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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Read: Bruce Lincoln’s “Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars”

In comment, read on May 22, 2013 at 10:54 am

I received my copy of Bruce Lincoln‘s latest book, titled Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religionsand finished it last night (See here for a short review of a previous book of his). It is an excellent book, full of the sort of provocative, clearly-argued, and most-often compelling arguments about the field of religious studies, its methods, and, to a slightly lesser extent, application. These subjects have been at the heart of Lincoln’s academic project for quite awhile, and it is not an accident that this volume, which is a collection of essays and articles, many of which have been published in journals previously, begins with a piece of writing that is one of Lincoln’s most famous and provocative: his “Theses on Method.” These theses have provoked much response and discussion by those who challenge Lincoln as overly reductive, or hostile, to religion, though I have never seen his approach in that way. You can read Timothy Fitzgerald’s criticism of this piece, and Lincoln’s response, here and here.

I studied under and worked with Lincoln for a few years as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago Divinity school. Having taken several classes with him, met with him as an advisee, and attended many public talks, I never found him hostile to religion as such. He might have been occasionally reductive, but only in the sense that he was willing to examine phenomena very closely, which I take as a characteristic of scholarship, and indeed, language.

Two pieces (Chapters Two and Twelve) offer straightforward advice on how to accomplish particular tasks within Religious Studies (“How to Read a Religious Text” and “Theses on Comparison”). Others deal with cosmogonic (universe-creation) myths, modern and ancient science and how they dealt with phenomena that don’t confirm their cosmologies, differently-characterized types of mythic discourse, World Religions as a discourse of its own, as well as the traditional themes of sanctified violence. His final essay, “On the (Un)discipline of Religious Studies,” begins with an anecdote – and an essay unpacking that anecdote’s relevance – of an argument between Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z. Smith on whether chaos or order should be prioritized in time (i.e., ‘which comes first, order or chaos?’). Each essay is worth careful study.

I will be using parts of this book for my first version of my “Introduction to Theory and Method” course, which I’ll be teaching this fall. At a minimum, I intend to have us

  1. Work through “Theses on Method” and its responses
  2. Read “How to read a religious text,” and apply those rules to both (a) a religious text, and (b) the essay itself
  3. The (Un)discipline of Religious Studies, with a discussion on the importance of institutions that study Religion, such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which Lincoln discusses in this chapter.

I recommend this book to all those who study Religion, especially those for whom the primary goal of Religious Studies is something other than the celebration of religion as sacred and beyond interrogation. As Lincoln phrases it, “As it happens, with the possible exception of Economics, ours [Religious Studies] is the only academic field that is effectively organized to protect its (putative) object of study against critical examination.” (in his response to Fitzgerald, p. 167).

Sounding Religion and Anthropology November 28 2011

In sounding on November 28, 2011 at 9:05 am

Understanding Society is an excellent blog that focuses on key issues in sociology – especially contemporary sociological theory – and does a very good job of explaining the concepts. I’ve been dealing with the issue of social complexity for awhile now in my attempts to think about what it means to be Cambodian, Buddhist, Khmer, etc., etc., in contemporary Cambodia. However, there are many different approaches to complexity, and they are not all commensurate to each other. Here’s a post specifically on Social Complexity.

That’s all ‘theory.’ How about some important practice?  Nancy Scheper-Hughes, whose name should be beatified upon her passing by the church of Anthropology, is interviewed here, on the Global Trade With Poor People’s Kidneys.  It’s a long piece, on Scheper-Hughes in general; this section is on organ trade.  I demand you both read it. :)

Cambodians have similar fears to the ones Scheper-Hughes encountered.  I am unaware of any studies – or even journalism – that examines the reality of organ trade in Cambodia.  Anybody have ideas or suggestions?

Speaking of three-part weblog interviews: here’s a good three-parter on the anthropology blog Savage Minds with Jason Baird, about Open Access academic publishing.

Speaking of Open Access academic publishing: the inaugural issue of Hau: a journal of ethnographic theory, is imminently to be released, with articles from very heavy hitters: Sahlins, Graeber, Wagner, and others.  Wow.  Plus, a dear friend of mine is on the editorial board! Very proud of her, but don’t know if she’d want me to name her.

The Religion Bulletin has a new piece on “Hitler, Religion, and the Bible,” in which the author examines another person’s blog post “overview of the involvement of biblical scholars in promoting Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies.”

Quote: A Few Nice Thoughts From Roy Rappaport

In comment on August 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Working on some of my thoughts on Ritual and Imagination right now, and it’s always good to go back to Mr. Rappaport. Here are some good quotes from, and about, his thought:

“The nature of humanity…is that of a species that lives and can only live, in terms of meanings it itself must fabricate in a world devoid of intrinsic meanings but subject to physical law.” (Ritual and Religion, 451)

Roy defines ritual as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.” (Ritual and Religion, 24)

“The meaning of ritual’s informationlessness is certainty.” (Ritual and Religion, 285)

According to Rappaport, social truths are hierarchically organized so that “the ultimately sacred forms an unchanging ground upon which all else in adaptive social structures can change continuously without loss of orderliness.” (Ritual and Religion, 427)

“Rituals create conventional states of affairs and conventional understandings. Magic is the extension of the process ‘beyond the domain of the conventional in which it is effective into the domain of the physical where it is not.; A war can be ended by a properly conducted ritual of peace, but a drought cannot. However, the domains are hard to distinguish: ‘people occasionally die of witchcraft.’” (Ecology, meaning, religion, 191).

“[A]s Rappaport himself so ably argues, precisely because the cooperative act of symbolic communication enables – indeed demands (cf. Wagner 1981) – individuals’ continual invention of new meanings, ritual’s speechless form and performance persist within already established systems of symbolic communication as a way of defending ourselves from the arbitrary power of our own symbolic formulations to imagine alternatives, sanctify the inappropriate, and intentionally lie.” Watanabe and Smuts, (“Explaining Religion without….” 105)

Why am I interested?  I find in ritual a far less ‘noisy’ set of cultural ‘rules’ or ‘norms’ (I’m not being at all precise in my language here) than the discourses about such rituals – either emic or etic – could ever provide.  I am convinced that these basic sets of meaning, or certainty, are extremely generative and powerful, and construct themselves around particular sets of social closure, a topic I’ve begun to address – also unfortunately elliptically, which seems to be my curse – here.

Sounding Buddhism for June 6 2011

In sounding on June 6, 2011 at 12:04 pm
  • Steven Collins’ new book on ordained and lay nuns in South and Southeast Asia
  • Steven Collins’ June seminar in Paris on “the status of the subject”
  • Daniel Veidlinger’s book on textuality, orality, and scriptural transmission in Thailand, featured on New Books in Buddhist Studies; interview!’
  • Trafalgar Meditation Flashmob
  • Derek K. Miller’s last blog post before he died
  • Skateboarding video in Burma is great
  • My current fascination (for 5 years now): Göbleki Tepe.
click through for the actual content Read the rest of this entry »

Sounding on Religion, April 15, 2011

In sounding on April 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Welcome to Tax Day, if you’re in the United States. They say that only two things in this world are certain: death and taxes. I concentrate on death, of course, and at any rate, there are lots of people who get away without paying taxes at all. I am not among them, more’s the pity.

So, while some of us are working towards one of life’s supposed ubiquities (taxes), here are a few stories that have to do with religion.

  • Star Trek Hypothesis
  • Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President argues that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Marxism are demonstrations of Satanic Power.
  • “America’s Top Exorcist,” a rather lurid CNN video piece in which the Vatican’s chief American exorcist, and inspiration for new movie “The Rite,” is given the mini-biopic treatment. This would be uninteresting and just another case of lurid religion-movie tie-ins in the media (especially around horror-genre films), except that I’ve recently become interested in the immense rise in the number of officially credentialed exorcists in the Catholic Church in the last few years, and the scary rise in exorcisms generally.
  • Mayan Corn God/Jester God images discovered
  • Prehistoric Burial Sites in PNG
  • Robert Fisk on Secular Popular Revolts Not Backed By Secret Islamists
  • “A Taxonomy of Gods”
  • The Trot Dance Ritual in Khmer New Year celebrations (Khmer language video)
  • Mike Huckabee interview with Jon Stewart
  • 7 Best Unintentionally Sexual Church Signs
Actual links and comments after the jump

April 22: Friday Forum Lecture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

In notice on April 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm

The good folks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Center for Southeast Asian Studies have invited me to give a lecture at their Friday Forum Series [schedule]. I’m honored by their invitation, and will be talking about a relatively new direction in my research: the role of ritual in the construction of multi-ethnic communities.

Raising The Neak Ta (Sino-Khmer Ritual)

The presentation is titled “Khmer Spirits, Chinese Bodies: Spirit Possession in Contemporary Sino-Khmer Communities in Cambodia,” and is related to a forthcoming contribution of the same title [Forthcoming in "Articulations with modernity: Religion and cultural crisis in Southeast Asia." Social Sciences in Asia Monograph Series. Brill, edited by Alexander Horstmann and Thomas Reuter.].

“Khmer spirits, Chinese bodies” explores two Neak Ta spirit possession rituals, performed by reconstituting and ascendant ethnic Chinese and Sino-Khmer community organizations and business groups throughout Cambodia. Neak Ta are ancestral place spirits conceived of as ‘ancestral spirits.’ This presentation examines the underlying Khmer beliefs and practices relating to Neak Ta cults, and focuses on the practices of spirit possession among Chinese Cambodians in these cults. The two examples discussed challenge a current typology of spirit possession and diasporic religion, opening up the possibility of diasporic practice that is localizing without assimilating.

Thanks also to those who have written in, congratulating me for my new position as the Chair of the Thailand/Laos/Cambodia Studies Group, succeeding the exceedingly successful tenure of Justin McDaniel.  I have very big shoes to fill on this front, and will rely on the continued good will and extensive knowledge base of the membership there, which I am so glad to have joined.

Sounding on Thematic Interests for March 10, 2010

In sounding on March 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm

  • Oooh! The US Supreme Court will hear a case that pits the Freedom of Religious Practice against the Freedom of Speech: Can the charming gentle folk of Westboro Baptist Church constitutionally protest funerals with their “God Hates Fags” and other (equally charming) signs?  Exciting stuff.  My sense is that the viral campaigns to directly undermine the WBC protests are much more effective, but as a professional student of religion especially interested in funerals, this is a good one for me to watch.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that in the five years in which I lived in Topeka, Kansas as a young adolescent, I had occasion to meet and discuss these issues with several members and supporters of Phelps’ church, some of whom went to my high school.  They are unabashedly hateful and evil, in my personal experience, but – and here’s the takeaway point – they are not as dumb as they appear.
  • My continued appreciation for the great work over at MindHacks is unabated: this post on the ‘hyper-priming’ effects of cannabis usage has a lot of promise for further investigations of the importance and usage of drugs (including but not limited to pot) in religious practice.
  • My friend Anna M. Gade, new Islam professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be talking on Wisconsin Public Radio today on Qu’ranic chanting. Go listen!
  • Also: awesome classroom notes on Marx from John Rawls’ old lectures!


The Numbers: Whose God Helps Out Most On The Economic Front?

In notice on February 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm

From the awesome Good Magazine.

GOOD.is | The Almighty Dollar (Raw Image).

Laryngitis=Typed Class Notes Introducing Victor Turner

In teach on February 25, 2010 at 11:57 am

I feel pretty good, but have no voice whatsoever.  So, since I have four and a half hours of class to teach today, I’ve spent the morning typing out my introduction to Victor Turner for my class on Ritual.  We’ve spent most of the first three weeks discussing Durkheim’s Elementary Forms and van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, but the students have not been given formal introductions to Marx or Weber in this class (though they’ve likely encountered them elsewhere).

The reason I’m really posting this here, though, is that I’d like to submit these notes to the collective wisdom of both of my readers.  Anything in here you’d care to quibble about?  Let me know!

RITUAL – Introducing Victor Turner
Erik W. Davis

In many ways, Turner sets the stage for contemporary interventions in the anthropological theory and study of ritual. He combines in his person and scholarship a lot of the concerns from conflicting and previously unassociated theoretical approaches: Marxism, Durkheim, and Van Gennep.

Durkheim and His Competitor Trains of Thought

Recall that Durkheim is considered one of the three major founders of Social thought (inclusive of both Anthropology and Sociology), along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Each of these founders has a distinctive approach to key problems: the nature of the social division of labor, the relationship of economic and social organization to ideology and religion, ‘modernity,’ and the role of institutions in social life.

Each of them were confronted by an apparently radically novel social situation – capitalism – which seemed to break definitively from all previous forms of traditional society. It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which all three of these thinkers, regardless of their differences, saw the contemporary modern period as a period of profound social flux and change. All of them also tied these changes to capitalism, the new division of labor in society into classes, and the role of religion. Summarizing any of these individual’s thought does violence to their subtlety. However, schematically, we can characterize them in the following ways:

Read the rest of this entry »

Macalester Religious Studies a “Thriving Department”

In faculty on February 15, 2010 at 10:58 am

Whoo-hoo.  Macalester Religious Studies gets a nod in Newsweek as one of the “Thriving” religious studies departments.  In an article largely critical of Harvard’s religious studies, (not critical of the faculty, but of the organization of the faculty), the author writes

Religion at Harvard doesnt even merit its own department. Professors who teach religion classes generally belong to other departments—anthropology, say, or Near Eastern languages. A Committee on the Study of Religion oversees the courses, but it cant hire and fire, and it cant grant tenure. Diana Eck, the top scholar of world religions who runs the program, argues that its second-class status prevents it from drawing the biggest talent to campus—and, as a result, the most gifted students. There are great teachers of religion at Harvard, she says, but because theyre members of other departments, their reputations dont enhance the religious-studies program. Eck mentions Emory, Oberlin, Swarthmore, Smith, Carleton, and Macalester as places where religion departments thrive. Read the rest of this entry »

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