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Critics Not Caretakers

Redescribing the Public Study of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon

Publication Year: 2001

A lively critique of the study of religion in the modern academy, one that makes the scholar of religion a cultural critic rather than a caretaker of a religious tradition or a guru dispensing timeless wisdom. Critics Not Caretakers argues that the study of religion must be rethought as an ordinary aspect of social, historical existence, a stance that makes the scholar of religion a critic of cultural practices rather than a caretaker of religious tradition or a font of timeless wisdom. From a general introduction written for a wide audience and a theoretical essay that outlines the basis of an alternative, socio-rhetorical approach to studying religion, the book moves on to a series of dispatches from the theory wars, each of which uses the work of such writers as Karen Armstrong, Walter Burkert, and Benson Saler as a point of entry into wider theoretical issues of importance to the field’s future. The author then examines the socio-political role of this brand of critical scholarship—a role that differs dramatically from the type of sympathetic caretaking generally associated with scholars of religion who feel compelled to “go public.” Concluding the work is a consideration of how scholars as teachers can address issues of theory and critical thinking in the undergraduate classroom. Written with verve, Critics Not Caretakers provides a viable alternative for all those dissatisfied with the covertly political, liberal humanist approach that currently dominates the study of religion.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series, Issues in the Study of Religion

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. ix-xv

In April 1999, I delivered the introduction to this collection at the Eastern International Regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR)—a society to which I, like thousands of other North American scholars of religion and theologians alike, belong. Anticipating that "theory-talk" might have an adverse affect on the audience-after all, many in our field are against defining or theorizing religion—I opened ...

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pp. xvii

I recall a lunch in a Montreal Greek restaurant in the Fall of 1998, where Luther Martin, barely able to contain his glee, toasted both my former teacher, Don Wiebe, and myself: as Luther so eloquently put it, he toasted Don for managing to publish a collection of his own essays and me for pulling one together decades sooner. With friends like that-well, ...

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pp. xxi

Part I: Redescribing Religion as Something Ordinary

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1. More Than a Shapeless Beast: Lumbering through the Academy with the Study of Religion

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pp. 3-20

So went an exchange between Charlotte Allen and Ron Cameron, a scholar of Christian origins, that opens Allen's Lingua Franca cover article on the conflict between two approaches to the study of religion.2 This seemingly inconsequential exchange with Cameron soon found Allen on the edge of what she describes as a "fault line of an academic debate"; ...

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2. Redescribing 'Religion' as Social Formation: Toward a Social Theory of Religion

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pp. 21-40

As should by now be clear, I identify with a growing group of scholars who are open to scrutinizing the history of their categories, the theories that ground them, and the social contexts in which scholarship takes place-they have rediscovered the need to engage issues of definition and category formation. Such a change in attitude is important, for it ...

Part II: Dispatches from the Theory Wars

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3. Writing a History of God: "Just the Same Game Wherever You Go"

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pp. 43-56

So wrote Karen Armstrong in the introduction to her biography on the prophet Muhammad (1991). Two years later, in her best-selling book A History of God (1993), Armstrong explored this hunch, investigating what she claims to be the evolution of the concept or experience of God that occurs in three historically related social formations: Judaism ...

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4. Explaining the Sacred: Theorizing on Religion in the Late Twentieth Century

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pp. 57-72

So begins the published form of Walter Burkert's Gifford Lectures from 1989, Creation of the Sacred. Like any good book, its opening lines, just quoted, anticipate the territory over which the attentive reader can expect to travel. In these three sentences, Burkert makes it clear that the focus of his book is on the specific problem of explaining what he later ...

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5. "We're All Stuck Somehwere": Taming Ethnocentrism and Transcultural Understandings

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pp. 73-84

While a number of contemporary scholars of religion continue to refrain from—or have actually expressed what amounts to a disdain for—discussing theoretical issues, and instead go about what they say is the business of "taking religion seriously" (whatever that may actually mean), yet another anthropologist has stepped into this void and made a significant ...

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6. The Economics of Spiritual Luxury: The Glittering Lobby and the World's Parliament of Religions

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pp. 85-102

Richard H. Roberts's recent article on the theoretical setting of the 1993 Parliament of Religions (1995) provides some examples of the thorny problems scholars of religion encounter when they presume from the outset that their datum is distinct, autonomous, or, simply put, sui generis. By conceiving of religion, or, more accurately, so-called ...

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7. "My Theory of the Brontosaurus...": Postmodernism and "Theory" of Religion

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pp. 103-122

As suggested in earlier chapters, one of the more perplexing things about postmodernism is the manner in which this critical perspective is often called upon to relegitimize theological discourses in the academy. I say "re" -legitimize, for the history of the study of religion over the past one hundred years is generally conceived as a clash between naturalist ...

Part III: Culture Critics and Caretakers

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8. A Default of Critical Intelligence? The Scholar of Religion as Public intellectual

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pp. 125-144

What is the role of religion in public life? This is the common question asked in a number of books that have recently appeared (see, among others, Cady [1993], Carter [1993], Dean [1994], and Marsden [1994, 1997]). Virtually all of their answers involve an increased role for 'faith' and even theology in the intellectual, social, economic, and political ...

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9. Talking Past Each Other: The Issue of Public Intellectuals Revisited

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pp. 145-152

In 1998, the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion kindly invited me to reply to the unsolicited comments that an earlier version of the previous chapter prompted from Paul Griffiths at the University of Chicago (1998b) and June O'Connor at the University of California, Riverside (1998). Given the amount of material that crosses our ...

Part IV: Going Public: Teach Theory

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10. Our "Special Promise" as Teachers: Scholars of Religion and the Politics of Tolerance

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pp. 155-178

In 1995 The New Yorker magazine carried a detailed survey and assessment of the various efforts to explain the twentieth-century phenomenon of Adolph Hitler (Rosenbaum 1995; see also 1998). According to the article's by-line, "[i]n the fifty years since his death, generations of experts have produced wildly competing theories that ...

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11. Redescribing "Religion and..." Film: Teaching the Insider/Outsider Problem

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pp. 179-200

Anyone even partially familiar with the course offerings of most departments of religion will recognize the ever-present "religion and . . ." courses: Religion and Human Culture; Religion, Self, and Society; Religion and Women; Religion and Ethics; Religion and the Law; Religion and Literature; Religion and Film; Religion and Music, Religion and ...

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12. Methods and Theories in the Classroom: Teaching the Study of Myths and Rituals

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pp. 201-216

In Kees Bolle's Encyclopedia of Religion article, "Myth: An Overview," we read that a myth "is an expression of the sacred in words: it reports realities and events from the origin of the world that remain valid for the basis and purpose of all there is. Consequently, a myth functions as a model for human activity, society, wisdom, and knowledge" (1987: 271; ...

13. Theorizing in the Introductory Course: A Survey of Resources

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pp. 217-236

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Part V: Afterword

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pp. 237-240

The chapters in this collection have covered a wide number of topics, but—as I suggested in the preface—a simple thesis was applied throughout: Public scholars of religion study the way communities artfully deploy and manipulate discourses on such topics as evil, their mythic past, endtimes, and nonobvious beings in an attempt to authorize their ...


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pp. 241-256


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pp. 257-266

E-ISBN-13: 9780791490747
E-ISBN-10: 0791490742
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791449431
Print-ISBN-10: 0791449432

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: SUNY series, Issues in the Study of Religion