Deconstructing the Tension in the Room: Disciplinary Taboo

Janine Giordano Drake

Thank you, Elesha for your excellent post on debates regarding the importance of Scripture at the Religion and American Culture Colloquium. This post is intended as a continuation of that discussion.:

Academic conferences are a bit like first dates. We look forward to them in the abstract so much, and try hard to absorb and recall all the details of the important moments, but our long term memories often emphasize the visceral feelings, smells and impressions over supporting details of the content. One impression from this weekend's Religious Studies conference that I will probably never forget was the look on a fellow scholar's face when she tried to convey to me that my question to her was absolutely out-of-bounds. We were alone in a hallway, and she didn't know what to say, so she just looked at me, mouth agape, and speechless. "I'm so sorry for asking," I fumbled after a few seconds. "You really don't have to answer that question--in fact, please accept my apologies," I continued. But the silence persisted, probably because the other scholar honestly did not know what to say. Then I changed the subject, said a few words about my project, and tried to transition to a subject my new acquaintance felt more comfortable discussing. But the deed was done, and I had learned my lesson. I learned that it is not generally appropriate to inquire about the personal religious background of a scholar of Religious Studies.

As things happened, I would learn by the end of the conference that this was a real, live taboo among many in the field of Religious Studies. For, what struck me most in the tension-filled discussion about whether or not conference attendees had read the Bible thoroughly was the fact that several scholars felt personally attacked by such a question. What stirred the room was not just the insistence that it is unnecessary for all scholars to study the Scriptures. Many made the great points that Elisha's commenters have put forth: some traditions do not emphasize personal interactions with Scriptures; many believers do not study the Scriptures themselves; the Bible is a compilation and not meant to be studied "cover to cover;" and Scripture is only one small window into the challenge of understanding a living religion. All these points were very apt, and if I recall correctly, they were well-taken by all sides.

The real provocation was whether or not it was academically out-of-bounds to ask a question that draws lines between those with "Sunday School educations" and/or personal Scriptural devotional practices, and those whose personal faith does not emphasize the Scriptures. As one prominent scholar, put it (my paraphrase), "Well, I'm a liberal protestant, and we don't read the Bible like that." Another added, "Catholics don't read the Bible." Each of these comments revealed something in what they did not reveal. That is, they covered a large territory between implying "Therefore, why should Religious Studies scholars read the Bible, if we are merely shadowing the world of a-scriptural religious subjects?" and "That is not my devotional tradition, so please do not ask me to follow your devotional practices in my Christian tradition," at the same time. The debate was not really about whether reading the Scriptures may be a worthwhile cause. What was in tension in this interdisciplinary gathering was whether scholars of religion should be required to out themselves about their personal encounters with these holy books.

If we take social theoreticians at their word, taboos help define and cohere a particular group of seekers. The live taboo all weekend, as I understood it at least, was the question, "How do your personal experiences with faith and faith formation education inform how you study--and what you study--about religion?" My impression was that Professor Flake knew how provocative her question would be, for she never ended up taking the poll but instead making an argument that such a poll would be worthwhile. It seemed like she was intentionally encouraging us to examine this taboo, even if she was not entirely comfortable violating it. To the extent Professor Flake was challenging us to empathy for believing subjects who revere and know Scripture very well, I really admired--and really saw the value in--this provocation.

I suppose this taboo was more visible to me because I come from a field (US social history) where talking about personal identity politics at conferences is much more welcome. I study Christian Socialism, and have been asked about every time I present my work if I attend church, and if so where. One older scholar came up to me after a presentation in April, saying, "I get the feeling Christian nonviolence is very important to you... It's very important to me, too; your work is heartening--keep up the good fight." At this particular conference, the Midwest Labor and Working Class Colloquium, we ended our day of panels with a discussion on the future of organizing and then by holding hands and singing labor/ freedom songs together. This seemed like the perfect end to a weekend that had highlighted the venerable Staughton and Alice Lynd, whose keynote address shared reflections of what they had learned from a lifetime of engagement in the Black Freedom Movement and liberation movements more generally. Staughton talked about how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which he was part, had the goal of organizing to make themselves irrelevant, but he has since learned from Catholic liberation theologians that a life of struggle means coming alongside the poor and oppressed for something more like a lifetime. Discussing his (Quaker) personal faith was permissible at this terrific academic conference because labor historians are always discussing our faith and the faith of our subjects--usually not faith in the terms of religion, but faith in different strategies for social and political change alongside the faith of the historical subjects whose life projects we study.

I get the sense that in the field of labor/social history, we assume each other's academic projects are an extension of our personal politics and that the scholar is happy to discuss how the two relate. My faith--in politics, religion, and churches--has been fruitfully challenged by scholars many times. One professor I met at an archive last summer boldly tried to convince me that Rerum Novarum was right--socialism is a Christian heresy. Though his critique challenged the very heart of my project, it also forced me to examine so many of my assumptions about class and its importance within the Christian faith. Because it sharpens me, my project, and (dare I say?) my faith, I am so grateful that taboos on discussing "Truth" and one's personal beliefs were broken. We in social history learn from the discipline of anthropology that it is important for personal biases to be visible, legitimate grounds for discussion and critique, and essential to keep us humble before any analysis of others peoples' lives. It fascinates me how the interdisciplinary field of Religious Studies, apparently more rooted in the Social Sciences than the Humanities, comes at many of these questions of religious devotion and belief so differently from that of my home discipline.

I left the conference thinking that interdisciplinarity is hard, but it is still worthwhile. The act of putting together in one room Religious Studies folks, sociologists, historians, political scientists, scholar clerics, and scholars of literature is in itself a bold statement on the need for one another's help to understand the function and practice of religion within American culture. In this sense, the fact that we managed to maintain these taboos despite very different backgrounds meant we were reading from the same holy book more than we might have realized. Without our common culture of taboos, we might not know where or how to begin meaningful discussions on the subjects we each hold so dear.


Elesha said…

Thanks for continuing the discussion here! What I referred to briefly as the insider/outsider discussion certainly enfolds both a scholar’s personal identification as a believer or nonbeliever in the traditions about which she writes and the dimension you describe so well regarding the field of social history, advocacy. Both personal identification and advocacy are taboo among religion scholars, but not, I think, because of affiliation with the social sciences. The RAC conferences are unique in including so many sociologists and political scientists, whose primary professional home would be the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. The AAR, by contrast, is dominated by humanities approaches (provided one counts theology among the humanities).

I would instead posit that religion scholars’ anxieties about revealing their beliefs reflect some combination of methodological concerns (such as “I don’t want to ruin the story I’m telling” or “I honestly don’t know how to be objective here”), professional concerns (“My colleagues in the sciences won’t respect me if I seem to believe this stuff”), and personal concerns (“I lost my traditional faith some time ago, and what I believe now is both unclear to me and nobody else’s business”). All this anxiety seems often to result in extra distancing between scholar and subject, even a certain critical sneer, though the sycophancy Kelly Baker highlights also occurs. The exchange among Stephen Prothero, Robert Orsi, and others regarding snake handling is a classic account of the issues involved ( and

The implications of the religious studies taboos were more explicitly confronted at the first RAC biennial conference. Discussion at one of the sessions touched on funding for religion scholarship and readership—two different sources of anxiety in the field!—and basically why not enough people care about what we do. In this arena, a disciplinary commitment against advocacy becomes a problem. Religious studies has positioned itself in the academy as a field that studies phenomena but considers unethical any attempt to encourage students to participate in them. As I told my intro to religion students at Duke, “This is not Sunday school. I’m not trying to make you believe or do anything.” But what other field does this? Does mathematics swear never to train practicing mathematicians? Are political scientists expected to be apolitical? If business stopped producing entrepreneurs, or if women’s studies severed ties with the campus women’s center, they’d disappear. Religious studies wants to be rigorously independent yet broadly relevant, and that’s a tough case to make. Labor historians, still singing the songs of the people they study, don’t appear to have this problem.

Kelly J. Baker said…
Janine, thanks for this post, and I really enjoyed reading your assessment from a different mode of training than my own. I was trained at a state school in a religious studies department, which means I am more informed about the unique position of religious studies scholars as Elesha points out so nicely in her commentary on training in math. We often are in weird positions in that my theological, atheological, spiritual, or neutral positions are not open to my students' inquiries.

Yet, I do emphasize that religious studies is a method/approach that I want students to adopt for a semester or two. This approach requires an analytical edge and offers no easy answers. So, we do train but maybe the better question is what are we training them to do? Perhaps, this is where some of the discomfort lies.

The mistake my students make is to associate religion with religious studies, and that slippage is a telling one. After all, my degree proudly proclaims PhD in Religion, which causes some confusion in interesting moments.

Advocacy is scholarship makes me twitchy, but we all advocate somehow. Our focus on religion means that other scholars don’t want us to advocate or promote "them," the religious, as if we are always already allied with our subject matter.

I cannot help but wonder after reading Elesha's lovely comment(ary) if religious studies won't have perpetual identity crises if we don't clarify why we do what we do.

Great conversation. Let's please keep it going.
Thanks so much for responding to my post, and for the reference to the fact of this discussion at the previous RAAC. I will definitely look this up, and perhaps assign part of this discussion as reading this fall in my Intro to World Religions course! This is a fun conversation.

I suppose I wasn't just responding to that goal of objectivity (as Kelly puts it) at the RAC conference, but also the way this goal has worked within Religious Studies courses that I have graded for and TA'ed at the University of Illinois. Even though I do agree with you that the AAR and the JAAR are both much more humanities-oriented, the citation style and method of introducing pieces still seems much more social scientific to me (and divided from political axes to grind) than that of other journals I read.

I like the goal of taking one or two semesters to put on an analytical set of glasses and put aside what one has learned outside that course. I've seen several professors teach this way in our Religious Studies dept at our large state university, and I've tried my best to emulate this as a TA for the department. However, I wanted to sort of "come out" in this post talking about how disorienting this is as a person whose primary training is in a field that goes about the objectivity question a little differently. It's additionally hard for me to tell myself and my students that, as one of my supervisors has put it in a Bible as Literature course, (my paraphrase) "Your previous experience with the Bible should be left at the door of the classroom and have no bearing on the way we are studying it in this course. It will not help you; in fact, it's more likely to do the opposite." I know about the literary trend toward formalism and its utility in a course like this, but I still find this hard to inhabit and teach within this framework, especially when I know for a fact that many students continue to engage the Bible devotionally outside of class. I'll come out here and tell you that I know this because I see them waving to me at church. I try to look away, but by the fact of our glances meeting, a certain degree of formalistic objectivity in studying the "Bible as Literature" broken. Don't you think?
I'd love to hear stories and tips on how to steer classrooms back to the objective, especially when students want to talk about their experiences.

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