Tag Archives: Higher Education

Setting Terms

I never met Jonathan Z. Smith, although he was hard to miss at conferences. By the time I was a doctoral student his writings were deemed essential reading in several areas of religious studies. Smith, like a few renegade scholars, had doctoral training in one area but went on to teach himself far more diverse subjects, earning him rare accolades as someone who understood a vast amount about religion. That’s something you can do if you have a university willing to back you up. The usual formula for academic success (degrees from Ivy League schools, one of which must be Harvard, dissertation published by Oxford University Press, and letters of recommendation from one or two key players) encourages extreme specialization. Siloed thinking. Only when you’ve found a school that believes in you can you branch out like Smith did. Like most people in my field, I’ve read his stuff.

Scholars can be remarkably naive about how “the system” works. Most, for instance, don’t know that Academia.edu is a for-profit website. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; most of my old papers are available on Academia. The thing is, publishers may not want you to post your research there. You see, academics often believe the results of their research should be free. Thing is, someone has to pay for publishing it. It’s not cheap to publish books or journals. Undercutting a publisher may seem like fun, but then the book prices go up and everybody’s mad. These things are interconnected. Jonathan Z. Smith would’ve understood that.

For reasons poorly comprehended, some academics get publishers’ eyes and they want to build this person up. It may be—more than likely is—that an early book sold well. Nothing says academic veracity like lucre. The more books printed with one’s name on them, the better known said scholar becomes. Some even make it to the level of public intellectuals. It’s not a journey over which an individual has much control. Quite often it’s the support structures offered—steady, tenure-track job, ready acceptance at prestige presses, media exposure. Smith, like my doctoral advisor John C. L. Gibson, never used a computer. Try to get a university post today with that stance. I dare you. He set his own terms. In a world where being an academic means knowing an awful lot about a very little, the shadow of those who’ve earned the right to say a lot about a lot lies long on the ground. But it’s a good idea to ask your publisher before you decide to post things on Academia. Be informed about this little bit.

Who Can You Call?

They’re scratching their heads. The media, I mean. In this distorted world of Trumpism, newspapers have rediscovered religion. Some say Trump is the altar boy of the evangelical right with people like Franklin Graham wetting himself over the president. Others say evangelicals want to change their name to distance themselves from Trump. Everybody seems to want to know who evangelicals are, but they’re afraid to ask. The weird, or perhaps expected, thing is universities decline to help. For years now they’ve been cutting positions in religion, a topic no longer relevant or of any interest. Academics aren’t always good at seeing what’s right in front of them, of course. So it is that the media’s scratching its collective head. Is he or isn’t he? What can you say about a man who’s so clearly heathen and yet a sparkling example of Christ-like compassion and values?

It’s doubtful whether any university administrator or televangelist could finger Jesus of Nazareth in a police line-up. They have no idea of who he was or what he taught. All that matters is he was God and he protects unborn babies so that he can arm them with automatic rifles when they’re of age. Oh, and he’s definitely not a woman. Or gay. Is that about it? Just in the past week major media outlets have run stories about the evangelical relationship to the commander-in-thief who’s told more lies in his first year than all other presidents combined. Who said Jesus of Nazareth was honest? He just stood for the right causes.

Having grown up evangelical, studied religion with evangelicals, and having been fired by evangelicals, I know them well. They have a mental capacity for biblicism that’s nearly incomprehensible. The Bible is so sacred that no other book should be placed atop it. It should never be set on the floor. Memorizing chapter and verse is more important than knowing what they might mean or how to live by them. This is old-school blind faith. And proudly so. Trump doesn’t know the Bible but he says he does. His actions resemble the carpenter from Nazareth’s about as much as Joseph Stalin’s. He was a good Christian, too, wasn’t he? After all, the Bible says Russia is our ally. Reagan—another evangelical—may’ve said they were our worst enemy, but one thing we know for sure about the Good Book: it never lies. For that it takes evangelicals and politicians.

Spirits and Souls

I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.

A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.

Contracting Something

Book contracts make me happy. After slipping from higher education into the limbo of editing, it took a few years before realizing that not all books have to be academic monographs. For the past couple of years I’ve been silently writing a book intended for general readers. The subject will remain hidden for now, but a contract for the book has arrived and I’m happy. As my friend Marvin says, “for a man being published is about the closest you can come to giving birth.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Several months of thoughts growing in your head finally culminate in a full developed form, capable of surviving outside the confines of your protective mind.

The motivation for many academics to write is “publish or perish.” In my career track I both published and perished. The thing is, I write because I read. It seems unfair to read so much and not to share a bit of what I’ve learned. If you read this blog regularly you know that I have a restless intellect—the kind of thing that in the old days would’ve made you a professor. I no longer have access to university libraries with their arcane journals and massive collections, but reading on the bus is its own kind of research. (Anyone who’s tried to write notes on a bus, however, knows that the research is limited strictly to what can be remembered after a wearisome 90-minute-plus ride in stop-and-go traffic.) A few years back I decided to start writing up what I’d been observing. Slowly a book was formed. The process is not a swift one.

Many people question the ability of editors to write books. No, seriously. Agents are generally only interested in professors, celebrities, and journalists, not those who may have been one of the above once upon a time. That’s why this book contract feels like a small victory. Weathering the Psalms was written for other professors while I was still one myself. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read hundreds of books in the intervening years. Slow study that I am, it took some time before I realized I could begin to analyze all of this and write it in a way the average educated reader could find engaging. Agents declined the project, but now I’ve found a publisher who believes. When you work on your own, like many authors do, finding just one believer is sometimes all that it takes.

The Struggle for Relevance

Futility is a specialization of those of us who consider ourselves fans of Ecclesiastes. Thus it is that the blog of an editor gets so little attention among academics. Since you’ve been kind enough to drop in, I’m going to share some secrets with you. Make sure the door is closed. Ready? I want to talk about academic publishing. If you, like me, have written academic monographs, you’ve probably figured out that we aren’t famous yet. What’s going on here? What happened to the day when “I wrote a book” meant something? Like all organisms, academic publishing evolves. Many academics want to write for a wider audience, but sometimes miss the bigger picture. Here are some tips to help out:

If you want to write for non-academics get to know some. A good first step is ditching the jargon. “Prosopography” wasn’t on many people’s SAT vocabulary flash cards. Even if you know how to use a thesaurus to find an archaic synonym to use, don’t assume your reader will do the same. Try reading a novel once in a while. They can teach academics quite a bit about how to communicate. Learning to speak the vernacular is only part of the battle, though. The larger part is learning what is of interest outside the academy. Some things, such as Ecclesiastes, aren’t. Oh, I know, I know! Five years of your life spent on some obscure topic should be worth publication. It probably is. A handful of people will read it (print run numbers would only make you weep). If you want to reach a wider readership, you have to go where people actually live. What’s of interest to them? Hoi polloi. They won’t bite. To write for a wider readership you need to learn what people find interesting and what they simply don’t.

An editor can be your friend here. You see, editors are measured by how well their books sell. We can usually tell at a glance if a topic is in the “less than 200 copy” camp or not. I know that you were taught in your doctoral program to find some abstruse subject never before addressed and research it from every possible angle. Write up your results and publish. A far better way to write for a wider readership is to begin a conversation with your editor. Are you thinking of a book on a specific topic? An editor can tell you if it’s likely to work or not. The idea of writing the book your colleagues said would be hot and then finding a publisher seldom works to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s all about communication. And you, dear readers, now know something most professors don’t.

Bible Belts

The Bible’s been back in the news. Specifically the Bible and politics. Like twins separated at birth. Jeff Mateer, Trump’s nominee for a federal judgeship, has gone on record saying Satan’s plan is working. Perhaps even more stridently, Roy Moore down in the Sweet Home state has been quite vocal that the Christian God is the one who makes America’s laws. Standing on “biblical principles” that have nothing to do with the actual Bible, politicians have found a biblically illiterate population a field of white-headed grain ready for the reaping. As sure as the sparks fly upward. The response in the educated class is predictable. Cut any funding for departments studying religion. Haven’t you heard? It’s dead!

Having grown up in a conservative, religious family, and working my way through a doctorate in a closely related field, I’ve been watching in dismay as the past quarter-century has been marked by decreasing positions in religious studies. If you can pull your eyes from the headlines surely you’ll agree that religion is something we just can’t afford to study. Wasting resources, it is, since if you teach economics you have an actual shot at the White House. Yee-haw! Pull out your six-shooter and celebrate! And no, “yee-haw” is not etymologically related to the name of the deity of ancient Israel. It’s only a matter of time before discovery of who’s been uncovering whom’s nakedness becomes public. Then you just need to say the Bible says nothing about divorce. It’s okay, nobody will bother to look it up. Intellectuals will scratch their heads—why didn’t somebody tell us religion actually motivated people?

Universities (consider the name!) used to be places where the value of all subjects was acknowledged. Of course, where there’s knowledge there’s money to be made. Once you’ve gone to the dark side, there’s no coming back. Departments that don’t earn mammon must go the way of the mammoth. Times have become so hard it’a almost like schools want to open Religion Departments just so they have something to shut down. We’ve got to keep those fields that are actually important going. Never mind if your funding depends on a government increasingly elected on the basis of perceived religious faith. Since the Prosperity Gospel is now in vogue, economic departments are always a safe investment. Slap a copy of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn and follow the crowds to DC. Good thing none of this matters, otherwise me might be in real trouble.

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.