Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2008

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Yesterday´s News (CC: Online Expanded Feature)

Yesterday´s News (CC: Online Expanded Feature)
Eugene Gallagher, Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies

Only by understanding the history and power of religion can we comprehend current events that are shaping our own lives

From an April 2 lecture by Eugene Gallagher, Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies.


I´ve chosen my title as a way of linking together, somewhat loosely, three sets of observations about studying and teaching about religion. All of them have something to do with yesterday´s news. For purposes of organization, I´ll give each section a compressed “bumper sticker.” I hope to give some indications of how the study of religion can contribute to the formation of informed citizens who can claim a measure of autonomy and self-direction by exercising their critical abilities.

To Learn How to Read the Newspaper

My somewhat anachronistic phrasing applies to various “new media” as well. Virtually all of what we learn about the world from newspapers, news magazines, Web sites, blogs and other sources of information comes to us already interpreted. The reasons for selection of evidence, choice of interpretive frames, and specific conclusions may be explicitly stated or, more often, hidden from cursory view so that the conclusions presented appear self-evident. This is certainly the case with “news” about religion.

A quick review of some local and national news sources over the past week indicates that religion in various forms plays substantial roles in the stream of news that reaches our eyes and ears every day. Consider the following stories taken from various sources over the past week [in late March-early April]:

• The king of Saudi Arabia calls for dialogue among the representatives of all monotheistic religions, because “we all believe in the same God”

• Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the church attended by Barack Obama in Chicago, cancels appearances at three churches in Houston, as the controversy over some of his statements continues to unfold

• A Dutch film that sets verses of the Quran against a background of images of terrorism spurs protests in Pakistan

• The Pope sparks an ongoing controversy by baptizing a prominent Muslim journalist on Easter

• Ivy League college students advocate practicing celibacy; many of them are influenced by their religious commitments

• A group predicting the end of the world in late April or early May was told to abandon its underground bunker in Central Russia by the authorities

• In 2006 for the first time Muslims made up a greater proportion of the world´s population than Roman Catholics

• British archaeologists are conducting a dig at Stonehenge, a sacred site for many contemporary Pagans, to determine the age of its stones

• A letter to The Day [of New London] instructs readers about the writer´s understanding of Christian forgiveness, in the case of former [Connecticut] Gov. John Rowland

Each of those items presents vignette of religion entangled in a complex set of events. For the casual reader, it´s easiest just to absorb both whatever details appear in the individual stories and the implied interpretations. Such a passive response is made all the more likely because Americans in general profess both a very strong attachment to and breathtakingly widespread ignorance about religion.

Stephen Prothero´s 2007 book Religious Literacy details the stark contrast between how Americans respond to pollsters´ questions about their own religious beliefs and how they answer questions about the most basic facts of the world´s most prominent religions. Prothero concludes that Americans should not tolerate such widespread religious illiteracy. He proposes instead a sweeping educational initiative on both the high school and college levels — a sort of full employment act for religion professors.

While I agree with Prothero on the need for some basic literacy, I don´t believe that he goes far enough or in entirely the right direction. Folks who read, listen to or watch the news need not only to know the basic references in the stories — the what of religion. They also need to know something about religious dynamics, mechanics and processes — the how of religion.

I´ll offer a brief look at a way of understanding the dynamics of religions and then test it out on a few very current examples. Religions, in short, strive to offer to people a compelling presentation of the way the world is, a hopeful vision of the way the world ought to be, and a variety of ways of bring them into alignment. An analysis of the way the world is often includes commentary about how the world we inhabit came about in the first place, frequently in the form of stories of origins like the Genesis accounts of creation or the Babylonian Enuma Elish. It also involves disclosure of the nature of human beings, as in Luther´s classic formulation that we are all simul iustus et peccator, at the same time righteous and a sinner; and it may include as well speculation about the nature of human community or the religious community, often expressed in the metaphor of family. An analysis of the way the world ought to be involves contrasting the evident imperfection of this world with its potential perfection. Islam, for example, exhorts Muslims to follow the straight path (for human conduct) that was revealed by Allah through Muhammad in the Quran. The way the world ought to be is also given poignant expression in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation, when the prophet John hears God, seated on his heavenly throne, declare, “Behold, I make everything new” (Rev. 21:5).

Let me turn to the news for an example. Given the substantial heat they have generated and the potential effect they might have on the presidential campaign of the senator from Illinois, I find it hard to stay away from thinking about the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Two statements in particular seem to have stuck in the craws of various commentators. First, Wright is quoted as saying that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were America´s chickens coming home to roost. Consequently he has been accused of being unpatriotic and even anti-American. A little poking around yields a more complicated picture. The key text in his sermon delivered on Sept. 16, 2001, is Psalm 137, which comes from the period of the Israelites´ exile in Babylonia. It´s probably best known for the plaintive question, “How can we sing the Lord´s song in a foreign land,” which crops up in the Rastafari-tinged “By the Rivers of Babylon.” But it also concludes with a vivid fantasy of revenge, proclaiming to the Babylonians, “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock” (Psalm 137:9). That´s the portion of the scriptural text that captures Wright´s attention. He argues that “it spotlights the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred.” Wright is actually urging his congregation to be critical of their own scriptural heritage. His next move, as he recounts it, is to seek guidance from the Lord: “I asked the Lord, ´What should our response be in light of such an unthinkable act?´” The response he argues for is for everyone to try to break the cycle of violent acts and violent paybacks. Just as he was critical of scripture, he is also critical of his country for engaging in acts of violence. In the particular instance of the chickens, he is actually quoting Edward Peck, a former ambassador to Iraq and deputy director of Ronald Reagan´s terrorism task force. Wright is actually trying to make common cause with a white, establishment critic of American foreign policy, who himself was quoting Malcolm X — a complex series of associations.

Without a doubt, Wright has some sharply critical things to say about violent incidents in American history, just as he is critical of “people of faith” who resort to violence, whether in 550 B.C.E. or 2001 C.E. Wright´s points, however, are in the service of urging a stop to the cycle of violence, not its perpetuation; moreover they attempt to make allies across racial lines, and they urge the faithful to a critical examination of themselves and their own faith, above all.

Wright´s second statement, typically compressed into “God damn America,” was part of a sermon delivered on April 13, 2003. Wright´s central text this time was Luke 19:37-44. In that text Jesus is walking down from the Mount of Olives towards the city of Jerusalem. When he sees the city, he begins to weep. Addressing the city he says: “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace. But now they are hid from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). The sermon that follows consistently warns against confusing God and government, because governments lie, change and fail. In contrast, God never lies, changes or fails. It is in that context that Wright proclaims, “No, no, no. Not ´God Bless America´; God damn America! That´s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!” In the next paragraph, as Wright´s anger recedes somewhat, he even urges the members of the congregation to forgive him “for the ´God damn,´ that´s in the Bible, Lord. Blessings and cursing is in the Bible, it´s in the Bible.”

To someone familiar with the Bible and its uses in various congregations, Wright´s statements are not particularly surprising. He is completely convinced that the Bible is the authoritative source. It tells him the way the world is. In the first case it reminds him of the sometimes overpowering human desire for violent revenge. And it tells him of the way the world ought to be; the passage from Luke exalts the seemingly elusive goal of peace. In his creative efforts to make ancient texts speak to contemporary questions, Wright acts as a prophetic interpreter of the still powerful words of scripture. Like his namesake Jeremiah and the other prophets in ancient Israel, he is not at all hesitant to criticize powerful people and institutions; like those ancient prophets he does not hesitate to speak on behalf of his people. Also like those ancient prophets on whom he appears to have modeled his ministry, he may well have made more enemies than friends.

Right now, I don´t have any particular interest in determining whether Rev. Wright is correct in his interpretation of the Sept. 11 terrorist acts or in his unsparing critique of American foreign policy or in his readings of the Bible — let alone whether Sen. Obama should reject him or embrace him. I do want to argue that the exercise of religious literacy in this particular instance appropriately complicates matters. It gives one pause. It forestalls hasty, and inaccurate, judgments. It unveils a number of interpretative contexts for the potentially inflammatory remarks that have been lifted from Rev. Wright´s sermons and paves the way for a series of comparisons between Rev. Wright and other interpreters of scripture. Of particular interest would be other religious interpreters of the African-American experience, figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Cone, Cornel West and maybe even Bob Marley. Such analysis and comparison is a necessary preliminary to any persuasive evaluation or critique of what Wright actually has to say. It is, I suggest, a more intellectually compelling approach than simply asserting, with one commentator, “that church is a cult and the mainstream Christian churches want nothing to do with it.”

Religion is as Religion Does

That last comment raises the question of what counts as religion in the first place. In this section I want to discuss two other examples that have raised that issue in an acute fashion. But first I want to make a slight detour to add some detail to my account of the dynamics of religion. I´ve mentioned that very frequently a compelling vision of the way the world is is communicated in stories about where our world came from and how it got to be the way it is. Consequently, when humans confront unprecedented dilemmas, they often try to respond to them within the framework of time-hallowed wisdom.

Kenelm Burridge, an anthropologist who worked mainly in New Guinea, argued that when folks face an interpretive crisis — when they need to figure out what things mean and what to do — they look to their traditional wisdom for ideas, images and stories that could help them make sense of their unfolding experience. He called this process “quarrying in tradition.” It does not simply involve reproducing the past, but creatively using it to build something new and appropriate to its specific context. It is such creative quarrying in tradition that is one of the most prominent and productive dynamics in religious life. It is, for example, what Jeremiah Wright is trying to do in his sermons. Religious folks, even at their most innovative, are generally loath to act without the authorizing power of tradition, even if it involves the virtually total transformation of tradition.

Religious traditions, then, are continually involved in a dynamic process of reinvention. They are never static, even as various groups and individuals strive to identify, preserve and defend particular visions of an unchanging core or essence. From the perspective of a historian of religions like me, what is interesting about those efforts is not the results they yield by separating true religion from false religion, or orthodoxy from heresy. Rather it is the way they display a kaleidoscopic variety of efforts to make human life meaningful and significant.

From this perspective, anything can be religious. As [University of Chicago professor of religion] Bruce Lincoln recently put it, “religious discourse can recode virtually any content as sacred, ranging from the high-minded and progressive to the murderous, oppressive and banal.” Hence my bumper sticker for this section: religion is as religion does. By taking that stance I am trying to signal two things:

• Religious literacy depends fundamentally on achieving descriptive adequacy. As Wayne Proudfoot [Columbia University professor of religion] puts it in his study of religious experience, this requires that “an emotion, action, or experience be identified under a description that can be ascribed to the subject” with some degree of plausibility

• Seeking descriptive adequacy does not, however, commit any observer simply to accepting and duplicating or restating the meanings and explanations religious actors give to their own behavior

I have been describing an interpretive process that may seem simple in the abstract but which can become difficult indeed when someone attempts to put it into practice. To give an example of both that difficulty and the usefulness of this approach I´ll turn to a relatively recent set of events that certainly challenged many people´s understanding of what could count as religion: the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

The actions of the Sept. 11 hijackers raise questions about whether such horrific deeds can “really” be considered religious. They raised the issue for Muslims (many of whom asserted that “this is not Islam”), for other religious people (including Jerry Falwell, who blamed the attacks on the godless, secular culture of our country; and Franklin Graham, Billy´s son, who called Islam “a wicked and evil religion”), and for non-religious observers as well. Effective religious literacy, however, demands that we go beyond easy distinctions and blanket praise or condemnation.

In this case, fortunately, we have one of the most fascinating and frightening texts I have ever encountered in the study of religion. It is variously identified as the “letter left behind” by the Sept. 11 hijackers and their “Spiritual Manual.” Three copies of the text were eventually found, one in a suitcase of Mohammad Atta, who piloted the first plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The text only runs about seven pages in its fullest English translation. It offers, however, a chilling example of [Bruce] Lincoln´s assertion that religious discourse can re-code any action as religious. It also makes it extremely difficult to argue that the hijackers did not have any religious motives.

The text begins by requiring the hijackers to undertake a ritual cleansing, to engage in reading specific passages from the Quran, to pray, and to devote themselves to their task with unconditional obedience. It directs their focus to another world, exhorting them “to ignore this thing named ´World.´” In a striking example of the power of religion to transform the meaning of everyday actions, it assures its readers that “between you and your wedding there is no more than a few moments,” apparently referring to the anticipated heavenly joining with 70 virgins. In a stunning appeal to the traditional authority of the most sacred text of Islam, the text urges its readers to “(use the magical properties of the Quran by reciting from it and then) spitting on yourself, the suitcase, the clothes, the knife, your equipment, your ID, your flight ticket, your passport, all your papers.”

Another example from the text demonstrates the power of religion to debase as well as to exalt. It reminds the hijackers to “check your weapon before departing and again immediately before departing, and ´each one of you must sharpen his knife in order to relieve his slaughter animal.´” That passage is actually quoting an Islamic tradition about slaughtering animals that is traced to the prophet Muhammad himself. In this instance, however, the point is to transform the hijackers´ understandings of their impending murder of the cockpit crews and flight attendants. Cold-blooded murder becomes ritual sacrifice in the religious logic of the text. After the examples I have mentioned, the text continues to cloak every action of the hijackers, including hailing and entering a taxi and arriving at the airport, in religious significance. The entire text is a detailed and consistent effort to lead the hijackers to understand that what they are about to do is both a moral and religious action.

Consequently, to fail to describe the hijackers´ actions as religious is to miss important, recurrent and urgent elements of their motivation. To describe their motives as religious, however, by no means endorses or excuses their actions. It´s a beginning and not an end. To describe their motives as religious is only to start to map out the contours of a possible discussion of whether they have read accurately and properly acted on God´s demand for justice in the world. It is better to go into such a discussion, I am arguing, armed with a detailed understanding of such motivating factors rather than facile slogans like “this is not Islam” or “Islam is a wicked and evil religion.”

My second example concerns a whole class of religious groups and people that has also persistently raised the issue of what really counts as religion. I´m referring to those groups known in popular parlance in the U.S. as “cults.” Certainly such groups have furnished ample opportunities for bewildered and sometimes offended onlookers to wonder whether this can “really” be religion. A few examples should convey the flavor:

• A high school dropout convinces hundreds of Seventh-Day Adventists that he is the Lamb of God and the only person ever to interpret the book of Revelation fully and correctly

• A woman from Washington state convinces tens of thousands to purchase books and attend workshops in which she communicates and discusses the teachings of a 20,000-year-old disincarnate entity named Ramtha

• A well-known radio correspondent, enthralled with classical mythology as a child, decides that the ancient gods are still alive and dedicates her life to worshipping them as a contemporary pagan

• One of the most popular movie stars of our era gleefully jumps up and down during an interview with America´s most revered talk show host, lectures a morning show host on the evils of psychiatry and anti-depressants, and accuses the German government of persecuting his religion

I could, of course, go on.

Let me dwell on an example with which my professional life has become inextricably entangled for the past 15 years. For me, one of the most telling instances of a widespread failure of religious literacy, with disastrous consequences, is the complex set of events now summed up in the single word “Waco.” Prior to Feb. 28, 1993, a relatively small group of Bible students, nearly all with a background in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, had lived in the Waco, Texas, area for around 60 years, undisturbed by outside influence. The group had had a tumultuous internal history since breaking off from its parent church in the 1930s. Through a series of events in the early 1990s, the group´s fervent expectation of the imminent end of the world, unorthodox living arrangements, unconventional sexuality and fondness for firearms began to attract, in different measures, the fervid opposition of former members, the eager interest of the press, and the wary eye of the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. All in all, a volatile mix. The situation ignited on Feb. 28 when the ATF staged a horribly botched raid on the group´s home and church that left four agents and six of the Branch Davidians dead. A 51-day armed standoff ensued. Without going into the details, I would still argue that the general inability of both the press and the government agents involved to see the students of the Seven Seals as a truly religious group contributed significantly to the loss of life on both sides. Calling their discourse “Bible babble” did little to advance the cause of understanding.

In both examples I´ve just discussed, a failure of descriptive adequacy has contributed to an inability to develop effective strategies for avoiding further bloodshed. In both kinds of situations, I fear, further loss of life is on the horizon. So, the stakes of achieving and acting upon fully informed religious literacy can be very high. That brings us, or at least me, back to the classroom — for me always a context of great fear and trepidation and occasional incandescent joy.

The Here and Now in Terms of the There and Then

The classroom has always been the primary venue in which I´ve tried to cultivate religious literacy, though I´ve dipped into and out of some other pretty interesting contexts. My particular challenge in teaching is to develop multiple opportunities for encouraging students to venture comparisons between what they already know and what they might profitably learn about in order to come to a fuller and deeper understanding of what they know. In short, I want them to become more able to situate the “here and now” in terms of the “there and then.” Thus, the study of religion is necessarily both comparative and historical.

So, in my perspective, religious literacy involves not only content knowledge, as [Stephen] Prothero persuasively argues, and knowledge of the basic mechanics of religion as I´ve urged earlier; it is also fundamentally comparative. Comparison, in fact, is the core process of sophisticated religious literacy and the fundamental engine that drives the study of religion. In addition, I´d argue, it is the essential intellectual process of a liberal arts education. Ideally, through imaginative acts of comparison we situate our own actions, experiences and ideas in broader contexts of meaning. In the process we also have the opportunity to exercise a generosity of spirit that allows us to take seriously, at least temporarily, other ways of seeing and living in the world. We can thus glimpse a bit of the compelling force that those alternative perceptions exert on the folks who actually do see the world that way. Since effective comparison demands that similarities and differences be both discovered and accounted for, comparative study also affords an entrée into a sophisticated understanding of complicated issues of diversity. Moreover training in the art of constructing arguments that take into account multiple interpretive possibilities and practice in taking, defending, modifying and even abandoning an interpretive position on the basis of persuasive readings of the evidence is good preparation for many dimensions of the rough and tumble of social and political life.

Yesterday´s News

The point of my exercise tonight was not to see if I could solve an array of issues that have figured prominently in what major corporations have decided to count as news yesterday and last week. It´s rather to make a general argument for the value of religious literacy — one I´ve spent now 30 years at Connecticut College flailing to promote. The quest for that kind of sophisticated religious literacy has animated my teaching and research throughout my so-called career. It is marked by these fundamental convictions:

• That religion continues to shape human life, for good and ill. Despite earlier predictions of its imminent demise, its influence has not abated.

• That the failure to comprehend the power of religion can have dire consequences.

• That understanding religion, while it need not involve endorsing any specific religious ideas, has the power to enlarge one´s sense of possibilities for living a meaningful life.

That the process of coming to grips with the passionately held convictions of others — through the disciplined processes of description, analysis and interpretation — can help us as individuals wrest a small measure of autonomy from those persons, institutions and social forces that often coalesce in the effort to determine what and how we think. It can have, in short, a liberating effect.


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