An Olympics of Intellectual Take-downs



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David W. Stowe

Not typically in the right place at the right time, I was fortunate to be both a couple weeks ago when Jon Butler was officially feted/roasted out of his longstanding professional roost at Yale. (RiAH readers were alerted to the day-long conference here at the beginning of March.)

Planners Amy Koehlinger, James Bennett, and Katie Lofton spearheaded a consistently mind-expanding day of panels packed with former Butler students. Representing different decades and fields, professors at all ranks were flown in from around the country and asked to produce a paper in the heretical Butler mode, puncturing the conventional orthodoxy of their subfield. The rule of thumb for presenters, as Molly Worthen pointed out in her paper, was WWJD: What Would Jon Do? Or: Be your own devil's advocate! What ensued was, in the words of Elizabeth McAliser, "the Olympics of intellectual take-downs."

McAlister herself delivered a take-down of mythologies of the Bwa Kayiman ceremony held in Haiti in 1791, considered to be the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. Chris Grasso took down the idea that there was no religious skepticism in early America. Rachel Wheeler took down the idea that Native Americans couldn't also be Christians. Molly Worthen took down the "culture war" paradigm in recent U.S. history. Michael Alexander took down the notion that "exile and return" works for American Judaism. James Bennett took down the presumption that the American West was and is irreligious. Brandi Hughes took down the idea that the Exodus narrative alone dominated African American identity. Amy Koehlinger took down the concept of the Catholic Imaginary. Kathryn Gin Lum took down the very idea of history as change over time. Stewart Davenport took down the idea that critical scholarship about religion is necessarily cynical. Cathy Brekus took down the view that historians of Christianity should blend into a larger history of religion rather than be explicit about their interest in Christianity. By the end of the afternoon historiographical bodies were everywhere. C. Vann Woodward looked on with a somewhat dour expression from a portrait on the wall behind he podium.

After dinner Butler was roasted by New York Times "Beliefs" columnist Mark Oppenheimer, who donned a white beard and cardigan for an excursion through "Mr. Butler's Neighborhood," nicely capturing Butler's elfish mannerisms. One of Butler's sons spoke movingly of his father's faithful attendance at his many high school and college basketball games. Even as dean of the Graduate School, Butler apparently left his work-world behind when he came home and joined the family for dinner.

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