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Mainstream Religious Studies

March 25, 2010

Mainstream religious studies effing pisses me off. I just opened my Oxford UP Religion catalog for Spring ’10—it makes me sick to my stomach.

First, there’s a book on Schleiermacher’s theory of religion. Seriously? Christian theologians are who we’re still turning to for a theory of religion?

Then there’s a book by Bernard Lewis. According to the blurb, “religion and the government in the Middle East [is] so different than in the Western world.” Great—more essentialist/orientalist tripe.

Don’t get me started on Tariq Ramadan. Apparently theology is scholarship, as long as that theology is liberal—no academic press is inviting bin Laden or Jerry Falwell (may he not rest in peace) to write a book called “What I Believe.”

The stuff that bothers me the most is the stuff that presents religion as a special case, as something that is fundamentally irrational and potentially violent. So we get a number of books about “fundamentalism,” “extremism,” “religious violence,” and so on. One is even called The Fundamentalist Mindset. Seriously? Those traditions we call “religions” do not have a lock on this crap—in fact, I’m pretty sure that capitalism is the big winner here. Capitalist nation states have produced the most violence in the last century or so. If there is extremism in the world, we should look at the US military before turning our eye to “religious fundamentalists.” How about a book on the “fundamentalist mindset” of those jackasses who were selling irresponsible sub-prime mortgages to unsuspecting clients for years? What part of their “mindset” made them do such an unethical thing? I’d rather hear about their mindset than someone who handles snakes on Sunday morning.

The one bright spot: Buddhist Warfare, edited by Jerryson and Juergensmeyer. That book seems aimed at disrupting romanticized views of Buddhism (although from what I know about Juergensmeyer, he sometimes falls in the group I’m criticizing in the paragraph above).

Of course this is sour grapes, in part: I’m pissed that my super-awesome book was passed over by Oxford in favor of this crap I wouldn’t wipe my arse with. Some of this stuff is good for nothing other than examples to undergraduates of what not to do. Seriously, I would come down hard on a student who said Islam is essentially peaceful or essentially violent—those sorts of authenticity claims are NOT admissible in my classroom; but apparently they’re admissible over at Oxford UP.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 2:39 pm

    First, there’s a book on Schleiermacher’s theory of religion. Seriously? Christian theologians are who we’re still turning to for a theory of religion?

    Are you referring to Dole’s book? Although I haven’t followed very closely, I take it that he’s on the front lines of what’s become a bit of a Schleiermacher revival lately. Furthermore, this revival has been pretty interdisciplinary w.r.t. religious studies, theology, and philosophy. I get that this isn’t your thing as a matter of principle, but I’m perplexed by your complaining of its mere existence. This is one of the more interesting developments occurring in religious studies these days, as far as I’m concerned.

    Don’t get me started on Tariq Ramadan. Apparently theology is scholarship, as long as that theology is liberal—no academic press is inviting bin Laden or Jerry Falwell (may he not rest in peace) to write a book called “What I Believe.”

    Surely you’re not saying that academic presses don’t publish non-liberal theology? Of course they do. All the time. Using bin Laden and Falwell as your two examples simply sets up an easy, though unhelpful, binary from which to dismiss the reception of Ramadan’s theological work in the mainstream academy.

    I also wonder why you would even want to submit a manuscript to a “mainstream” press that’s as crappy as you describe this one to be. Does this come from sort of latent envy of the mainstream? Or a heroic attempt to subvert the system from within? If so, best of luck to you in satisfying your intentions. I don’t mean to be rude given that you’ve had a manuscript rejected and I know that this is a difficult situation… but to be fair, you do stick your neck out there to trash other peoples’ work. To a certain extent you’re asking for someone to return the criticism.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 25, 2010 2:48 pm

    About Schleiermacher—in my opinion no one should take him seriously after Proudfoot’s Religious Experience, which is over 20 years old now. And I stand by that point, despite whatever revival is taking place.

    Yes, I misspoke: academic presses DO publish non-liberal theology. But the mainstream academic presses (Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, etc.) are MUCH MUCH MUCH more likely to publish liberal theology than non-liberal theology.

    Of course it is latent envy: I said in the post that this is to some extent “sour grapes.” I don’t hide it—I have chip on my shoulder about these presses. I want the prestige and recognition that comes with having a book by one of these mainstream presses. There are better presses out there—as far as the quality of the publications—but having a book with those presses doesn’t have the same level of prestige.

    For the record, my book was picked up by a fine press, and I’m proud to have my book in the most excellent series it will appear in—despite the fact that the readership will be tiny compared to if it had been picked up by Oxford or Cambridge.

  3. March 25, 2010 3:16 pm

    “For the record, my book was picked up by a fine press, and I’m proud to have my book in the most excellent series it will appear in—despite the fact that the readership will be tiny compared to if it had been picked up by Oxford or Cambridge.”

    I wouldn’t lose all hope. Unless the pricing at your publisher is as prohibitive as at Oxford or Cambridge, you very well may have a wider readership.

    That’s my big issue with publishers. Forget mainstream or marginal… if a 200 page hardback is $15o, then something’s wrong with the picture. It never ceases to amaze me how often purportedly “radical” academics will stick up their noses at certain “mainstream” or “conservative” presses but then go publish with a cutting-edge, sexy for-profit whose prices are exactly the same as Oxford, thus making their work available only to individuals or institutions with an obscenely large book budget. Just because Joe Critical Press has a book series that runs circles around the stodgy old mainstream catalogs, doesn’t mean that Joe Critical isn’t just as much of a status quo outfit. If the prices look like Oxford, then the end-of-year reports probably do too, as do the sorts of institutions that end up buying their scholarship, as well as the sorts of trustees or shareholders that have an interest in them.

  4. March 25, 2010 3:19 pm

    …and here I’m not trying to criticize you, MfM, as I don’t know where your book landed. Roland Boer, on the other hand, still has his fancy Brill books to explain to the comrades!

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 25, 2010 4:40 pm

    My book will ring in at around $30 US dollars, thankfully …

  6. Deane Galbraith permalink
    March 25, 2010 11:48 pm

    Did you hear that there was some “academic” protest at the cover of Buddhist Warfare, before the book was released, because it portrays a monk holding a gun?

    I mean, what would happen to academia if it started challenging presuppositions (such as 1960s hippie notions of Buddhism)? Well… in the first place, a book like Buddhist Warfare would be written… But apart from that, I ask, what possible good can come from progress in knowledge of Buddhist violence?

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 26, 2010 9:28 am

    I had not heard about such protest.

    Not sure how to read the second paragraph—I assume it’s sarcastic, but I can’t tell in what direction!

    What good can come from disrupting romanticized notions of Buddhism? For my part, anti-essentialism is soup for the soul, so to speak. I think it is good for everyone all the time to turn a critical eye to unreflective essentialisms …

  8. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 26, 2010 5:54 pm

    I haven’t heard about this protest either. But I am not surprised at all. Buddhist Studies is full of ex- or neo-hippy Buddhists who get to feel like high priests of Buddhist theology. Many of them have drank the kool-aid, believe the hype, and all that. Not that there is anything wrong with this per se, if one reads the label before drinking the kool-aid, but it has really only been since Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La that Buddhist Studies has even started to think about wiping the crust from its self-critical gaze. And remember the reception that book got? Robert Thurman and Lopez yelling at each other at an AAR meeting? And I just graded another paper trying to argue that Edward Said is wrong and scholarship IS OBJECTIVE!

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 27, 2010 9:37 am

    Thurman and Lopez yelled at each other? I never heard that story; do tell!

  10. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 27, 2010 12:25 pm

    I forget which year this was, and I only got second-hand accounts because I was unable to make it that year–for accuracy, I think the JAAR published a few articles on Prisoners of Shangri-la… though I could be wrong. Anyway, there was a panel on the book that was a discussion response about the text. Basically, Thurman started accusing Lopez of playing into the hands of Chinese government who would (and were) using the text as a justification for their views towards Tibet. His argument was basically that the timeliness of the book was suspect. I think Lopez took it bad, probably took it something like he was a collaborator or something. My friends told me that Lopez started getting just as pissy as Thurman and it ended up being a really fucked up very heated argument in front of a large room packed to standing. Apparently they both started getting pretty off-side about the whole thing. Needless to say, it really made me regret not going that year.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 27, 2010 12:39 pm

    That. is. awesome.

  12. Deane Galbraith permalink
    March 27, 2010 5:00 pm

    “Although the book [Buddhist Warfare] only arrived at bookstores last month, it apparently touched some nerves in the academic community before its release. Some have objected to the cover, which they feel is not an appropriate subject for Buddhism. Ironically, that is the very reason this collection of essays is so important: to address the apparent and widespread inability to acknowledge the violent side to religious traditions. It is this inability that robs its adherents of their humanity.”
    – Michael Jerryson
    http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/rdbook/2158/monks_with_guns%3A_discovering_buddhist_violence

    My sarcasm was aimed in the same direction as yours, that is, against the hippies and essentialists. I wish Michael Jerryson had expanded on the objections which he noted. Does anybody know anything more?

  13. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 27, 2010 5:05 pm

    This can be solved easily though: the violent parts are not “authentically” Buddhist, right?

  14. Deane Galbraith permalink
    March 27, 2010 5:18 pm

    No true Buddhist would carry a gun.

  15. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 27, 2010 8:50 pm

    Bah. There are clear Mahayana justifications for violence based on upaya. It follows a two-fold argument. 1) A violent murderous person (or whatever moral equivalent is justified in the texts) will get such bad karma from their actions that a bodhisattva can take on that karma by killing the person–their good deed is actually to prevent the terrible karma that the other will accrue. This goes hand in hand with 2) that not only are you helping that person not get such bad karma but you are also preventing the suffering that they will cause from their actions. Of course, there is always a caveat that only the most insightful bodhisattvas can understand cause and effect well enough to be able to actually know what will happen. Now, I don’t remember if this next part is in the texts, but one would imagine that a bodhisattva of that kind of understanding would actually know how to talk that person down and onto the path anyway. No need for the euthenasia. But, regardless, those arguments are made.

    More common, and this holds for Jainism as well, is the textual justification for warfare that a king can defend a Buddhist (or Jain) kingdom with force in self-defense in order to protect the dharma. There are many other examples as well. E.g. in China and Japan (and I assume Korea), monasteries often had standing armies to protect their interests (e.g. from bandits). In Japan, monasteries and the state often had skirmishes that were more like political sabre rattling, in order to augment their political concerns.

    The examples are many. Perhaps not to the scale of say the crusades… and Buddhism often got the short shrift in Religious tensions, cause they were rich. E.g. the persecutions in China. Nonetheless, there is no doubt about Buddhism having violence in its history. Don’t even get me started on Tibetan politics and assassination.

    And so, yes. The rest is people putting fingers in ears and saying “lalalalala”.

  16. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 27, 2010 9:48 pm

    fuzzytheory, you know I was being sarcastic with the “authenticity” comment, right?

  17. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 28, 2010 7:33 am

    yeah dude… that whole post is agreeing with you about the willful romanticism of North American Buddhists… just ammo… or grist for the mill. I had to rant. I hope you don’t mind. Perhaps I should have used the tags.

  18. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 28, 2010 9:18 am

    I assumed you were; feel free to rant any time here. That’s half the reason why I blog.

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