“Going Viral: Religion and Health” grad student conference

As many of you know, I am a graduate student in religious studies at Boston University. My colleagues and I are planning a conference for October 14th, 2017 to share research on the intersection of religion and health. The distinguished scholar Dr. Ellen Idler will be giving the keynote address.

I know many of you who watch the show are also graduate students. So if you have research that you would like to share, either in the form of a paper or a poster presentation, consider submitting your C.V. and a 300 word abstract to bureligionconference2017@gmail.com by today, July 21st!

Call for Papers: Religion and Health graduate student conference

Religion Blogs and Angry People with Opinions

No other humanities discipline evokes as much visceral emotion as Religious Studies. Not everyone has an opinion on Art History, Classics, or Philosophy, but EVERYONE has an opinion on religion.

Part of the fun of switching my specialty from Roman history to Religious Studies was the realization that everyone suddenly cares about my field of study. Rather than discussing the historical accuracy of The Gladiator, my party conversations suddenly turned to: What is the best translation of the Bible? Is religion disappearing? Do you think the Sunnis and Shias will ever stop fighting?

As much as I enjoy this newfound attention, there is a dark-side: angry anti-religionists (angry religious people too, but let’s save that topic for another time). Check out the following exchange I had on my YouTube video on ISIS and archaeology:Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 11.29.07 AM

Now I can handle the ad hominem attacks. I don’t mind being called an “idiot” or a “fool.” Such is the parlance of the common internet troll. But this is no troll. This fellow has strongly held opinions on religion and Islam, opinions that he apparently has given some thought.

Nothing short of a few classes in religion and Islam can combat such ignorance, so how do I respond? Using the woefully inadequate medium of YouTube comments, how can I convince someone that Islamophobia does indeed exist? Should I take an apologist’s stance defending the merits of religion in the face of his claim that religion “will destroy us all?”

To be fair, this was one of my more controversial video blogs. Whenever you wade into the discussion of Islam and terrorism, be sure you are about to face some heated emotions. But I’m baffled, as an educator, how to approach someone that denies the existence of Islamophobia. The forum of a blog or YouTube channel is ill-equipped to handle such needs.

If anything, this convinces me more than ever that we, as a society, NEED better religious literacy. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that we don’t need to understand other religions in a world that is increasingly pluralistic and interconnected. Religion is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and we cannot flourish as a species if a large swathe of us hold the opinions reflected in this exchange.

How would you have responded? What role does a religious studies blog play in educating the public on religion? I’m curious to hear your ideas.

Eavesdropping on a Historical Areopagus Sermon

View from the Areopagus.

View from the Areopagus.

Early some Sunday morning in June, I dragged myself out of my bed in Athens and hiked up to the Areopagus to shoot my latest video blog episode on Paul’s famous Areopagus speech.

Though I had hoped to avoid the inevitable glut of tourists, several Christian groups had already congregated around the hill for Sunday morning worship. An American pastor (who you see featured at 00:42 in the video) was preaching a sermon on Paul’s speech to one of these groups. Standing at an awkward distance to eavesdrop, I overheard the pastor echoing my own thesis: Paul emulates Greek apologists–especially Socrates–in his speech.

The pastor’s conclusion?: Acts 17 proves that the historical figure of Paul was well-versed in Greek apologetics and that he deployed these skills to tailor his message for his Athenian audience.

As benign as this may sound, this pastor highlights the toughest obstacle I encountered when writing this vlog, namely, acknowledging the disconnect between the traditional and scholarly interpretations of this Biblical passage in a way that was both fair and accurate. 

For most Christians, this pastor included, Acts 17 is an accurate representation of a historical speech that Paul gave on the Areopagus sometime in the mid-1st century CE.

For most scholars, Acts 17 reflects how the author of Acts wanted to portray Paul as well-versed in Greek apologetics.

Notice the difference.

The former assumes the historicity of the event, the latter recognizes that the event is filtered through the lens of an author. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the historicity of the event, but it DOES return agency to the author who has a vested interest in crafting a positive image of their main protagonist Paul.

Of course, some scholars unequivocally assert that the event is spurious. From their perspective the author of Acts is obviously a Pauline fan-boy who composed this speech from whole-cloth in an attempt to prove Paul’s intellectual prowess. But other scholars strike a more moderate tone, conceding that Paul may have given a speech in Athens which the author of Acts then embellishes.

Since it’s difficult to prove a negative (i.e Paul didn’t give this speech) by historical means, I side with the moderate position that Paul may have given a speech in Athens that more or less follows the trajectory described in Acts. However, as an educator in ancient religion, I would be remiss to gloss over the complexity of this passage. Paul possibly did not give this speech, and if he did, it might not have sounded exactly like how the author of Acts records it.

Historical criticism such as this is disconcerting for many people of faith and may invite opprobrium both in the classroom and in blog comments, but I’m a firm believer that engaging and appreciating this complexity can not only benefit one’s own beliefs, but it is also a vital component of religious literacy. 

Yes, historical and archaeological interpretation, especially within biblical studies, is a messy business, and scholarly conclusions don’t always tell us what we want to hear. But the whole point of religious literacy is to become a more informed and empathetic individual in the 21st century. It is to discover how to thrive in a diverse secular society, not hiding from viewpoints that challenge our opinions but rather engaging them honestly with an open mind.



Understanding ISIS and Iconoclasm [vlog]

When the news broke that ISIS had bulldozed the Assyrian capital of Nimrud,  my Facebook feed transformed into a running eulogy. Dozens of archaeologist friends, many of them Near Eastern specialists themselves, took to social media to express their frustration at what we saw playing out thousands of miles away.

As heinous as the beheadings, city sieges, and bombings had been, this crime struck a personal chord, and without downplaying the loss of human life in this conflict, we collectively mourned the loss both to our discipline and humanity as a whole.

Amidst the reports, a common question kept popping up: Why are they doing this?

My latest video tries to answer that, offering a different take than what you see on the news. Conversations on terrorism and Islamic extremism have been dominated by pundits who rarely understand the root cause of these actions. And although a few classes on religion or Modern Islam would probably fix their perspective, I’m not so blindly optimistic that they would actually do this.

Take the debate between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher as an example. First of all, you can guess the state of rational religious discourse in America if these two men represent the most popular example, but that’s beside the point. The discussion devolved into Maher belaboring how Islam is inherently violent while Affleck loudly repeated that the vast majority of Muslims not only live peacefully but denounce extremism entirely. Of course Affleck is correct, but his rebuttal to Maher’s uninformed (and sadly popular) opinion lacked nuance.

Islam, as with all religions, has components within its theology that people can leverage for violence or peace. As I stress in the video, Christians, Hindus, and Shintos all share episodes in their histories where their adherents justified systemic violence with their respective belief systems. The real trick to revealing the underlying cause of religious violence, then, is to identify the other factors that contribute to the violence and not simply blame the religion as a whole.

As scholars such as David Cook have argued, we are witnessing a uniquely modern phenomenon in this iconoclasm and violence. Factors as complex as the rise of mass media, the success of globalized markets, and novel re-interpretations of the Quran may have all have contributed to its existence. So to take Maher’s stance and say that Islam is inherently violent is not simply ignorant but does actual harm to society. Effective religious discourse requires trying to understand the other side’s position, even if that position is contemptible.


Why the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a Forgery [vlog]

We can’t go a year without conspiracy theorists raising the question of Jesus’ marital status. The latest attempt came from film producer and perennial biblical dilettante Simcha Jacobovici with the publication of The Lost Gospel, which hit the blogosphere with great aplomb despite scholars almost universally dismissing its claims.

Of course, who can fault these authors? Few topics can trump something as provocative as the Son of God’s hypothetical sex life, and as tired as the theory may be, it continues to sell books.

However, as an apprentice-scholar in this field of biblical and religious studies, I can’t help but see these publications as subverting religious literacy. Sure, historical fiction like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is innocuous enough, but Jacobovici’s book masquerades as real scholarship. Its not unlike climate-change deniers putting forth articles and books to undermine scientists’ warnings about global warming (though, granted, the longevity of our planet isn’t contingent upon this arcane argument about Jesus’ personal life).

In both cases, we see non-experts disputing the clear findings of experts. So how do we respond?

Call me old fashioned, but I think that presenting the evidence in a clear and persuasive manner is the best response to wild theories.

This is why I produced this video blog episode on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. I see this papyrus fragment as a self-contained story on how the scholarly process functions. Although the media latched on to the provocative bits of the story, scholars worked behind the scenes for two years until they reached a consensus: the gospel is a modern forgery. Judge the evidence for yourself, but I hope you find it persuasive: