On the Spot with Jason Ellsworth

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

The answer I provide to this question is often contingent on the context in which I’m asked. Is the question being asked at an academic conference, with family or friends, or perhaps while doing fieldwork? My general response — I used to simply say that I studied religion (religious studies). Partly because it was a nice quick sentence that bundled everything up into a simple box. But it was also an exercise, as I was curious about what responses and questions people would come up with for me. How did they envision something called religion? Some would ask if I was in training to be a clergy or priest, while others would begin to talk highly about all the good deeds that religions were doing in the world. Some might ask me a question about a very specific recent news story that a so called religion had been mentioned in, or they might ask what I hope to do with a degree in something like this, and others might start talking about the need for the separation of religion and the state (or politics). It provided an opportunity to engage them on their views of the topic of religion and then explain how my own study of “religion” addresses what they were talking or asking about — hopefully extending the conversation into a variety of directions that challenged us both. This can be a longer exchange and so other times I say that I study religion from a social scientific or anthropological perspective. It’s interesting that when I answer this way, I get a lot less of the responses and questions I just mentioned. Instead, since I added the word “science” it seems to justify my study as somehow more legitimate. The question may arise on what I hope to do after I finish my PhD, or they may offer a critique against “religion” in the world — but either way my description usually satisfies them more quickly.

Continue reading “On the Spot with Jason Ellsworth”

The Violence that We Like

The online laments that followed the second to last Game of Thrones episode, “The Bells,” is instructive, I think, for it makes evident that  many of us support violence when it is in service of our interests. Continue reading “The Violence that We Like”

Fame, What’s Your Name…?


I’ve been watching “Huge in France” on Netflix, a show based on the premise that a famous French comedian comes to the US to rekindle (or, better put, kindle) a relationship with his teenage son (an aspiring sunglasses model living in LA), the result of a fling some years earlier with a young American tourist.  It stars Gad Elmaleh, who plays himself and, yes, who is actually a very famous French comedian. But, of course, none of the Americans in the show have ever heard of him — much as many viewers here might have never heard of the actor (he’s also big in Quebec, they say). Continue reading “Fame, What’s Your Name…?”

On the Spot with Vaia Touna

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

It all depends on, of course, to whom I’m talking. I admit that in the early years I was feeling quite frustrated explaining that what I was doing is not theology, that I’m not searching whether god exists or not, whether there is paradise, and that finishing my studies I would not become a priest or a nun. Yes, these were/are some of the standards questions I will get and I assume many of my colleagues do. Now, knowing full well that this is the reality and that people in general are likely not to have any knowledge of the Religious Studies discipline, I get less disappointed and in fact sometimes I wonder why should they even know. I certainly don’t know a lot about many disciplines and in fact even though I guard myself against my own misconceptions, it is likely that my own experiences or what ever knowledge I have of a particular discipline inform how I understand them or even misjudge them, so I welcome those misconceptions people have of my own discipline as a challenge. So back to the question, although I don’t have a standard answer that I give to everyone, in general in my reply I would explain that Religious Studies is a discipline within the human sciences and therefore interested in people and their behaviors, with a focus on how people use, talk, define, and understand religion and the consequences those usages, definitions, etc. have for them and the world around them. Then I would go into the more specifics, that is, how my data (the things I’m studying) relate to ancient and modern Greece and that in my research I’m interested in the way both scholars and people define religion (that is, how they understand religion) and how those definitions inform understandings of both the ancient and modern world (I might even give an example or two). If I see interest then I would explain that definitions whether of religion or any other term are one among many acts by which people come to identify themselves and understand, even construct, the world around them. Hashtag REL100. Continue reading “On the Spot with Vaia Touna”

On the Spot with Russell McCutcheon

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

 1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

Depending who it is I might say “You” and then wink — if it’s a scholar of religion asking, that is. So although I was originally trained in what was called the philosophy of religion — taking doctoral courses on Plato, Kant, with a very early interest in what is commonly called the problem of evil, writing one of my three comprehensive exams on ancient Greek religion and philosophy, etc. — I soon moved to what our program at Toronto had just invented as method & theory, a bit of a catch-all category for some but which, at least for some of us, meant a particular approach to examining how scholars went about their work (not to mention an interest in developing naturalistic theories to explain the existence and function of religion). So although I had an early interest in theories of religion, I’ve come to be interested in theories of “religion” itself, so I study the history of my own field and the ways we go about our work, the tools we use and the larger institutional and social settings in which our work developed and is today carried out. So, really, I’m interested in the politics of classification, as exemplified in this one academic field but in a wide variety of other places as well, dipping into a tradition that owes much to, among others, the late Mary Douglas’s work in anthropology. Continue reading “On the Spot with Russell McCutcheon”

“The Power of Subtle Arrangements and Little Things”

This semester I’m teaching a course on Religion & Gender, and one of the books I use is Julie Ingersoll’s Evangelical Christian Women.  Ingersoll wrote the book in part as a response to the scholars who have argued that some evangelical Christian women claim to feel “empowered” by complementarianism and the separate spheres discourse (i.e., the discourse that separates out public from private life and relegates men to the former and women to the latter). Ingersoll allows that that might be true for some women in evangelical communities, but that other evangelical women report finding evangelical gender ideology oppressive and discriminatory — and she supports the claim with ample evidence gathered through interviews with evangelical women.

One of the claims of the book is that the contestation of gender is central to evangelicalism, or what we might call the evangelical habitus. That’s why, according to Ingersoll, that debates over whether women can be ministers, leaders, or teachers, as well as the debate over gay rights, generate so much heat within the evangelical subculture. Continue reading ““The Power of Subtle Arrangements and Little Things””

On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

I tell them that I study religious people. I say this instead of “religion” because I want to emphasize that there is no religion without people behind the enterprise. That may seem a truism, to some, but since our field still engages so readily with talking about all sorts of disembodied religious traditions — i.e., differentiating between “Christianity” and the “Christians” who practice it — I think this is a really important distinction that places the emphasis back on human behavior. This explanation also helps with the task of clarifying that I’m not involved in some sort of ministry or theological pursuit, which is a presumption that most of us get when asked this question.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

My research up to this point in time has dealt largely with how various American conservative Christian entities re-negotiate their identities within a religious framework in order to secure certain social outcomes. More specifically, I’ve been looking at how evangelicals use religious ideas for particular ends within the American political system. I think the most important takeaway from this research has been that the identities and other types of portrayals that evangelicals make for themselves and others shift substantially as the political winds dictate, all while claiming no such shifting at all (in the name of eternality or god’s will). Instead of calling this hypocrisy or some sort of failure to live out “authentic values,” as is often the rhetoric from those on the left, I just see this as the normal mechanics of a social group. Everyone does it, in other words, because social groups are always looking to secure their own legitimacy, and when the social conditions change dramatically, so will, at times, their own identities. Continue reading “On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith”

Ceci n’est pas du papier

Shadow: In 1933, Roosevelt took the U.S. off the Gold Standard, right? … So you can’t just go into a bank and redeem money for gold or silver. You said money is the most powerful god in America. But money isn’t actually worth anything.

Mr. Wednesday: I have a piece of paper, hm? But I want this salt shaker. You have the salt shaker, but you’re willing to take my piece of paper for your salt shaker. Now, why would you do that?

Because this isn’t actually a piece of paper; it’s a story.

And the story that you heard over and over and over again. And it’s been drummed into you that this is worth something. This is of value. No matter what country, culture, or religion. The whole world loves… money. The greatest story ever told.

 

– Episode 204, “American Gods”

On the Spot with Matt Sheedy

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

My current elevator pitch is that I study religion, culture, and politics in the Euro-West, with an emphasis on North America. When I expand on this description, I typically say that my work centers on questions of religion in the public sphere. On the meta-level this means paying attention to how dominant ideologies, such as multiculturalism, liberalism, and secularism, construct how ‘religion’ is mediated or understood and thus how it functions to regulate group identities in particular ways. As for methodology, I tend to rely on ideology critique, along with discourse and narrative analysis (including theories of affect and rhetoric)  to examine the various ways that religion and culture are represented — in news media, film, and popular culture. While my data is, in theory, open to any groups that make these sort of claims, I tend to focus on insiders and outsiders representations of Islam, (North American) Indigenous traditions, atheism, and Christianity.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

Questions of identity are often central to kind of work that I do. For example, I’ll look at popular examples of how religion (or secularism) is narrated (e.g., by pundits, politicians, or in pop culture) as instances of identity formation. Here the focus is on how actors attempt to draw lines around what, e.g., ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’ is, while at the same time failing to reflect upon the ways in which these normative statement function to shore-up their own identities (e.g., as superior, better, more rational, ethical, etc.). In short, this line of inquiry forces us to ask where (and why) people are ‘hiding the ball’? Continue reading “On the Spot with Matt Sheedy”

Prayer as a Public Performance of Identity

Is prayer always a form of supplication, intercession, or thanksgiving? Or can it serve other functions?

Screenshot from YouTube

From the Pennsylvania Capital Star:

“A first-year member of the Pennsylvania House on Monday offered a prayer laden with political and Christian imagery shortly before the swearing in of the chamber’s first Muslim woman. Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, said “Jesus” 13 times, “God” six times, and “Lord” four times, as Raging Chicken Press writer Sean Kitchen first noted on Twitter. She also expressed thanks to God that President Donald Trump “stands besides Israel” in a rambling, nearly two minute prayer. “Jesus, you are our only hope,” Borowicz said during the prayer. Borowicz delivered the prayer shortly before Movita Johnson-Harrell — the first Muslim woman elected to the General Assembly — was sworn in.”

See the full video here.