Free Association on Difference

index“You must read literature, for there you find how people live.” That’s not a real quote, but Robert Turnbull said something similar in my “Theological French” class six years ago. I don’t know why they slapped “theological” on it since it was really a whirlwind course in French grammar, but alas…

Seminary was an interesting time for me. I had started considering that maybe I didn’t want to pursue theology. But still, when he said those words, I had an internal reaction. Theology was reality. All I needed to do to be right with God and people was to read theology. This would order my life and life would be grand.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t enjoyed novels. I had read The Da Vinci Code while in seminary and absolutely enjoyed it. I don’t know how many would call that literature, but then again, what is literature? Is it merely a piece that literary critics have declared part of “the” canon? Is it a piece that has something of timeless, enduring value? Is literature a book people say you should read but never have themselves?

As I was performing a meticulous, mindless task at work, I began listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

What have I been missing all this time? Sure, gritty shows like Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, or The Wire have a similar “realness” to them, but their writers, directors, or producers are somewhat invisible to me. Furthermore, I cannot see and hear the internal workings of the characters. These shows also seem to match a lot of my experience in the following way: white protagonists.

What would happen if I continued to read non-fiction about my research interests, but augmented it with literature, pop- and classic? What sort of things would I come across that I might otherwise miss? As the narrator in Invisible Man speaks of his youth, I wonder how much that voice reflected a generation.

How much did young African-Americans in the 1930s and 40s wish to be successful, but only in a way that didn’t upset white supremacy? How many constantly feared that they had upset whites? How many had tried to be “good blacks” as defined by their white lords? As I listen, I wonder how different a person I would be if I were raised in a different body, time, family, and social setting. The big value that shines through early in the novel is to speak to whites in a humble way or else incur their wrath. Is that assumption still present in the minds of African-American minds today?

Perhaps it’s my Millennial sense of entitlement, my narcissism, my white privilege, or healthy sense of self, but I don’t generally put on airs with people. But to approach an entire class of people as if they don’t use toilets, as if they were gods? It doesn’t compute.

How many voices are absent in my life? Not only do I not have a very diverse group of friends at work or church, but also at school. They’re primarily straight white Protestants. I don’t have anything against straight white Protestants. I am one. But I along with my group are not the only people in my city, state, and country. If I cannot find different voices in my experience, is it at least desirable to hear alternative voices in literature? This is elementary, but I probably have a lot of unconscious opinions that I never become aware of because I don’t have Difference showing me how much my assumptions don’t reflect everyone else’s reality.

If you have any good novels that deal with the following topics, send them my way: gender, sexuality, race, class, age, rites of passage.

A Book or Two I’m Pumped about for This Fall Semester

John Schmalzbauer
John Schmalzbauer
Vadim Putzu
Vadim Putzu

This fall I will be taking North American Religions with John Schmalzbauer and Jewish Mysticism with Vadim Putzu. Schmalzbauer is the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies with research interests in religion and American culture, evangelicalism, Ozarks religion, popular culture and religion, and campus ministry/religion in higher education. Putzu came to Missouri State last year. He is ABD from Hebrew Union College with research interests in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and science fiction and religion.

Here are some of the required readings I’m really pumped about…and you should be, too…if you were me. As they come up this fall, I will be including my thoughts on them here on the blog.

1. The Democratization of American Christianity

Hatch- DemocratizationThis book is on reading lists everywhere for religion in America. Nathan Hatch wrote it twenty-four years ago, and it still calls for careful reading if you want to specialize in religion in America (which I do).

It discusses the rise of new Christian movements in the early United States that gained rapid influence because of their populism: the Christian movement, Baptists, Methodists, Black churches, and Mormonism.

Chapters include topics on democratic revolution in the late-eighteenth century, a crisis of authority in pop culture, the spread of sectarianism, and preaching, print, and music.

2. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

Sutton- American ApocalypseHaving grown up in Pentecostalism/Evangelicalism, it’s interesting to read about the movements in the scholarly literature. People sometimes miss things when they are living and breathing something and not outside observers, or just aren’t historians.

Historians, such as Matthew Avery Sutton in this work, help frame how current movements/institutions came about, what they reacted against, how they gained popularity, and what struggles they had (within and without). Chapters include topics such as millennialism, fundamentalism, Christian nationalism, the culture wars, the Religious Right, and American exceptionalism.

3. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life

Ammerman- Sacred Stories, Spiritual TribesThis is a new book by Nancy Tatom Ammerman on the relatively young specialty in religious studies called “lived religion.” Lived religion doesn’t focus so much on doctrines or institutions so much as practices of everyday religionists in everyday life. For example, when is baking a cake more than baking a cake or selling flowers more than mere commerce for some people?

Chapters cover topics of the relationship of spirituality and religion (are they the same or different?), religion at home, religion in the public square, religion at work, and religion and health.

4. Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (American Beginnings, 1500-1900)

Porterfield- Conceived in DoubtAmanda Porterfield in Conceived in Doubt discusses the rampant mistrust in old institutions (including religion) at the dawn of the nineteenth century. She argues that the optimism concerning religious independence (read=no state church) had waned by the early 1800s and that Evangelical ministers spread the message that biblical authority was the solution to a new American identity.

I’m intrigued by this book because I really don’t know where she’s going with it yet. By “religious skepticism,” does she mean agnosticism? Cynicism? Free-thought? Stay tuned to find out.

5. Religious America, Secular Europe?: A Theme and Variations

BERGER PBK(216x138)filmsI’ve always been fascinated by the differences between Europe and the United States. They’re each part of “the West,” and yet they differ significantly when it comes to religion.

Peter Berger and others cover topics relating Europe and the United States like issues regarding constitutionalism, the Enlightenments (the book description only mentions it as if it were one thing, not taking into account the vast differences between British, French, and American secularisms [see link under #3 on my post “Link Wednesday 6“]), law systems, education, gender, class, and generation.

6. Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of Americans’ Shifting Religious Identities

Sherkat- Changing FaithDarren Sherkat covers shifting religious identity in the United States. I’m still not sure if the “change in faith” covers a demographic shift, conversion, or includes both. Pluralism has been an interest of mine for a little while now, particularly as it relates to how different religions relate to political discourse, and I think this work will give me a lot of empirical data to chew on.

7. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

Wilson- Dixie DharmaMy interest in this book is framed by an introduction to material culture and history of religion I encountered in courses last year with Martha Finch and Jack Llewellyn. One insight that stuck with me is that while religion influences other societal structures, it is just as much influenced by those societal structures. This is why one religious tradition looks so different between different times and places, notwithstanding ethnic, racial, gender, class, and other differences.

Jeff Wilson’s Dixie Dharma covers how region influences religious expression. How does Buddhism in the Northeast and west coast differ from that in Wilson’s coverage on a temple in Virginia? How does it differ from Indian and East Asian expression?

8. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

Orsi- BetweenRobert Orsi discusses Italian-American Catholic experiences with saints in this book, but also theoretical issues in studying religious communities. One of those issues includes the difficulty of insider/outsider perspective: does the religionist or the scholar drive the research? I’m interested to see what he has to say, because he and Russell McCutcheon have had scholarly sparring matches over theory. It will be neat to play them against each other.

9. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism

Matt- Essential KabbalahI really don’t know what Kabbalah is about other than that it’s a (the?) mystical tradition of Judaism and some celebrities have dabbled in it. It will be fun to have an entire semester to find out what it is. I had a similar experience going into my Tantra seminar last semester. All I knew of it was its American iteration where people lauded it as a way to have powerful, extended orgasms. There was a touch more to it than that.


Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my Reading Rainbowesque flyby of some of my readings this fall. I wanted to include another treat for you if you’ve made it this far. Yesterday, I began following Suzanna Krivulskaya (@suzzzanna) on Twitter. She has an amazing resource page on her blog covering gender and nineteenth-century/general history of America. The vast majority of the resources are free.

“The” Ethics of Abortion: Why This Debate Will Never End

As I admitted in my last post, I haven’t given abortion much thought because I lack a uterus. The sting video on Planned Parenthood gave me pause. What do I think about abortion? Was this video damning or not? Why?

 

My friend Samantha posted what I think is a good post from a pro-choice stance, defending Planned Parenthood from a legal perspective. Ostensibly, they were being paid for the transfer costs of aborted fetal tissue, which is legal. Samantha summed up that pro-life and pro-choice advocates are both trying to save lives, but are focusing on different means. They are “ships passing in the night.”

I’ll plainly state that I have been pro-life my entire adult life, though I have more questions now than before such as:

  • what is the fate of the child and mother if the mother is an addict?
  • what if the child is headed for a life of poverty and all that poverty entails?
  • if a mother wants to put her child up for adoption, what is the ratio of babies born to parents wanting to adopt? is the cost of adoption prohibitive?
  • what are the supports for mothers once their children are born? If she was already poor, will communities and welfare be available to her?

Regardless of how nuanced I get, I am still uncomfortable with abortion. That discomfort proceeds from an affirmation of life. I don’t know where life begins, but I don’t see enough difference between a fetus and a newborn to say, “Yes, it’s ok to terminate the life on this side of the line, but not on that side.”

When’s a Fetus no Longer a Fetus?

What’s the difference between a fetus from a newborn? A minute? less? I’m not talking about labor; I’m talking about those last few moments of pregnancy where one moment object A is inside the uterus (fetus) and the next moment it isn’t (newborn). It is a very quick transition from being something we can legally terminate to being someone we can’t legally terminate. Why do we define that change of state so absolutely? In other words, why is life defined in very specific chunks rather than along a continuum?

Concerning that transition, consider sexual intercourse: I wonder if the beginning of life and the beginnings of one’s sexual life are similar.

What is the moment that a virgin is no longer a virgin? Think of two virgins about to cease being virgins. Do they cross that threshold at the first sexually charged look? The first caress? The first disrobing? The first fondling? The first suckle? The first genital stimulation? The first penetration? The first orgasm? Is sex one discrete thing or a continuum of behavior?

If penetration is the key definer of sex, and the key that evaporates virginity, does that include penetration of things besides a vagina? If a homosexual man only has sex with men his entire life and then dies, has he died a virgin according to that definition? Or did he cross that threshold the first time he had sex with a man?

I ask again, how different is a fetus from a newborn?

The Social Freight (Politics) of Binaries

What am I saying in these comparisons? I’m saying that we as a society take a slight difference between two things and then treat the distinguished things in radically different ways. I am wondering if this makes sense. The binary in this case is “not life/life.” Inside a uterus, a child is legally not life since it can be terminated without repercussion.

American society has deemed abortion legal institutionally by defining a clean break between those two states. The only reason a fetus isn’t just called a baby is because the distinction has to make sense for the law to make sense. The difference in state of the baby is purely by fiat.

Granted, I have not waded into this very complex issue. When I started researching for this post I googled “abortion debate” and came to a debate site. It listed roughly thirty facets to the issue. I come at it from one angle and realize it is an angle, not “the” ethic for this debate. Were there something we could all appeal to in equal measure, there wouldn’t be a debate.

The debate will never end because people ally themselves with the continuum model or the discrete model. Someone could highlight a grey area for me, and I would concede if convinced, but I see little space for calling something both a continuum (pro-life) and a discrete shift in essence (pro-choice). As Roger Olson highlighted, nuance is drowned out by the seemingly unavoidable extremes in this debate.

I also think the debate will never end, because it is now entrenched as an identity marker. I don’t know how many pro-life or pro-choice advocates sit down and say, “Wow, the other side makes some great points. I should really reconsider my position in light of what they have just said.” Instead, people usually hear a label, assume the worst of their adversary, have their checklists of orthodoxy and heresy, hurl talking points at their adversaries, utterly ignore the talking points of their adversaries, and go their separate ways thoroughly entrenched.

I wish this were a happier post or one more provocative for discussion, but I’m under no illusions that this will be a popular post. Abortion isn’t exactly a boring topic or one for polite company. It isn’t an issue that calls tolerance forth from its interlocutors. However, I will admit I am weird: I invite feedback positive and negative. If I have left anything out, maligned someone, misrepresented people—whatever your opinion—comment, or, if you don’t feel like having a comment war but only a discussion, my email is ilostmyprayerhanky At gmail dot com. As my friend Samantha got at in her post, I want discussion to occur that treats conversation partners as people, not battlefields to lob bombs at.

The Politics of Sex

Anne Fausto-Sterling
Anne Fausto-Sterling

At the time that Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, I was reading a set of articles by Anne Fausto-Sterling: “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough” (1993) and “The Five Sexes, Revisited” (2000). It was a wonderful coincidence, because I think they relate, but I will get to that in a moment. The articles covered the concept of intersex individuals. I will first explain my title.

What Do I Mean by “Politics?”

Politics usually conjures a picture of concrete governments. Think presidents, congresspersons, judges, etc. I mean something much broader. When you see “political” or “the politics” of something in this post, I mean how people generally conceptualize and negotiate their group and people outside their group according to their own interests. This can intersect with politics as typically defined, but my use of it is not exhausted by that use. In my usage, how parents settle fights between their children, how parents navigate conflict in front of their children, how a female employee chooses to respond in a sexist work environment, how friends negotiate a mutual love interest: all of these situations and more include the political. Politics involves the negotiation of some scarce resource (e.g., land, prestige, the definition of marriage, medical insurance, employment, leadership positions, the choice to have children, leisure, etc.) between at least two parties. Something is at stake.

Russell McCutcheon
Russell McCutcheon

This understanding extends to how people use language. Definitions do not mean something in themselves; they are the artifact of someone delimiting a phenomenon, concept, etc. Follow me for a moment. What is a “vegetable?” Does it really matter if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable? What is at stake if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable? Russell McCutcheon uses these questions to demonstrate the stakes involved in something as trivial as what we call a tomato: it made it to the Supreme Court. Nix v. Hedden (1893) involved a tax on imported vegetables but not on fruit. Scientifically, tomatoes are fruit, but a port authority (Hedden) had exacted the tax from the Nixes, calling the tomatoes vegetables. I won’t get into the case, but suffice it to say that the classification of tomatoes becomes significant when money (or other scarce resources) is at stake. Now that I have discussed the stakes of definitions, let us move on to the concept of intersex.

The Definition of Intersex

Biological sex as a category (not act) is most often broken down into primary and secondary characteristics. Primary sex characteristics are gonads (ovaries and testicles), sex organs (vaginas, cervixes, uteri, penises, and scrotums), and chromosomes (XX, XY). Secondary sex characteristics (generally the visible ones) are those primarily used in social interaction to categorize people: breasts, body shape, facial/body hair, vocal pitch, and hormones. So far, nothing is yet “political.”

In intersex persons, there is some overlap in what is normally male or female. When Fausto-Sterling discussed intersex persons in her first article, note the very terms she uses to develop her essay: “true hermaphrodites,” “male pseudohermaphrodites,” and “female pseudohermaphrodites.” While I will get to what she means, note the scarce resource of dignity caught up in the prefix “pseudo-.“ If anyone called you a “pseudo-parent” or a “pseudo-human,” or a “pseudo-nice-person,” or a “pseudo-wife,” etc., do you think the name-caller and the other person are going to be bosom chums? Fausto-Sterling in her later article admitted she was being provocative; today I would just term it inflammatory. But I digress. She noted that the then Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) had advocated for in further classifying intersex persons: Type I, Type II, etc.

What did Fausto-Sterling mean by these terms and how did they relate to intersex? Intersex covers the three subgroups she termed. “True hermaphrodites” have at least one working ovary and teste; “female pseudohermaphrodites” have at least one ovary and some shared primary sex characteristics (e.g., an enlarged clitoris, fused perineum, facial hair, etc.) but no testes; “male pseudohermaphrodites” have at least one teste and some shared sex characteristics (e.g., a vagina, breasts, etc.) but no ovaries. For a list of technical terms, see the FAQ page on ISNA’s site for the various permutations (http://www.isna.org/faq/conditions).

Why Talk about Something So Intimate and Personal (i.e., politics)?

I have asked myself this question since reading Michel Foucault’s book The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. He argued that discourse about sex had increased since the seventeenth century and had along the way morphed into what is called “power-knowledge” (similar to how I defined politics: s/he who defines the terms determines where the debate/discussion goes). The literal religious phenomenon of confession socially transformed into “confessing” to doctors, teachers, parents, and psychiatrists. Confession developed into a way for authorities/experts to extract confessions from children, patents, etc. This intellectual nugget challenges me to think about why I study things and the possible effects of that study. It will at least result in publication on this blog, and potentially in academic publishing in the future. But what is at stake in talking about people I don’t even know?

I think my intentions lie in aiding peoples’ full inclusion in society, people who don’t normally fit societal expectations. This probably comes from experiences in my childhood where I was bullied, didn’t often fit in, and not accepting the dogma that “life isn’t fair.” Life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean I sit back and leave life to its own devices. To do so forfeits agency and the potential for change.

Intersex persons are living, breathing examples of persons who lie outside sex/gender norms of heteronormativity. In that sense, they are abnormal. It is easy to stop when we hear the word abnormal and then move on with life by ignoring those who are abnormal according to a definition or castigating them until they fit normalcy. That is the politics of words. If people aren’t normal or are deviant, then I don’t have to hear their concerns.

But norms are norms only insofar as they are agreed upon. What is at stake in including or excluding intersex persons from normalcy?

By virtue of being born, the very bodies of intersex persons question the foundations of what it means to be a sexual being. Constructs of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are built upon a two-sex model: people are born either male or female. From this postulate, persons have sex with the “opposite” sex or the “same” sex or “both.”

The problem is intersex persons do not have an “opposite” sex to make heteronormativity work. They can literally have sex with men and with women and not be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual; each of these terms assumes a strict two-sex model: the “opposite,” “same,” or “both” sexes.

What is at stake then? What is the politics of sex? Let’s say Obergefell v. Hodges hadn’t happened. Let’s go all the way back to the early 1990s when same-sex marriage hadn’t even entered litigation. The definitions of sex, gender, marriage, ethics, medicine, psychology, and more is at stake. Normalcy (as conceived in the West) itself is at stake. The All-American Boy and Disney Princess are at stake.

Can the All-American Boy, the Disney Princess, and the intersex child coexist?

Where is the model the intersex gets to model his life after?

PRONOUNS! What language can the intersex come up with that doesn’t exclude them but also doesn’t target them for abuse?

Do we try to get them to either “play house” or “cops and robbers,” or both or introduce a new space of activities? What about sex/gender-neutral activities?

Exclusivity helps define an identity but where does exclusivity become a detriment to society and to persons? Is there a point where inclusivity goes too far? Why?

Past Attitudes and Procedures Concerning People Who Are Intersex

I include the questions above because of how intersex persons have been treated in the past. Two physicians in the late 1960s, Christopher J. Dewhurst and Ronald R. Gordon, asserted that parents of intersex persons and the intersex persons themselves would be doomed to a life of misery. This attitude fueled procedures to alter the organs and hormones of these persons. This is where the politics of sex relates transgender persons and intersex persons: “sex changes” or sex-reassignment surgery. What some decry in transgender persons—the taking of hormones and the manipulation of genitals* to alter birth sex—was and is prescribed by doctors so that intersex persons fit a two-sex model of humanity. Literally, they sometimes have parts of their identities cut off at the root.

Up to 1:58 people are born intersex according to Fausto-Sterling’s research. This number is slightly higher than the rate for autism, which is 1:68 (CDC 2014). To put that in perspective then, of the 159,498 people living in Springfield, Missouri, 2,749 were born intersex. Why don’t we hear about them? Why don’t they have public services like those in Springfield can have (e.g., Development Center of the Ozarks, ARC of the Ozarks, Abilities First, etc.)?

While genital and hormonal manipulation was probably done out of humanitarian concern, it nonetheless took choice away from parents, and definitely from the child. It was forced sex-reassignment surgery according to “what nature intended” (the words of John Money from Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s).

To get a picture of Dewhurst and Gordon’s (mentioned above) sensitivity, consider the following quote from their work, The Intersexual Disorders:

“One can only attempt to imagine the anguish of the parents. That a newborn should have a deformity … [affecting] so fundamental an issue as the very sex of the child … is a tragic event which immediately conjures up visions of a hopeless psychological misfit doomed to live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration.” (quoted in “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”)

In a limited sense, Dewhurst and Gordon are empathizing with parents who wished for “normal” children. On my read, they dropped the ball (threw it into the stands?) on doing no harm. These doctors who were meant to heal were the first people these children met after exiting their mothers. The crying babes didn’t hear the words “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” but “It’s a hopeless psychological misfit” or “It’s a sexual freak.”

To lay all the blame at the feet of doctors, though, would be unfair. We also don’t hear much about intersex persons, because most people don’t run about with exposed genitals. It’s pretty customary to wear clothes in public. So even if a family and their doctor chose not to go the route of genital and hormonal manipulation, there is still a lot of things people don’t have to know about you if you don’t want them to. Many choose not to participate in the wonderful locker room comparative ritual involved with penis and breast sizes. And that’s ok.

I wrote this post to provoke how we deal with the sometimes heavy burden of normalcy. Hopefully it is food for thought. Normalcy can be a blanket that warms you if you lie beneath its fabric or a means of suffocation for those not completely covered by it.


*Below is a surgical video (clitoroplasty), so if you are opposed to seeing it yourself, or do not wish your child(ren) to see it, do not click on it; I will describe it. Urologists at the University of Belgrade, Serbia perform a clitoroplasty on a 20 year old intersex person. The person’s genitalia include an enlarged clitoris (after its hidden anatomy had been uncovered, it appeared around the size of a fully mature penis, approximately 4-5 inches), a vagina, and testicles (only one is visible to the left of the clitoris, though both are there). The patient transitions fully to female. The urologists removed all erectile tissue that had been present beneath the clitoris in what I could only assume was very painful (when erect, the tissue was S-shaped).

I am happy for the patient because her parents and pediatricians gave her the option to choose this herself. Surgeries that are so intimate and invasive deserve different ethical consideration than they have received in the past. This is not an ear piercing of an infant. While its morality is also up for debate, it involves more than male circumcision. This affects the sex of a person; that decision should be left up to the person whose manipulation it affects, not another, including the parents.

Clitoroplasty in intersex repair using disassembly technique


This previous Wednesday I did not want to cover the recent news with Planned Parenthood, because I hadn’t read much on it. Frankly, I hadn’t thought much about Planned Parenthood or abortion in general because I hadn’t ever considered getting pregnant. It’s interesting what will make you sit down and think about something. Next Wednesday’s post will cover my emerging thoughts on abortion.

Link Wednesday 6: Mucho Feminism…and Some Sexuality, Too

This Link Wednesday, admittedly doesn’t have a lot of feminism, but it does comprise the majority of the links. Here we go.

1. “An Update on the Gay Debate: evolving ideas, untidy stories, and hopes for the church

Julie Rodgers
Julie Rodgers
Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan
Julie Rodgers was a “Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care” at Wheaton College until she resigned yesterday. She is a celibate gay Christian whose shift in view on same-sex marriage seems to have been the reason for her resignation. If you are not used to reading gay Christian perspectives, check out her blog. Another gay Christian voice to check out is Matt Vines at The Reformation Project.

In other religio-sexual news, Reza Aslan encouraged his fellow American Muslims to fight for marginalized groups like the LGBT community in a public letter after the SCOTUS decision. In case you weren’t aware, 42% of American Muslims support same-sex marriage (21+21). Maybe you weren’t surprised by the figure. I was. It helps to look at data.

2. “Media Literacy 101

Here are the four takeaway questions quoted (except for the “And”) from the transcript:

  1. What is the content of this product? As in, what am I looking at here?
  2. Is it really selling what it’s advertising? Like, if you have a woman in a bikini in your commercial, it better be for swim wear and not for, ya know, hamburgers.
  3. Who made this?…
  4. Why do they want me to consume it? That is, which demographics benefit from me internalizing this message and which demographics are hindered by it?

My wife and I discussed this while we walked by Victoria’s Secret in the mall. She wondered why the store would have an image of a woman with no top, covering only her nipple (probably through Photoshop or a nude suit) when what it was selling was a bracelet. I speculated that marketing experts project that it will have a significant impact on the tastes of women’s significant others to push to buy that product so that their women can exude the image shown: free-spirited, virile, trophy, etc. But then I thought about it today, and realized that women (or men if they want the bracelet) don’t need other agents encouraging them to exude free-spirited, virile, trophy images; they have agency of their own.

3. “Is secularism still Christian?

This article talks about the origins of Western secularism. I modify it because not all secularisms are the same. Turkish secularism, for example, looks different from American secularism because of the different histories of the peoples. Even in the West, secularism in the United States differs from that in the United Kingdom which differs from that in France. For more elaboration on the various secularisms, see the interview with Tariq Modood at The Religious Studies Project.

4. “How the Justice System Hurts Survivors Through the ‘Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline‘” and “How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Misrepresents Women’s Federal Prison (And Why It Matters)

Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black
These two articles discuss how women entering prisons are primarily non-violent drug offenders. The feministing article highlights that the major contribution to drug use/penalization occurs among sex-abuse victims. The everydayfeminism article highlights that while men’s prisons still have far more prisoners population-wise, women’s prisons are growing at double the rate of men’s: growth in prisons in general are fueled by the failed War on Drugs.

5. “An Explanation for Why It’s Not Just Men Who Pressure Women Into Feminine Norms

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Celia Edell applies Foucault’s reading of Bentham to explain that patriarchal norms for femininity come from many directions (men, other women), including from the self. Gender expression is a show for everyone and no one. This was an article that gave me a check regarding my thoughts on the Victoria’s Secret ad.

6. “The Coming Gay Rights Letdown” (The Daily Beast)

While happenings in one place aren’t guaranteed to replicate in another, a Canadian LGBT activist warned American LGBT activists that marriage equality brings apathy among the public. It reminds me of the unfortunately failed Equal Rights Amendment. Women in the United States gained suffrage in 1920, gained lots of momentum in the 1960s and 1970s through second-wave feminism, but the culture at large seems not to have given that Amendment as much weight as they.

7. I’m going to wait on #PlannedParenthood. The story is still developing. Color me cautious (I guess you can color me cowardly if you want; I just think big stories need more development).


Because of Caitlyn Jenner in the news last month, I thought it worthwhile to cover a less well known group. Intersex persons are the little known group in the longer LGBTQIA acronym. Political recognition of them at times overlap with transgender persons, hence the upcoming post, “The Politics of Intersex.”

My Weird Views on “Religion,” Part 4: Institution

(Religion in Bruce Lincoln:

  • Discourse
  • Practice
  • Community
  • Institution)

4. Institution

Bruce Lincoln
Bruce Lincoln

According to Bruce Lincoln, religion as institution indicates regulation of communities, practices, and discourses. It reproduces these three elements over time, and manipulates them as needs arise but presents them as eternal and transcendent.

In sociological terms, religious institutions are churches. Emile Durkheim collapses (or rather, Lincoln expands on Durkheim) what Lincoln calls “community” and “institution” into “Church,” a group that has unified beliefs and practices. While the Catholic Church has official documents, regulation, and governmental structure that is ostensibly the same everywhere, it doesn’t take a social scientist to understand that Polish Catholics differ from Bolivian Catholics who differ from Ugandan Catholics. So we don’t get mixed up, the “Catholic Church” would be the institution, and Polish Catholicism (and breaking down into smaller divisions) would be a community. It’s like the difference between federal and state government in the United States: they both set norms, but one is more specific (community=state) and one extends further (institution=federal). But church understood as a sociological term is not the sole domain of Christianity. There would be the Muslim church, the Buddhist church, etc.

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Institutions differ from communities in that they are larger and broader in scope. They are larger in that they contain communities. They are broader in scope because they regulate communities. The relationship between communities and institutions (and persons?) might seem more stable than it is. As Lincoln discusses in Discourse and the Construction of Society, the ties that bind communities and institutions together are not natural; they can be made, reformed, renegotiated, or dissolved.

Pierre Bourdieu offers some insight into institutions in his concepts of doxa, heresy, orthodoxy, and habitus. Doxa, according to Bourdieu, represents what is held by a society but at an unconscious level. These are norms that are actually arbitrary, but seem natural or <abbr title=”this word is funny; I think one of my favorite quotes is ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident…’ since it wasn’t self-evident until they articulated it; it definitely hadn’t been self-evident for centuries”>self-evident.

Pierre Bourdieu (Getty/BBC)
Pierre Bourdieu (Getty/BBC)

When someone articulates doxa, and then challenges it, Bourdieu calls this heresy. The process attempting (and at times succeeding) to reinstate the doxa he calls orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and heresy have a reciprocal relationship. There is not one without the other. Once doxa has been questioned, thereafter there is only orthodoxy and heresy; societies can never go back to “the way things were before.” (Some of this seems a rehash of how Emile Durkheim explained religion but in reverse. For him, societies would arbitrarily separate certain beliefs and practices from everyday life, understand those separated elements as ‘sacred,’ leaving the leftover things in life as ‘profane’)

Before this (at least in his Outline of a Theory of Practice), Bourdieu speaks of habitus. From this, I take Bourdieu to mean that every social marker contains certain normalizing structures that enable them to exhibit heavy influence on personal and social lenses of reality. These structures are both regulative and generative, meaning they inspire new behavior in the future: compliance or dissent. The structures also operate largely in the background of society though not always. Similar to Foucault, no one person pulls all the strings, but in a web, multiple actors are defining, forcing, negotiating, or negating social markers. Habitus is a web of actors contributing constantly to the structure, both changing it and being changed by it. So while rulers are influential actors in a web of actors, they are not the only thing exerting power.

Why do I employ Bourdieu’s concept of habitus—something largely unconscious and not the under the sole control of any one group or person—when I also present religious institutions as quite conscious of what they are doing? I’m not sure yet. I’m still mulling that one over. It may be that habitus includes institutions under its umbrella much the same as institutions include communities under its umbrella.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts

Recently, Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to wonder (“Just who do we think we are?”) that the Court could change what had ostensibly been an unchanged institution throughout time and across cultures. Take a class on history or anthropology and you might wonder at his wonderment. Yes, institutions are relatively stable; that’s what makes them institutions and not movements. But they do not remain the same over time or across cultures. The variety of actors entering and exiting the institution leave their mark.

Became God (and took whiteness upon himself soon afterwards) in 325 CE
Became God (and took whiteness upon himself soon afterwards) in 325 CE

Jesus wasn’t officially (=institutionally) God until actors defined him as such at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Let’s return to doxa, heresy, and orthodoxy. Probably the majority of Christian communities up until that council believed that Jesus was God until Arius of Alexandria proposed that “There was a time when the Son was not.” Since it ruffled enough feathers (and it helped that an emperor had taken special interest in Christianity), church leaders met, and simultaneously defined Arius a heretic and the doctrine of the trinity as orthodoxy. This is a ridiculous simplification of those events, but many church institutions that derive from those events don’t stop and consider Jesus’ divinity or lack thereof. For the vast majority of Christian communities, Jesus is God and it’s not up for debate. That is the power of institutions.

Institutions also have material concerns in addition to their prescriptive work on belief and behavior. Issues of education, employment, and state and community relations come to mind. Institutions of religion can differ markedly from individuals in a religion. Institutions provide accreditation to their imams/priests/ministers/etc., come up with architectural and sartorial expression, parlay with governments, and define what the believers are to believe to belong to their group. If you want to see a difference between institutions and individual believers, compare some Christian institutions’ worries that their tax-exempt status might be lost due to the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage with a single dad baking a pie for his sick neighbor out of love duty to him. Institutions and individuals differ in that they belong to the same group, but have different concerns.


 

Russell McCutcheon
Russell McCutcheon

I feel like this last post in my series on religion is kind of weak. I’m am still in the process of working out my thoughts on religion. Maybe I shouldn’t feel bad. There are authors who write in prefaces to their books that that book is the product of ten years of reflection; I have only been thinking about theories of religion for around a year. I also admit that my theory of religion is heavily tied to Christianity. Russell McCutcheon brings up that point in his intro to religion book, Studying Religion: An Introduction, in his chapter on resemblances between

Talal Asad
Talal Asad

religions. If a religion besides Christianity doesn’t fit my template for religion, is it then a religion? He cites Talal Asad in saying that a definition of religion that privileges certain aspects while ignoring (overlooks even?) others stigmatizes what it ignores (61-63). But I think it’s a good starting place for me. The little I’ve delved into Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism seems to bear the mark of Lincoln’s categories.

Link Wednesday 5: SCOTUS Ruled; Now What?

It’s amazing what a few days away from the office can do to clear your mind. I just got back from Wisconsin this Sunday after visiting family. Wow did a lot happen since I wrote last. SCOTUS delivered their big decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. There was much despair. And there was much rejoicing.

In Evangelicalism, conversations moved to what needs to happen in its community regarding the decision. Amidst this background, I came across two very interesting sets of questions from very different points of view. They arise from the same tradition and use the same text.

Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition issued “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags.” Here are some of the questions he asked:

  • “3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?”
  • “7. When Jesus spoke against porneia* what sins do you think he was forbidding?”
  • “11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?”
  • “12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?”

Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines, founder of The Reformation Project, issued a rejoinder, similarly titled: “40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality.” He asked such questions as:

  • “3. How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?”
  • “12. Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?”
  • “17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?”
  • “18. Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?”

Each set of questions demarcates communities. I won’t comment on the virtues and vices of either. I assume my readers are educated. I will reiterate something, though: one faith, one text, very different questions.

Amanullah De SondyAfter I read these, I was listening to a podcast with Amanullah De Sondy. He was discussing his book, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, on the New Books Network. There he made some keen observations about religious communities.

One of these has to do with the appropriation of texts. He asked what a text looked like outside the perspective of hegemony. In other words, if you are not part of a dominant class—whatever social marker that is—how does that affect how you envision a text or sayings? Both DeYoung and Vines are speaking from a place that may or may not be wrong. Which is in a more privileged position? Does privilege vary from situation to situation? If texts had as stable of meanings as we might like them to, there probably wouldn’t be as many interpretive traditions (=denominations, sects, religions) as we have today.

De Sondy’s comments had me thinking how much theology and legal reasoning try to make sense of native ambiguity in texts: ambiguity they recognize and wish to elide or naturalize into a preferred reading for their community. This ambiguity, however, is what I find so inviting and exciting about religious studies.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass
To illustrate interpretation outside hegemony, my friend and classmate, Samantha Nichols, wrote a post about the 4th of July. She included a speech by Frederick Douglass (delivered in 1852, before the Civil War) on the discourse surrounding the holiday:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

What I am highlighting is that you cannot escape your life circumstance and how that colors your interaction with texts (among other things). Sometimes my circumstances prompt me to ask certain questions that people with other social markers ignore, and vice versa. Part of your life circumstances is the groups to which you belong and the groups you reject (for more on this, see my post on community).

I ask this to my reader: how do you arbitrate between two people who understand themselves as faithful to the same tradition, but have different life circumstances informing their interaction with the tradition? I conjecture that it’s probably whatever person’s views most closely align with your own. These debates, while ostensibly about who is most faithful to an original text, at least lend themselves to drawing battle lines: these sets of questions allow persons and communities to identify and align themselves with these two men to achieve certain aims.


*porneia is a Greek word. While this could simply be regarded as a rhetorical move to dismiss the opinions of people who do not know the language in which the New Testament was written, the fact that the New Testament was written in a language other than English seems to invite attention to what is happening in the original language. However, you could also just as easily say that the vast majority of people do not live out their religion by any reference to exegetical and theological tools like Greek—I think it worthwhile to mention that you would need to decide how much that religion is defined by official/institutional means and how much of it is defined on the ground by living, breathing believers.