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Heresy, Sexuality, and Christianity

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.

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Normativity and the American Academy of Religion

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

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

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

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.