e-mail us


Scholarship, what future?


The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature is often described as a “meat market” and “a zoo.” The meaning of those terms may not be immediately clear to those who have never attended.

Meat market refers to the interviewing that goes on, despite a shrinking job market for tenure-track teaching positions. Some people go to the meeting in hopes of getting hired.

Zoo refers, presumably, to a certain unruliness about it all, though circus or marathon might be better words.

This year’s meeting from Nov. 21-24 in Orlando, Fla. -- the world of Disney -- drew more than 7,000 scholars. Hard to believe that so many people, and, in fact, thousands more, devote their lives to the study of religion. At any given two-and-a-half-hour session, and there are three such sessions a day, the topic choices are staggering. For example, on Saturday morning alone, 40 sessions met simultaneously, each featuring roughly four papers highlighting aspects of a narrow subject area. This goes on for five days, counting pre-conference meetings.

In between sessions, scholars -- except some seen sneaking off to Disney World -- often visit publishers’ booths to look over new titles or try to interest publishers in their own. Each evening brings another series of events: plenary talks, receptions galore, opportunities to rendezvous with old friends.

No cozy little Catholic Theological Society or College Theology Society this. It’s all a bit Disneyesque, and not just because of its size.

In her presidential address, Judith Plaskow of Manhattan College chastised scholars for failing to grapple with the real world, even as she insisted that the academy is “very much part of real life.”

Some NCR readers know Plaskow as coauthor with Carol P. Christ of Womanspirit Rising (1979) and Weaving the Visions (1989), or as cofounder with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. In Orlando Plaskow pointed to areas in which the academy and the real world do and do not meet.

Mostly they do not, if this year’s meeting was any indication. With a few notable exceptions, scholars looked inward at religion, not just Christianity, but many religions of the world. Some would contend, of course, that this is what the academic study of religion is all about: to focus on its rituals, its texts, its language, its images, its beliefs, its understandings of authority.

But there was little, really, in Orlando to suggest that religion’s meaning lies beyond itself, that religion is about human transformation, about creating a justice-centered world. There were numerous sessions devoted to issues of race, gender and sexuality, not unimportant, but by and large revolving around concerns of the middle class. There wasn’t much talk about, say, wealth and poverty, global capitalism and exploitation, politics and power, truth-telling and law, joys and sorrows of the workplace, aging and disease, exploration of space, divisions between religious left and right.

A fair number of the presentations were based on historical work. Some looked for, and found, religion in popular culture, for example “Embodying Glamour and Transcending the Flesh: Traditional Religious Themes in Popular Women’s Magazines,” by Michelle M. Lelwica of St. Mary’s College, Moraga, Calif.

Several sessions offered exceptions to the lack I’ve cited, for example “Just Peacemaking: An Alternative Paradigm,” a topic considered by the Religion, Peace and War Group. In another session, scholars and FBI officials talked about how scholars might have contributed to a better outcome during the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, that led to the deaths of 90 people.

Mostly, though, religious studies today looks through a narrow lens. The academy’s work up to now, Plaskow said, even the important work of feminists, has generally placed “our traditions at the starting point and center of analysis.

“We have only rarely begun with an economic or social or political analysis and brought to bear on it a feminist theological perspective,” she said. Where that work has begun, it is usually among black and Hispanic scholars, women on the margins.

Noting that the job market is shrinking, and female academics, particularly, are feeling the squeeze, Plaskow called on scholars, feminists especially, to “broaden our focus” from transforming religious institutions to also “bringing religious resources to bear on important social problems.” Her call was set against the background of dramatic changes in the academy itself, which she described.

First, in 1970, a mere 226 scholars appeared on the program, and only three of those had identifiable female names. Today, female scholars of religion are as evident, if not as powerful or well-paid, as men. Blacks, too, were largely absent in 1970, especially from leadership positions. That is changing. In 1970, the 10 “program units” (today there are nearly 10 times that many) were just beginning to emerge out of their Protestant past, she said, to include Asian religions, Judaism and Roman Catholic studies. Programs in recent years have been far more diverse, reflecting in part the growth of Asian religions in the United States.

Because of those shifts, Plaskow regards the academy not as Disneyesque but as a microcosm of struggles in the culture at large. Yet the conference topics seem, for the most part, a world away from some of the most pressing social needs.

What happens to religion scholarship in the future will be worth watching. Today’s academic concerns may not be as distant from reality as Disney World, but a good many of this year’s topics suggested the protected middle-class world of leisure that sustains its theme parks.

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998