1. What is the main argument in this book?
The central assertion of Writing Religion is that the critical study of religion, while employing a range of approaches, provides significant insights into the various practices and ideas that we label religion along with insights into many aspects of society that intersect with those practices and ideas. By refusing to take for granted the natural existence of the category “religion,” critical study highlights the power inequalities, interests, and ideologies that often inform the construction and promotion of that category in its various forms. These approaches take seriously the assertions of practitioners as intentional self-assertions, thus treating practitioners as intelligent, intentional agents engaging in the tug-of-war for status and resources, like scholars and non-practitioners, and treating their assertions as worthy of analysis. The introduction to the volume makes the general case for critical study and its broader relevance along these lines, and the following chapters illustrate the potential benefits of critical study through example essays from ten acclaimed scholars in the study of religion and related fields.
2. What motivated your work?
The work came out of the first decade of Aronov Lectures at the University of Alabama, where we have brought to Tuscaloosa internationally known scholars whose work addresses, in sophisticated ways, the analysis of elements identified with religion and speaks to broader issues in the humanities and social sciences. With such important figures as Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, Ann Pellegrini, and Arjun Appadurai, we wanted to bring together in this volume the work of these ten influential scholars who have enriched the critical study of religion. Their contributions to the volume do not speak with one voice but helpfully illustrate the range of approaches that become a part of the critical study of religion.
3. What theory or theorists inform your methodology?
What was particularly exciting about editing this volume was the opportunity to engage with theorists who informed my own methodology in other work, such as Tomoko Masuzawa and Jonathan Z. Smith. Moreover, as contributors employed a range of theorists and methodologies, editing the volume also gave me an opportunity to engage with the work of a wide-range of scholars that I had not experienced previously, such as Amy-Jill Levine and Martin Jaffee. What ties these contributors together is an interest in interrogating issues of power that inform the construction, maintenance, and evaluation of the category “religion”.
4. How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?
The volume has significant potential in a course that emphasizes theory and method or a senior seminar, as it provides sophisticated examples of a range of approaches to the critical study of religion, including the textual analyses of Bruce Lincoln and Amy-Jill Levine, the feminist reflections of Judith Plaskow, the critique of the field from Aaron Hughes and Tomoko Masuzawa, and the ethnographic modeling of Nathan Katz. The topics addressed include US Supreme Court cases, violence against minorities in India and the US, the analysis of sacred texts recognized as sacred in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and the construction of narratives from Oklahoma! and Marco Polo. Thus, the book’s range allows a course to address not only the diversity within the critical study of religion but also the diverse interests of students in any course.
5. How do you think students would most benefit from your book?
With the collection of contributors, the book provides a useful sampling of the methods and theories that inform the critical study of religion and the range of relevant analyses that those methods can produce. The chapters in the volume bring to life the results of some of the critical questions that we often ask in religious studies, such as the challenges that change brings in multiple contexts and the contestation and interests surrounding labels and identifications. Thus, the volume can help students bring together the theoretical questions and specific, concrete examples.