Teaching Dual Nationalism: A Pedagogy of Displacement

This post originally appeared in “Teaching, Religion, Politics” an online series hosted by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religious Studies and Theology in April, 2017. (http://wabashcenter.typepad.com/teaching_religion_politic/2017/04/teaching-dual-nationalism-a-pedagogy-of-displacement.html).

Teaching Dual Nationalism: A Pedagogy of Displacement

Rebekka King
Assistant Professor
Middle Tennessee State University

As an anthropologist of religion, I have advocated that the skills one develops in an ethnographic setting are necessarily translated to the classroom. I’m a proponent of creating a space for students to serve as experts and to speak to their own experiences—especially when addressing contemporary political movements and events. Active listening and collaborative learning with our students are key means through which we, as James Bielo notes, are able to be “ethnographers in, of, and for all the courses we teach.”[1] I like to joke with other anthropologists that we were the children who didn’t fit in; we sat on the sidelines watching the more popular children play, drawing rudimentary theories about their social dynamics and interactions. One of the first things one learns in the field is to drop all assumptions. We learn to ask questions to which we think we already know the answer and, more often than not, we uncover something altogether unexpected.

This is my approach in my course on Religion and Society – a course that looks at the manifestations of religion in the contemporary world read through a lens and a critique of the social forces that dominate modern Western democracies. As has become almost canon among RS professors, I use the example of the American flag to illustrate Durkheim’s discussion of the totem and the distinctions between sacred and profane. As a Canadian living in the United States, I have the added benefit that I am able to feign ignorance.

Holding a paper version of the American flag, I ask my students to reflect on what it stands for. “I didn’t grow up here,” I tell my students. “I don’t know what any of this means. Tell me abo-out it” (all semester long, I put the extended emphasis on my ‘u’s in preparation for this performance of difference). I pretend to be confused as they explain, yes, it’s a piece of paper, but really it means more: freedom, justice, liberty, etc.

It’s a great conversation – one that is not original to me – and makes for a strong teaching exercise in an introductory religion class. Not only does it illustrate Durkheim’s theory of the totem, collective effervescence, and American civil religion, but it is also an excellent vehicle to get students comfortable with debate and disagreement in the classroom.

Usually, the students respond well. They are acquainted with controversies surrounding the American flag; they quickly draw connections to such social issues as debates over the Confederate flag and Colin Kaepernick. In my experience, it is a topic that matters to them and they are already familiar with both sides of the argument and have already drawn their own conclusions. Because they are more or less set in their opinions, it serves as a good topic to practice respectful listening. Sometimes it is easier to listen openly to an opposing argument when you know that you’re not going to change your perspective.[2] And at an early stage in both the semester and in their college careers, learning to listen and practicing disagreement are key.

I am unable to stop at this point. The exercise helps students learn to disagree from a shared starting point (American identity) but leaves me dissatisfied because it doesn’t attend to the experiences of dual nationalism of myself and many of my immigrant students.

Canadians hold a form of national pride invested in our self-perception as the underdog. The first time I taught this lesson in the United States I followed the American flag with the Canadian one. I don’t know what I thought my students would say when asked about the national qualities and values associated with The Maple Leaf. But the responses of “hockey, Justin Bieber, bacon, and polar bears” were strikingly in contrast to the discussion of the core values signified by the American flag, for which many claimed they would willingly sacrifice their lives.

I now take seriously collaborative learning experiences where some students’ lack of expertise might be highlighted. It is one that purposely redefines who counts as an expert and displaces my American-born students.

A clarification about context is necessary. Middle Tennessee State University is the largest public institution in the state. It caters mostly to students from the Middle Tennessee area, many of whom are first-generation college students. Because of the wide availability of manufacturing jobs, low cost of living, and its identification by the American government as a refugee resettlement region, Middle Tennessee is more international than one might expect for a region that regularly boasts to be the ‘Buckle of the Bible Belt.’ In addition to significant Hispanic and Southeast Asian immigrant communities, the region has the largest Kurdish population in North America, a significant Laotian community who have been in the region for several decades, and a recent increase in immigrants from Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Eretria, and Bhutan.[3] On the first day of every semester, I have students fill out an information form that—along with relevant questions asking about students’ majors/minors, preferred gender pronouns, previous courses in religious studies, etc.—asks what their hometown is. With this information in hand, I bring images of the national flags of their countries of origins and ask them to speak to their conceptions of their own flag.[4]

Sometimes this exercise works and sometimes it falls flat. For the most part, my students who were born in another country immigrated to the United States with their families as children and have become naturalized citizens. Unlike myself, they have a sense of themselves as Americans.

“What about this flag? What does it signify?”

I wait patiently for Farrah, who immigrated to the United States as a child fourteen years ago to look up.

Farrah looks up and laughs. “That’s the Egyptian flag,” she says excitedly.

She begins to explain the symbolism of the colors and their revolutionary importance. She speaks proudly about the struggle to overcome oppression and how the white band symbolizes a peaceful exchange of power. “But it’s more than that,” she continues. “Egypt is the cradle of culture, the oldest continuing civilization. You wouldn’t have the developments in Europe or America if it hadn’t been for us. Or at least that’s what we learn in school. We’re taught that we are history.”

At this point, I usually attempt to pick up a common theme between their form of nationalism and my own. With Farrah, it was easy to draw connections between the emphasis placed on a perceived bloodless transition of power in the national myths of Canada and Egypt.

It doesn’t always work well. Farrah’s family moved to the US fifteen years ago, but they return regularly to Cairo to spend time with family. They are proud of their Egyptian roots. Often my Egyptian students, particularly those who are Coptic, are more critical of the national mythos. This past semester a student from Monaco rejected my attempts at a shared identity and instead placed me with the Americans observing, “Europeans just don’t care about these symbols the way you North Americans do.”

I like this exercise because it displaces the students in a way for which they are not prepared. Their rehearsed points about the flag, which are perceptive and important, are all of a sudden lost in the context of a different national mythos. They are smart enough to know that the Justin Bieber jokes don’t cut it, and as Farrah lays claim to her country as the origins of history, she discursively moves the American-born students to the margins. If anyone understands displacement, it’s immigrants—from lines in airports and government forms to media rhetoric and misplaced cultural cues, feeling out of place is par for the course.

It is my hope that this exercise serves as a place to begin larger conversations about religion, politics, and social issues and realigns our assumptions about who counts as an insider and who counts as an outsider. These are conversations that many of us are having both inside and outside of the classroom in consideration of gender, sex, abilities, race, ethnicity, and, of course, religion. But I’ve found the rhetoric about immigration, citizenship and nationality lacking. I am hesitant about language that in a spirit of inclusivity too quickly overlooks the lived experiences of our dual-national students. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I’d like to use this blog as a forum to think publically about it. I hope that you will join me in this conversation regardless of your nationality.


[1] Bielo, James S. 2012. “Religion Matters: Reflections from an AAA Teaching Workshop.” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 3: 203–208.

[2] A recent New Yorker article argues that changing one’s mind is even more difficult than we think:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds.

[3] http://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/05/17/nashville-welcoming-immigrants/27479183/

[4] At the beginning of every semester, I have every student enrolled in this introductory course meet with me for a short one-on-one interview to get to know them, to talk about any early concerns they might have, and to emphasize my expectations about their responsibilities as students. I ask my immigrant students during this interview if they are comfortable speaking in class about their experience growing up in or coming from another country. Especially, given recent political developments, it would be inappropriate to ‘out’ them without permission.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Whose Loss is it Anyway?

This post originally appeared on Studying Religion in Culture, the guest blog for the University of Alabama, Department of Religious Studies site in December 2016. http://religion.ua.edu/blog/2016/12/whose-loss-is-it-anyway/


Whose Loss is it Anyway?

Rebekka King is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on the negotiation of boundaries within North American Christianity. She teaches course on Method and Theory, Anthropology of Religion, and Contemporary Christianity.

2016 was the year of the loser. The more you lost, the better you were, especially if you shared it on Facebook.

“I have all of David Bowie’s albums in vinyl. I’m going to post a picture of my collection.”

“I have friends in the UK. Brexit is everything that is wrong with the world. We won’t make the same mistake in America!”

“Leonard Cohen is dead and everyone is posting ‘Hallelujah’ but I’m going to post ‘Democracy.’ See what I did there? I’m not only expressing my grief, I’m also making a political statement.”

“I can’t believe I have to spend Thanksgiving with my Republican uncle, I’m going to ask my friends if we can do Friendsgiving instead.”

It has been a terrible year for many of us, or so says Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. We’ve seen the political and the popular entwined in such a way that perceived public tragedies were rendered personal and then projected to an audience comprised of whoever happens upon your social media feed.

Russell McCutcheon has observed that we should be wary of the ‘immediacy’ of #dear2016, pointing out that other years claim the title Annus Horribilis. Likewise, Titus Hjelm reminds us that there need not be a hierarchy whereby taking public note of the loss of Carrie Fisher supplants caring about the massacre at Aleppo. Both McCutcheon and Hjelm invite us to move past the obvious critiques and to think about perspective and performance as animating processes of collective grieving. McCutcheon suggests that losing celebrities deemed ‘too young to die’ might even be a modern rite of passage. And Hjelm notes that criticizing others for caring about the ‘superficial’ deaths of celebrities instead of the ‘serious’ losses in Syria becomes a means of amassing social capital.

While most people recognize that the versions of ourselves we project on social media are fabricated we continue to use it as a marker of important events, as this clip from the Big Bang Show suggests:

Hence, the emergence of phrases such as ‘Facebook official’, ‘pics or it didn’t happen’, and the development of event-specific hashtags (such as a wedding hashtag). In doing so, we police the boundaries of what counts and who counts according to our proximity and distance from events or experiences. Hjelm is right that mourning the loss of a beloved celebrity does not preclude us from recognizing the gravity of true suffering in the world, but I think he is too quick to dismiss those who have created this hierarchy. The naysayers alongside those in mourning reflect a competition of sorts, a race to the bottom.

I began by imagining the self-conversations that may have proceeded a social media post about 2016. While they are fictional, they speak to what was for many a profound experience of mourning and nostalgia. They reflect a personalizing impulse to share why it matters and how the poster’s world is different (i.e., more terrible). It demarcates a specific experience of suffering and shows its fit within the user’s context of family, politics, and personal history.

In a recent article, Cathal Kelly notes that we are nostalgic for a previous era that was ‘great’ (even as commentators point to a discrepancy about when this greatness existed). It is this nostalgia for a brighter past which the architects of Brexit and the Trump campaign capitalized on by promising that those who had lost everything would regain their losses and yield further benefits.

The crux, however, is that in order to win, you had to first admit that you had lost: that you are a loser — a racist in the face of political correctness, an under-employed factory worker in the knowledge economy, a gun enthusiast ignoring school shootings, and a broken family following the Supreme Court ruling to legalize same-sex marriage. And so people lined up. Some went to rallies, but the majority watched the battle lines unfold through their computers and cellphones.

Armed with hashtags and memes, all sides of the debate battled it out on social media.

At the forefront was Facebook. Observing the arguments, we might even be nostalgic for Facebook’s bygone era when status updates began with the word ‘is’ and debates were carried out back-and-forth on individuals’ walls, not a single thread. Those were the good old days of which we are now regularly reminded via the ‘On This Day’ feature, introduced in 2015 to compete with TimeHop.

‘On This Day’ represents an assumption by Facebook that the majority of its users have perusable memories. That’s in part because young people aren’t on Facebook anymore (sure they have accounts that they use to wish their grandma a happy birthday and group chats over messenger, but the majority of teens and twenty-somethings have migrated to Snapchat, WhatsApp, iMessage, or FaceTime). Alongside a decrease in younger users, Facebook is also experiencing a decline in personal content (21% less in 2015, a further decline of 15% this year) — apparently we’re no longer sharing sandwiches. To counteract this trend Facebook introduced new features such as Facebook Live, emojis, big text, and colored backgrounds for Android users.

Facebook is doing anything and everything it can to ‘make Facebook great again.’

So yes, it has been a terrible year and we have shared our sadness and outrage with others. As we ‘like’ those updates that reflect our own experiences (on celebrity deaths, politics, what-have-you) and pick fights with others, I see at work a subtle hierarchy of suffering derived from nostalgia: I like Carrie Fisher but not as much as Titus Hjelm and I don’t have any Republicans in my family, so Thanksgiving was fine.

On the surface none of this feels like a big deal. What could possibly be lost or gained in stirring up nostalgia and creating such insignificant hierarchies and divisions? After all, it’s just social media! So be it, if in 2016 we’re claiming some sort of social capital through being the biggest loser. I mean, it’s not like Mark Zuckerberg is running for president.

Here’s looking at you, 2032.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Wither the Sociology of Religion

This post originally appeared on the Religious Studies Project site in September 2016. (http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2016/09/29/whither-the-sociology-of-religion/).

It was written as a response to a podcast interview featuring Dr. Grace Davie discussing the origins, dominant themes, and methodological practices germane to the Sociology of Religion.

Wither the Sociology of Religion

Grace Davie’s discussion of the sociology of religion provides a comprehensive overview of the field. She offers insights garnered from her own eminent career within British sociology of religion and speaks directly to the ways in which the field has been shaped as much by its social location and historical movements as it has been by theoretical innovations and scholarly developments. Her overview will serve as the foundation for the Religious Studies Project’s forthcoming series of discussions covering a broad spectrum of topics related to sociological inquiry into religion. This podcast could be easily integrated into course materials for undergraduate courses as it provides a succinct description of the field’s history and attends to questions of its public worth, which I imagine could prompt lively classroom discussion and debate. In addition, Davie’s unassuming discussion of the multiple shifts the field has taken over the course of her own career should warrant consideration on the part of junior scholars in any discipline who are thinking about the larger trajectory of their careers and the ways in which we balance our scholarly interests, pedagogical ambitions, and institutional obligations. In this context, Davie wants us to take seriously the social value of and potential contributions by the sociology of religion to both policy-making and inspiring empathy for those we (along with our students and the general public) might think of as ‘other’ or foreign.

I do not have a lot to offer by way of critical comments about Davie’s history of the discipline. I agree with her assessment that more consideration is warranted of the fluid nature of the field as it flows from the social location of its various schools of thought. I too am interested in thinking about the ways that new technologies, online religions, and artificial intelligence offer innovative frameworks for thinking about religious practices—both for adherents of religious traditions and for scholars who study them. I find Davie’s assumptions concerning the category of religion to be too concrete for my own use (both in terms of how I conceptualize it as a scholar, but also in how I see religious adherents making use of it); since this topic has been covered extensively as of late on the Religious Studies Project blog, I will set it aside and instead speak to what I see as the primary intention of this podcast: to offer a comprehensive framework for moving forward by considering the past, current, and future routes available to sociologists of religion.

In a comparable reflection on his career teaching about religion in public institutions, Jonathan Z. Smith describes a conversation he had with a senior colleague at an early juncture in his career. In that conversation, his would-be mentor remarked that the study of religion would survive as long as it continued to tether itself to theological studies. Smith imagines a Purusha-like sacrifice whereby the field is somehow partitioned up and sacrificially offered in a way that serves the almighty, eternal aims of divinity education (Smith 1995). While Davie’s description of the sociology of religion—both its origins and its future—does not prescriptively suppose that the field ought to uncritically follow the beck and call of transcendent forces, a similar logic is at work both in the way she relates the history of the field within the United Kingdom and her own illustrious career at its helm. In a tone that is slightly wistful, Davie relates that the sociology of religion has shifted its allegiances from departments of sociology to religious studies (and into anthropology departments) which she sees as an indicator that sociology does not take religion seriously. In many ways, this shift she describes resonates with the shift Smith and others observe concerning the transition from theological studies to the study of religion.

My allusion to Purusha is not intended to suggest a disagreement with Davie’s assessment of the field but rather to call for a critical inquiry into the work we do under the broad banner of sociology of religion. Purusha, of course, is the primordial man of the Rig Veda whose ceremonial sacrifice generates the caste system—one of countless instances in which we see the introduction of a religious narrative to buttress political hierarchies and social inequalities. In other words, it stands as a story recounted in such a way that makes the social system it speaks to appear inevitable (cf. Martin 2016). I wonder if I detect something similar in Davie’s description of the field and its usefulness. In her analysis of the four key historical figures within the sociology of religion—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel—one can almost detect an arbitrary division of the body, brain, heart, and feet akin to the Purusha narrative. I cannot help but think that the field’s continued reliance on these classical thinkers (with the addition of other standbys such as Berger and Luckmann, Stark and Finke, and various scholars associated with the Secularization Thesis) works to limit the possibilities for analysis to those concerns raised by such figures even in the midst of increased calls for non-Western scholarly interlocutors and more diverse research sites.

An additional parceling of roles is revealed in her treatment of the current tenure of the sociology of religion. Davie makes the important point that the field is dependent on its own social locations. While it emerged in concert with modern European thought, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and shifting patterns of human migration, the discipline is one that attends to the particularities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of its home base. In this vein, Davie almost seems to suggest that the British, Nordic, French, and American varieties of sociology of religion should be treated as separate species that exist as they do as much because of their theoretical foci as the content of religious activities therein—while not explicitly stated as such or presumably her intention, an overly defensive reading (from an American perspective) of Davie’s description of sociology of religion in the United States might conclude that she thinks Donald Trump is a direct consequence of Rational Choice Theory.

Trump is low-hanging fruit but Davie’s evocation of his role within the evangelical corpus speaks to our need for a more critical approach within the sociology of religion, specifically one that seeks to broaden our understanding of how religious adherents negotiate competing claims to their social identities. As a strategist (if we care to call him such), Trump is not employing the same tactics that brought Bush, Reagan, and even Clinton to power. He is not attempting to ‘win’ the evangelical vote based on appealing to their religious sensitivities or by speaking their language (cf. Lincoln 2003). Instead, a more interesting analysis might be undertaken that considers the ways that Trump is working to garner a conservative Protestant base that supports him despite his lack of religious fluency, moral virtue, or cultural resonance with the everyday lives of American evangelicals. In other words, evangelicals are not stupid; they know that Trump is not one of them. If he mobilizes their vote, it will reveal less about the religious beliefs of Americans or the political imagination of conservative Protestants, but rather will speak to the economic, foreign, and social policies that, at least for this election cycle, are perceived as trumping religious proclivities. As with Purusha, evangelical ‘belief in’ or ‘support for’ Trump is only interesting so far as we can locate its social consequences, many of which may prove to be unintended. In this context, the role of scholars of religion is, in part, to delve into and bring to light those instances where religious beliefs, traditions, and identities are incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory.

Davie’s evocation of the perceived allegiances between conservative Protestantism and American political networks reminds us that the history of the sociology of religion in the United States has taken a markedly different path than its British counterpart. Whereas, as Davie notes, SOCREL has flourished in the British Sociological Association and now stands as its second largest unit, American academic societies have not always been as welcoming towards sociologists of religion, many of whom were themselves religiously-minded and fearful of the Marxist and atheist factions within the American Sociological Association (ASA). While the ASA has been in existence since 1961, it was not until 1994 that the sociology of religion section was established. Instead, a network of alternative associations were established in the mid-twentieth century which were sympathetic to Catholic and Protestant sociologists. The effects of such bifurcation has been, in many instances (although certainly not all) an emphasis on scholarship that provides a service to religion and lacks an explicit critique (Stark and Finke 2000: 15-16; cf. Blasi 2014). More recently, the Sociology of Religion group of the American Academy of Religion (founded in 2008 by Titus Hjelm, a UK-based sociologist and Ipsita Chatterjea, who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University; it is now chaired by Warren Goldstein and myself) was established as response to a perceived need for engagement with critical and analytical approaches drawn from sociology as a whole. Perhaps as a consequence of its home in the American Academy of Religion, the Sociology of Religion group has not served as a platform for Rational Choice Theory but rather has sought to carve out a space for interdisciplinary conversations devoted to empirically-grounded, theoretically-rich scholarship that employs a critical lens in its consideration of both the categories associated with religions and the means through which religious adherents represent themselves and their perceptions of the world and the understudied occasions where such concerns fall apart.

The possibilities for future directions in the sociology of religion are open, and I concur with Davie that the discipline’s future will likely be shaped as much by the tools it employs in its analysis as it is by its content. No more so perhaps than any other field of study, but hopefully with an increased awareness of the ways in which we as scholars arrange the data. Davie’s thorough outline of the field alongside the forthcoming podcasts from this series are a promising step towards its development.


Blasi AJ (2014). Sociology of Religion in America: A History of a Secular Fascination with Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Lincoln, B (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, C (2016). Religion as Ideology: Recycled Culture vs. World Religions. In Cotter C and Robertson D (eds) After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. New York: Routledge, pp.63-74.

Smith, JZ (1995). Afterward: Religious Studies: Whither (wither) and Why? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(4): 407-414.

Stark, R and Finke R (2000). Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ritual Language and Christian Ontologies

This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy site in August 2014 (http://practicumreligionblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/ritual-language-and-christian-ontologies.html).

By Rebekka King, Middle Tennessee State University



At Middle Tennessee State University, I have inherited a course on Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which is a 4000-level or senior course. While at most universities a course that purports to be an overview of the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ traditions would be listed as a first- or second-year course, this course’s listing as a senior level course means that I strive to straddle two pedagogical imperatives. First, I want to teach adequate material or data about religions, so that the students have a sense of the traditions themselves; however, because the course is a senior-level course, I also want to equip them with a theoretical apparatus with which they can think critically about religions. In addition, the reality of living in the “buckle of the bible belt” means that many of my students come to class with very clearly defined assumptions about what religion does (particularly Christianity, which is my area of specialization).

I’ve divided this course into three units: Text, Tradition, and Imagination. For this blog post, I would like to reflect on an exercise that I use to teach tradition in regards to Christianity. Along with providing an overview of Christian ritual practices, I want the students to consider language as one of the primary locations of Christian practices. Thus, I draw from my own disciplinary home, the Anthropology of Christianity, and have the students discuss Christian language ideologies and notions of sincerity and performance. More precisely, I want the students to think about larger questions concerning what we think language does—that is, its communicative capacities.  


In preparation for the assignment, we consider Joel Robbins’ article, ‘On Not Knowing Other Minds,’ which among other things helps the students to think about the ways that we understand language  and Western culture. The crux of Robbins’ piece suggests that the idea that we can or should be able tell what other people are thinking based on what they do or say is related to particular cultural practices and not necessarily universal.

In addition, since many of my students are not familiar with liturgical traditions in Christianity, I have them attend a service (or watch one online) at a local liturgical church in order for them to begin thinking about the diverse ways that language is employed in Christian practices. I lecture briefly on the differences between language ideologies: referential language (that is the idea that words can signify objects and experiences) and constitutive language (the idea that words can make something happen, including enacting some sort of ontological change).

Class Exercise

“Hand me your pen,” I will say to an unsuspecting student in the front row.

I follow up with a question to the rest of the class: “what did I do there?” A chorus of “you took his pen” usually ensues, and with a bit of prodding we come to the conclusion that I have made that particular student “penless.” In other words, I transform the student into a “penless individual.” Somehow the words themselves made the student into a different type of person (one without a pen). This is an example of language that is constitutive: my words did more than just express my own desire for a pen, they transformed the student into a new type of being.

From there, I then proceed to declare various students united in holy matrimony. For extra bonus points, I will marry myself to a piece of technology (this year I developed an intimate relationship with an old overhead projector, which served as a continuous reference point for students when we talked throughout the term about ontological boundaries). After performing the various marriages, I have the students discuss whether or not they are actually married. It doesn’t take long for the students to uncover the reasons that they are not married are my lack of authority to actually marry them and the social space in which we are located is not one that has been entered with expectations of the performance of a marriage ceremony. Marriage it seems is more than words.

At this point, we discuss what language does for evangelical Christians. Much of the evangelical mind, relies  on an understanding of language as referential (think, for example, or biblical literalism). Again, the ‘bible belt’ works to my advantage here, and I am able to draw on the knowledge from my students regarding Christian conversion language and its assumed transformative potentials.

My intention, ultimately, is to have the students see how Christian notions of language and conversion (which many of them take for granted) are intertwined as simultaneously referential and constitutive in the Christian consciousness. Why does saying/thinking that one is “born again” make someone born again for evangelicals? What do the words do and what do they signify? And what are the ontological consequences of a worldview that allows language to hold that kind of power?

In so doing, I try to draw out from the students Christian conceptions of the ways in which words serve to mediate interior experiences that are often contingent on the assumptions we make about individuals as moral agents. I use examples from contemporary Christian culture that disrupt these assumptions: Ted Haggard is a good example, although this year only a handful of my students were familiar with the Haggard case, so I will likely have to wait for another unfortunate fall from grace by an authoritative figure in the future.


As mentioned above, I have several pedagogical aims that come to the forefront in evaluating my students that reflect my desire for students to both acquire information and engage the theories we have looked at in class. Most importantly, I want them to be able to apply the theories to new data, especially data that doesn’t fit a neat definition of religion. So while I teach them to think about language in the context of a particular variety of evangelical Christianity that permeates the American South, I also want them to transpose those ideas into other, non-religious discursive spaces.

PJ Harvey’s anti-war ballad, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” (click here for lyrics) is a great way to think about what words do and how authority is invested in particular individuals and institutions. This year I used this song on a unit test to evaluate my students’ abilities to think critically and creatively. The test included the usual definition questions and short answer questions intended to determine whether students had done the readings, attended lectures and studied, but the final section of the test—featuring Harvey—was meant to take them to the next level.

(“The Words That Maketh Murder“)

I asked them a number of questions that corresponded to some of the larger themes from our class, including describing the language ideology that this song presumes. The great thing about this song is that there is no right or wrong answer. Clearly, a song that provides a narrative in which words make murder can be seen as constitutive, but if one steps back from a literal reading from the text (itself a referential act), one can begin to see that Harvey’s larger critique of British institutions (a point which is perhaps reinforced more so in the video than the lyrics) also could be seen as evoking an interpretive practice that falls within the realm of the same referential assumptions that evangelicals make about language and human subjectivities. A critique of the critique reminds us that Harvey herself is encapsulated by the very forces she subverts.

It’s also a pretty great song.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethics of Belief and the Discipline of Sincerity, Or, Progressive Christianity 101

This post originally appeared on the Society for the Anthropology of Religion’s section of Anthropology News in November 2013 (http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2013/10/18/ethics-of-belief-and-the-discipline-of-sincerity-or-progressive-christianity-101/)


How Not to Pray to an Interventionalist God

We’ve all been there before: a crowded mall, running late, mounting tension and shoulders moving closer to the top of your head. And then, you can’t find a #%@! parking spot! For some, it warrants the call for divine mediation: “please let me find a spot.”

Inadvertently praying for a parking space poses a problem for progressive Christians.  Photo courtesy Mike Casterline

Inadvertently praying for a parking space poses a problem for progressive Christians.
(Photo courtesy Mike Casterline)

The Anthropology of Christianity has directed a significant amount of attention to the ways that language is used as a tactic for the creation of the Christian self. North American Christians assume a certain degree of intentionality when it comes to religious speech acts, in ritual settings or otherwise. Language is used in scripture, worship, sermons, prophecies, revoking evil spirits and in both formulaic and spontaneous prayers. Scholars interested in the study of Christian language practices have sought to extend or substantiate Keane’s (2002; 2007) presentation of ‘sincerity’ as the central concern animating Christian understandings of the purpose and necessity of language. According to Keane, the term sincerity is particularly interesting “because of the links it forges among language, social interaction, personal character, freedom, regimes of truth, and some narratives of modernity” (2002: 65). The most important component of this understanding of language is the perceived intentionality that is attached to one’s linguistic act. In everyday speech acts the task is then to determine whether or not intention is aligned with words and actions (eg, when a Christian proclaims herself to have been “born again,” this inner transformation is determined to have actually occurred when she models the behavior and beliefs of a born again Christian). While sincerity is difficult enough to decipher in relation to one agent, Christian notions of sincerity are even more difficult to discern when they involve multiple actors.

But for the progressive Christians that I study, there are not multiple actors—or at least not divine ones. Progressive Christians understand themselves to be ‘Christians who do not believe in God’, at least not in the traditional sense of a transcendent being with the ability and desire to intervene in, or relate to, the natural world. Additionally, many progressive Christians question the divinity of Jesus, the authority of the bible and the traditional theological tenets of the church. Progressive Christians come to this perspective by highlighting extra-Christian intellectual knowledge in the form of a contextual study of biblical texts, alongside commitment to scientific empiricism and liberal morality. In doing so, they develop a distinct ethics of belief that disciplines their use of language in both a religious and a non-religious setting.

Theirs is an ethics of belief that determines that it is immoral to affirm many of the core (traditional) teachings of the biblical text. For example, in depth study of the historical context of the bible in its original languages yields the opportunity to set aside conservative theologies (such as, the virginity of Mary, which is a result of a mistranslation of a passage in Isaiah). Commitments to scientific empiricism allow progressive Christians to reject portions of the biblical story that contain miracles (eg, Jesus walking on water, healing the sick). Likewise, an allegiance to liberal morality allows them to ignore and reject discriminatory teachings (such as those that posit homosexuality or witchcraft to be a sin).

Because biblical texts are deemed to be incorrect, it is essential for progressive Christians to not simply reinterpret them, but rather to outright reject them. This way of thinking weaves together belief and language with morality and ethics. For example, in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998), Episcopalian Bishop John Spong, a well-known progressive Christian thinker, argues that the notion of God as an interventionalist deity, that is, as a God that answers prayers, is immoral. Discussing the Hebrew bible’s depiction of God, Spong points out that the deity comes across as “clearly pro-Jewish” in his interventions:

After freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt by visiting great violence on the Egyptians. God lead the marauding Israelites in their conquest of the land of Canaan. God had championed his people in their continuing conflict with the Philistines. One can only imagine that such a view of God was wildly popular among the Jews. It was not, however, a very pleasant view of God if you happen to be Egyptian, Canaanite, or a Philistine. A universal God of love this deity was not (Spong 1998: 30).

The deity has been depicted as intervening on behalf of one-side (the Israelites) and not the other (the Egyptians, Canaanites, or Philistines). Spong determines this interventionalist version of God to be immoral and unethical because of its unequal treatment of people (thus transgressing important modern teachings about the equality of all people). Additionally, for progressive Christians anyone who claims to believe in a God that intervenes likewise is judged to be unethical. It thus becomes imperative that progressive Christians completely reject the notion of God intervening in their lives in any way—a task which for some is easier said than done.

Returning to the mall, the crowded parking spot and my fieldwork in suburban Toronto: a common motif emerges during formal interviews and casual conversations concerning the problem of mistakenly evoking an interventionalist deity. Many progressive Christians draw upon the example of not being able to locate a convenient parking place in the mall and the inadvertent spontaneous thought, “please let me find a spot,” as a mistaken invocation of an interventionist deity. This request is interpreted as being directed towards a divine or otherworldly force that has the power to intervene and materialize a parking spot. Whether or not the progressive Christian actually believes in such a divine force with the ability to generate a parking spot is irrelevant because, according to the progressive Christian language ideology, such a request—even one that is only thought and not spoken aloud—is considered problematic because it aligns them with the notion of an interventionalist God who would just as soon slaughter the innocent children of the Egyptians, Canaanites, or Philistines as it is willing to miraculously make a free parking spot available. Even when inadvertent, the prayer aligns the individual with a theology that presupposes a (potentially) wrathful God. Passive participation in this discourse is seen as unethical and thus generates guilt on the part of progressive Christians.

While this example may be seen as superficial one, it points to larger questions about the ethics of believing and the fact that sincerity, although often purported as something spontaneous and natural, becomes something that must be carefully disciplined to achieve and maintain.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Resolve to Disbelieve: Tracing a Genealogy of Skepticism in Canadian Protestantism

I am currently at the University of Victoria as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society (Winter 2011). I had the opportunity to give a public lecture as part of the CSRS’s Wednesday afternoon public lecture series. The audience was a really great mix between members of the university community and interested members of the public. The lecture was recorded and can be listened to on the CSRSs website: (http://www.csrs.uvic.ca/events/audio_files.php). It’s available as a MP3 file.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Civic Engagement and Civic Spaces

This article was originally posted on the Religious Studies News website, October 2010


Religion in the City

One of my aims of teaching religion is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. It was with this in mind that I took my third-year undergraduate class, “Religion and the City,” to a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Toronto. For two hours, our guide and local expert, Anthony, a former crack-addict who had lived on the streets for eight years, gave my class a tour of the city, our city, from the perspective of a person experiencing homelessness.

“It was a lot quieter before the revitalization,” Anthony remarked as we walked through Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square (which some call the Times Square of Canada). We had just walked through the massive Eaton’s Centre when I turned to make sure that I had not lost any would-be shoppers to the call of the mall and observed several students reaching for their cameras to snap pictures of Canada’s busiest intersection. I was somewhat surprised by their desire to capture this moment — the students’ interaction with this space stood in sharp contrast to Anthony’s intimate knowledge of the site. This interlude raises important questions about the necessity of offering opportunities for civic engagement both inside and outside our classrooms.

This course offered students a chance to develop their own theory that could then be applied across historical and cultural realms. I specifically was interested in encouraging the students to look at the ways that religious and secular narratives described and constructed categories of the insider and outsider within civic spaces. I emphasized that we can understand meaning-making as deriving from both official and unofficial narratives. In doing so, I wanted them to understand that their lived experiences outside of the classroom could also serve as primary sources or “texts” available for scholarly examination (Morton, 2002: 41–42).

The course texts — biblical passages, novels, poetry, essays, documentary films, and a field trip — provided case studies with which we, as a class, could develop a theoretical approach to non-conventional sacred spaces in both ancient and contemporary worlds. In the first half of the course we read, among other texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which we used as the model for exploring specific questions related to ontological constructions of the self and community. In the second half of the course we read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (Knopf Doubleday, 1997), which is a modern retelling of the Gilgamesh narrative set in early twentieth century Toronto. Ondaatje’s poetic novel combines fiction and reality to tell the unofficial history of the working-class immigrants responsible for the construction of Toronto. More than once we joked that we were starting our own religion, “Ondaatje-ism,” which would have certainly dismayed the well-known Canadian fiction icon.

Although we did not start our own religion, we did develop our own theory. With a healthy dose of Foucault and Jonathan Z. Smith, we constructed a theory that we were confident applying to several case studies. I suggested to the students that in respect to the title of our course, “Religion and the City,” perhaps there is a religion of the city that could be identified in Ondaatje’s novel. The characters in the novel are forced to express their identity by investing in nonconventional spaces while opposing established authority structures. Our task then was to ask the same questions about, and to apply the same theory to, contemporary Toronto. More specifically, who is included and excluded in the physical construction and cognitive imaginings of Toronto in 2010? What sites become nonconventional sacred sites to those who define themselves as citizens non grata in opposition to the establishment?

These questions were addressed in a major assignment for the course. I instructed students to select their own spaces within the city of Toronto that they felt resembled spaces described above and to apply our theory to those sites. In order to help them, I offered my own example, the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter and Drop-in Centre, for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto.


Civic Engagement as Knowledge-Production

So it was on a chilly March morning I took my class to the shelter where they spoke first with Dion Oxford, the manager, who addressed the challenges of urban homelessness. He then turned the class over to the aforementioned Anthony, who runs walking tours of the city to provide community groups with insights into the ways in which individuals experiencing homelessness navigate Toronto’s downtown core.

The Religion in the Public Sphere (RPS) Initiative at the University of Toronto was established three years ago with the intent to provide a forum for interdisciplinary conversations among scholars, students, and community members concerning religion in public venues (politics, art, education, etc). Several RPS initiatives are directed primarily toward undergraduate students, including the student steering committee, an online blog forum, and the opportunity to take a service-learning course.

While not directly related to the RPS initiative, the goal of the “Religion and the City” course was to incorporate some of the core themes of research focusing on public manifestations of religion, and was made possible in conjunction with generous funding from the Jackman Humanities Foundation. The course was initially taught in 2008 by Pamela Klassen (director of the RPS Initiative) and graduate student Arlene MacDonald (who has since received her PhD from the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion). They passed on to me a format that emphasised ethnographic engagement within civic spaces.

Civic engagement as a pedagogical practice has been defined in numerous ways (Battistoni 2002; Boyer 1990; Ehrlich 1999; Tritelli 2003). At the most basic level it suggests a collaborative and reciprocal interaction between students and the community at large. Civic engagement promotes a framework of learning in which students are encouraged to understand themselves as agents or participants in their field of study and in relation to their object of study. Ideally it positions students to ask intelligent and meaningful questions about their own roles within their communities and social spheres of influence.

In employing this framework, I aspired to provide my students with nonconventional objects of study and to challenge them to include their own subjective experiences and epistemologies in their analyses of religion (Palmer 1998: 106). From the perspective of the “Religion and the City” course, a focus on civic engagement meant the production of knowledge in an environment that is not inaccessible but rather one in which the students could take personal ownership over both their topic and method of study.

In my view, the class trip to the Gateway provided students with an opportunity to learn within a framework of civic engagement. As we followed Anthony through the streets of Toronto, he paused frequently to shake hands in jovial camaraderie with men and women who are likewise a part of street culture. Anthony introduced the students to a space that many of them have occupied for years and offered a completely different perspective. At the city courthouse, where one of my students had served as an intern, Anthony told us about various fights in the basement holding cells. At Eaton’s Centre, where another student worked as a sales clerk, Anthony reported to us that he is often rudely asked to leave by mall security. Finally, in the park in front of the twenty-four-story apartment building in which I live, Anthony reminisced about the nights he had slept in the park as part of an all-night “sleep-out” designed to draw attention to affordable housing needs in Toronto. After Anthony left, I pointed to my building and admitted to my students that I do not know my neighbors’ names, and then asked my students the following: who is really at home in these spaces? (Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, 2008).


Expanding Boundaries in the City and in the Classroom

Teaching and studying at the University of Toronto provides a great venue for theorizing about and interacting with urban spaces. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was surprised to witness my students stop to take pictures during the trip. Upon closer reflection, I realized that because the city of Toronto is a so-called megacity with an ever-expanding metropolitan conglomeration of sizable suburban municipalities, the majority of my students reside in the suburbs and in a very real way were tourists in their own town.

While the students understood themselves as Torontonians, many of them later reported to me that this identity was one that they tentatively held because they felt uncertain about what the major issues and concerns were for the city. With this in mind, one of my goals in teaching this course is to provide a space where students can draw connections between their learning inside the classroom and their lived experiences outside of the university. As Parker Palmer suggests, the teacher’s role is one that allows students “to be introduced to a world that expands their personal boundaries and enlarges their sense of community” (120).

In an attempt to have the students expand personal boundaries and better understand the city, I encouraged them to select and analyze sites that would challenge them to view the city from an unfamiliar perspective. Furthermore, I told them that they would be evaluated not only on their critique but also on their selection of data. Following my lead, many of the students selected sites that are central to specific subcultures within the city (the Gay Village, Jewish or Muslim community organizations, domestic abuse care centers, the University’s Centre for Women and Trans People), whereas others chose to focus on what have traditionally been viewed as ethnic neighborhoods within Toronto (Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal) or neighborhoods that are notorious for violence and gang activity (Toronto’s Flemingdon Park and Regent Park).

In the end, I was surprised by the number of students who selected sites in which they were personally invested. In their papers, students reflected on and problematized their own interactions with their selected sites. Since the focus was on the way that spaces create narratives that include some while excluding others, the assignment provided an opportunity for students to challenge some of their own communities’ practices regarding the construction of boundaries and the implementation of authoritative systems.

I have left my definition of “civic engagement” intentionally broad. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion, I am sensitive to the reluctance of many of my colleagues to employ pedagogical practices that might be deemed ideological or values-driven. For example, in providing Anthony such a generous allocation of class time, one might assume that I am emphasizing my own personal (albeit fairly normative) commitments to reducing homelessness in Toronto. I have yet to resolve this concern, but I found it helpful to address the issue with the students in class as part of our discussion and reflection about the field trip. In doing so, I hope that I am attending to Jonathan Z. Smith’s instance that we must reveal to students the hard work that goes into our pedagogical and intellectual endeavors.

A lot of the research focusing on civic engagement promotes a classroom experience that compels students to be involved in political activities and social justice initiatives. There is a concern that university-educated individuals are becoming less involved in civic responsibilities (Putnam, 2000). In fact, there have been calls from student groups, community organizations, and university educators to integrate intellectual and practical venues for civic engagement (Zlotkowski and Williams, 2003). To date, service-learning initiatives are one of the primary ways through which this integration has been successfully accomplished (Devine, Favazza, and McLain, 2002). This initiative is a popular option for independent students with the means and aptitude for experiential learning. In order to truly meet the demands for a cohesive integration of the concerns of civic engagement, universities must move beyond one-off courses and begin to integrate these themes into the curriculum and learning objectives of more established courses.

In my experience it was optimal to use the resources already available to students in the course. They served as resident experts of Toronto and were able to identify objects of study within their own neighborhoods and communities. Assured that they were indeed already experts, and armed with a new method of looking at civic spaces from a different perspective, my students uncovered a city that was simultaneously less and more familiar to us all.

Syllabus – Religion and the City – King

Posted in Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments