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RIP, Martin Riesebrodt

I found out late.

I guess that’s the first thing to say. I found out months after he’d passed. I was out of touch, focusing on my own family, local contacts, and particular field of study. It’s the lateness that increases my sadness that Martin is gone, an indication that I failed to maintain my relationship with him in the way I had wished.

Martin Riesebrodt passed away from cancer at his home in Berlin on December 6, 2014. I hadn’t known he was ill. He is survived by his wife, the artist Brigitte Riesebrodt, and their son, Max. I knew them for a period, while I was a student in residence at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (2000-2003), and his research assistant (2001-2003). In passing, I taught his son the rudiments of guitar (he wanted to learn heavy metal, but all I knew was fingerstyle acoustic; he suffered patiently and is now, I believe, I devoted Heavy Metal musician who I hope would look indulgently on my old-fashioned love of Black Sabbath, and my current love of Mastodon), and got to know the family a bit. They were, without a doubt, the kindest and most coherent social grouping I met during my time in Chicago, and I will forever be grateful for the space they made for me in their lives, and the role modeling that Martin was to me.

There are other obituaries that will do a better job of describing Martin as a scholar: he was a Weberian through and through, and attracted to the study of religion in much the same way that Weber was, as someone who felt both outside and strangely inside. Weber famously claimed that when it came to religion, he was “tone deaf.” Yet he produced some of the most perceptive and influential works in the sociology of religion possible. Martin was similar.

His commitment to Weber was such that I remember working the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Book Sale. Hyde Park is a famous place to purchase books, and the Divinity Sale book sale is something of a jewel in that already fine setting. So I was curious when Martin would enter the book hall, walk around for about 20 minutes, and then leave without purchasing a single title. Meanwhile, graduate students and faculty alike were struggling under suddenly impossible towers of books that they hadn’t intended to purchase. As Martin breezed past the desk where I worked, I couldn’t resist ribbing him,

“No good books today then, Martin?”

“I have a book,” he replied, and continued on his way.

And though he was joking, he was also telling the truth. In many ways, he had a book: Max Weber’s Economy and Society. His commitment to that Weberian approach never diminished his imagination or his habit for devouring new fields of knowledge, but it also never wavered. He kept up on all the latest in Weberian scholarship, but he was, himself, I think it’s fair to say, a true believer in the ways that mattered.

His disciplinary stability allowed him an immense range of material to cover, again like Weber. His well-known book, Pious Passiontraced the rise of Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms in Iran and the United States, and identified the anxious patriarchy at the heart of each. He would often tell people that the project had been established during a year as a visiting scholar to the United States, where he watched prodigious amounts of television: Pro Football and Televangelists. I’ll leave the reader to make the connections themselves, or just read the book.

I don’t know why he asked me to be his Research Assistant. It was for a project that was to be his final book, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of ReligionSuch a project was the sort of foolish errand you only do at the end of a career, he assured me with the sort of bemused good humor which was his mainstay, and which assured both himself and others that he wasn’t taking himself too seriously. But he took the work seriously. And we are better for it.

I know that it was under his mentorship as his Research Assistant that he began to introduce me to texts, authors, and theories that made me a better author. Whether I wanted to or not. I would never have read Charles Tilly unless he’d insisted I study his Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge ComparisonsHis insistence that I then immediately engage in my own comparative work, and take Tilly’s provocations seriously, pushed my own thought forward immensely.

Here’s a link to the obituary at the University of Chicago, and a sort of followup from his funeral service, which was held on campus, at the Divinity School. Both places include many nice testimonials from his colleagues and students, as well as a video of a recent lecture. That’s also where I stole the image that appears above, which looks most like the Martin I knew.

My heart is with his family. Rest In Peace and Power, Martin.

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