Live from Cambridge, its Ways of Knowing: The 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School!

As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in the Braun Room at Harvard University’s School of Divinity.  It’s Saturday morning, the 24th of October.  Later this afternoon I will be presenting one of my post-thesis research projects in a paper titled, “An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse.”

Though I gave a very similar paper at the BASR annual conference last month, a few things have changed.

Firstly, I’ve shortened a bit, for the benefit of the audience.  As well, a more complete description of this project will appear next week.

Secondly, I’ve learned a few more things this week about stereotypes.

While I’ve written about stereotypes before, and though I accept that they play a very large role in ethnographic work, I was once again surprised at how my learning about a ‘foreign’ culture provided a number of challenges to the normative assumptions I had established about Harvard, Boston, and the people who occupy both.

Let’s begin with Boston.

Those of the more fictional-minded, such as myself, might have constructed some assumptions about this city via the numerous depictions over the years presented to us by artists such as Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck, and his writing partner, Matt Damon.

In fact, let’s take these three perspectives as examples.

Scorsese’s film, The Departed, won four Academy Awards in 2007: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  In it’s opening weekend, the film earned over $25,000,000.  Worldwide, it earned roughly $290,000,000.  The plot of the film involves an insightful look into organised crime in South Boston.  Here’s a description from its IMDB page:

In South Boston, the state police force is waging war on Irish American organized crime. Young undercover cop Billy Costigan is assigned to infiltrate the mob syndicate run by gangland chief Frank Costello. While Billy quickly gains Costello’s confidence, Colin Sullivan, a hardened young criminal who has infiltrated the state police as an informer for the syndicate is rising to a position of power in the Special Investigation Unit. Each man becomes deeply consumed by their double lives, gathering information about the plans and counter-plans of the operations they have penetrated. But when it becomes clear to both the mob and the police both discover a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin are suddenly in danger of being caught and exposed to the enemy-and each must race to uncover the identity of the other man in time to save themselves. But is either willing to turn on their friends and comrades they’ve made during their long stints undercover?

As well, here’s the trailer:

With The Town (2010), directed by Ben Affleck, we get yet another insight into the crime world, this time focused on Charlestown, which, as the film tells us at the beginning, is the centre of bank and armoured car robbery not just in the United States, but in the world:

One blue-collar Boston neighbourhood has produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere in the world.

Here’s a description of the film, once again from its IMDB page:

The Charlestown neighborhood of Boston is renowned for churning out a high number of armed robbers, generation after generation. These robbers never leave their Charlestown life on their own volition, the neighborhood where there is an unwritten code to protect that lifestyle. Such robbers include friends Doug MacRay, James Coughlin, Albert ‘Gloansy’ Magloan and Desmond Elden. Doug and James in particular treat each other like family, as the Coughlins have realistically been as such to Doug since Doug’s mother ran off and Doug’s father, Stephen MacRay, was sent to prison. James’ single mother sister, the drugged out Krista Coughlin, and Doug have a casual sexual relationship. The foursome carry out a mostly successful bank robbery, but due to circumstances take the bank manager, Claire Keesey, hostage for a short period before releasing her physically unharmed. They find out that Claire lives in Charlestown, so they want to ensure that she did not see anything that could incriminate them if they were to ever run into her. As such, Doug begins a personal relationship with her to find out what she knows and what she’s told the police and the FBI, who have taken charge of the investigation. He learns that she has kept some information from the authorities for her own protection but information that could identify James in particular. But Doug slowly falls for her, as she does for him. Ultimately, Doug dreams about leaving his Charlestown life to be with Claire anywhere but there. But Doug has to try and keep his true identity from her, and keep the fact that he is seeing her from his colleagues. But leaving is not as easy as he would like as he and the gang are tasked with a big job by a local gangster named Fergie whether Doug likes it or not. And Adam Frawley, the FBI’s lead investigator, comes into evidence that links the foursome to the bank robbery and a subsequent armored car heist, so is on their tail for evidence that will send them away dead or alive.   

Here’s the trailer:

Lastly, Good Will Hunting, which won two Academy Awards in 1998 for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), presents a dichotomous look at the differences between the distinct world of higher education and the working class.  With this representation, not only do we get an insight into these differences, we also discover how an individual raised in one context struggles to accommodate his identity when he is placed within the other.

Here’s a description:

A janitor at MIT, Will Hunting has a gift for math and chemistry that can take him light-years beyond his blue-collar roots, but he doesn’t realize his potential and can’t even imagine leaving his childhood Boston South End neighborhood, his construction job, or his best friend. To complicate matters, several strangers enter the equation: a brilliant math professor who discovers, even envies, Will’s gifts, an empathetic shrink who identifies with Will’s blue-collar roots, and a beautiful, gifted pre-med student who shows him, for the first time in his life, the possibility of love.

Here’s the trailer:

So how do these three films play into my assumptions about Boston?

As I argued in a previous post, fictional representations, particularly in film form, can be useful data, as long as we use that data in a responsible way.  That is, we need to accept that as ‘fiction,’ these representations are the product of artifice, which also means they were designed with a specific goal in mind.  Given the three examples above, we might thus assume that the goal intended was to provide the viewer a glimpse into the class differences within Boston, that tend to shift toward organised crime.  

While this might be a valid conclusion for anyone who views these films, it’s not necessarily the case for those who actually walk the streets of the neighbourhoods represented.  Which is what has happened so far in my case.

During my week here, I’ve witnessed no crime, nor have I found myself within the context of any of these films.  However, I might also responsibly accept that my experiences have been isolated to the specific time I’ve been here, as well as to the locations within which I’ve chosen to spend that time.  Additionally, I might equally add that the reason I’ve not not witnessed the sort of events depicted in these films is because I’ve not actively looked for them.

My conclusion, then, is perhaps best made via the following thesis:

Our depictions of culture, either fictional or ethnographic, are isolated representations that, though we may emphatically defend as authentic, are unique to our own perceptions, and thus can never truly be so.  That is, even when we try to ensure that our representations honour our subjects with as much authenticity as possible, we can never truly grasp the reality of a place and its people because, no matter how hard we try, our representations are, by their inherent nature, the products of artifice.

We should keep this in mind.

After all, I came to Boston expecting The Departed, The Town, Good Will HuntingThe Boondock Saints, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River.  What I got was something entirely different: my own perspective.

It’s sort of like how before I came to Edinburgh, I expected Trainspotting, only to have found my assumptions both pleasantly challenged, as well as validated.

Live from Canterbury, It’s the Annual Conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions

Well, that’s not entirely true.  This isn’t actually ‘live’ from Canterbury.

I’m actually on the train, traveling south from Edinburgh.  We just crossed the border.

Welcome to England, have some tea.

When I moved to Edinburgh, four years ago last Friday, I arrived a week earlier than necessary, as I was told that there was ‘this conference’ that everyone goes to, and that I should come along, if I felt so inclined.  Because I had never been to an academic conference before, and in all honesty had no idea where Durham was on the map, nor any idea how to get there, I declined the offer and wandered around Edinburgh for a few days.

Since then, however, the BASR conference has always been an indicator of the new Academic year, a ‘back-to-school’ sale, if you will.  It is the last and final thing we do before starting back up.  Before we begin preparing for tutorials, and before we get back into the ‘swing’ of things.

This year, it’s a tad bitter sweet, really.  While we await the judgement of the UK Home Office on whether or not we will be permitted to stick around a bit longer, for pragmatic reasons I’ve taken to think of this as my last BASR for quite some time.  It’s silly, of course, to think that I might not ever attend another one, especially when one considers the years I might still have left to live.

Thus, I suppose that even if we are kindly requested to return to our own country post haste, this doesn’t mark the end of my relationship with the BASR.

Yet, the feeling persists.  It’s the same sort of notion I found myself thinking the last time I was in Paris (embarrassingly butchering the French tongue).  This is my last Parisian baguette, my last sandwich on the Seine, my last bottle of Cote de Provence in the Jardin de Luxembourg.

Then again, perhaps this is nothing more than the result of knowing that next week, with the BASR conference behind me, there is no new semester, no more ‘back-to-school.’  School is over, and as much as its been a relief to finally cease being a student, there’s a hole there now, and it needs filling.

At last year’s BASR conference I had the esteemed pleasure of organising, and participating in, a panel titled: Discursive and Material Approaches to the Study of Atheism and Non-Religion.  With me were three remarkable talents: Katie Aston, Lorna Mumford, and Lydia Reid.

Here’s the abstract of our panel:

Since Campbell’s (1971) call for a sociological study of the ‘irreligious,’ the field of study on Atheism, Irreligion, Non-Religion, Secularism, and Unbelief has gained a great deal of footing in differing academic circles. While this has, on one hand, generated a growing ambiguity in terminological consensus, it has also, on the other, fostered a multi-disciplinary and broad spectrum of methodological approaches. Whilst we might decry the former for presenting equivocality to the subject area, the latter is essential in engendering a diverse and richly nuanced understanding of the subject matter in general. With this in mind, this panel will present four methodological approaches to the study of Atheism and Non-Religion, from different perspectives, and with a focus on discursive and material interests in how individuals are defined, and define themselves, within the category of religion, non-religion, and Atheism. By means of these differing perspectives it will act to demonstrate the value, even necessity, in approaching and viewing such a budding subject through a number of distinct lenses.

As well, here’s an excellent description and analysis of the panel by Lorna Mumford for the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog:

This year, the panel that I’ve organised is a tad smaller: only two of us this time, with a very different theme.  As before, both the theme of the panel, as well as my presentation, were heavily influenced by the research I was conducting for the PhD, this time the topic is less geared toward my obsession with ‘the Thesis,’ and more about the ‘next step.’

For this panel, I am happily joined by a good friend and colleague, Clement Grene, PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at New College.  This is our second conference together.  Prior to this, we presented at the inaugural International Association for Heresy Studies conference at NYU a few years back (where we taught a number of young Americans the benefit of the conference bar), and will be presenting together again next month at the Harvard Divinity School’s annual Ways of Knowing graduate conference.

Our theme is religion and fiction, titled: Fiction in the Study of Religion: Two Case Studies.

Here’s the abstract for the panel:

The use of fiction in the study of religion is both old and new. While fictional texts, such as novels, poetry, film, and television programs have been used in the past to discuss how authors might adopt religious discourse into their imagined worlds, how that is theorized, and then analyzed, is a somewhat new endeavor. This panel will present two case studies wherein the ‘use’ of fiction will provide equally nuanced and significant approaches to the study of religion. The first presentation, by Clement Grene, will isolate this discussion by focusing on a distinct source: the literary approaches to the ‘historical Jesus.’ By looking at the narrative qualities that underscore the search for the historical Jesus, this paper will develop the idea that even when a textual analysis is meant to interpret something as ‘genuine’ or ‘real,’ it is also influenced by the fictionalization of that topic. The second presentation, by Ethan Quillen, will develop even further from this argument by presenting a discursive examination of the ‘gospel novel,’ a truly fictionalized version of the life of Jesus, written in a particularly critical way, as a source of Atheism. By developing its focus from the previous presentation, this one will provide not only a theoretical perspective on the study of ‘religion’ in fiction, but how that medium might provide for us a means with which to further experiment with the manner in which we do that.

Here’s our individual abstracts:


The Jesus of History and the Christ of Literature: Literary Approaches to Historical Jesus Research 

The area of historical Jesus research is one of the most hotly-contested within all of Biblical studies. Ever since the boom of the late nineteenth liberal lives of Jesus, scholars have always tended to conceptualize and write about the historical Jesus in the form of a narrative. Whether they acknowledge it or not, this means that factors such as aesthetic considerations play as important a role as historical plausibility in their reconstruction of Jesus. This paper will briefly examine a number of historical Jesus texts that are notable in this regard. Among the key ones will be Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean; Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus, J.D. Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, Harold Bloom’s Jesus and YHWH: The Names Divine, and A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Life. The thread I will be tracing between all of these is to what extent each of these writers allow personal aesthetic preferences to trump historical plausibility; to what extent they are open with themselves and their readers about the fact that they are doing this; and the way in which some use an authoritative, omniscient narrator-like voice in relating their theories, making their arguments seem stronger not because they are more persuasive but because of the narrative-like qualities of their work. 


An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse 

In many ways similar to the precarious nature of defining ‘religion,’ the meaning of ‘Atheism’ is as equally difficult to define with any sort of certainty. Not only is the term described by academics in a number of various historical and theoretical iterations, those who identify as ‘Atheist’ oftentimes do not do so in accord with other Atheists. Therefore, any attempt at stipulating a broad or useful meaning of the term is usually fraught with equivocality. Instead, we might find better success in seeking out how the term has been discursively used, avoiding the hazards of term stipulation on one end, while gaining a much more nuanced interpretation about how individuals use particular discourses in order to define their own identities on the other. This paper will be an attempt at doing this, using three novels as discursive data. As such, it will be broken into three parts: an introduction of what I mean by a ‘fictional Jesus’ and how it relates to the notion of an ‘historical Jesus;’ a description of what might entail a ‘gospel novel;’ and three examples with which to test my hypothesis that these represent a unique type of Atheist discourse. In the third part, this paper will focus much of its attention on the three texts chosen for this examination—Moorcock’s Behold the Man, Crace’s Quarantine, and Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ—striking a balance between textual and discursive analysis, by focusing on both the texts and those individuals who authored them. To conclude, this paper will make a final argument that this type of analysis not only better defines how we might use fiction in the study of religion, but also how that might more clearly provide for us a source for the ‘meaning’ of concepts such as religion and Atheism.

When we finish our panel tomorrow, it will mark the end of my third BASR conference, as well as another reminder that in the future, ‘back-to-school’ will never mean the same as it once did.  That’s ok, though.  Change is useful and good for us.  Our presentation, then, will function like a transitional conduit, an embodiment of the liminal exchange from one stage of life to the next, a door open to a new life.