Is RE perhaps a terrorist activity?


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Thursday evening’s discussion at Stirling University ‘Education or Indoctrination:  The future role of religion in Scottish Schools,’ predictably fell, to these writers’ and minds, a little flat. But why?

Debates about RE in UK – and Scottish – schools are frequently characterised by ambivalence– in Scotland skirting around unacknowledged or unmentionable aspects of its social and economic history that come with sectarian and religious labels – and  sometimes what is reflected in them is further retrenchment rather than trenchant thinking. Arguably what emerged here were various familiar themes: the desire of hard-working committed RE teachers to encourage their students to engage with forms of wisdom (not limited to Christianity); the importance of developing  attitudes of respect and tolerance partly at least as a kind of defence against the dark arts of terrorism and fundamentalism; a lament for a lost form of theological and biblical literacy; the claim that  theological and biblical literacy enriches the appreciation of history and literature (a somewhat backhanded legitimation of RE as handmaiden to a range of more acceptable humanities?); a view that the only kind of knowledge relevant within Schools ought to be based on ‘secular’ reason and empirical science; and various attempts to define ‘religion’ as a concern with transcendence, as historical tradition as the commodification of  ‘otherness’.

In respect of this last point, the discussion was enlivened with an elegant critique of the ‘world religions’ paradigm that parcels up knowledge of ‘the other’ whilst schools continue to maintain a ‘hidden curriculum’ – actions and expectations developing a form of ‘our’ subjective, Christianised identity that acts ironically to reinforce a sense of the otherness of what we study ‘objectively’. Sarah Clark addressed the question of a possible future for the subject creatively and optimistically with suggestions for an interdisciplinarity that  would not be subordinated to the demands of a ‘policy assessment culture’ fostering rigid disciplinary boundaries. Based on her enthusiasm for the possibilities of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (2010) she began to flesh this out in terms of an idea that refreshingly, wasn’t constrained by current orderings or assumptions – proposing a more nomadic and less territorialised approach.   However, thinking on this creative level is hard to sustain and gave way for the most part to a more diffuse discussion, for example in terms of parental rights – clearly an important issue, but one with  polarising  effects that closed down rather than opened up possibilities for the exchange of ideas about the future.

What then, by way of post script to this event, do we have to contribute to this discussion?  We have previously identified the Official Account of Religious Studies  (OARS, see I’Anson & Jasper, 2006) in British Schools and Universities as one that is built on a late modernist ethos of rationality, objectivity and neutrality reflecting a substantive ontology and a rhetorics (within RE and society more broadly) characterised  by openness to multiculturalism as a social good. It seemed to us that this OARS was very much in evidence in yesterday’s discussion. (By ‘substantive ontology’ we mean the kind of normative, western and masculinist discourse which is still widely believed to be neutral whereas it is arguably a highly privileged construction.) Scholars like Smart and the organisation of RE teachers with which he was closely involved in the 1970s (the SHAP working party) took advantage of a move observable at that time, away from older confessional or narrowly moral certainties that had characterised ‘Religious Instruction’ or ‘Scripture’ before the 1980s. The approach (at secondary and higher levels) they developed was in tune with this rhetorics and substantive approach. Yet what was key here, was that this dominant approach – still detectable today – remained, at the same time as it appeared rhetorically open to difference/s, intellectually aligned within the quite rigid categorisations of what we’ve referred to here as substantive ontologies – for example in relation to the familiar western notion of ‘beliefs’.

In the academy, things have changed. There has been movement – mediated through a diffusion of broadly post structuralist approaches – towards the recognition of much more relational ontologies (Irigaray, 2004; Wildman, 2010) and this has shifted understanding from a basis in essentialised towards contextualised knowledge. Yet as a number of the speakers noted in the course of yesterday’s discussion, at the same time schools, universities and educational research more generally has  been required increasingly to conform to  structures whereby education is seen as a means to achieve measurable economic or socio-economic benefits with students and stakeholders configured as customers. At the same time there has also been a clear cooling of popular enthusiasm for differences/multiculturalism that could be associated with pressures from economic migration and the fear of international terrorism (after 9/11) in a time of austerity (after 2008). (A recent document produced in England even suggested that teachers should be wary of  students who betray too great an interest in issues of cultural difference (Coppock, 2014).) In the light of these changes, it was entirely appropriate to be having yesterday’s discussion and to be pointing to the need for new creative ideas for the future although it was clear that the framing of the event largely assumed all participants would be more or less aligned with a certain common vocabulary and disappointingly, made little allowance for the kinds of ‘interruptions’ from different perspectives that might have opened the discussion up.

The contradictions between these forces – substantive and relational ontologies – has clearly now led to a crisis of plausibility in relation to the language of RE – a fundamental failure on the part of policy makers particularly but perhaps also on the part of academics to think through the implications of the newer relational ontologies as they have revolutionised thinking about identity and difference/s in relation to lived experience as this exceeds the limited categories and essentialised knowledges produced by the substantive ontologies of the past. And this, arguably, is to some extent exemplified in  the evident disconnections between RE at primary and secondary level and many forms of theology and critical religion at higher education levels.

We do need some new thinking – perhaps an AAR (Alternative Account of Religion?) – that proposes more robustly educational rather than ideological or neoliberal justifications for maintaining space for Religion in the curriculum – perhaps as a space for critical  attentiveness to genuine and challenging difference/s and a response to ‘learnification’ (Biesta, 2008). In other words, we need to acknowledge the ways in which engaging with cultural differences will inevitably lead to, and call forth, changes to our characteristic ways of carrying on.  This will interrupt the prevailing discourse that assumes we can encounter knowledge in general and knowledge of religion in particular in purely ‘neutral’ terms.

As we envision it, we could perhaps say that the implication for yesterday evening’s discussants (and listeners), is the need for all of us to acknowledge the imbrication of religion, cultural difference/s and education and to recognise that at present the current framing at policy level remains in/different; difference/s is/are continually resolved/translated into familiar polarities that are fundamentally impoverishing.  We argue that we need then to engage urgently with the question of what is educationally desirable – to broaden the understanding of socialisation and genuinely to consider the implications for present day cultural horizons.

Alison Jasper & John I’Anson

Spirit worship, Tibetan Buddhism and the West


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While waiting in the rain for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to arrive for his public lecture in Rotterdam this year, alongside the long rows of Tibetans holding ceremonial katas and singing mantras, a louder and visibly much better organized group was catching the attention of visitors through banners, flyers and slogans shouted over a sound reinforcement device. This group was by and large formed by members of the New Kadampa tradition, also known as ‘the Shugden followers’, who since the mid 70’s have made a visible presence at more events such as the one I have witnessed.

The followers of Dorje Shugden started protesting in the summer of 1996, as the Dalai Lama was visiting England. They complain about religious discrimination, the suppression of religious dissent within the Tibetan community and the persecution of those who practice the protector Dorje Shugden, the latter a matter of religious freedom. This was in response to the Dalai Lama’s repeated public stance against the practice of Shugden. The Dalai Lama’s reasons to ‘ban’ this practice were that it encourages sectarianism, that being essentially a form of spirit worship it has nothing to do with Buddhism and because this practice on the whole is not beneficial for the Tibetan community. This post discusses the dynamics of divergent opinions that lie at the core of the ‘Shugden affair’ and critically contributes to the contextualization of this controversy in global terms.

The root of the conflict centers on interpretative questions about religious practice and institutionalization (Dreyfus 1998). Dorje Shugden has the status of Dharma protector or dharmapala in Tibetan Buddhism. The history of Shugden is interwoven with that of one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa, and with the institution of the Dalai Lamas, who are also part of (but are not ‘head’ of, as often erroneously stated) the same Gelugpa school. The 5th Damai Lama is thought to be causally related to the very existence of Shugden: the premature death of Drakba Gyeltsen, who as a boy was not chosen as the reincarnation of the 4th Dalai Lama, transformed the latter into a spirit seeking revenge (Dreyfus 1998). This spirit was incorporated into the colourful pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism and has become especially important for what is considered a fundamentalist lineage within the Gelugpa school (Hilton, 2000). The practice and propitiation of Shugden are especially associated with Pabongka (1878-1941) and his claims of Gelugpa supremacy above the other Tibetan Buddhist schools. He was trying to uphold Gelugpa purity as a countermeasure to the then already popular Rime movement that emphasized an eclectic religious approach based on practices predominantly attributed to the Nyingmapa school (Lohrer 2009). However, the tension between this dharmapala and his followers resurfaced when the 13th Dalai Lama restricted the worship of Shugden. Only after the 13th Dalai Lama’s death in 1933 could Pabongka promote freely the practice of Shugden in order to revive the Gelug monastic order (Lohrer 2009). Pabongka’s disciple, Trijang Rinpoche (1901-1983) one of the main teachers of the present Dalai Lama, passed on the Shugden practice to him and most of the Gelugpa establishment as a ‘mainstream practice’ (Dreyfus, 1998). However, the present Dalai Lama took personal distance from this after 1975 and started to publicly advise against it after discovering its historical background. From 2008 onwards, through a referendum, Shugden devotees were separated from the rest of the Gelugpa establishment and were allocated land to build their own monasteries.

These steps have been interpreted by Shugden followers as a ban and form the basis of their claims of discrimination on the basis of ‘religion’.

However, if we follow this historical overview we can see that the apparently religious part of the controversy is tightly interwoven with its political part, which concerns the struggle of power within a religious group (fundamentalist towards modernist Gelugpas) and in relationship to other groups (Gelugpas as related to other Tibetan Buddhism schools). The core of this tension is the position and authority of the Dalai Lamas and the character of Tibetan national identity, in which Buddhism presently plays a central role. These two being interrelated, the relationship between ‘religion’ as an expression of private autonomy and its performance as ‘a symbol of national unity holds considerable potential for conflict for the institution of the Dalai Lama’ (Kollmar-Paulenz, 2009). The Dalai Lama’s preference for promoting Tibetan Buddhism in general instead of promoting the Gelugpa school can be seen as a form of betrayal by the latter (Hilton, 2000). Furthermore, the present Dalai Lama is a person with many roles: he is simultaneously a ‘simple Buddhist monk’ as he loves to talk about himself, the reincarnation of Chenrezig – the bodhisattva of compassion – a Nobel peace laureate, an internationally renown advocate of the Tibetan cause and a person who until quite recently has held important positions in the Tibetan Government in Exile. Although there is no contradiction between these different roles, there is certainly tension arising at some junctures.

However, neither the tension between the different roles of the Dalai Lama, nor the unusual balance between religion and politics in the Tibetan context form the core of the Shugden controversy. Rather it is the new global context that makes the issue explosive. It is not historical tensions which feed controversies such as the ‘Shugden Affair’ rather it is the context of western values, which are taken over at a fast pace through a growing global community and a wide and opinionated and interested public, which now co-define what is truly Tibetan, who has authority and which are the worthy problems in the Tibetan community. ‘The Shugden dispute represents a battleground of views on what is meant by religious and cultural freedom’, but a dispute framed in western terms. The present Buddhist modernism, to use the words of Dreyfus, has greatly transformed both the content and the form of Tibetan Buddhism and is not an expression of its ‘timeless essence’ (Dreyfus, 2005). In this specific case the modernization of faith meant taking distance from ‘spirit-worship’ as to better portray Buddhism as a religion based on reason, contemplation and experience, having a strongly ethical basis, a non-violent approach and being a valuable resource for social action. This modernization allows forms of religious administration and institutionalization to be ethicalized through the use of elements such as lack of discrimination, equal opportunity, religious freedom, but also invites critique through the same avenues. The translation of Tibetan ideas in ‘modern’ terms make possible a distinction between cultural expressions and the essence of Buddhism, but also ensures the loss of unique cultural and religious characteristics. Maybe it is also worth mentioning here that although many Shugden followers are Tibetans, many more are westerners with a good sense of how to catch the attention of the public and media, but maybe with a less thorough understanding of the real issues at stake.

The Discourse on Good and Bad ‘Secularism’ in France


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In this blog-posting I will take the opportunity to share some thoughts from a article that I am currently working on. In the article I discuss the rise of what I call the discourse on good and bad ‘secularism’ in France.

In a recent book the eminent scholar of French ‘‘secularism’’ (laïcité), Jean Baubérot, expresses concern for what he considers to be a falsified ‘secularism’ (La laïcité falsifiée, Paris, La Découverte, 2012). Baubérot’s concern is similar to that of Western political leaders who portray Islam as a ‘religion’ that can be hijacked and used by fundamentalists for political and mischievous purposes, which has been analyzed by authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Rapahël Liogier.

However, to Baubérot it is not Islamic fundamentalists that are the perpetrators. Instead, as Baubérot suggests, the perpetrators are the French conservatives and the far-right; like the former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) and the new far right icon Marine Le Pen’s Front nationale (FN). ‘Secularism’ has been UMPLepinized, as Baubérot has it (a neologism of UMP and Le Pen). Baubérot informs us how these parties have managed to twist ‘secularism’ into something hostile towards Islam and Muslims, which would be contrary to its original meaning.

These falsifications have occurred during the many ‘Islamic Affairs’ that have been occupying the media and the political center in France the last 25 years or so; e.g. the 1989 Islamic Veil Affair, the 2004 law banning the Islamic veil in public schools, the 2010 law banning the full face veil in public space, and Le Pen’s statement that France is suffering under an Islamic occupation in 2011. Baubérot is far from alone in this analysis and I do agree on the matter that the conservatives and far-right has appropriated ‘secularism’ in a seemingly new manner. But what I find curious is that this supposed falsification is portrayed as a rupture in an otherwise liberating historical unfolding of ‘secularism’.

Just to explain the logic in play let us consider a similar case. In the 2014 European Parliament Election special by the leftist daily La Libération the journalists Jonathan Bouchet-Petersen and Antoine Guiral analyze the success of Marine Le Pen. They state: “Pour la France, pays des droits de l’homme, le symbole d’un FN en tête fait tache. (To France, country of human rights, the symbol of FN in the lead is a blot)”. As if France, the country of the colonial civilizing mission par excellence, the Dreyfus Affair, the Vichy Régime, the recent illiberal laws against Muslims, the extra-legal detention centers for third country nationals, the violent Roma expulsions, and so on, only finally, betrayed the imagined and glorified heritage of human rights?

Now, to put ‘secularism’ back on tracks, to stop its falsification, Baubérot urges us to go back to its roots and fully apply the famous Law of 1905 separating church and state; or, as I understand it from Baubérot’s writings, the foundational Law of ‘Secularism’. However, as Baubérot himself has pointed out, as has many other scholars, the Law of 1905 separating the church from the state was unequally applied in the French colonial empire. In French Algeria its non application on the Muslim population led to a state-gallican model, or, a tutelage role of the state in relation to Muslims and practiced Islam, meaning that the state could keep Algerian mosques on a tight leash. Moreover, Muslims were not given the status of full citizens and were deemed incapable of being ‘secular’. Not only did this contribute to making ‘Muslim’ into an ethnic marker, it also rendered ‘secular’ into a marker for Christian Europeans.

Thus, if ‘secularism’ has a proper history as a particular phenomena (as I understand Baubérot’s writings), I wonder what the differences are between contemporary and historical ‘secularism’? For sure, in metropolitan France the Law of 1905 targeted the Catholic Church’s influence on the French Republic, however, Muslim Algeria was also a part of France. This makes me wonder, if a historical continuity can be ascribed to ‘secularism’, does not ‘secularism’ from its very birth have to have been a marker of identity for the ‘secular’, the non-‘secular’, and the potentially ‘secular’ as well as a political technique to police and govern the borders in-between?

I will develop these arguments in the text, but here I want to point to a potential problem of ideology. The desire to find an untainted historical ‘secularism’ leads to an idealized and normative analysis blind to power and ideology. Instead of properly understanding how ‘secularism’ functions and what power relations it is part in creating and sustaining, one easily slips into an anachronistic discussion on the should-and-should-nots of ‘secularism’; i.e. into a discourse on good and bad ‘secularism’ all too reminiscent of the discourse on good and bad ‘religion’. The category of ‘secularism’ becomes an a-historical and an a-political truth and the battle of who is the most ‘secular’ or the mostly correct ‘secular’ casts a shadow over the exercise of violence it legitimates.

Religious Rituals and the Spectres of Poverty and Mining Among Indigenous Highlanders of the Peruvian Andes


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Based on my own fieldwork, I will examine Andean indigenous religious rituals and folkloric contests of Cañaris in Northern Peru in order to unpack the terms in which their unequal relationships with the outside world are considered. I suggest that these Cañarenses rituals are particularly concerned with the label of poverty used by Peruvian society to depict them and that the invisibility of this indigenous society is in fact what allows this depiction. Rituals and contests are considered here as expressing an indigenous comment on the label of poverty used by the national state to describe ethnic groups.

Invisibility and poverty

Despite of their remarkable cultural differences, the Cañaris should also be defined by its ‘invisibility’. As in other regions of Peru, little is known about these highlanders by the national and regional (they are certainly not even included in the formulation of their region’s identities) political centres of Peru, where the label of poverty is used as a way to continue ignoring their rights as an indigenous group. This label is built upon the fact that the Cañarenses, whose wealth mainly depends on land tenure, agriculture and reciprocal exchanges of labour and services, are not able to access the world of Peruvian national society as are those who have a highly monetised form of livelihood. I suggest that Cañarenses religious rituals and folkloric contests do not only express this interrelation of ‘poverty’ and invisibility, but also make a collective non-verbal reflection on it through two contrasting but complementary strategies. One is to perform a religious ritual in which land ownership and agricultural work are claimed as the most important sources of wealth. The other strategy is to perform a folkloric contest that claims monetary richness.¹ In sum, religious rituals and folkloric contests both allow Cañarenses to collectively enact and evaluate their invisibility and “poverty”.

Indigenous rituals dealing with the label of poverty

The religious ritual concerned here is the main annual celebration, linked to the most venerated statue kept in the main churches of the Cañarenses. The celebrations of each image are the responsibility of a specific land owner of the community. The main communities of the Cañarenses are Incahuasi and Cañaris. In Incahuasi, the same ritual is dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Mercy’, which is the most venerated image and substitutes the official male patron. In Cañaris, this ritual is dedicated to a male image, Saint John the Baptist, who is its eponymous and most venerated patron and is split into two images that have slightly different prerogatives and powers. Despite their differences, the participants in these both rituals reclaim the dependency of their livelihood to work on the land. This claim corresponds to one of the most important objectives of this ritual: improved land and cattle fertility. In Cañaris, Saint John is directly associated not only with healing but overall with water. Ritual participants devoutly moisten their hair and napes with the water taken from the marsh where Saint John turns around at dawn. They also bring this water to their land and give it to their animals. In Incahuasi, ritual participants leave fleece from their livestock after kneeling, praying, lighting a candle and giving a monetary donation to Our Lady of Mercy. Doing so, they assure the fertility and health of their animals.

The dynamics and goals of these religious rituals intend to contest the label of poverty, which is viewed as the predominance (in a context in which commodities and money are increasingly important) of reciprocal exchange of services and products linked to agriculture over monetary payments and access to manufactured commodities. This correspondence between work on the land and the he stigmatisation as ‘poor’ (which in turn is used to deprive the Cañarenses of their rights to be consulted as indigenous people about the use of their lands by, for instance, multinational mining companies) is what is being debated by these religious rituals. Reacting to the association between land work, the externally ascribed label of poverty and the denying of their rights, these religious rituals claim land ownership and exchanges of labour and services as the most important sources of wealth, and reassert the need to increase the fertility of their land and livestock. In sum, if being poor is discursively labelled by the national society as being attached to the land, it is instead ritually claimed by the Cañarenses precisely as being deprived of it, as not having enough crops or enough cattle.

Folkloric contests and the disclaiming of poverty: confrontations and disregards


There is still another local form of dealing with the label of poverty (and the fear of its consequences): the folkloric contests that take place at the same time and compete for almost the same scenarios used by the religious rituals described above.² Both in Incahuasi and Cañaris, the main annual religious ritual is accompanied by a folkloric festival that is independently organized by their municipal authorities using external funding. The ‘folkloric festival’ -called Inkawasi Takin- was created in the seventies by a group of rural school teachers, probably under a nationalistic ideology thatreacted against the influence of the nearby Republic of Ecuador. Today, its nationalism seems replaced by the promotion of urban music, quite different from the local indigenous music played during religious rituals. Later on (and until nowadays), this folkloric contest has been financially supported by the municipality. In contrast, religious rituals have never been funded by public money but by the wealth of specific families.


Since its first edition, the folkloric festival has increased its participants, funding, and duration and has also been replicated by other communities of the Cañarenses. Nowadays, in the town of Cañaris, a similar folkloric festival is also organized by two externally-funded organizations: the municipality and a Catholic order, founded by a German priest (‘Misioneras de Jesús, verbo y víctima’), that is seen as linked to the foreign mining company interested in the region. It can be said that those who get involved in the folkloric contests in Cañaris and Incahuasi do so partially because of the monetary or commodity compensations offered by the organizers of these top-down initiatives. Nevertheless, participants are also seduced by being exposed to the modernity of the urban world, whose inaccessibility is one of the most feared aspects of the label of poverty.

Let us now contrast religious rituals and folkloric contests among the Cañarenses. Firstly, the second ones follow an urban pattern taken from the cities in the lowlands, in which competitions on dancing, singing and playing are observed by a jury (and a public that does not vote but loudly show its particular support), while the first ones do not have neither a jury neither a public at its centre. In second place, folkloric contests make a constant and strong use of electrical devices, while religious rituals that have never resorted to any other devices apart from the local handmade musical instruments. Thirdly, while folkloric contests take place on just one main stage, the main phases of religious rituals happen in different places simultaneously or consecutively. In fourth place, if those farmers actively engaging in religious rituals are usually considered to correspond to the label of ‘poor’ used by national authorities and agencies, those who participate in folkloric contests are called the ‘rich’: those wealthy enough to move comfortably and frequently between the lowlands’ cities and the highlands’ indigenous communities, which enables them to establish businesses and to monopolise political power and funding attached to a municipality.

In fifth place, those involved in rituals and contests actually belong to or support different key political organisations in the region. On the one hand, those who are directly involved in religious rituals are joined together in a group of land owners which is the main form of political organisation for indigenous people all over the Andes. On the other hand, those who participate in and support folkloric contests have the municipality as their economic and political axis. The municipality depends only on the external funding assigned to them by the national or regional governments, while the activities and power of the comunidad is mostly based on farming activities and on land tenure. These differences are taken into account by the members and supporters of each organisation and surely permeate the decisions concerning which one would be supported on what occasion. Nevertheless and in general terms, the municipality attracts those more interested in access to the urban world of the lowlands while the comunidad tends to join those whose income originates from land tenure.

Finally, the simultaneity of religious rituals and folkloric contests acquires not only a sense of a tacit confrontation but also a meaning of explicit disregard between both groups. Once a year, contests spectators and ritual participants, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, shop-keepers or wage-earners and peasants, dramatize what defines them and what distinguishes them; and they do it even occupying the same places. The religious ritual may occupy the side of the main square where the church is located. In contrast, the folkloric contest takes place next to the municipality. Even in marginal ritual places like those out of the main square, this confrontation and disregard seems to be the rule. For example, before, during and after the procession of Saint John in the marshes, the municipality organises football matches in a stadium located on the route taken by the participants in the ritual.

Final thoughts

I have intended to show how religious practices can express local views that respond to the way these communities are perceived in a broader society. Religious rituals (along with folkloric contests and precisely for what distinguishes from them) are then quite relevant not only for the study of indigenous cosmologies (as has been the usual case in the Andean studies) but also for issues like the confrontation over a multinational mining project to take place in the lands of Cañaris. The study of religion among the indigenous societies of the Andes can help us understand phenomena like stigmatizations that do not only differ from the indigenous point of view but which legitimize sets of symbolic statements that tacitly undermine their participation in politics. Religious rituals here actually constitute non-verbal forms of dealing with such external identifications, ascribing their participants to specific symbolic strategies and situating them in a particular political and economic cartography which contends the national narratives on indigenous peoples.

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[1] This analytical distinction between religious rituals and folkloric contests do not intend to make the argument that the former are connected to the more formal church structures while the latter are not. It is just a form to distinguish between some performances that are linked to an older agrarian structure that focus on the devotion of specific images kept inside a church (“religious rituals”) and other ones that are related to a newer monetized economy that focus on the public display of urban signs of status and wealth (“folkloric contest”).

[2] Before continuing, it might be worth more detail on the kind of perspective I am using here. This approach takes both folkloric contests and religious rituals as cultural scenarios where a group reflects on current issues that affect their society. Moreover, I propose that this reflection is made more collectively than individually, and more through embodied practices than narrative discourses.

‘Religion’ and the study of ‘religious leadership’: some observations from Lebanon


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The distinctive thing about religious leadership is that it is religious. The clue is in the name. Nor do religious leaders themselves let us forget it, setting themselves apart from non-religious leaders and the general public by means of their outlandish dress, their publicly pious practices, their religious expressions and references, and even their personal grooming habits. The very obviousness of this religious nature leads to assumptions of a difference between religious and non-religious leaders that goes far deeper than appearances. In the case of Lebanon, where religious leaders of various Muslim and Christian stripes wield a great deal of power, such assumptions have become so essential to the expression of secular modernist ideals that I devoted my doctoral research to exploring them. Here I will outline a few of the misconceptions I have encountered, some or all of which may be familiar in other contexts.

‘Religious leadership’ is one of several categories of actor treated regularly in general works on politics in Lebanon. One recent book, for instance, includes this conventional section in a chapter on non-state elites: ‘Whereas state elites act directly within the political arena… these unelected elites’ influence politicians from ‘the shadows’ [El-Husseini 2012: 122]. Lebanon’s religious leaders are introduced as follows:

The clergy has always had an impact on political life in Lebanon owing to the confessional nature of the country’s political allegiances. Indeed, the concept of national citizenship has not taken hold in Lebanon in the same way that it has in Western nations. Loyalty to the family, the clan, and the religious community overrides other allegiances, leaving little room for national patriotism [140]

Here the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘religious leadership’ are taken to be self-explanatory, a natural and permanent feature of the social universe. Further, religious phenomena are contrasted with modern structures and concepts of nation, state and citizenship, as both their precursors and their presumed opponents.

Framing ‘religious leadership’ in this way prompts certain kinds of questions: Why, for instance, has the rise of secular leadership in a modernising state like Lebanon not resulted in the decline of religious leadership, as the secularisation thesis would have us expect? Under what conditions do these religious leaders become politicised? Attempts to answer such questions serve only to obscure the origins of ‘religious’ institutions and merge their various historical dynamics.

Several general theories have been proposed to explain the ‘persistence’ of Lebanon’s powerful religious leadership. One is that Oriental religions – both Islam and Eastern branches of Christianity – are by nature more resistant to secularisation. Another links the failure of secularisation to the weakness of the Lebanese state: if people do not find security in the modern state, they look to their traditional leaders instead. A third refers to a religious resurgence that is part of a reaction against globalisation. Sometimes one or other of these theories appears to fit a particular religious institution or community at a particular time, but they all fail to give the kind of generalizable explanation that they claim to provide. Part of the problem is in the way research projects are formulated. The category of religion, while encouraging analyses of religion as a discrete phenomenon, has in practice led researchers to focus on individual religious communities as independent spheres of action.

The tendency to circumscribe scholarship on each religion has also produced an alternative approach that uses the particularities of different religions or sects to explain the roles of their religious leaders. For example, Sunni Islam is characterised by the overlap of umma and state, so the Lebanese Mufti, who is paid from the state budget, is considered a relic of the privileged place of Sunnis in the Ottoman Empire. The Shi‘ite Council, by contrast, was only set up in the late 1960s by populist Imam Musa al-Sadr, and tends to be linked to a global ‘Shi‘ite awakening’ and a latent revolutionary tendency in Shi‘ism. And the Druze Sheikh al-‘Aql has always had a central role, it is said, because of the insular, tribal character of Druze religion, which has clung to its traditions despite centuries of persecution. Such explanations often lead, in my view, to an uncritical reproduction of clichés, which risks feeding prejudices.

These conventional narratives – whether of religious particularism or of religion in general – project essentialised images of religion(s) onto actual social formations, and in doing so obscure the modern historical context. So going back to the three examples above: it was only in the 1930s and 40s that the Mufti of Beirut was elevated above other clerics and turned into a national figurehead for a newly defined Sunni community. The Shi‘ite Council and its authoritative presidency may have been created later, but they were designed to match the model of the Sunni Islamic Council and its president, the Mufti. Thus the Shi‘ite leaders are paid by the state in much the same way. The title of Sheikh al-‘Aql had long existed among the Druzes, but at the time Lebanon’s borders were drawn there were two Sheikhs in the area, not one. Two were finally reduced to one only in 1970, in order to bring Druze religious leadership into line with the other Lebanese communities.

Once viewed comparatively, it becomes clear that these various institutions have been shaped into their modern forms by the context of the Lebanese state and its new multi-confessional public space, in which ‘religious leadership’ has acquired the meaning we now take for granted. Yet explanations of their contemporary prominence continue to hinge on their supposed natural connection with ‘primordial’ allegiances among the population.

An essential distinction is conventionally drawn between the Lebanese communities’ ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ spokesmen. Ironically, it has not been uncommon for commentators to judge the ‘religious’ leaders more representative than their ‘secular’ counterparts. A classic text of the 1960s popularised the idea that religious leaders comprised a ‘shadow parliament’ able to express sectarian viewpoints that were excluded from Parliament by the moderating effect of the electoral process [Meo 1965: 55]. A more recent article by a popular blogger refers to ‘the various religious bodies’ as a ‘de facto Senate’, whose members ‘traditionally get up in arms’ in defence of their communities [Hamoui 2012].

Confused perceptions of an organic connection between religious leadership and religious community result in these figures being linked to sectarianism as both a product and a cause. On one hand they are assumed to ‘resonate’ [Rabbath 1986: 93] in some mystical way with their coreligionists; on the other, they are accused of retarding Lebanon’s development from sectarianism to nationalism through their undemocratic interference in politics.

My own study finds that the official ‘religious leaders’ of each sect are sustained above all by the state’s recognition and legislation of their roles. Indeed, taking a closer look at the way they actually use this public platform, we see a discourse heavily imbued with national patriotism, aimed not at inciting sectarian hatreds but responsible citizenship and submission to a strong central state. One of the reasons their role is so misunderstood is that commentators dismiss what they have to say because it is delivered in ‘religious’ terms, couched in the preaching of moral values. Whether the clerics’ pacific ‘religious’ discourse is suspected of insincerity – public platitudes covering for private support of militancy – or considered naïvely well-intentioned, the assumption being made is that such discourse is ineffective, detached from real power politics. We need to be reminded, as Lynn Staeheli puts it, that ‘the invocation of responsibility, care and ethics does not deny or obviate politics’ [2008: 17]. Once again the isolation of religion as a category obscures very real power dynamics, especially the negotiation of knowledge across the imaginary religious-secular divide. Religious leaders are no less part of the contemporary systems of meaning that define the salience of leadership, citizenship, and national belonging; their own roles are articulated in these terms, and like others they participate in the interpretation of the language that shapes the Lebanese public sphere.

Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies


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Recently I have received a link in my emails to a report on Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies undertaken by Mathew Guest, Sonya Sharma and Robert Song (2013). Detailing some comparative data in the field charted against the gendered profile of the discipline, the report highlighted a number of factors that influence women’s pathway through academic study and career progression in academia that I feel are worth reiterating to our readers. While there are other Arts and Humanities-based subjects that are marked by the trends indicated in the report, in a comparison between English, Philosophy, Anthropology, Mathematics and Chemistry, the field indicated by Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) fared worst as regards a gradient decline of women enrolled in further study, or progressing through academic promotion procedures. Whereas by and large female students outnumber male students in undergraduate courses, over the course of postgraduate work, taught and research, the figures begin to tip in balance. As the study shows, ‘the drop off rate for female TRS students is more than twice that of any of these other subjects’ (12).

Of the numerous indicators gathered by the report, the ‘gradual female withdrawal in tandem with academic progression’ (4), a recurring theme was that of lacking confidence in women candidates. However, three issues stand out as especially connected to the academic subject area, rather than a patriarchal institutional culture underwriting academia at large: the recruitment strategies of some institutions that recruit from countries in which candidates are likely to be funded for their studies by their church, which may reinforce a conservative, gendered reception of Christianity also at a structural level (14). To develop the level of confidence in female students to pursue a career path in particular sub-disciplines consequently appears as comparatively more problematic. The report specifically names Systematic Theology amongst its finds (15). A second area highlighted in relation to that of recruitment from elsewhere is the connection of TRS departments with denominational affiliation, often due to supplying training for ministry for which the recruitment by the churches into ministry impacts upon the question of diversity at the university (13). And thirdly, the administrative struggle of TRS departments in their variously re-structured forms. Specifically in the complicated relationship and disciplinary distinction drawn between religious studies in a broader, often interdisciplinary field, and theology, the report noted the implications on directions for research when targeting submissions for the REF (cf. 16). All of these issues, in effect, are symptomatic of funding politics, as they come through at various stages for career progression: in recruitment, in funding further studies, and in impact assessment for career progression.

Motivation to pursue further study, in my own case here at Stirling (one of the few non-denominational schools – and one without the competing demands of classical theology), had largely been kindled by a postgraduate initiative titled “Feminine Divine” that was run over the spring term in 2009 by research postgraduates of the interdisciplinary school for Languages, Cultures and Religions at Stirling. As a first point of contact with the postgraduate community, the lively and welcoming circle of feminist postgraduates made a strong impression on me, as I shied away from approaching (our very approachable!) staff to discuss options of further study. In light of prejudices against tags such as “feminist,” highlighted in the report (8, 16), I recall the reaction of one of my friend’s parents, who upon hearing of their daughter’s participation in the group, cautiously asked if her relationship to her male partner was still all it could be. The equation between the theme “Feminine Divine,” feminism, and lesbian culture in the popular imagination gave rise to many a discussion since.

The question of funding, albeit related to other reasons and factors cited by the study, analysing the recruitment processes and circumstances of candidates, remained largely absent from their consideration – due perhaps to the focus and response of those interviewed for the report. Having been one of the 33.2% of female research postgraduate students in the figures from 2010-11 cited (9), I vividly remember the apprehension in the run-up to deadlines for funding applications after the announcement of cuts in the Arts and Humanities, that could have very well spelled the end of my own academic aspirations. The prospect, particularly in a time of economic austerity, of finding part time work that could fund tuition fees and living costs, especially if there are no family savings to meet some of the costs, is not inviting. And in retrospect, with my study all but completed, I know all too well that without funding, I would have written a different study: economic demands play crucially on the scope and outcomes of research, whichever the field.

Curiously, the report characterised Philosophy and English as two comparative reference groups for the field in light of working methods and subject matter within the Arts and Humanities, cited to aid the interpretation of the absolute figures attained from Higher Education Information Database for Institutions (HEIDI) (10). I say curiously because in the logic of funders – and certainly in the historical development of Religious Studies – TRS nestles under the rubric of Historical and Theological Research. While I do not have access to the numbers of female students progressing through a career in Historical Research, my estimate is that this line of inquiry might have found TRS less of a special case. Obviously this is not to say that it would therefore be any more acceptable to the health of the academic institutions to maintain this imbalance. The recent decision by the Church of England to allow for women bishops offers hope that a symptomatic imbalance in the ratio of male and female students and academics, that may have skewed the ratio of some institutions in the study in comparison to the national average (13), is likely to change over the coming years by providing significant role models to an aspiring generation of women scholars.

Institutions and organisations are eager to pick up discussions to maintain a strong and healthy disciplinary diversity, and the annual ‘Socrel Response Day’ on the theme ‘Achieving Gender Equality in the Academy: Intersections, Interrogations and Practices’ (October 4, 2014) in London is an event of primary importance to raising awareness and facilitating discussions that prepare responsible leadership in academia for a future in TRS. Plans and preparations for a mentoring scheme, central amongst the recommendations of the report, are encouraged in order to facilitate and prepare students and academic staff to face the challenges in pursuit of achieving gender equality in the academic engagement with TRS and beyond.

Performance, sound and hegemony in the Empty Centre


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In the course of some years of retreat and recovery, yoga and music have been the focal points of my life. Both of these spheres afford borderless challenges, and, moreover, in each the reification of theory and the absence of practice is arguably understood as a deficiency – or even a perversion of basic purpose.

Participation in a 200 hour yoga teacher training programme and consistent application in musical performance have influenced my understanding of both theory and fieldwork in the borderlands of theology and religious studies. This experience has also had implications for how I understand the much contested notion of ‘religious studies’. As a survivor of the original cohort to pass through Religious Studies at Lancaster University, I am not a neutral observer of the prolonged deconstruction of what was conceived as a liberal project in the humanities with benign societal implications.

Immersion as a practitioner and performer in a range of contrasting contexts in yoga and music has sharpened and made immediate many reflexive questions pertaining to cultural translation, embodiment, the psychosomatic impact of movement, posture and sound, and as to how control and hierarchy are reworked in a fraught modernity. The latter I characterise as ‘managerial modernity’, a globalised ‘normalisation’ that imposes heavy identity demands upon any individual tempted to deviate from mandatory submission as a commodified human resource. As the erosion of the separation of powers and the dissolution of residual public/private distinctions proceed, so full-spectrum surrender of the managed subject to the Performative Absolute becomes the price of organisational survival. In existential terms we encounter the empowered Empty Centre in the face of which agency is relinquished.

If for present purposes we leave westernised yoga to one side and focus upon the structure of hegemony and the regulation of charisma within the performance of the religious music of Western and Eastern traditions, it becomes apparent that within each practice locale imposed resolutions of complex tensions take place. Traditions, lineages and sound generation are confronted by the demands, however well or inadequately expressed, placed upon the lives and identities of both performers and audiences (and congregations) as they are all impacted by the social construction of managerial modernity.

At the outset of my immersion in the life-worlds of a Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) elite choir, an audition chamber choir, a church choir in an ancient Scottish burgh church, and a group that specialises in Russian Orthodox a cappella performance these all appeared to be havens of traditionalism in which atomised and often marginalised, but musically competent individuals seek solace.

However, it became apparent that these marginal life-worlds may seethe with unexpressed tensions as ‘reconciliation’ is sought in the altered state of consciousness induced by the performance of highly regulated sacred sound. This, however, takes place in concert with the conscious repression of ‘truth’. There is, in effect, an inversion of the restorative logic of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which truth-seeking precedes any resolution. The search for solace apart from, and on the basis of the repression of the recognition of trauma creates acute difficulties. Such self-alienated practice can be the elaborate pursuit of forms of ‘false consciousness’.

As a performer with some leadership responsibility, my puzzlement was intensified by an ever more psychologically burdensome awareness of the tensions between the unexpressed and unacknowledged, but real needs of those seeking refuge and solace – and the ritualised deferrals of performance. Each visit to, as it were, the musical Pool of Siloam plunged the sick soul in the water from which it later re-emerged temporarily cleansed, but seemingly unhealed, not least by reason of a systemic refusal to recognise the presence and consequences of trauma in the first place.

How, then, might some kind of bridge be built between the psycho-spiritual stimulus and frustrations of choral sacred solace and the matrix of theology and religious studies in which the present writer had spent a career? As an adjunct to the study of music theory and composition I began to explore recent musicology. At this juncture a set of affinities began to emerge between the theoretical arguments and resources exploited in the contested multi-disciplinary fields of religious studies and theology, and those drawn upon in recent debates on ‘historic performance’ and ‘authenticity’ in the contemporary performance of religious music in settings remote from their original contexts. Evident in each context is an acute need to provide viable hermeneutical resolutions of the relevant historical and semantic hiatus.

Rather like the formidable ‘early’ Karl Barth who wrestled with the gulf between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries in the Prefaces to his successive editions of the Römerbriefe (1919-1922), leading musicologists and performers like John Butt and John Eliot Gardner strive with the interpretation and performance of the early modern cantatas and the Passions of J. S. Bach in modernity. A notable commonality between these fields rests in a mutual dependence upon debates in modern/postmodern theory.

My recent participant observational fieldwork thus presents me with the following challenge: is T.W. Adorno’s depiction of the performance of music with sacral pretensions in late modernity as aestheticized alienation all too true – or might there be other viable ways of construing this activity? Might it be possible to regain authenticity in the face of the insatiable global demand for expressive release and consolation, be this in religious and spiritual practices or musical performance grounded in cognitively dissonant traditions?

Is the slide into the problematic solace of ‘false reconciliation’ (falsche Versöhnung) ineluctable, or could human needs for healing and transformation be more fully met in musical performance and sacred sound? The task thus presented is to explore ways in which this complex situation might be decoded so that performers and audiences alike could perform more fully in truth and authenticity. As regards ‘critical religion’, is such committed inquiry legitimate or should it be regarded as a naïve sui generis betrayal of the analytical reduction of the pseudo-category of ‘religion’ to its real status as a residual socio-political pathology?

The Category of “Religion” in Organizing Contemporary Societies


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British sociologist of religion, James A. Beckford, writes on the opening page of his 2003 book Social Theory and Religion that “disputes about what counts as religion, and attempts to devise new ways of controlling what is permitted under the label of religion have all increased” (Beckford 2003, 1). He calls this de-regulation of religion and sees the development as one of the hidden ironies of secularization.

So far some scholars have responded to the situation Beckford sketches, but the mainstream study of religion has not. Scholars, such as David Chidester, Daniel Dubuisson, Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon and others, have analysed the formation of the modern discourse on religion and suggested that it has had two main functions. First, it has supported colonialism by distributing Western meaning systems elsewhere and, more specifically, “religion” has been a tool for deciding how to treat colonized people (depending on whether they were regarded as having “religion” or not). Second, it has been significant for the formation of “secular” nation-states by “domesticating dissent” (McCutcheon 2005), i.e. dividing people, practices and groups into private and non-political (“religious”) and public and political (“secular”) spheres.

The formation of the modern discourse on religion is still in operation in contemporary societies. That is why studies focusing on it are relevant not only for understanding the past, but they help us in analysing today’s situation as well. If Beckford is correct in suggesting that disputes about what counts as religion have increased, we need to pay more attention to recent negotiations and demarcations and see how, where and why the disputes take place.

One of the cases I have studied and written more extensively elsewhere (Taira 2013) dealt with a Jedi Knight who was escorted out of the Jobcentre in Southend in south-east England in 2010, because he refused to take his hood off. Job seeker Chris Jarvis, white young adult, claimed that his Jedi religion requires him to wear his hood up in public places.

Jarvis made an official complaint and three days later he was apologised to by the personnel. The printed apology from the Jobcentre Plus manager stated:

“I was sorry to hear of your recent experience and have investigated the issue you have raised. Jobcentre Plus is committed to provide a customer service which embraces diversity and respects customer’s religion or belief. I would like to apologise that on this occasion you were asked to remove your hood which you have stated is not acceptable as part of your religious belief.” (Levy 2010)

This apology was followed by the media coverage of the case. For Jarvis, this was his “Jerry Springer moment”, a short experience of fame of a person whose social status is low. I have analysed the motives and justification of Chris Jarvis’s claims in detail elsewhere (Taira 2013), but it is important to note that his statements were explicitly directed towards minorities who have gained dress-code exemptions on the basis of “religiosity”, thereby suggesting that increased immigration and discourses about diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism and so on – not only secularization – are important factors in understanding the dynamic of current negotiations over “religion”. Furthermore, without reference to Jediism as a religion and its requirement to wear a hood up, who would listen to Chris Jarvis? Claiming Jediism as his religion gave him a voice and made it count, at least to some extent.

The media cannot prevent Jedis making claims on the basis of “religion”, and the media cannot prevent the Jobcentre from apologising, but the media are more powerful than Mr Jarvis or the Jobcentre in offering the framework for interpreting the case. The tongue-in-cheek style of newspaper coverage indicates that the media makes a distinction between serious or real religions and fake or inauthentic ones, thus downplaying the opinion of Chris Jarvis and maintaining the existing discourse on religion.

What happened with Chris Jarvis is just one case, but it provides some ideas about the prospects for future studies. Scholars can look at the media, courtrooms, government policy debates, healthcare, prisons, army and schools. They are venues where disputes about “religion” are held. Rather than jumping into the debate and suggesting that X is essentially religious or secular, authentic or fake, scholars can ask, what is at stake in these disputes? Why do some people and groups want to be classified as “religious” or (nonreligious) “secular” and why is the issue negotiated at all. What are people trying to achieve by making claims about religiosity? Who benefits?

There is not only an increase in disputes about what counts as religion or religious, but a qualitative shift I call here – for the sake of argument, at least – a reflexive moment. People are strategically and often quite consciously claiming to have a “religion” (or, in other cases, denying it), depending on the practical purpose it may serve. In this sense, the category of “religion” has to face its own modern history. Consequently, “religion” becomes ever more contested and a disputed category in various public institutions.

Scholarly standpoints in the study of religion are often divided between those who see some analytic value in the concept of religion and those who see “religion” as a discursive item to be analysed. This debate is often re-framed as a distinction between realism (or critical realism) and social constructionism (see Schilbrack 2014). I think that the issue is more complicated, because it is possible to be a realist or critical realist and challenge the analytic value of religion as a theoretical concept. Therefore, while the link between social constructionism and studying discourses on religion is common, it is not necessary. Likewise, the link between critical realism and seeing analytic value in the category of “religion” is common, but not necessary. Furthermore, it is possible to say that religion may have some heuristic value in specific research projects, while proposing that the study of discourses on religion is significant. Moreover, even those who think that religion has analytic value and/or regard themselves as realists or critical realists can usually see the significance of studies focusing on the disputes revolving around “religion” and how society is organized by classifying certain people, groups, ideas and practices as “religious” or “nonreligious”. This means that my intention here is to redirect the debate and to emphasise the significance of studying how society is organized by discourses on religion, not to defend either critical realism or social constructionism. The practical problem is that, for reasons that are not clear to me, it is a small minority who is actually doing such studies.

Study of the category of “religion” in society is not just one possible research interest among others. It is crucial for providing case studies for a more general theoretical reflection of study of religion. Furthermore, and contrary to the voices who claim that a critical approach to the category of religion is destroying its institutional basis and the social relevance of the study of religion, I see it also as one way by which to make our work relevant outside academia.

Commisioning Theological Imagery


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Prof. Rudy Medlock and Paige Medlock Johnson working on the full-size template for the FAS stained glass window.

Prof. Rudy Medlock and Paige Medlock Johnson working on the full-size template for the FAS stained glass window.

My father and I have worked collaboratively on stained glass windows for several years. Although he is primarily a stone sculptor and potter, he learned the art of stained glass about 40 years ago and began teaching it in the art department of Asbury University. As a child, I would get off the school bus at the art department and learn alongside the students how to do fiber arts, ceramics, and stained glass, and as an undergraduate student I chose art education as a major with stained glass as my area of concentration. Since then I have worked with him on several commissioned stained glass projects from the Dominican Republic to Kentucky to Scotland for religious and secular institutions, although that demarcation often becomes blurred in the space of installed stained glass.

Stained glass is traditionally an art inherent with ecclesial associations, but now it is found in all corners of public domain; in a sense stained glass is missional as it has migrated from cathedrals to hospitals, homes and pubs, to galleries and libraries and offices. Stained glass is commissioned for symbolic messages, political agenda, architectural decor, for someone’s honor or memorial, and even still for religious purposes and places of worship, such as chapels and temples and churches. What we have traditionally considered distinctly ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ spaces has, in the placement of stained glass, fused or confused those boundaries.

A commissioning body requests a work of art from an artist or studio whom they know to be reputable, and their conceptual design will be for a specific place and purpose, and include a particular image to communicate that purpose. The artist needs to understand the context for the commission in order to create a visual hermeneutic that fills the intended physical space and fulfills the aesthetic and theoretic need. Here is one example of a commissioned stained glass project that changed imagery, artists, and message, illustrating the significance of commissioning theological imagery today.

The Francis Asbury Society is an organization that exists to promote a message of holiness – that people’s hearts and lives can be renewed to live a holy life in connection with God. The message is promoted via publication, itinerant speakers, and retreats and their headquarters recently moved from a modest cramped office space in the basement of an apartment building to an impressive timber frame building at the entrance to the town that is mostly known for Asbury Theological Seminary and Asbury University. Although FAS shares the same name and town in Kentucky as those two institutions, they are not affiliated.

Stained glass window of Francis Asbury installed at The Upper Room, Nashville, Tennessee.

Stained glass window of Francis Asbury installed at The Upper Room, Nashville, Tennessee.

Bishop Francis Asbury was one of men sent by John Wesley to spread Methodism in America, which he did on horseback from 1771 for 45 years. His message, the heart of Methodism, was to spread the gospel and serve people – heart and hand, faith and good works. When the Francis Asbury Society began construction on their new headquarters, a few years ago they envisioned a stained glass window in the center loft space of the building.

Campaign booklet showing original stained glass image with materials for interior design choices, taken at the studio while working on the new stained glass design.

Campaign booklet showing original stained glass image with materials for interior design choices, taken at the studio while working on the new stained glass design.

The overseeing president contacted my father about fulfilling the stained glass project, but upon hearing their desired image, he recommended a different stained glass studio that would be able to work with their desire for a realistic memorial image. After FAS contacted the other studio, the commissioning body still wanted my father to do the stained glass but now they were interested in changing their desired design to a more stylized symbolic image of a Celtic trinity knot, to be interpreted by the artist. They were familiar with The Power of Images and wanted, rather than to honor a person who spread a message, to commission an image of that mysterious message. This was interesting to my father, who then contacted me in Stirling to determine if we wanted to work collaboratively on the project. We both knew the organization and its founder and president, and we both liked the idea of working on a Celtic trinity knot, for its design potential, cultural heritage, and its theological meaning.

The evolving design included a fairly symmetrical geometric modern triquetra with interlocking trefoil, woven through a ring, all superimposed over and interacting with the background of three three-dimensional crosses mirroring the timberframe beams of the building in which it was to be installed.

The stained glass design is about the Trinity, the triune Christian Godhead constubstantial hypostates and relationship between God the Creator, Christ the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit, which is the central mystery distinct to Christianity. Without unnecessarily delving into Trinitarian theology, a simple explanation of the mystery of the trinity is important to understanding why a Christian ministry institution would desire to have this image prominently displayed. This same-essence-different-persons as monotheistic God is not only unique to Christianity but, simplified, is the essence also of Christianity. The illustration of this abstract theological concept by way of triquetra (Celtic trinity knot) and trefoil (architectural triad) is more easily accepted in visual terms than verbal complexity, and it is put forth with aesthetic beauty that is inviting to the viewer.

Like Dewey suggests, this art is experienced as a normal activity, not set apart or autonomous from human living. In fact, this particular stained glass window is installed in the midst of clerical work, scheduled meetings, publications, people in vocation. Unlike Dewey suggests, this art is also experienced spiritually – not set apart from so-called secular living but rather as part of holistic living including the thoughts and the feelings of a spiritual nature. Art can be a spiritual aesthetic experience, not excluded from everyday experience, but rather an everyday experience because it is a spiritual experience, in other words being and doing are not mutually exclusive; it is pragmatic because it is theoretical. This stained glass window can be experienced as artists’ co-creation of visual expression, as theological mystery being wrestled and glorified, as a purely pleasurable moment in passing by, as a creedal affirmation of faith, or even as an invitation to experience the verbally indescribable. It is not so relative that it is not personal, but it is so personal that it is relative.

For visitors to the Francis Asbury Society headquarters now, the stained glass window cannot be missed; as one enters through the front door into the main lobby, the window is centered overhead on the balcony above the main floor entry. Details throughout the building echo the trinity knot motif with wood inlay in the banister woodwork and the unique table configuration in the main meeting room. This stained glass window is here because it cannot not be here. Without it the building would be lacking in visual structure as well as theological foundation. There is a blurring of the sacred/secular where, in this space, the tedium of work becomes infused with the light of something holy while visual theology becomes part of the mundane rituals of work.

FAS stained glass window installed, shows scale, completion, and detailed woodwork.

FAS stained glass window installed, shows scale, completion, and detailed woodwork.

All photos © Paige Medlock Johnson.

Myths and Superpowers: “Metaphysical” Superheroes?


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This blog post is primarily about the language surrounding “mythology” “myths” and along the lines of the thinking behind the Critical Religion Association, “religion”. I look at these terms as tools for categorization using stories of superheroes.

In 80s and 90s India, most available comics available were stories taken from “Hindu mythology” such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or stories based on these works in books such as Amar Chitra Katha. Also popular were the Jataka Tales, a collection of Buddhist moral stories. On the television front, we had two state-run television channels and programs on South Indian channels were dubbed versions of Hindi programs produced mostly in Delhi, the capital city of India. Dramatized adaptations of Ramayana (produced by Ramanand Sagar) and Mahabharata (produced by B. R. Chopra) were televised during these two decades. The personification of Hindu deities and demons, the grandeur of the production and film-sets, and the visualization of these stories (that until then were only narrated orally) in these shows was awe-inspiring. As is common for “mythology”, several different television and film adaptations of both Ramayana and Mahabharata have followed since; however, the early versions set the standard for how subsequent adaptations would be made. What has prompted me to write about superheroes and their superpowers is primarily the language that we use to describe on the one hand, “Hindu mythological” stories and on the other, stories of caped-crusaders produced primarily in the West. What I want to explore here is how the language of “mythology”, “myths”, and “miracles” puts the stories of Rama and Krishna in a different league from that of, say, Batman, Superman, etc. Superheroes in these contexts are defined or understood as someone with ‘higher mode of being’ transcending the mundane human lives; indeed as Indologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty puts it, ‘an enlightened sage’ who transcends the ‘world in which reality is defined by normal, social, conventional human existence’ (1980: 97).

The television shows Ramayana and Mahabharata portray central stories surrounding the lives of the Hindu deities Rama and Krishna, respectively. These stories include some of their heroics that establish their identities as deities amongst humans and thus, set them apart. For example, in an article that discusses the “myth” and “reality” of such stories, O’Flaherty gives an example of a story about Krishna: when Krishna, as a toddler, was caught eating mud by his mother, she asked him to open his mouth. He did, to reveal the entire universe, signifying that he was the embodiment of everything in this universe. Or the story where Krishna protects his devotee Draupathi by providing her with clothing when the cousins of her husbands attempt to humiliate her by disrobing her, as this video shows.

There are numerous such stories in Ramayana and Mahabharata (and other similar works classified as “Hindu mythology”). O’Flaherty, her problematic language aside, makes an important argument, that “mythology” made into a field of study has forced stories such as the above to fit within the framework of “myths” that need to have a function on a practical level because they concern deities (1980: 93) and are classified as “religious myths”. In doing so, these myths must then prove ‘whether or not there really is anything “out there,” and, if so, what it is’ (1980: 93). This, I contend, is primarily because, as flagged above, the language that is used to describe the stories of these deities, i.e., “myths” and “mythology”; that is, “myths” that need to within the framework of human rationality.

O’Flaherty argues that a definition of both “myth” and “reality” cannot be pinned down, but these terms are used as such: while “myth” refers to those experiences that are seen as metaphysical, “reality” is seen as pertaining to the physical world where “natural sciences” dominate (1980: 94). It is this construction and resulting understanding that problematizes how we understand stories surrounding the deities. By classifying what is perceived as metaphysical as “myth” or as the opposite of the physical world or natural sciences, stories of the deities are automatically classified as “religious” and supernatural. What then happens is a “mystification” of these stories as if they belong to a realm that is beyond human cognition or imagination. Richard King, whilst tracing the origins of the term “mysticism” as a Western construct, argues that “mysticism” is seen as pertaining to perceptions of God or deities, that is then seen as ‘antithetical to rationality’ (1999: 25). Using the term “miracles” because deities are involved makes these stories a mystified, otherworldly phenomenon: not in the sense of fiction, but as something that is supernatural. The mystification that derives from seeing these characters as “religious” pushes them towards a “religious-secular/scientific” dichotomy, in which attempts to “prove truth” automatically falter due to the false categorization. This is, of course, not to say that audiences believe that the superheroes in the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes really exist or that the superpowers of these heroes are “rational”. There is a general level of acceptance and understanding that these characters are fictional; therefore, they enjoy a certain amount of legitimacy as fictions.

Of course, both “mythologies” and superhero comics to a large extent suspend reality or what we perceive as reality. As O’Flaherty argues, the purpose of these “mythologies” is for the superhero to reveal the tribulations in mundane human existence, and ways to resolve them (1980: 97). There are thus similarities between deities in the “mythologies” and the superheroes of the comics’ universes. In my view, Rama, Krishna, and other Hindu deities can be seen as superheroes, and to distinguish these stories from other superhero comics is problematic. The distinction is based on, as I have shown above, the distinction we make between “mythologies”, which as soon as deities are involved, is classed as “religious” or “spiritual mythology”. To categorize “mythology” as such then prompts us, with our problematic understanding of the category “religion”, to question whether these stories are “true”. We then ask “did it really happen?” The idea then is that if we cannot prove that it really happened, it is untrue and therefore, a “myth”.

Thus what I am pointing to is the binary categorization that results from pseudo-empirical tests of proof; whatever is seen as “religious” must be empirically provable as science (supposedly) is; if it is not, it is “mythology” – and therefore, superficial. Instead, we must see these stories as something beyond empiricism and/or otherworldly mystification, recognizing the role that miscategorization plays in our interpretations.


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