Believer and The Study of Religion

[I was asked to write a 300 word response for The Immanent Frame on the role Believer has in the public discourse around religion. I clearly had more to say. This piece is my original submission, with minor corrections for spelling and grammar. The piece that TIF ran, with my permission on the edits, can be found here.]

Promotional image for Believer from CNN.

When we ask what sort of Religious Studies work the CNN show Believer does, we are truly asking what is the nature of our field and what sort of work do we do. As Edward Said, amongst others, noted that we are now academics, not intellectuals. We talk in guild-speak for ourselves, and are not invested in public engagement, even to our first public, our students. I would suggest breaking down this concern into two finer points: our reaction to public engagement and the methods of Religious Studies.

A technical language is not the primary issue. We need specific language to advance ideas. The question is whether we can translate these ideas for a broader understanding of what religion means in the world. Yet, our guild structure does not reward or recognize public engagement as a form of scholarship, signaling that it is not of professional importance. When public engagement does become newsworthy, it is for negative consequences.

Reza Aslan, host of Believer, was fired from his show for a tweet. Public expression of ideas is actively penalized. Free speech does not mean a right to say whatever one wants without fear of consequence. However, when academics speak, and punished for their ideas, we set a precedent that engaging with the public is high risk, low reward. Remember that Steven Salaita was hire-fired for a tweet.

We, as a guild, have a conflicted relationship with public engagement. On one hand, we recognize the need to share our knowledge, but on the other we fear being in the public. Part of the reticence is related to the structural issues I mention earlier, and part is from an idea that knowledge is a neutral good.

The latter point may be true to an extent, but it is not apolitical, and all our knowledge can be weaponized, as we have seen with the Global War on [t]error[ism/ists]. We may not want to talk about our work, but others are talking about it.

However, perhaps more critical to our reluctance to talk about Religious Studies is our inability to agree to what our method(s) are and what we mean when we say “Religious Studies.” Taking my own academic path, I did an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, a Masters in Theology (alongside Reza Aslan), and PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. My committee consisted of an anthropologist, an ethnomusicologist, someone from NELC, with secondary readers in sociology and ethnic studies.

By most standards, I do not have a degree in Religion, nor have I been trained in it. Yet, for over a decade I have been teaching in Religion departments; I served on multiple AAR committees, groups, and task forces. No one has questioned my bona fides. Aslan’s credentials are regularly questioned as to whether he belongs to our guild. It is unclear as to whether it a question of methodology, or because he is one of the most prominent members of our discipline in the public eye that forces to question what our discipline actually is. Perhaps we cannot actually define ourselves, and his high profile presence makes that lack of clarity so apparent that we become defensively uncomfortable.

The show he hosts highlights some of the various methods of our discipline and what is at stake. Michael Altman, in his response to the show, brings to the fore some of the issues related to colonial knowledge and the formation of the “Other.” While I would argue with him about whether Aslan was adopting perennialism as a formal philosophical approach, I think that Altman does raise an important point about how we perceive the exotic other. It is only through middle-class expressions of faith that we can see who the “Other” is.

I believe this to be an implicit critique of our field, as we have turned all religions into some form of Protestantism to make them understandable (see, for example, Tomoko Masuzawa’s critique in The Invention of World Religions). There is also a sense, from the lone antinomian Aghor, that religion is wild and untamed; it is not a tradition of the urban elite, but counter-authority. David Frankfurter reminds us that we cannot “elevate the so-called ‘mainstream’” of any religious tradition.

These sorts of moments, where we can read religion differently than what is presented, permeate the show. In Israel, perhaps our dancing-Orthodox-hippy Jews are atypical, but they are operating in a world where religion and the state have not found a happy accord, and that is an important subtext of the episode. When we meet Jezus in Hawaii, we are met with a religious response to environmental catastrophe; he keeps people away through deliberate “abnormal” behavior, in a type of gnostic initiation.

The subtlety of each episode, intentional or not, is clearly informed by someone who is aware of what is happening in Religious Studies. As viewers, we may be fascinated and engaged with the presentation of each religion, but we also know that religion does not operate in a silo. It is embedded in the politics, cultures, and economies of the time and place we are observing it. That context is also an important part of each story.

One of the things that I believe to be incumbent in teaching Religion is allowing believers to speak for themselves. The Hindu American Foundation may decry certain expressions of faith as not being “Hinduism,” but that is an internal debate as to how to construct the boundaries of the faith. The Aghori consider themselves part of the tradition and we must respect that. Aslan’s “initiation” into Voudou was perhaps the weakest moment in the series for me, as it veered to religious tourism, but the racial discourse tied to religion was an important point that often goes underanalyzed. The focus on Santa Muerte was perhaps the strongest, with a good sense of history and tensions within established religious traditions, which adherents are not willing to leave, but who are seeking something other than official religion.

Believer, as a work of television, needs to be criticized to make it better. In my opinion, narratives could be tighter, the focus of each episode more narrow, and believers should be speaking to us and each other much more. Yet, these are stylistic suggestions, for particular work I want it to do. The important point is that the show did do work in Religious Studies. It may not be work that we recognized within the guild, but it is still work informed by our discipline. As a result, there are critiques of method that can be made, such as against religious tourism. However, we also need to question whether some of our trepidation of what Believer does is because it holds a mirror up to us, making us uncomfortable with what we see.

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