Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Identity Politics of Celebration

MLK JrIt seems to be becoming more and more difficult to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The vast majority of articles I have seen leading up to this day seem to have done one of two things. They either co-opt King’s words, name, and brand in an attempt to drum up support or sales. Or they tell me why I do not actually understand what Dr. King was about.

Articles of the latter kind are, likely, more necessary than I would like. Many people do seem to have forgotten (or perhaps simply never knew) many of the issues about which Dr. King cared so dearly. Even so, it seems a rather arrogant position to announce to the world that you are one of the few chosen ones who really understands Dr. King, particularly when your own pet interests turn out to be “what Dr. King really fought for.” The disingenuousness is palpable.

We are at a time when just about everyone desires to claim the mantle of Dr. King, to assert that he/she is continuing his fight. This is not, I think, a completely bad thing. For it means, at the very least, that, generally speaking, we as a nation recognize what Dr. King meant to our country and the power of his legacy. Yet much of it still strikes me as distasteful and a bit of a charade.

I am not questioning any single person’s commitment to carrying out Dr. King’s dream, but I am wondering to myself whether simply putting up a quote from one of his speeches or letters actually does anything to see this dream realized. Is it done out of more than desire to have a certain box checked – the box in question being something like, “Thinks Civil Rights are a good thing”? And what about other causes which I think are important and for which I voice my support? Is what I’m doing actually helpful? Am I advancing the causes of freedom and equality? Or have I become too comfortable with my slacktivism?

[Aside: I reread Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again today. It is one of the few modern texts that I reference in my Introduction to the New Testament class. This letter comes up when I talk about the process of canonization and how we got to the New Testament that we have today. I explain to my students that the canon has never been stable. The first list that we have record of that contains all 27 - and only these 27 - books that are currently in the New Testament is from 367. That's over three centuries after Paul wrote his letters. And the list-making did not stop there. I talk about other canon lists but my students perk up the most when I tell them of the suggestion that King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" be included in the New Testament. I always enjoy the surprise on their faces.]

My larger point is that I recognize how history-making and history-writing happens. I am quite familiar with famous people, ideas, and movements being used to advance various causes – some seemingly quite foreign to their ostensible inspiration. This is much of what I study in my own work as a historian of early Christianity. Doing history well is hard work – some would say impossible – even with a figure as recent and as well-written as Dr. King. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has shown us this quite well in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History and Constantin Fasolt reminds us that “history is in and of itself political” in The Limits of History. The days leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the States this year and the spate of articles, commentary, and social media posts they produced only make this reality more clear to me when I see the co-opting, revisionism, selectivity, etc. at work in how he is talked about, celebrated, and used to condone one’s own views and actions while condemning everyone else’s.

We are all of us, it seems, engaging in politics. Do I understand Dr. King better than another because I have read the authors he frequently references like Socrates, Augustine, Tillich, Buber, and Eliot? Or does someone who has grown up on the opposite end of the privilege-scale from me better understand Dr. King because of shared experience? No answer to these questions is free from some sort of political agenda (and I don’t mean political in the Republican-Democrat sense). And this is what is so hard about being an actor in a society and not merely an observer distanced by time and space. For now I must think about my own use of a famous historical figure like Dr. King.

Just how deeply involved in these identity politics am I already? And is there another way?

Posted in Personal, Religion | 2 Comments

SBL Paper

Back in May I gave my word that I would post about my Society of Biblical Literature paper. The annual joint meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion will be in Baltimore at the end of the month and I’ll be there with 10,000 of my closest friends . . . or something like that.

I am excited to catch up with some friends and former professors most of all, and am quite interested in the conversations regarding the state of higher education, the humanities, religion, etc. and to attempt to garner a bit more information about what my job prospects may soon be. I will also be presenting a paper. My paper is a part of the SBL Rhetoric and the New Testament Section and is titled, “Docetism, Gnosis, and Laughter: The Rhetorical Reception of the Passion Narrative at Nag Hammadi.” Here is my abstract:

There can be no denying that the death of Jesus was a watershed moment for Christianity. For some early Christians, the death – and subsequent resurrection – of Jesus was a sign that he had defeated death and could bring salvation to his followers. For other early Christians, however, the idea that Jesus, being fully God, could die was a heresy above all heresies. This paper examines the reception of the Passion of Jesus at Nag Hammadi, specifically in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and analyzes the rhetorical strategies employed by these authors in their retelling of the Passion story. These two texts have been chosen for the prominence they give to the laughter of Jesus, and it is this element of the text that provides insight into the rhetorical work being done by these texts. A thorough examination of these texts reveals that their use of a laughing Jesus serves rhetorical and polemical purposes. I will highlight three rhetorical strategies at work in these texts in regard to this laughter.

First, the laughter of Jesus emphasizes his full and utter detachment, reinforcing the generally docetic ideas found elsewhere in these texts and in broader gnostic literature. In Apoc. Pet., for example, Jesus is seen above the cross, “glad and laughing” (81.15-18). The “living Jesus” is fully detached from the material world in this retelling of the passion narrative. Thus, he can sufficiently mock the circumstances through his laughter. Second, Jesus’ laughter, by being continuously and systematically linked to the ignorance of others, reinforces the central gnostic tenet that the true followers of Christ possess a certain gnosis, without which salvation is impossible. Third, a Jesus who is able to laugh during these iterations of the Passion scene is discursively engaged in identity-formation by providing a means for the authors of the texts to deride and mock their opponents, rhetorically polemicizing the Other. In Treat. Seth Jesus calls multiple champions of the faith (Adam, Abraham, David, etc.) a “laughingstock” (60-63). This move reinforces that these characters do not possess adequate knowledge and thereby works polemically – by othering those who have followed in their tradition – to push back against the real or perceived threat to the identity that this author is working to construct and validate. Thus, these texts from Nag Hammadi, in their reception and recasting of the passion narrative, engage in real rhetorical work in attempt to accomplish specific theological and social goals.

So, you now have something to do in Baltimore at 9am on November 24.

Posted in Personal, Religion | Leave a comment

Conservative Christian Slut-Shaming, Boys Will Be Boys, and Identity Formation

Chances are by now you’ve read the recently viral post “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl).” Many of us had our Facebook feeds inundated with people sharing the post and proclaiming its wisdom. Then, slowly but surely, less glowing responses began to show up. [See this fantastic example that brings in late antique Desert Mothers.]

The post is framed as an open letter to a teenage girl (whom I hope is imaginary, or at the very least, a composite character) that has posted a picture which the author (a mother) perceives as overly sexual. The mother explains that her family sits around the dinner table and goes through the feeds of the teenage girls that are online friends with her teenage sons. When they come across what they perceive to be a too sexual post, the teenage girl is blocked.

Admittedly, the overall message of the post seems to be one of trying to teach children good social media practices, but it does much more than that. For starters, there is what appeared to many commenters as blatant hypocrisy: the mother decried certain photos of teenage girls while peppering her post with photos of her attractive and fit sons, bare-chested on the beach (the author has since replaced these pictures). But this only scratches at the surface.

There are two deeper issues that jumped out to me.

First, the post perpetuates the myth that females are responsible for anytime someone else views them as sexual beings. It is the girl’s fault, the mother believes, when her teenage boys see pictures like this and have sexual thoughts about the girl. Many have said that the post is engaged in “slut-shaming,” which is the practice of viewing a person as a “slut” because of some action such as the way he/she dresses, the use of birth control, etc. This is most often perpetrated on women. Whereas guys are often seen as heroes when they are sexually active, girls are often seen as sluts. In this blog post the mother comments that the teenage girl appears to not be wearing a bra in the picture (she is apparently in her bedroom, heading to bed) and then proceeds to lay all of the responsibility on this teenage girl.

know your family would not be thrilled at the thought of my teenage boys seeing you only in your towel. Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t quickly un-see it?  You don’t want our boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?

Besides the generally condescending tone, it is clear to the mother that it is the teenage girl’s responsibility to make sure guys don’t think of her sexually.

The second deeper issue is also demonstrated in the above quote: the myth that males always and everywhere are only ever capable of viewing females sexually. Apparently, after seeing one “sexual” picture of a teenage girl, guys are only able now to think of that teenage girl as a sexual object. The idea seems to be that “boys will be boys” is true and that it portrays a real, ontological truth about males. She talks about “a male” as if it were a specific scientific species whose inherent nature is the same across the board, as if her claim that a male cannot un-see a “sexual” image were as solid a truth as the law of gravity. Just like the practice of slut-shaming and implying that it is a female’s responsibility to make sure she is not viewed sexually, so too this implication that males have no choice but to view females sexually is a sexist generalization rooted in issues of identity and power.

This particular blog post is not my first encounter with conservative Christianity’s warped views on sex and gender. The particular conservative Christian culture in which I grew up preached what I now consider to be a very unhealthy sexual ethic. It said being sexually attractive or sexually attracted are “sins” that one must flee (unless one happens to already be married to his/her opposite-sex spouse). It bordered on saying that all sex must be for the purposes of procreation. It continues to perpetuate the idea that you are what others think you are – this is why the mother is blocking teenage girls because of who she perceives them to be after one picture and also why, for instance, I was always instructed to never have lunch with a female to whom I wasn’t married.

My experience was of a culture that sent mixed messages when it came to sexuality. On the one hand, you should never think about sex (no lie, while in college I heard a speaker say that “sex” should be defined as anything that prepared your body for sex – this would include thinking about sex, involuntary erections, etc.), or look at pornography, or masturbate, etc., and you should be careful to “guard the heart” of the girl you were “pursuing” (guys always pursued girls, girls never pursued guys). Yet on the other hand, youth pastors and camp speakers were celebrated for talking about how “hot” their wives were – the underlying implication being that if you chose to really serve God, by going into “the ministry” for instance, then God would reward you with a “smoking hot” wife with whom the sex was always amazing.

There is a clear element of placing all of the blame on females for just being too attractive or not doing enough to strap down their breasts (i.e. not becoming enough like men). Gospel of Thomas 114 seems apropos here. Females were shamed and guys were taught that even looking twice at an attractive female was a sin (we were taught to “bounce our eyes”). Girls were always the objects and guys could never hope to be anything other than sex-crazed.

But there’s more. I  see another process at work in how conservative Christianity talks about sex and gender and that’s the process of identity formation. These messages and actions work to draw clear lines between “us” and “them,” between those who are sexually “pure” and “chaste” and those who are “sluts” and are only seeking sexual attention. Because of this, the message must be presented in a very specific way and you must do very specific things to be considered part of the group. Sometimes this takes the form of signing a True Love Waits card (and of course, buying one of their purity rings to wear, proudly displaying your virtue and group affiliation). Other times it takes the form of proudly declaring to the world just how virtuous and godly you and your family are (like maybe in a blog post). The end result is always the same: “we” are clearly superior to “them.”

I know the blog post was ostensibly about good social media practices, and that is a conversation that I think is very much worth having, but not in this way.

P.S. There is another feature to this post that bothered me that wasn’t immediately relevant to my above comments and that is the idea that our teenagers should never be having sexual thoughts, that the very fact that we are sexual beings is a “bad” thing. I understand that for many conservative Christians that is true. This is a view rooted in an anthropology of humanity that is informed almost solely by the doctrine of “The Fall.” This is not a doctrine to which I subscribe for a host of reasons. Sexuality in and of itself is often viewed as evidence that we are “depraved” and “sinful” and just all around horrible beings. Messages like this abound, as do more blatant attempts to make other people feel guilty for who they are as a person and as a human being. I am all for sexual responsibility, but I think that we should be promoting better sex education, safer sex, and a sexual ethic that is overall sex-positive.

Posted in Religion | 7 Comments

“Same Love” and Theology at the VMAs

This was originally posted on the ABPnews Blog on August 27th.

I watched the VMAs Sunday night, in their entirety, and I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. The show created a significant amount of buzz on social media platforms for a myriad of reasons. There were the rumors of an *NSYNC reunion, which happened for a song and reminded everyone why an *NSYNC reunion would be a terrible idea. There was the repeated and continual tribute to Justin Timberlake. And there was whatever that was that Miley Cyrus did, which I’m sure had Billy Ray Cyrus once again singing “Achy Breaky Heart.”

But what most caught me was the performance by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert of their song “Same Love.” The song won the award for Best Video with a Social Message. It’s a song many are familiar with, as it’s gotten a lot of radio play this year. But not everyone is a fan.

Many Christians have rebuked the song as not understanding God, or Christianity, or theology. I read one tweet last night that said Macklemore needed an “intro to theology,” implying that his understanding of God didn’t even meet the standards of an introductory Christian theology course. Let’s take a closer look.

In the first verse Macklemore says,

The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago

Reparative (or conversion) therapy enjoyed a few golden years, but as the recent apology and closing of Exodus International demonstrates, its days are quickly coming to an end. But the fact still remains that many conservative Christians do see one’s sexuality as a choice, at least when it’s not their’s that is under the microscope. Just as I do not wake up each morning and choose to be attracted to the opposite sex, my gay friends do not wake up each morning and choose to be attracted to the same sex.

Macklemore is offering a critique of the type of Christian message that  one minute claims “for God so loved the world” and then spews hate the next. He addresses the reality of a “canon within the canon,” which is the practice of elevating certain books and passages over the rest (I’ve written more about that here). Many Christians are quick to trot out Leviticus 20.13 but never seem to get as passionate about Deuteronomy 22.11 or Exodus 34.26.

Macklemore goes on to sing about the content of one’s Christian message:

When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water you soak in has been poisoned

The message of Jesus, as I recall it, was not to hate each other and hate your enemies, but to show love for one another and love your enemies.

And then later he sings what is probably his most controversial line:

Whatever God you believe in
We come from the same one

That this line would be controversial is not surprising, but it is not a new idea to Jewish or Christian theology. The Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) offers ample evidence of YHWH overtaking the personalities and traits of various local deities such as El, Baal, and Asherah. Many psalms and hymns are at heart henotheistic and/or homogenizing. Henotheism is the belief that many deities exist, but that there is one high God. We see God among the divine council, for instance, in Genesis 1.26 and Psalm 82.1. Other passages and beliefs are homogenizing in the sense that they make the claim that while God may be called something else by someone else, it is really God that is being worshipped. This is the basic claim made by theologian Karl Rahner when he spoke of “anonymous Christians” (with which I do not agree for a host of reasons).

I do fully understand the backlash that “Same Love” is getting from the conservative political and religious arenas, but the dismissive attitude exhibited toward the song that is meant to convey the message that it possesses an “un-Christian” message and “infantile” theology is misguided, at best.

There is no doubt that Macklemore, with his song, and MTV with its introduction of the song by Jason Collins, are making political statements. Jason Collins said, “I knew that hating someone for their sexual orientation was the same thing as hating them for their skin color.” To be sure, not every one agrees with Jason Collins or with MTV’s move. That is to be expected. But the theology behind it? Well, we’ve been down this road before.

Just as many today claim that one’s sexual orientation is a legitimate reason to hate them or cast judgment, many of our baptist ancestors used the same arguments, only then with a racial motivation. The so-called “mark of Cain” or “curse of Cain” was used as justification for slavery by the Southern Baptist Convention. But just because we’ve made these mistakes in the past does not mean we must make them again. Just as we rejected the notion that one’s skin color was an adequate indication of his/her character or relationship with God, so too we must reject using sexual orientation as a litmus test for whether one can call themselves “Christian” or whether one understands God or theology or ecclesiology.

So today I am applauding both the song and its high-profile placement at the VMAs Sunday night. The song does line up in some ways with my theology of God, my understanding of love, and my belief in equality for all, though not nearly a hundred percent. But beyond that I celebrate that the song works to make gay students and gay teachers and gay cousins and gay neighbors know that they’re not alone. It fights for one less person to take his/her life because of the hate they have experienced. It fights for love and life in a way that not much else in popular culture does right now, including many Christians. And it offers a healthy critique of our “Christian” messaging. That’s something we need. And as for the message that God loves all of God’s children? Well, that’s a theology I’m not ashamed to espouse.

Posted in News, Religion | 2 Comments

Fox News Doesn’t Understand How Academia Works

In one of the more bizarre interviews I’ve ever seen, a Fox News host interviews Reza Aslan, author of the new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In the interview the host – Lauren Green, who is a “religion correspondent” for Fox News Channel” – can’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that Aslan, a scholar who happens to be Muslim, has written an academic and historical book about Jesus.

The very first question of her interview is about this:

Now I want to be clear about, you’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?

This is an odd question to anyone who has spent any time around the academic study of religion, which this host clearly has not, as Aslan’s personal faith has absolutely zero relevance to his work as a scholar of religion. After Aslan explains that he has four degrees, one in New Testament, is fluent in biblical Greek, and has been studying Christianity for more than two decades, the host interrupts him to ask

It still begs the question, though, it begs the question, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?

For starters, no, it does not actually “beg the question;” that is a very specific logical fallacy and not simply another way of saying, “but it makes me wonder.” But pet peeves aside, I was continually amazed at the host’s inability to understand the very basic principals of how academia works. During the rest of the 10-minute interview, the host brings up Aslan’s Muslim faith at least 7 more times, every time dumbfounded that a Muslim could write an academic work about Jesus and there not be some secret Muslim plot afoot.

On Fox’s website where they have the video posted, the description of the video even hints at their disbelief that this is possible:

Reza Aslan, author of ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,’ says he wrote the book as a historian, not as a Muslim. [Emphasis mine]

The persistence of the host to continuously bring up Aslan’s faith, which is still completely irrelevant to his work as a historian, is bad enough, but she then quotes critics of the book (who seem to not have actually read the book) as if she has dismantled his entire argument. The first critic of the book she quotes is John Dickerson, a journalist and political correspondent – i.e. not an academic, not a historian, not a scholar. Aslan then proceeds to tell her how scholarship works:

Of course in any scholarly discussion of Jesus, as with any scholarly discussion of any ancient figure, there are going to be widespread differences.

Anyone who has even taken an introductory course in religion in college understands full well that scholarship is a giant, centuries-long discussion. Scholars put forth arguments and other scholars either agree or disagree with those arguments. Step by step, the field moves forward based on the evidence at hand and the application of theories and methodologies to our material. The process is exactly the same as it is in the so-called hard science fields like biology and math. Again, I am baffled.

But this interview has done more than just baffle me. It has renewed my conviction that groups like the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion must get involved in efforts to educate the media and the general public. These organizations, both of which I am a member, should be acting like trade unions, of sorts, and like lobbying groups.When news breaks that relates to our field, SBL and AAR should be contacting news outlets and putting them in touch with actual experts.

It is sad and immature that news organizations think that quoting a journalist’s Op-Ed is a legitimate critique of an academic book, but I think that we too must bear some of the responsibility. News organizations, for the most part, wouldn’t know who to contact if they wanted to and likely wouldn’t even know where to start looking. We should bear the burden of pointing them in the right direction, or at least in a direction that is toward someone who actually has a PhD in the matter being discussed.

So, yes, we should be outraged and we should work diligently to shame Fox News and Lauren Green (as I know the academic community already is on Twitter and elsewhere). Yes, we as a general public and especially as scholars of religion should demand more from news organizations “religion correspondents.” But then we need to get to work taking our job as educators seriously and in some cases that will mean that we need to move outside the classroom and on to the airwaves.

Posted in News, Religion | 5 Comments