Lawrence O’Donnell took issue last week with President Obama’s insinuation that he knew what counted as real Islam. “He insisted that the Islamic State is not Islam,” O’Donnell said to introduce clips of the President’s speech. O’Donnell continues, saying that the President and his speechwriters made an “amazing mistake . . . thinking that there is an identifiable real version of any religion.”

There are ideas about, interpretations of, and definitions of Islam, but there is no such thing as Islam. The same is true for Judaism, Christianity, etc. There are competing versions of Christianity vying for primacy, but no version has any more claim to being "true" or "authentic" or "essential" than does any other version.

Go watch the whole segment (15 minutes) and notice the interplay between O'Donnell's ideas and those of his guests.

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

Are We Fighting A "Religious War" Against ISIS?

Thomas Whitley

Earlier this week in an interview with CNN, President Obama addressed complaints that he refuses to call the war against ISIS a "religious war." In response to Fareed Zakaria asking him if the US is in a "war with radical Islam," Obama offers the following answer:

There is an element growing out of muslim communities in certain parts of the world that have perverted the religion, have embraced nihilistic, violent, almost medieval interpretation of Islam. . . . It is absolutely true that I reject a notion that somehow that creates a religious war, because the overwhelming majority of muslims reject that interpretation of Islam. They don’t even recognize it as being Islam.

Obama has received some criticism for these comments from Republicans and Democrats. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that when he hears the President of the United States "failing to admit that we're in a religious war, it really bothers [him]." Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) thinks that is important to provide some sort of label, particularly one that includes "Islamic."

. . . when you look at those who are trying to incite religious bigotry and fomenting hatred, saying that this is a religious war, actually calling this for what it is, Islamic extremism, is important because it provides that division between the vast majority of pluralistic Muslims, who are not following radical ideology and those that are. So, by calling it, whether its radical Islamists or Islamic extremists, Islamic terrorists, whatever the terminology is, you have to identify what that is in order to provide the dividing line.

Obama's comments show that the US government has, at least tangentially, gotten involved in the insider question of who does and who does not represent "Islam." Note also his use of "medieval" as a way to say that they are not like us modern, enlightened, peaceful people. We have advanced beyond their tactics and their views. Society has passed them by. Gabbard's comments are a bit more interesting to me because in the large strokes she appears to agree with Obama, but she espouses a different solution. Like Obama, she thinks it is important to differentiate between "pluralistic Muslims" and these extremists/radicals/terrorists. Unlike Obama, she thinks their label should include some reference to "Islam."

I am not sure whether Gabbard has read much Bourdieu, but she rightly recognizes the power of naming as a means of dividing (we would call this classification). Gabbard seems to miss, though, that by labeling these actors in some way that includes Islam in the name ("radical Islamists or Islamic extremists, Islamic terrorists"), she is likely strengthening the connection to Islam in the minds of most of her audience. This is the key strategic move understood and made by groups for thousands of years. Naming one's opponent is important. Just as important, though, is not naming one's opponent, or, more specifically, choosing to not give them a particular label.

Thus, Romans talked about "barbarians," Christians spoke of "heretics," and today Muslims speak of "extremists" and "radicals." In each case, the deliberate choice was made to not give the opposing group the preferred or sought after name (even if the group in question gave themselves that name). My main object of study, for instance, Carpocrates, understood himself to be a Christian, but his opponents called him a "heretic," a "magician," a Platonist, but never a Christian. Recently, many have taken to Twitter to promote and spread the hashtag #ISIS_are_NOT_Muslims.

So, the question of whether the US is fighting a "religious war" against ISIS is actually an important one, for the answer that one gives reveals their particular strategy to delegitimate the group. It also reveals a host of other assumptions that people have about Islam in general (e.g., is it inherently peaceful or inherently violent?). The question also offers an opportunity to see the interests that one has in defining Islam and ISIS in a certain way. Obama tipped his hand to this in the interview when he says that "it is very important for us to align ourselves with the 99.9% of Muslims who are looking for the same thing we're looking for: order, peace, prosperity." It is true that it has long been in the foreign policy interest of the United States to find like-minded allies, but it is also true that Obama simply does not want to alienate such a large number of people around the world (according to 2011 numbers from Pew Forum, there are 1.57 billion Muslims worldwide). There is the added interest of some American politicians to combat anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. Thus, calling ISIS simply "terrorists" or "extremists"  - and not attaching the modifier "Islamic" - is seen as a way to achieve this.

So, while this question is not a bad one to ask, it would be better to ask "what is at stake in asking the question and what is at stake in the answers given?"

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.

Racial Construction and the Job Market

Thomas Whitley

Meyers_b11_s0476a

As most of you know, I am in the midst of applying for jobs. That means that my life looks something like this. It's a blast. Really. I have noticed an interesting trend, though, particularly among those positions which use their own website for applications (as opposed to third-party services like Interfolio). There are voluntary self identification questions to help each institution gather data about just who is applying for their jobs. I think this is great, but the categories offered leave a lot to be desired.

Besides the obvious fact that "race" is a completely constructed and contested category in the first place, I've never given much thought to my personal racial classification/identification - "white." That is, until my recent experiences with these job application sites. Here is a question I encountered today.

Affirmative Action Voluntary Self Identification Form-Race Question

As a person of European origins, I selected "white," but as I have noticed on other questions of this nature, those who have origins in the Middle East or North Africa are included in the same category. The problems with the categories of race used by the US Census Bureau have been apparent for some time now (see here and here). On the face of it, it is difficult to see how someone from Egypt would be in the same racial classification as someone from Germany or how someone from New England with Irish ancestors would be classified the same as someone who emigrated from Tunisia. Also not adequately represented in the above options are those who identify as "black" but have origins from any of the Caribbean islands.

If these categories are so flawed and clearly constructed, then why do we keep them? Why do we still engage in such a process of classification not only of our citizens, but of all humans? Why do we so obviously leave out certain groups?

The "Black or African-American" category seems to be based solely on skin color, for why else would those who have origins in a white racial group of Africa be excluded from this group? How should white South Africans respond to this question? The "White" category, conversely, does not appear to be based solely on skin color, as I (someone of Germanic origin) do not look like a Libyan or Egyptian. Yet, according to these categories, we are the same "race." Why the need to separate the African continent? It is not completely based on skin color, even though there is an idea that North Africans are lighter-skinned than other Africans, or else white South Africans would somehow be included with North Africans. Why, when asking for someone's race, is racial included in the response (e.g., "a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa")? This begs the question. Further, if "black" is a "race," then what exactly are "black racial groups"? Are there also "white racial groups"?

Further, why the focus on "origins" and the "original peoples" of an area? How exactly does where my ancestors lived a few generations ago affect my "race"? Why does my current location not affect my "race"? Also, how far back must we go to find the "original peoples" of Europe? Should we look back to the "Middle Ages"? Should we go back to Romans living in modern-day Europe during the Roman Empire? Why not go back further to those who lived in Europe before Roman expansion, e.g., the "barbarians" of Britain? Have we not yet learned that there is never such a thing as pristine origins?

These racial categories are obviously problematic, but they serve merely to highlight the problematic and arbitrarily constructed nature of "race" on the whole. It is most disappointing, though, to see institutions of higher education allowing such acts of classification to go unchallenged.

Image: Map of races in the Meyers Konversation-Lexikon of 1885-90 by Herman Rudi Julius via Wikimedia Commons.

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 (erinroberts@sc.edu) and Thomas Whitley, Florida State University (twhitley@fsu.edu).

The deadline for proposals is 6 October 2014.

Thinking and Writing About Ferguson as a White Academic

Thomas Whitley

Hands Up, Don't Shoot - HowardAs many have I have been following the news out of Ferguson, Missouri closely. I was and remain deeply saddened by the death of Michael Brown. I was shocked at the utterly inept and Constitution-defying response of the police toward citizens, protestors, and journalists. I also recognize the privilege I have as a white male to simply “follow” the news, the privilege I have as a white male of never having had a negative encounter with police, the privilege I have as a white male to not have to wonder how I would be portrayed by the media #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

I can follow as closely as possible what residents of Ferguson and St. Louis are saying. I can hear their cries for justice. I can support their protests. I can be dismayed at how cops and some white citizens of St. Louis have talked about the protestors as “animals” and “beasts,” trying to strip them of their humanity. I can share the racial profiling statistics of the Ferguson police. I can talk about the alarming racial disparity in our country’s prison population. I can talk about white flight. I can struggle with the racism that lives inside me.

I can and have done all of this, and continue to. But I’ll never really know what it’s like to be embodied in a black or brown body. I can’t give up my privilege and pass it on to someone else. We have talked a lot about Ferguson in my home over the past week and a half. I have talked about it on Twitter and Facebook. But I’ve been less outspoken than I would like because there are simply so many other people who are smarter than me, more informed than me, and wiser than me doing the talking. I occasionally retweet them, but I also just sit back and try to learn from them. This is the privilege I have.

But I have noticed a trend of “calling out” people for not saying enough. I have seen this happen by numerous people and not just of politicians, but people in education calling out white educators for not speaking out, some calling out certain leaders in black communities and black music artists  and, more close to home, people who study religion calling out others of us who do the same to speak out. I recognize the importance of a multitude of voices on this and how important it is to incorporate things like this into our thinking, our scholarship, and our teaching. Brooke Lester has already written about how he’s trying to do just this. But I am troubled by the apparent need to defend myself - “Look, here are my bona fides as a fighter of racial injustice. I’ve been tweeting about it” - and the utter smallness of that defense. But I cannot help but also think about the normative nature that this “calling out” has taken on and the process of classification that goes on when some think that some others have not done X, Y, or Z enough. It is interesting to watch. But again, all I have to do is watch - and I don’t even have to do that.

Brooke Lester’s question was how non-Black biblical scholars write about Ferguson. This is my first attempt at writing about Ferguson not on Facebook or Twitter and I have a distinct feeling that it’s woefully deficient. I too am curious how other non-Black scholars of religion are writing about Ferguson, though I’ve seen a lot more than the question would suggest. But I am also curious about peoples’ ideas about why and how we should be writing about Ferguson. On Twitter Brooke Lester said, “Don’t Get It Right, Get it Written.” That may be the best advice.

New Book on the Second Amendment

Thomas Whitley

The Second Amendment Doesn't Say What You Think It Does | MotherJones: But when you actually go back and look at the debate that went into drafting of the amendment, you can squint and look really hard, but there's simply no evidence of it being about individual gun ownership for self-protection or for hunting.

This has long been clear to those who are willing to sit down and do the research or, heck, even just read the text of the 2nd Amendment.

I'll admit that I'm getting closer to supporting a repeal of all gun rights. Many will claim that to be "un-American," but if "American" is synonymous with the rights of some (to own a gun for protection or to hunt) being more important than the rights of others (to live) or if "American" is synonymous with simply accepting the tens of thousands of gun-related deaths per year in our country, then I don't want to be "American."

One's desire to hunt (it is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution) should not trump the right of every other citizen to not be shot. As President Obama said recently of our now-regular shootings,

The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It's not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyone else. Well, what's the difference? The difference is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that's sort of par for the course. . . . There's no advanced developed country on earth that would put up with this.

Except for us, of course, because some people have engaged in revisionist history and willful ignorance when it comes to the Second Amendment and because some people honestly believe that their right to own a gun should be more important than someone else's dead kids, especially when these dead kids are black and brown.

As Michael Waldman's new book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, points out Justice Scalia's argument that he is an "originalist" - basing his decisions on the original intent of the framers of the Constitution - is fundamentally flawed. For it is impossible to know the original intent of an author. In my field, this question comes up time and again with reference to ancient texts, especially the Bible. Many argue for "authorial intent," and base interpretations on what the author meant, but as has been made clear for centuries now, this is not something we can know, even when we are confident that we have gotten very close. In reality, it is our current circumstances, world-views, and various social and political leanings that most influence how we read old texts, the Constitution notwithstanding. This is why, for instance, Waldman is able to show how interpretations of the Second Amendment have changed so much over time.

This should be reason enough to abandon the fantasy that we can interpret the Constitution for today based on what it meant when it was first written. But I think that we should go beyond even this. We simply do not live in the same world as those who wrote this Amendment in 1791 lived in. We have no need of militia's, we have no recent memory of a foreign power ruling over us. Since we are already interpreting the Constitution based on our place and circumstances, why not be honest about it and maybe try to do some good. It is not unheard of for us to realize that things needed to be changed. The Thirteenth Amendment did this, turning over the then-Constitutional Three-Fifths Compromise.

After George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin February 26, 2012 I heard a lot of people echoing the comment of NRA President Wayne LaPierre, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." (This is a myth, by the way) But I wonder why, if we have so many "good guys" in this country, they don't care enough about those around them who are getting killed every day to do something about it. Maybe we could start by making it tougher to buy a gun than to vote or drive a car or purchase antihistamines.

What I've Learned From Writing My Dissertation . . . So Far

Thomas Whitley

Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation I've been actively writing my dissertation for just over 4 weeks now. I had done a significant amount of research and translation of primary sources (oh, the translations - I have a single-spaced document with my own translations of all of the relevant primary sources that currently stands at 57 pages) prior to beginning the writing phase. Also, this 4 weeks includes taking off almost a full week of writing when family came to visit.

As of writing this post, I have over 15,000 words written. The combination of text and footnotes puts me currently at 48 pages. I'm not sure how that compares to the pace of other writers. I know that it's quite a bit slower than my normal pace of writing, but it's going well. I've read a lot about how one should write - enough to know that there is no single answer (aside, of course, from sitting down and actually writing). Should I write 20 minutes every day or 2 hours? Should I write every day or only during the week? There is no shortage of those who are willing to offer their answers as gospel, but what I have learned over a decade of post-high school education is that the best way for me to write is my way.

That looks different than some and I often break many conventional rules. For instance, I edit, look up sources, and input footnotes during my writing [GASP!]. The nature of the chapter I'm currently writing means that every day or so is a new mini-research project that requires the acquisition of new sources. Some will say that I should simply put in [CITATION] where one is needed or come back during a distinct editing time to drop in that quote. For me, though, that just seems to create more work for later when it will take me much less time to do it now than later when I have to go back to where I was, remember the quote I wanted, determine if I worded the surrounding text appropriately, etc.

My writing strategy is nothing special.  Contrary to the rumors a friend of mine is apparently spreading, I am not "basically done" with my dissertation. I came into the summer with a healthy amount of research and a well-thought-out outline. I made a goal to write X number of pages over the summer and promised myself - and, by extension, my wife - to only write on weekdays (I have a life outside of academia that I love and I want to keep it that way). As a result of my progress so far, I have been able to increase my summer page goal. I have one day where I wrote almost 3,000 words. I have another day with only 39. And that's okay for me. An arbitrary daily word count only ensures that I will keep writing just to write when a day's task has already been appropriately completed.

My experience in academia has not been as long or varied as many, but it has been long enough to see the ubiquitousness of particularly mindset: as an academic You should always be working/writing. There is a pervasive mentality that academics should not take time off. They should work every day, even weekends. Vacations should be done so that research can happen concurrently. Many (especially graduate students) offer humblebrags about how late they stayed up, how many all-nighters they have pulled, or how they never take a day off. I got in to academia and I research early Christianity because I love it, true, but it's also a job (if you can call what I have now a "job" - and I hope it leads to a "real" job in the not-too-distant future). I have a wife with whom I enjoy spending time. We often eat 3 meals together in a day. We watch (probably way too much) HGTV. We've started playing tennis. I like to travel. I like to run. I like to ride my bike. I have friends. Work is important, but it's also important to set boundaries, even more so when your work is also a passion.

You'll notice that this mentality among academics differs with what most non-academics think of academics; namely, that they teach 2 or 3 classes and then hang out at a coffee shop for the rest of the day reading Karl Marx. This, even as new research is simply confirming what we have always know: "Professors work long days, on weekends, on and off campus, and largely alone."

So, what have I learned?

1. My way of writing works for me; it may not work for others. It's amazing how much you can get written when you sit down and write instead of reading other people tell you how to write.

2. Setting boundaries has meant that I've been productive and been able to take much needed breaks to go to the beach or a baseball game.

3. Good time management is essential. This has always been a strong suit of mine (I'm leading a roundtable/workshop on it at AAR in San Diego in November), but it's even more important during the summer when I have all this "free time" and have to make my own schedule, be my own motivation, set my own deadlines, etc.

4. Writing a dissertation can actually be a fun process. To hear some academics speak, you'd think the dissertation process necessitates that one come through it with scars, a horror story, and talk of a life-changing experience. Maybe it's because I'm only 15,000 words in, or maybe it's because I like what I'm writing about (hint: I write a lot about sex), but I've quite enjoyed my writing so far. To be sure, some days are less enjoyable than others, but on the whole it's been fun so far. This may change. Stay tuned.

What do I have left to learn about this process? What did you learn?

Bonus: You can get occasional insights into what I'm writing on on a given day or during a given week, if you follow me on Twitter.

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.

On Mother's Day

Thomas Whitley

My mom is great. Really. She loves me and accepts me unconditionally, but she also challenges me and pushes me to be more caring, more open, and more loving. She celebrates even my smallest achievements as only a mother can. I won't say that my mom is better than your mom (she is) or that my mom can beat up your mom (she can), but I do hope you have a mom that's just as great. She's taught me a lot and, I'm sure, tried to teach me much more. So, on Mother's Day and in honor of her, here are a few pictures from the trip that me, Trinity, and my parents took to Sweden this summer to visit friends. It was a great trip and I can't wait until our next one.

DSC01922 DSC02216 DSC02103 DSC02034

Picture 1: Downtown Stockholm in the background Picture 2: At Lyckans Slip on the west coast Picture 3: At Håkan and Margareta's house in Munkeby (also, in front of their sailboat) Picture 4: At City Hall, Stockholm, overlooking the Baltic Sea just steps from where Trinity and I got engaged in 2006.

Thanks, mom, for who you are and who you've helped me become.

 

 

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.