Bulletin for the Study of Religion: guest lecturing in geographies of religion: interviewing my colleagues’ students, focusing on tangents

I am very thankful to Philip Tite at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion for inviting me to revise and publish two previous posts on this professional blog as part of a Tips for Teaching series in his journal. My article focuses on my experiences guest-lecturing on geographies of religion in both his class and in Steven Hu’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Here’s the abstract:

This ‘Teaching Tips’ article focuses on my recent experience of guest-lecturing in colleagues’ classes. Influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my initial guest-teaching revolved around posing an argument about geographies of religion as ‘grounded theologies’ as a problem for students to challenge. However, my recent guest lectures have involved interviewing my colleagues’ students to discover why they find grounded theologies interesting. I show that this new mode of guest-lecturing – also influenced by Freire – has opened up new conversations at a primal ontological level through a wider breadth of topics discussed, including occupy movements, Game of Thrones, Black Nordic Metal, and modern imperialist ideologies. Following Sam Rocha’s folk phenomenology, I suggest that the primal depths that this interview-lecture style of guest lecturing is perhaps worth a try, even though I plan to use the argumentative lecture in the future as well.

I hope that readers of the Bulletin will find it helpful, especially in thinking about how to guest lecture as a pedagogical exercise. I also hope that geographers of religion will also find it useful for thinking through how to teach our discipline to students with a variety of interests. Many thanks, Phil, for generously allowing me to pitch in my two cents!

Our Whole Society: Vancouver, BC (March 2015)

From March 22-24, 2015, I attended a conference organized by academics, policymakers, think-tankers, and religious leaders called Our Whole Society: Bridging the Religious-Secular Divide. Highlights of the conference included addresses by Andrew Bennett (Canada’s Religious Freedom Ambassador) and Doug White (Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation, Vancouver Island University), among others. It was also good to see my colleague Paul Bramadat (University of Victoria) give such incisive comments throughout the conference. I was also pleased to see my Roman Catholic friends represented so ably by the deep Vatican II-inspired comments of Shawn Flynn (St Mark’s College).

I participated in a panel called Doing interfaith in a secular age alongside Gianni Castiglione (President, University of Toronto Secular Alliance) moderated by the Very Revd Peter Elliott (Dean, Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver). The story of how I was invited dates back to January 2015, when the key conference organizer, University of Toronto PhD student-extraordinaire Helen Mo, contacted me to offer my thoughts on identity and religion in Vancouver. As we got closer to the date, I discovered that she had put me on the ‘Charles Taylor panel’ with an interfaith twist. My comments therefore revolved around Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age with examples of interfaith cooperation in Vancouver, BC, especially the interreligious social justice alliance from 2007-8, Faith Communities Called to Solidarity with the Poor. This panel offered many opportunities to interact with the audience, who participated quite vigorously. I was also glad to meet Dean Elliott, a person who has been so influential in the Anglican Church of Canada (and in the Anglican Communion writ large) and who above all is a real pastor and therefore a real person.

I wrote up my reflections on the conference at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion‘s blog. Read it here. As the reflection will show, I valued my time at this conference, although I had my disagreements with a great many of the speakers. But most of all, I’m glad for the friendships that developed from this conference, especially with Helen Mo, in whose very able hands this conference generated some very productive thoughts.

First as Sociology, Then as Geography: review essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion


At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a review essay for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion entitled ‘First as Sociology, Then as Geography.’ It’s an essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s 2014 edited volume, New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion. As a 2000-word essay, it’s a bit longer than the average book review.

I had received the book during a coffee session with the Bulletin‘s editor Philip Tite. Among Tite’s many accomplishments, he has taught quite a number of courses at universities in Seattle, including at the University of Washington, and having met at a faculty meeting, we had coffee. He suggested that I review the book for the Bulletin, and as time passed, the book review became expanded into a ‘review essay,’ a long-form essay inspired by the book that simultaneously reviews it and expands on some of my thinking based on the book.

As the review essay will show, I learned quite a bit from the book about the shape of religious studies as a discipline. In fact, I found that one of the greatest insights from the book was that ‘religious studies,’ a field of study often disparaged as a hodgepodge collage of disciplines that takes as its focus a topic of study that is under crisis (‘what is religion?’ and increasingly ‘what is the secular?’), actually has a unitary disciplinary core that inquires into what ‘religion’ is and how it is constituted, with a disciplinary canon to boot. This ambitious edited volume attempts to recast that disciplinary canon away from the founding fathers of religious studies (who happen also to be the usual suspects in terms of the founders of social science writ large) in a New Age key.

It is this second move with which I take some issue. It’s not that I have some commitment to the original founding texts of modern religious studies. However, one of the points of agreement in this diverse volume was that at a sociological level, New Age spiritualities could be seen as becoming the new normal of how to do religion. This basic sociological point about new institutional religions fails to take seriously how this is also a geographical point – that this new sociology often is spatially exhibited by a certain class of middle-class workers trying to find inner peace through New Age spiritualities (a geography about which the authors themselves talk explicitly), and that reframing religion in this social geographic key would reinforce the stereotype that the entire discipline of religious studies is a factory for liberal bourgeois ideology.

It’s funny that I came to this while reading this book and writing this essay prior to taking the work of Slavoj Žižek seriously, even though the essay’s title certainly takes its inspiration from the title of Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (but if you read the essay, you’ll find that there isn’t really a serious engagement with Žižek, not even with First as Tragedy – there’s only a very, very brief reference to Žižek on ideology). By the end of the review essay, I found myself appealing to Marx to suggest that ‘New Age spiritualities’ may well be the new opiate of the masses. However, this is the same point that Žižek makes about ‘Buddhism,’ especially in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. You could say that I’m thankful to the authors of this book, as well as to Tite and the Bulletin, for the chance to get these new thoughts going through pondering such new moves in religious studies as a discipline, though I suspect that it was never anyone’s intention for me to become so critical. I think it’s safe to say that you can expect me to follow this line of thought in my upcoming work.


Bulletin for the Study of Religion: Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus

I’m happy to announce that the Bulletin for the Study of Religion has published a piece that I recently wrote in a review forum on New Testament scholar James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism.

While most of the commentators were biblical scholars, I was asked by the Bulletin‘s editor Phil Tite to comment as a human geographer on Crossley’s book. As it happens, there has indeed been some cross-polllination between biblical studies and human geography, and I knew about this because many of my biblical studies colleagues have expressed to me that their discipline is more like a secular social science than it is theology and that the field comprises people from a variety of theological orientations. In fact, in stark contrast to the high-profile biblical studies firings that we have witnessed in the evangelical world, the mainstream of biblical scholarship would maintain that Crossley’s own theological convictions are completely moot; certainly, they influence his scholarship as any positionality would, but that’s why all scholarship circulates in discplinary conversations. For the conversation between biblical studies and human geography, there has been a five-volume series titled Constructions of Space that has attempted to use the work of human geographers like Henri Lefebvre, Lily Kong, and (honorary geographer) Kim Knott to examine how biblical authors conceptualize and make places.

Crossley’s book is different. His idea of New Testament studies is not simply the study of the New Testament as a text, but also the study of the study of the New Testament. In other words, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism doesn’t look at Jesus in the New Testament text. It examines how contemporary New Testament scholars have interpreted Jesus, and it critiques them for making Jesus a proponent of the political economic ideology that has arguably taken over the world in the last forty years, neoliberalism, i.e. the ideology that the free market must be allowed to run unhindered by government intervention and that it must be protected from violent threats, which has often led to the framing of the MIddle East as an ‘oriental’ geopolitical threat.

As a geographer, I found that Crossley and I seemed to speak the same language. The geographers (and honorary geographers) he cites are similar to the ones on my reading list — Edward Said, David Harvey, Derek Gregory, for example.

As a result, I used my essay to push Crossley to come into his own right as an honorary geographer. Crossley locates New Testament scholars as diverse as John Dominic Crossan, Bruce Malina, N.T. Wright, and even the Pope Emeritus as unintentionally tied up with neoliberal ways of thinking. However, to locate someone in a train of thought is just the beginning of a geographical study, not the end. I wanted to push Crossley to show how New Testament scholars are actually creating and contesting neoliberal political regimes and everyday practices. I don’t just want to read that the historical Jesus is a neoliberal fiction; I want to see how the historical Jesus gets put to work in constructing neoliberalism, as well as challenging it from the inside-out. Indeed, Crossley has a chapter on how one pseudonymous biblio-blogger, N.T. Wrong, consistently challenges his/her/xyr colleagues on their neoliberal assumptions, and I wanted to see how these contestations actually work them out in the production of space.

The example that I gave that illustrates this dynamic is the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). Because Crossley protests against the ‘orientalizing’ practices of neoliberalism, the work of the historical Jesus in this ex-British colony and current site of a ‘one country, two systems’ experiment would be fascinating to investigate. I gave the example of the exchange between megachurch pastor Rev. Daniel Ng Chung-man and the OCLP leader Rev. Chu Yiuming as a case where the historical Jesus became a subject of intense public political debate. I also give a shoutout to my colleagues at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, such as Sam Tsang, Freeman Huen, Nathan Ng, Vincent Lau, and Andres Tang, who have been doing excellent work in public theology in Hong Kong.

This article should be of interest to all who want to understand the contemporary significance of biblical studies in the public sphere. What remains fascinating to me is how much geography is done by biblical scholars, and I am encouraged by what seems to be an exciting trend in exploring how the work of those who study the biblical text (regardless of their theological orientation) has contributed to the making of the world today. I’d like to thank the Bulletin‘s editors Phil Tite and Arlene MacDonald for this exciting opportunity to engage, as this encounter has also shaped my scholarship insofar as I am coming to understand how important it is for me as a social scientist to keep up with my social science colleagues who work in biblical studies.