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The Essential and Complex Relationship of Religion and Media

A monument to Johannes Gutenberg, whose press allowed for the mass distribution of the Christian Bible and every book since, in Strasbourg, Germany. Photo by Glenn J. Mason from London, Britain CC BY

Listening to Chris Cotter and his panelists – Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings – bring up some compelling issues relating to religion and media, I was struck at how integral media is to the message of religion and worthy of academic study.  My own faith, Christian Science, would not exist if the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, hadn’t found a medium through which to share her insights. In spite of the difficulties facing a woman writing on religious matters in the late nineteenth century she wrote and published her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to crystalise her teachings.

Media is a way a religion presents itself both to its own adherents and to the world beyond.  In the podcast, Tim Hutchings brought up the question of how religion and media need not be seen as two separate issues that occasionally meet, but that religion can be reconceived as a kind of mediation itself.  In fact, religion is always a mediator or a set of practices of mediation between the human and the divine.  This can give it authority for its adherents who see it as trustworthy.  However, while it brings an understanding of the faith to the believer, this very same medium can be less fathomable to the outsider because of the use of particularised language, lack of in depth understanding of the teachings, and so on.

This podcast centres mainly on social media, which might be seen to be a way of bridging the gap, but it raises as many issues as it solves.  Social media is often less representative of mainstream religions, being more the province of individuals expressing and finding their religion in their own unique way.   The speakers on the podcast discovered various issues relating to social media such as isolationism, the anonymity of user names, and concern by those who remain with the more traditional physical forms of worship. These findings are echoed by Christopher D Cunningham in his recent article in Public Space magazine, where he observes,

Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervour without institutional oversight.  The effect has been a democratisation of religion.  This approach takes church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative and maintain doctrinal boundaries.

Tim discovered this in his research with Christian groups who use digital media. He was faced with the question of who gets to decide if this new manifestation of church online is the true church. He noted the relationships and emotional commitments that the online church group members make feel very real to them.  But he also found that those members of the church who maintained the more traditional worship in physical places felt that they were the ‘real’ church.  This raises the wider issue of who defines a religion, especially in relation to these new online versions, Tim’s solution is to let the group itself decide.

@amishbek#Pennsylvania I’m Amish♬ original sound – user444597131867472

 

 

Above, teen Rebecca Fisher maintains a popular TikTok account. Though her parents were Amish, they left the church when Fisher was a young child, but she considers herself Amish and says she attends an Amish church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most Amish communities discourage the use of cell phones outside of business and medical or other emergency reasons, and photographs and videos of individuals are also discouraged. Still, the use of social media is increasing, especially among teens who have not yet been baptized and who are permitted, before choosing to join the church, to engage in popular culture in ways more familiar to their “English” (non-Amish) peers.

Identification is a significant issue in religious scholarship because misunderstanding can have adverse, wider consequences, such as misleading stereotypes and prejudice. In my position in the Christian Science Committee on Publication, an office that reviews media discourse about the denomination, I regularly see my faith freely defined by others – church leaders, academics, journalists, writers, playwrights, novelists and so on – often inaccurately and sometimes in ways that are simply wrong and misleading.  This is not new and certainly not confined to Christian Science.  So I can’t help seeing value in Tim’s approach of allowing the group to define itself and listening to them, free of judgment, to find out who they are and what is important to them.

Churches have always used the media to nurture and educate their members.  Today their use of the new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, as Tim has seen in his research, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.  Tim’s arguments to his university asking them to support his research into religion and digital media are not only valid but essential because, as he says, it offers a lens into studying what really matters in religion “”whatever that might be.”  By extrapolation, studying all the media resources of any religion will cast light on them in a real and profound way. It is how they express themselves – their beliefs, practices, relationships. But the challenge for researchers is to allow religious groups to speak for themselves and not to interpret them through their own particular bias. To gain a clear view of religion from their media takes sensitivity, patience, listening and reflexivity, and this is not easy.

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Media and the Study of Religion

The 2019 conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions, at Leeds Trinity University, was loosely themed on the topic ‘Visualizing Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, and this provided an excellent focal point for a discussion of Media and the Study of Religion more broadly. With that in mind, we convened a virtually mediated roundtable discussion with Suzanne Owen (conference organizer), Vivian Asimos and Tim Hutchings speaking with RSP co-founder Chris Cotter. These contributors bring a broad range of expertise and experience to the discussion, with work focusing upon online and digital spaces, the built environment, art, literature, broadcast media, social media, podcasting, and more. Discussion begins with the conference, before turning to how a media approach can help the study of religion, what we might mean by media and mediation, challenges of taking a media approach, the utilization of media in teaching, how to avoid reifying ‘religion’ in the process, and more.

This discussion works well as a companion piece with a number of previous RSP podcasts, including Religion and the News (with Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau, and David Gordon Wilson), Religion and the Media  (with Teemu Taira), Religious Authority and Social Media (with Pauline Hope Cheong), Religion, Violence and the Media (with Jolyon Mitchell), and Visual Culture and the Study of Religion (with Birgit Meyer).

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Media and the Study of Religion

Podcast with Vivian Asimos, Tim Hutchings and Suzanne Owen

(20 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/media-and-the-study-of-religion/

Download the PDF of this transcription here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Media_and_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1.pdf

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome, Listeners, to a special roundtable episode of the Religious Studies Project. We had hoped that this would happen at the BASR 2019 Conference at Leeds Trinity, but everyone was too busy, too tired, over-podcasted. And so we thought we would reconvene later on, online. And we’re talking about media and the study of religion. We’ve had a few podcasts touching on this topic before. You know, we’ve had one that Tim – who you’ll be hearing from in a moment – was involved in about religion and the news, and we had Teemu Taira talking about religion and the media. But today we’re going be taking a much broader approach, I think, to the notion of media and the study of religion so: mediation, and the various media in which that can occur. So I’m just going allow the speakers to introduce themselves, and say a little bit about how media crops up in their work. So for those who don’t know, I’m Chris Cotter, I’m one of the co-founders of the Religious Studies Project. And I’m going to let other people speak first, before I scrabble around to try and think about how media comes up in my work. But, Vivian – you’re first on my list here – who are you, and what’s media for you?

Vivian Asimos (VA): (Laughs) Quite a big question, regarding my work! So I’m Vivian Asimos, I recently got my PhD at Durham university, which is currently where I’m still acting at teaching assistant on several kinds of course. And I study virtual story-telling, primarily looking at the internet and video games. So lots of media that I’m looking at, and different types. Sometimes looking at it historically – how things used to be, historically-speaking, for the internet. Obviously not quite the breadth of history as maybe some other people are used to looking at! But seeing how things change over time, and also how this impacts our ideas of supernatural or communication of religion. Those kinds of things. Yes.

CC: Excellent. You are well-qualified to be at this table – this virtual table. And this podcast that’s being mediated to the Listeners’ ears, and we’re recording it via the internet. So it’s already a case study in that. And then we’ve got Suzanne Owen.

Suzanne Owen (SO): Yes, and I’m reader in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. And I’ll just say that the four of us are in four different locations. So that’s possible because of media – digital media. And my research . . . I’ve not focussed on media per se, but it has come in different forms. So in my work with research in Newfoundland I’ve been looking at . . . not digital media, but I guess you might call it hard media? I’m not sure: art work, museum exhibitions and how representations of particular indigenous groups are portrayed, and the discourse in the text that surrounds it. And what they’re emphasising or what they’re hiding. But, I guess, more directly with digital media with the project that Teemu Tiara and I did with the druid network on the registration as a charity for the advancement of religion. There was quite a lot of media discourse that we included in our study, to show the different responses to that registration.

CC: Excellent. And then, I guess, sort-of the driving force behind this podcast is Tim Hutchings.

Tim Hutchings (TH): Hi. I am the Assistant Professor in Religious Ethics at the University of Nottingham. But I’m mostly a sociologist of digital religion. For ten or fifteen years I’ve been studying, you could say, the opposite of the kind of approach that Vivian takes. So my research began by looking at what particularly Christian institutions were trying to do with digital media. So very formalised, institutionalised, traditional versions of religion, trying to produce forms of online community or online ritual that they could recognise as proper Christian church. (5:00) And from there I’ve been fascinated by that ongoing struggle in some ways, maybe, of institutions that are quite slow and ponderous sometimes, to get to grips with a fast-moving medium, or a whole set of media. One of the things I particularly enjoyed studying around that field is seeing the number of projects that don’t quite work out. And the study of religion and media is often the study of disasters and failures and things that are quietly forgotten as quickly as possible! But I’ve looked at projects like attempts to encourage people to read the Bible through digital media, attempts to create online communities, attempts to produce religious mobile apps, and some kind-of emerging conversations online around death and grief. And at the moment I’m looking at a video game. But it’s a video game produced, again, by a Christian organisation to try and teach children about the Bible, more or less. So those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

CC: Excellent. And Tim, you’ve also got a journal as well that we should probably mention?

TH: Yes. Thank you. I’m the editor-in-chief of the journal, Religion, Media and Digital Culture, which is published by Brill in collaboration with the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

CC: Excellent. And we’ll try and link to that from the podcast page. And, as I said, I would let other people speak before trying to come up with something on this end. So my research . . . I work broadly looking at non-religion – so, basically anything that could be conceptualised as a relational “other” to religion. Primarily, my work has been interview-based and ethnographic. But an interesting way in which, I guess, using mediation comes in is: I’ve done a good bit of work looking at the built environment and how particularly – my field site for my PhD was Edinburgh’s Southside – but how this Southside was felt. And how people’s non-religious lives were sort-of impacted upon by the Christian hegemony of the spaces, and all the sort of conversions and things like that. So a little bit on how space can be seen as media in discourse. But then also, of course, especially when you’re looking at atheism etc., there’s so much stuff online you’ve got to pay attention to. So a bit of that. And then of course there’s also the production of media which we’ll probably be talking about as well. There’s the Religious Studies Project, here, which you’re listening to I suppose. And Vivian, you’ve also got a podcast?

VA: I do. I have the Religion in Popular Culture podcast, where I interview different people in the field of the study of religion and popular culture. Unfortunately, Tim and I keep missing dates on being recorded for it! But I’ve gotten quite a few people that approach things from a variety of different perspectives. And I use popular culture quite broadly, I think, to encapsulate all sorts of different medias and media types and even just the things that we take for granted as being around us every day. So check it out, if you like podcasts and religion!

CC: Well, presumably people who are listening have at least some sort of passing interest in podcasts and religion!

VA: (Laughs.)

CC: OK. I thought we could kick off a little bit. . . . Because, as I say, we meant to try and record at the BASR 2019 conference, which Suzanne organised. And one of the words in the title was media (Laughs). So maybe, Suzanne, you could just tell us a little bit about what the conference theme was and anything that came out of it for you. And then as we were all there we might have some stuff to offer.

SO: Yes, when I was asked to organise the conference, I immediately thought of my colleagues in media, film and culture to help co-organise it. Because I’m the only person in Religious Studies at my institution. And that turned out to be really great collaboration, particularly with Stefano Odorico who is a documentary film maker. And he’s really interested in developing new digital skills among students, and also in research with interactive documentary film making in particular. And one of the things, when we were discussing various titles, we didn’t want to make religion too prominent because he thought that it would be off-putting to people from his side. And so we came up with “Visualising Cultures: media, technology and religion”. In the end it really was a BASR conference, as most of the participants were BASR people (10:00). But I think it was also trying to emphasise that religion is not a rarefied thing, I suppose. Just part of a bundle, in this title. And also to try to emphasise the kind-of collaborative projects that might be happening, or interdisciplinary projects – which, I guess, Religious Studies is by nature, for the most part. But in the way that we might be using different disciplinary skills in the study of religion in order to do our research. And so visualising cultures seemed to capture everything that we wanted to bring to the conference, and to allow people to come that might not ordinarily come to a BASR. And we did get a few participants in that group; they came because of the theme. And most of them did do a study of religion of some kind, but not all of them. So that was really good to see.

CC: Excellent. Yes I mean I saw papers to do with… well it James Kapalo talking about archival work, Vivian, and Jonathan, and few others presenting about virtual worlds .And I remember Michael Dudeck – it was quite an innovative paper – was developing a sort-of virtual constructed religion. He called it the Temple of Artifice. And so his presentation was very interactive, and very on the nose. And I guess sort-of pushed us to think a little bit about what we’re doing in the Study of Religion. Can we be constructing things in that sort of way? It was excellent.

SO: Yes, it’s interesting that Michael Dudeck’s project – where he’s deliberately creating a religion that’s digitally available to participate in – in some ways we’re doing the same thing. But we think we’re doing it for real, I guess. And it’s really good to see that actually, what we’re doing is just as constructed and fictionalised.

VA: (Laughs). I mean, I would probably argue that what I’m doing isn’t for real, and yet it is at the same time. (Laughs). So, yeah. Because what I tend to look at is constructed fictional narratives that people are engaging with. So these are ones that nobody is working at it from say the perspective of like “We’re trying to form this into something.” Very seldom does that happen. And yet it tends to take off in that direction. And so, very often, it’s that sense of real-but-it’s-not, simultaneously. And I think it kind-of reveals a lot about how we actually do see the world as not always being these strict dichotomies between fiction and reality, but that they can be blurred and they often are. And that the internet, and the way that the online story-telling really works, ends up actually revealing that to us.

SO: Yes. And what Dudeck produced was actually real as well. And that word reality and real was used quite a lot in the conference by participants, I noticed.

VA: Yes. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine!

CC: Do you want to say a bit more about that Vivian? You’ve got the air-time!

VA: Yes, sure. You see it a lot even outside of the academic circle, of the “real world” versus the “online world”, or the “virtual world”, or the “digital world”. And essentially what that’s doing is painting this virtual world as being completely not real, and therefore all communities formed, all relationships had, all experiences are therefore painted as not real. Because it’s being put up against the physical world, which is the real world. So I pick “physical world” rather than real, to distinguish. Because I don’t want to take away from the experiences that are actually being had, that are very really felt by participants, by painting them as not real.

CC: Exactly. I mean what is qualitatively different from the experience that someone is supposedly having, whether its mediated through sound,or in a particular building, or through radio waves, or though the telephone, or the television, or online, or in a field, or whatever? These are all just different media that are being utilised. There is definitely a current bias towards the online world as being, in some way, not as authentic. Yet, as I’m sure we would all agree, for many it can be more – quote –”authentic” than the physical world (15:00).

SO: Yes. It’s interesting, because this distinction in fantasy fiction is similar where they have primary and secondary world. And the primary world is meant to be the real world. But there is no real world in fiction, or any kind of representation. And also it’s creating a false boundary, really.

TH: So I struggled with this a lot when I was doing my research about online churches. To try and work out what would be the “other” thing that I was distinguishing this from. And I started off thinking, “Well, it’s online churches versus offline churches”. But that doesn’t make sense. Because lots of those offline churches have websites, or some sort of online presence that maybe you communicate with the pastor of the church by email, or something like this. They’re not digital-free spaces. But they’re mediated differently in some way. And “physical”, to me, didn’t quite work either. Because we use physical technologies, of course, to connect with digital communications as well as anything else. So I ended up talking about “the online” and “the local”: trying to catch that sense of a thing that is defined by the place when it happens, rather than the media through which we . . . or the digital media through which we communicate it. But it’s still not quite right.

SO: Yes, kind-of acknowledging . . .

TH: The other point that I wanted to catch, there, is: one of the moves that is often made in the conversations I hear is to say, “Well, the online and the offline are no longer distinct at all. And we need to abandon this binary.” Which also doesn’t quite work for the groups I’m looking at. Because the value of the online space is partly that it is not the face-to-face. It is – so, as Vivian was saying – it’s real, but it’s sort-of not-quite-real at the same time. Which gives you the freedom to be more playful. So the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture in Colorado, at the University of Boulder, has been talking about digital as a third space – which is helpful, I think. They’ve been writing about this for years and years. Trying to focus on the as-if-ness of a place that is sometimes treated as if it is real, and sometimes treated as if it is just a game, and used as a space to reflect on what happens elsewhere. Because one of the things that I’ve found, in the very kind-of clearly bounded online spaces I was looking at, where people would say, “This website is my church” – or whatever it might be – they would use those to then reflect on everything that was happening elsewhere in the world. But that would include face-to0face, and Facebook, and the rest of internet culture, and the email conversations that participants had with their parents. So, everything that happened outside the boundary. So there was a really important distinction between what happens inside the boundary and outside the boundary, but it wasn’t drawn in the same place as the online and offline distinction. And it wasn’t quite in the same place as the real and virtual distinction. But it was important to people that this was different from a serious real place and a little playful.

CC: I think actually, if I’m correct in remembering, Vivian, it came up in your paper at the BASR, how there’s often this notion that, I guess, “We can’t trust what people say online”. Or, you know . . . Actually, what can happen is that people’s online expressions can, in some ways, be maybe less filtered and more – quote – “real” than they might be in face-to-face social interactions. Am I remembering correctly?

VA: Yes. And it obviously is going to depend on individuals. But what I found was that, at least when talking with academics who have a bit of a bias against virtual worlds – to kind-of paint something more broadly there – they tend to say that because things can be anonymised, therefore you can’t trust anything. What I found during my fieldwork, as well as just from my own personal experience of living in various online spaces at various points in my life, is that there was still an identity that is tied to the username (20:00). And often users can feel more empowered to act in the way that they might not be able to. So, for example, if I’m on, say, even just an academic forum and I’m using a username, I might feel more compelled to be more strict in my opinions, because I’m not going to feel like I’m going to be questioned for being a woman. Like I might, if I’m in a physical space, where people can look at me and see that I’m a woman. So I might feel more willing to express myself when people can’t tell how young I am, how female I am. And I see this play out even on line as well. And, interestingly, I had strange responses, when I was conducting fieldwork, where I had people reaching out to me to discuss their experience on these forums. But they would use throwaway accounts, which essentially means they would create a new account solely for the purpose of our communication and then immediately get rid of it. And this was because they didn’t want what they said to be tied to their identities. So they were anonymising themselves, through what other people see as an anonymous username. Because it’s not an anonymous username. It’s tied to their identity there. It’s tied to their experiences, and lingo, and neighbourhoods that they trawl. And experiences and relationships are all tied to that name in the same way that, you know, those same exact things are tied to my Vivian Asimos name.

CC: Yes. Excellent. So it’s interesting that, although we’re trying to have this broad discussion around media and the state of religion, our focus is quite naturally being drawn to, I guess, online, digital, virtual and so on. And I guess that might be because it’s the latest medium of our times. I guess if we were having this discussion around the time of the printing press or the telephone or the television and stuff, you know, our conversation might be differently inflected. So maybe . . . . Because, Suzanne, you mentioned working with sort-of more, we could call it, traditional forms of media. Do you have any thoughts on your work there?

SO: Yes. And in some ways it is the same kind of research, because I’d interview artists about their artwork. And, of course, some artists portray their art in a kind-of non-conscious way, but I was still able to elicit some kind of discussion about the themes that they’re interested in. Because they were all depicting an extinct indigenous group in their artwork. And I thought there was a way that they could show their relationship to that subject in a non-verbal way, which offered an interesting insight that was different from the way that written texts or museum exhibits represent that group. And I did, I got a really different kind of perspective. So I think different kinds of media can bring out different kinds of insights, for sure, in research. It also reminds me a little bit of when I used to do theatre: there was one time, just for ourselves among the group that were doing the play, we did an experiment with masks where we were wearing different masks. It was just reminding me of what Vivian was saying with online identities, and how the mask then becomes the focus of your interaction. And they’re no longer the person behind the mask, but the mask could be sort-of male, female, androgynous, animal, human, alien. And our relationship, then, just completely changed. And I think that’s the beauty of different kinds of media, that you get really different kinds of responses and interactions.

CC: Time is, bizarrely, moving on as it tends to do. And I do want to get to the idea of how media can be utilised in the teaching of the study of religion. But I couldn’t resist getting a compliment in here about how . . . . I’d be interested in your thoughts. Much of the work that I encounter that seems to be taking a media approach – or looking at media in relation to religion – a lot of it tends to trip up on that sort of critical problem of, “there is something there, that is being mediated” (25:00). I guess, in a lot of this work, there is the assumption that there is religion, or there is, I guess, a deity that is being mediated through things. Rather than, perhaps, talking about a social constructivist approach. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on that?

SO: Yes. As we were saying before we started recording: sometimes researchers think there is religion out there, and that is being mediated throughout various things like news or digital spaces, whereas we should really look at stuff that’s out there that gets mediated as something. Maybe as religion and discourse –a discourse analysis kind-of approach. Where the contesting . . . that there is something that exists prior to the discourse about it. You know, that religion is not a priori in that sense.

CC: Yes. And I guess you know, Tim, you’ve been talking about working with churches and churches in online space. How did you . . . ? Did you wrestle with that? I’m just allowing the group to define what it is, and then I’m looking for that being mediated online. How did you go about setting your boundaries?

TH: Yes, so around this question of reality – thinking back to my early research in online churches – on the outside of those online communities, one of the big conversations about them was whether this was considered real church or not. Which, from a kind-of sociological perspective is not a very useful category for me! Because, of course, for me there are a lot of different Christian traditions. They all define what a real church is differently. People from those traditions mix up together in online communities. So if you actually push the question, you’ll quite quickly find that people may agree or disagree about whether what they’re doing is real within the same group – and just politely don’t mention it very often. So I tried to allow groups to define themselves and just said, “If you’re calling what you do church, then I’m interested in finding out what it is.” But while keeping in mind that ambivalence, I guess, about who gets to decide whether this group calls itself church, or not? In some cases, the person who set up the thing decided, “Let’s call this the church of such and such”. But actually, if you had conversations with people who had been participating here for ten years every day, multiple hours a day, they’d say “Oh, of course it’s not really church.” So it was an inherently undefined word. And when people did want to claim that word, they often didn’t want to do it in ways that traditional Christian authorities would respect, shall we say? So they might want to say, “OK. So traditionally, my group has said that church has got to do these particular rituals, and you’ve got to have this particular authority structure. I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that I’ve made really important friendships here. It means a lot to me that this is a space where I have very important relationships and real emotional commitment. And so I call it church. And how dare you question whether this is church for me? Are you saying my friendships aren’t real?” Which is fascinating. Because that is not . . . that is . . . I don’t know if it’s a new way of thinking about church. But it’s a way of thinking about what is real that is different from the institutional tradition, perhaps. So – in line with this question about “Is there a previous, pre-mediated thing?” – there are conversations in the study of religion, media and culture for many years now that I’ve found really helpful, trying to reconceive religion itself as a kind of mediation. So people like Jeremy Stolow, and Birgit Meyer, and others, have argued that any study of religion and media that frames it as religion and media, as though there are two separate things, is not catching the really interesting part of the study of the . . . not the really interesting part of the field. Which is that religion itself is always mediated: religion itself can be understood as a kind of media, or a set of practices of mediation. Certain things that are permissible or forbidden, or expected within a certain group, that make connections between the human and the non-human (30:00). And I found that really helpful as a way of positioning what I’m interested in, in this very current study of digital religion, as part of the same kind of thing that all of my colleagues do in their studies of religion across centuries.

 CC: I considered trying to get mediating or mediatising into the title of the podcast. I might make it “Mediation and the study of religion” or something, just to emphasise that. Vivian, I know that you sometimes use the lens of myth in what you’re studying, as well. So, again, how do you decide when it’s religion that’s being mediated and things like that?

VA: (Laughs) I tend to not be too bothered about the word religion. Which might be a bit strange to say, as somebody who is a religion scholar, and in a religion department. But that’s how I see myself, because I don’t think anyone really knows precisely what religion is. And, therefore, how do you try to go about finding it, if you don’t know precisely what it is? So myth, to me, is a much more useful word than religion – although it probably has just as many problematic definitions throughout its history as religion does! But I see myth as being essentially defined by the individual or the community, which means that it’s not up to me – like what Tim was saying about leaving the community to kind-of define for themselves what matters and what doesn’t matter, and what words matter, and what words don’t matter. And seeing how they connect to a narrative in a very meaningful way. So I tend to focus more on myth than on religion, because of that. So I’m a mythographer as well as a religion scholar. And it has gotten me into trouble in the past. And that’s interesting in itself to think about how we, as scholars, are mediating our own understanding of religion onto our own discipline. So, my first year review board, I was asked why I was in a religion department, if I’m not looking at religion? Which I felt like I both was, and wasn’t. So it’s interesting to be told, time and time again, that you’re not studying religion when you feel like you are, but in a slightly different way. Because, essentially, we’re ascribing our own understandings onto our own disciplines, and mediating that through our own podcasts, as well as in books.

SO: I think the problem is everyone does know what religion is, or says that, or thinks that they do. And that’s why there’s so many ideas about religion, because everybody is so sure that they know what it is. Whereas, I think that there isn’t something there anyway. Like with any kind of thing, any kind of abstract subject, it is obviously mediated and created; born out of relationship and dialogue and discussion; and what people portray, or what they define as . . . . So comparing definitions is one of the first things I do with students in first year. It’s to show that there are many definitions of religion, and there are some essential differences between these definitions, and what does that say about it? What are they emphasising, and what they selecting and excluding, to create this thing called religion that they’ve defined? It’s an ongoing sort of disagreement I had with my own supervisor about whether or not you should define what you’re researching. And of course I’m seeing it more as: those that I’m researching are defining terms.

TH: Yes. So, in response to what Suzanne was saying a moment ago about the discourse approach, or discourse analysis approach to religion: an advantage, or disadvantage – depending on how you look at it – of that kind-of approach, I think, is that actually the word religion is very rarely used by the people I’m interested in. Unless they’re trying to step back from their engaged experience and be more analytical about it, and say “Well, maybe this is the kind of religion. . . .” In Christian contexts it’s quite common for people to say, “Well, this is not religion. Religion is that bad thing . . . . We are better than religion, because we are spiritual”, or something like that. Religion, as a term, is mostly imposed by academics onto the field in things like department meetings! (35:00)

SO: Yes.

VA: (Laughs).

TH: “Religion is a real thing because we study this”. But then, reflecting on what Vivian was saying, I had similar experiences myself. And that’s maybe a useful pointer for people listening to this podcast, particularly if you’re just starting out in an academic career. If you’re studying something unusual and exciting to do with pop culture, at some point somebody will say, “Yes – but is it religion?”

CC: Exactly.

TH: And even if that is a made-up word that doesn’t really exist, religion departments do exist. Those are definitely real. And it’s a question that it’s worth, you know . . . It will come up at some point. It’s worth having an answer to it. When people asked me that question, I was left slightly taken aback. So it’s worth anticipating it, before it arrives.

CC: Absolutely. So that brings us quite nicely, I suppose, to our final question. And we’re a little over time, but we’re going to run with it. Because we’ve been talking, there, about students, and about supervisors, and how the subject of the study of religion – whether that’s religious studies, or sociology of religion, or anthropology, etc. – how we mediate the very topic. But I wonder . . . Tim was mentioning, before we started, how institutions are now increasingly wanting us to incorporate media in various forms. And I wonder if anyone’s got any thought about that, or any useful stories or useful failures, and things like that? (Laughs).

VA: This is actually something that more recently I’ve been engaging with, but not using things like the internet or podcasts so much as using the kind-of more traditional media, primarily with pictures, with my students. Normally, as a teaching assistant you tend to not get quite as much creativity allowed to you when it comes to teaching. But I’ve been able to play with it a bit this year, because there’s a new first year module where we’ve kind-of shifted study of religion to being a worldviews approach by Douglas Davies. And the whole conversation on how he’s structured this, and whether or not it’s successful, could probably be an entire podcast episode in and of itself. So I’ll kind-of skip over that. But because it’s a bit more experimental it allows us, as teaching assistants, to be more experimental in our seminars. And one of the things that myself and Danny Riley – who’s a PhD student at Durham University, as well – have decided to do, was to do photo-elicitation – but as a teaching useful tool, rather than as an anthropological interviewing tool. So one of the ideal types that Douglas has set out was a natural worldview. So I asked students to take a picture of what they think embodies a natural worldview. And then we sat around and we chatted about all of the pictures that we had in a variety of formats, asking them very solid questions like, “Which picture makes you feel uncomfortable?” And then we’d sit around, and talk about why we had picked the picture that they had, and ended up revealing a lot more about how people see the world differently from one another – which was always difficult to get to, especially at Durham where most of our undergraduates are all from very similar socio economic, racial and geographical background. So, to be able to pull out their inner thoughts through the images, actually was incredibly useful.

CC: Excellent.

SO: I had a really good experiment with our first year students in Intro Week. They’re just coming in and being inducted. I had them take a photograph of what they think is the heart of the university – to represent it with taking a photo on their mobile phones – and then to send me the photo, and then we can look at the different images. And I got a really nice spread, from obvious choices like the chapel or the bar, or the coffee place. But also some more creative ones, like there was an image they took of themselves to show that the students were the heart of the university. And those were the ones that came to mind. So I’m interested in getting students to produce media and hopefully, in the future, to actually make more sort-of media. We’ve already had them doing little documentaries, or podcasts, or digital things. But maybe to even make something more . . . interactive documentary film making in the future – which is what our university specialises in (40:00).

CC: I think there’s a lot of scope now that everyone’s got a sort of portable – most people, I should say – at a typical UK university will have sort of portable media studio in their pocket, producing video content and audio content. And just one thing to throw in there . . . I always have these great intentions of doing a lot of innovative things that I never quite have time . . . . But what I’ve started to try and do . . . I was getting a bit fed up constantly typing up comments in the student’s essays – and I noticed that in our sort of marking suite it would give you the option to record audio. And I thought that this might . . . because you can get a lot more over in the tone of your voice. The nuance might not come through in text. So I’ve started to try, where I can, to offer audio comments on essays. And I’ve also offered audio feedback on my dissertation submissions, and things like that. I think it’s a way to . . . . You can really emphasise what’s actually important. And they can also tell from the tone of your voice if you actually do like something. And you can be a lot more reassuring. Things can come across maybe quite harsh in text forms. So that’s a way, I guess, of trying to incorporate more innovative things in the teaching on the assessment side. How about you two?

TH: Well, from my point of view, having been in this field of research now for ten or fifteen years, I’ve gone through quite a journey of trying to persuade universities that what I do is a really significant thing that is worth having in their department. Because, to start with, people would say, “Well digital seems a bit niche.” So I’d try and present media as a lens onto studying “what really matters” – whatever that might be. Or perhaps considering media, as we’ve been discussing before, as a way of thinking about religion itself, and how religions, worldviews, experiences and practices really work. What’s actually taken me a bit by surprise, over the last year or so, is to realise that actually the research I’ve been doing – as I slightly pejoratively introduced it, way back at the beginning of this podcast – is basically about big clumsy traditional institutions, struggling to adapt and catch up to a media world that they don’t quite understand, but they’re pretty sure that the young people are really into nowadays. That’s basically the story of what I’ve been doing for my whole career. And suddenly I’ve discovered that, joining a university department, that that’s the institution I’ve joined. That’s exactly what they’re doing! The same conversations that I used to study from the Pope writing in 2002, I’ve now got the Vice-Chancellor of my university saying in 2018 – almost word for word, repeating the same arguments. And the digital has gone from being a niche topic that a few people study, to an imposed agenda for our teaching programmes. It is necessary to ensure that students are learning digital skills for the workplace as well as traditional Humanities essay-writing and examination skills. And so, very suddenly, I’ve found that I’m required to attend a hundred and five different committees, and think-tanks, and organisations, all of which will plaintively say, “Well, we feel like we should be doing something digital.” And that’s going to be a rapidly changing environment, which is very interesting to watch. But we’re starting to have university-wide conversations, which are ongoing, about how we ensure that every lecture is recorded, and how we then ensure that everybody watched the videos. And do we then have any data to suggest that watching videos of lectures actually helps students learn? And how do we replace essays with new forms of assessment that might teach some digital skills? And, in that case, is there any way that we could actually teach some digital skills to the teachers? Which is a bit of a problem that is emerging, I think. It’s very easy to say, “All students need to do a video assignment”. But, apart from Suzanne who has a huge advantage from her colleagues at Leeds Trinity, those of us in traditional Theology and Religious Studies departments probably don’t have a colleague who does a lot of video (45:00). So there’s a hope that sometimes comes up in some of those meetings, that “Of course, our students nowadays will have all of these digital skills. So maybe the students could teach some of those digital skills to the lecturers, in order to have them taught back again for assessment?” So there’s not exactly a solution to that at the moment. It’s also a programme that, by its nature, seems to be essentially evolving. Once you’ve decided that your institution will invest heavily in technology, you then need to upgrade all the technology next year – forever. And once you have taught everybody how to use one system, you need to then give them a refresher course on the next system. So in my own teaching, I’m introducing a new assignment that will require students to produce videos or podcasts and reflect on that experience. But there are a lot of technical challenges to doing that. It turns out when everybody in your class has their own video-making device but none of those devices are compatible with the other devices, you can actually spend weeks trying to work out how you actually upload all of those things into the university systems so that they can be stored properly, and assessed through an online marking system, that was not set up to do any of this! There are probably not enough technical support people in the university for every class to have somebody who is full time just reminding the students which cables they need to use to plug their phones into things. So it’s interesting to see . . . It’s nice to study disasters sometimes, as I said at the start. It’s very important.

CC: Yes. You often find that by the time academics are paying attention to something it’s already out of fashion. (Laughs). Right. We’ve talked a lot longer than I intended, but it’s been an excellent discussion. But we’re going to have to wrap it up, for that sake of our poor Listeners and poor transcriber! Thank you all so much for joining me on the Religious Studies Project.

TH: Thank you very much for inviting us.

VA: Thank you.

SO: Thanks for listening!

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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London, UK

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December 2, 2016, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

London, UK

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NSRN Annual Lecture: Is atheism a religion?

December 2, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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December 7, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

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University of Virginia, USA

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African, Christian… Fake? Explorations in Religious Authenticity

A highlight of Afe Adogame’s interview is his emphasis upon the brimming capacity for African Christianities, whether in Western or African settings, to contribute to the broader, age old discourse on religious authenticity. Adogame asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic?” Certainly, as he asserts, to answer this question as a scholar is to make a loaded theological statement, and I would add, to also assume a rather provocative level of religious authority. Nevertheless, the question is important for both the practitioner and the scholar.

Presently, many Westerners (and Africans) address Christianity’s place in contemporary Africa as a colonial import. A subsequent repercussion is that Western forms of Christianity are referenced as the normative standard bearers for Christian authenticity. Indeed, in some parts of Africa, people refer to mission-based mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as “orthodox” churches. From this perspective, the question of “which kind of Christianity is authentic” is less about critically examining issues in authenticity and more about asking whether indigenously-led Christianities ought to be treated as legitimate expressions of Christianity, or as exotic Africanized pseudo-Christianities.

Adogame rightly problematizes this framework in a couple of ways. He reminds listeners that Africa has fostered Christian communities since the emergence of early Christianity, and therefore, the continent has always been relevant to discussions of authenticity. Further, he reminds listeners that transculturation is not a simple, unidirectional scheme. While African communities have appropriated Western Christianities in numerous ways, so too have Western Christian communities participated in ongoing cultural appropriations. Thus, Adogame suggests that many contemporary African Christianities are not “Africanized” versions of Christianity, but “African interpretations of Europeanized Christianities.”

This latter point is an excellent one, although I do not think that Adogame has taken it quite far enough. When he speaks of “the West” in this interview, he refers only to Europe, which inadvertently discounts the significance of Africa’s relationship with North America. Might we also consider contemporary African Christianities as “African interpretations of Americanized Christianities” or, perhaps even, “African interpretations of American adaptations of Europeanized Christianities?” My intention is not to get caught up in petty linguistic criticisms, but it is important to acknowledge the drastic differences between North American forms of Christianity and those of Europe, as well as North American relationships with Africa and those between Europe and Africa. These differences significantly affect the forms and trajectories of Christianites in Africa, including the growing presence of African ministries in Western settings.

While Adogame mentions that many African Christians today perceive Europe to be a religiously “dark continent,” I have not found the same sentiments to be very consistent when applied to North America, particularly the United States. Rather, many African Christians, especially those in the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic sector, look to American evangelical leaders for ideas on missions strategies, organizational structures, styles of preaching, as well as Christian thought and theology. This is not to say that Africans in the Pentecostal-Charismatic sector uncritically mimic thriving forms of American Christianity, but the parallels cannot be ignored when viewing the growth of the African Christian self-help literature, franchise-style church institutions, televangelism, and prosperity gospels.

Nevertheless, Adogame’s commentary makes a strong case as to how studies of African Christianities can elevate current approaches to authenticity, and I stand in full agreement. Because of Africa’s place within the longue durée of Christian history, its complicated relationships with colonial powers and missions projects, as well as its recent role in “reverse missions,” African Christianities are particularly well-positioned to elucidate issues in power, religious authority, and the ways in which religious interpretations and practices are culturally informed. All of these factors can significantly contribute to any discourse on religious authenticity.

In the remainder of this short essay, I want to turn attention to one additional dimension of religious authenticity through a quick illustration from some of my own work. When Adogame rhetorically asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic,” he implies that conversations on religious authenticity revolve around evaluating various strains of interpretation and practice. Or, put another way, that religious authenticity is a matter of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But is it?

A recent ethnographic project of mine examines what I call a “fake pastor phenomenon” in Ghana. One of the most densely Pentecostal-Charismatic places in the world today, the nation is experiencing an eruption of quackery accusations aimed at leaders in Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries from local street evangelists to African celebrity pastors such as TB Joshua or Enoch “Daddy G.O.” Adeboye. It is truly a media sensation, with fiery accusations and juicy exposés reported nearly daily in local press and tabloid sources, comedians and rappers mocking “fake pastor” prototypes, and Ghanaian film industries frequently featuring a “fake pastor” character in their plotlines. But, it is also a focal point of community gossip. Many worry that African Christianity is being run amok by charlatans. There are numerous circumstances in which a Pentecostal-Charismatic leader may rank among the accused, but the general premise is that “fake pastors” are those who are perceived as abusing their position of religious authority for the sake of personal (usually financial) gain.

One of the things that I like so much about the “fake pastor phenomenon” is how well it wonderfully complicates questions of authenticity. It places issues of sincerity and intentionality center stage, reminding us that there are more dimensions to the authenticity discourse than questioning orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I also like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications in the West. What does it mean when leaders of African churches, like Bishop Kofi Adonteng Boateng and his Virginia-based Divine Word International Ministries, are accused of “fakery?” What does it mean when influential platforms in the West such as the evangelically-inclined periodical, Christianity Today, feature a Ghanaian news dispatch that condemns religious quackery in Ghana while simultaneously attempting to bracket mainline denominations from the phenomenon?

Most of all, I like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications for responsible scholarship. How are we, as scholars, to consider “fake pastor” accusations when illustrating forms of contemporary African Christianities? When building (or deconstructing) taxonomies? When theorizing trends in global Christianity?

Podcasts

The Essential and Complex Relationship of Religion and Media

A monument to Johannes Gutenberg, whose press allowed for the mass distribution of the Christian Bible and every book since, in Strasbourg, Germany. Photo by Glenn J. Mason from London, Britain CC BY

Listening to Chris Cotter and his panelists – Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings – bring up some compelling issues relating to religion and media, I was struck at how integral media is to the message of religion and worthy of academic study.  My own faith, Christian Science, would not exist if the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, hadn’t found a medium through which to share her insights. In spite of the difficulties facing a woman writing on religious matters in the late nineteenth century she wrote and published her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to crystalise her teachings.

Media is a way a religion presents itself both to its own adherents and to the world beyond.  In the podcast, Tim Hutchings brought up the question of how religion and media need not be seen as two separate issues that occasionally meet, but that religion can be reconceived as a kind of mediation itself.  In fact, religion is always a mediator or a set of practices of mediation between the human and the divine.  This can give it authority for its adherents who see it as trustworthy.  However, while it brings an understanding of the faith to the believer, this very same medium can be less fathomable to the outsider because of the use of particularised language, lack of in depth understanding of the teachings, and so on.

This podcast centres mainly on social media, which might be seen to be a way of bridging the gap, but it raises as many issues as it solves.  Social media is often less representative of mainstream religions, being more the province of individuals expressing and finding their religion in their own unique way.   The speakers on the podcast discovered various issues relating to social media such as isolationism, the anonymity of user names, and concern by those who remain with the more traditional physical forms of worship. These findings are echoed by Christopher D Cunningham in his recent article in Public Space magazine, where he observes,

Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervour without institutional oversight.  The effect has been a democratisation of religion.  This approach takes church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative and maintain doctrinal boundaries.

Tim discovered this in his research with Christian groups who use digital media. He was faced with the question of who gets to decide if this new manifestation of church online is the true church. He noted the relationships and emotional commitments that the online church group members make feel very real to them.  But he also found that those members of the church who maintained the more traditional worship in physical places felt that they were the ‘real’ church.  This raises the wider issue of who defines a religion, especially in relation to these new online versions, Tim’s solution is to let the group itself decide.

@amishbek#Pennsylvania I’m Amish♬ original sound – user444597131867472

 

 

Above, teen Rebecca Fisher maintains a popular TikTok account. Though her parents were Amish, they left the church when Fisher was a young child, but she considers herself Amish and says she attends an Amish church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most Amish communities discourage the use of cell phones outside of business and medical or other emergency reasons, and photographs and videos of individuals are also discouraged. Still, the use of social media is increasing, especially among teens who have not yet been baptized and who are permitted, before choosing to join the church, to engage in popular culture in ways more familiar to their “English” (non-Amish) peers.

Identification is a significant issue in religious scholarship because misunderstanding can have adverse, wider consequences, such as misleading stereotypes and prejudice. In my position in the Christian Science Committee on Publication, an office that reviews media discourse about the denomination, I regularly see my faith freely defined by others – church leaders, academics, journalists, writers, playwrights, novelists and so on – often inaccurately and sometimes in ways that are simply wrong and misleading.  This is not new and certainly not confined to Christian Science.  So I can’t help seeing value in Tim’s approach of allowing the group to define itself and listening to them, free of judgment, to find out who they are and what is important to them.

Churches have always used the media to nurture and educate their members.  Today their use of the new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, as Tim has seen in his research, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.  Tim’s arguments to his university asking them to support his research into religion and digital media are not only valid but essential because, as he says, it offers a lens into studying what really matters in religion “”whatever that might be.”  By extrapolation, studying all the media resources of any religion will cast light on them in a real and profound way. It is how they express themselves – their beliefs, practices, relationships. But the challenge for researchers is to allow religious groups to speak for themselves and not to interpret them through their own particular bias. To gain a clear view of religion from their media takes sensitivity, patience, listening and reflexivity, and this is not easy.

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Media and the Study of Religion

The 2019 conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions, at Leeds Trinity University, was loosely themed on the topic ‘Visualizing Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, and this provided an excellent focal point for a discussion of Media and the Study of Religion more broadly. With that in mind, we convened a virtually mediated roundtable discussion with Suzanne Owen (conference organizer), Vivian Asimos and Tim Hutchings speaking with RSP co-founder Chris Cotter. These contributors bring a broad range of expertise and experience to the discussion, with work focusing upon online and digital spaces, the built environment, art, literature, broadcast media, social media, podcasting, and more. Discussion begins with the conference, before turning to how a media approach can help the study of religion, what we might mean by media and mediation, challenges of taking a media approach, the utilization of media in teaching, how to avoid reifying ‘religion’ in the process, and more.

This discussion works well as a companion piece with a number of previous RSP podcasts, including Religion and the News (with Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau, and David Gordon Wilson), Religion and the Media  (with Teemu Taira), Religious Authority and Social Media (with Pauline Hope Cheong), Religion, Violence and the Media (with Jolyon Mitchell), and Visual Culture and the Study of Religion (with Birgit Meyer).

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Media and the Study of Religion

Podcast with Vivian Asimos, Tim Hutchings and Suzanne Owen

(20 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/media-and-the-study-of-religion/

Download the PDF of this transcription here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Media_and_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1.pdf

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome, Listeners, to a special roundtable episode of the Religious Studies Project. We had hoped that this would happen at the BASR 2019 Conference at Leeds Trinity, but everyone was too busy, too tired, over-podcasted. And so we thought we would reconvene later on, online. And we’re talking about media and the study of religion. We’ve had a few podcasts touching on this topic before. You know, we’ve had one that Tim – who you’ll be hearing from in a moment – was involved in about religion and the news, and we had Teemu Taira talking about religion and the media. But today we’re going be taking a much broader approach, I think, to the notion of media and the study of religion so: mediation, and the various media in which that can occur. So I’m just going allow the speakers to introduce themselves, and say a little bit about how media crops up in their work. So for those who don’t know, I’m Chris Cotter, I’m one of the co-founders of the Religious Studies Project. And I’m going to let other people speak first, before I scrabble around to try and think about how media comes up in my work. But, Vivian – you’re first on my list here – who are you, and what’s media for you?

Vivian Asimos (VA): (Laughs) Quite a big question, regarding my work! So I’m Vivian Asimos, I recently got my PhD at Durham university, which is currently where I’m still acting at teaching assistant on several kinds of course. And I study virtual story-telling, primarily looking at the internet and video games. So lots of media that I’m looking at, and different types. Sometimes looking at it historically – how things used to be, historically-speaking, for the internet. Obviously not quite the breadth of history as maybe some other people are used to looking at! But seeing how things change over time, and also how this impacts our ideas of supernatural or communication of religion. Those kinds of things. Yes.

CC: Excellent. You are well-qualified to be at this table – this virtual table. And this podcast that’s being mediated to the Listeners’ ears, and we’re recording it via the internet. So it’s already a case study in that. And then we’ve got Suzanne Owen.

Suzanne Owen (SO): Yes, and I’m reader in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. And I’ll just say that the four of us are in four different locations. So that’s possible because of media – digital media. And my research . . . I’ve not focussed on media per se, but it has come in different forms. So in my work with research in Newfoundland I’ve been looking at . . . not digital media, but I guess you might call it hard media? I’m not sure: art work, museum exhibitions and how representations of particular indigenous groups are portrayed, and the discourse in the text that surrounds it. And what they’re emphasising or what they’re hiding. But, I guess, more directly with digital media with the project that Teemu Tiara and I did with the druid network on the registration as a charity for the advancement of religion. There was quite a lot of media discourse that we included in our study, to show the different responses to that registration.

CC: Excellent. And then, I guess, sort-of the driving force behind this podcast is Tim Hutchings.

Tim Hutchings (TH): Hi. I am the Assistant Professor in Religious Ethics at the University of Nottingham. But I’m mostly a sociologist of digital religion. For ten or fifteen years I’ve been studying, you could say, the opposite of the kind of approach that Vivian takes. So my research began by looking at what particularly Christian institutions were trying to do with digital media. So very formalised, institutionalised, traditional versions of religion, trying to produce forms of online community or online ritual that they could recognise as proper Christian church. (5:00) And from there I’ve been fascinated by that ongoing struggle in some ways, maybe, of institutions that are quite slow and ponderous sometimes, to get to grips with a fast-moving medium, or a whole set of media. One of the things I particularly enjoyed studying around that field is seeing the number of projects that don’t quite work out. And the study of religion and media is often the study of disasters and failures and things that are quietly forgotten as quickly as possible! But I’ve looked at projects like attempts to encourage people to read the Bible through digital media, attempts to create online communities, attempts to produce religious mobile apps, and some kind-of emerging conversations online around death and grief. And at the moment I’m looking at a video game. But it’s a video game produced, again, by a Christian organisation to try and teach children about the Bible, more or less. So those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

CC: Excellent. And Tim, you’ve also got a journal as well that we should probably mention?

TH: Yes. Thank you. I’m the editor-in-chief of the journal, Religion, Media and Digital Culture, which is published by Brill in collaboration with the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

CC: Excellent. And we’ll try and link to that from the podcast page. And, as I said, I would let other people speak before trying to come up with something on this end. So my research . . . I work broadly looking at non-religion – so, basically anything that could be conceptualised as a relational “other” to religion. Primarily, my work has been interview-based and ethnographic. But an interesting way in which, I guess, using mediation comes in is: I’ve done a good bit of work looking at the built environment and how particularly – my field site for my PhD was Edinburgh’s Southside – but how this Southside was felt. And how people’s non-religious lives were sort-of impacted upon by the Christian hegemony of the spaces, and all the sort of conversions and things like that. So a little bit on how space can be seen as media in discourse. But then also, of course, especially when you’re looking at atheism etc., there’s so much stuff online you’ve got to pay attention to. So a bit of that. And then of course there’s also the production of media which we’ll probably be talking about as well. There’s the Religious Studies Project, here, which you’re listening to I suppose. And Vivian, you’ve also got a podcast?

VA: I do. I have the Religion in Popular Culture podcast, where I interview different people in the field of the study of religion and popular culture. Unfortunately, Tim and I keep missing dates on being recorded for it! But I’ve gotten quite a few people that approach things from a variety of different perspectives. And I use popular culture quite broadly, I think, to encapsulate all sorts of different medias and media types and even just the things that we take for granted as being around us every day. So check it out, if you like podcasts and religion!

CC: Well, presumably people who are listening have at least some sort of passing interest in podcasts and religion!

VA: (Laughs.)

CC: OK. I thought we could kick off a little bit. . . . Because, as I say, we meant to try and record at the BASR 2019 conference, which Suzanne organised. And one of the words in the title was media (Laughs). So maybe, Suzanne, you could just tell us a little bit about what the conference theme was and anything that came out of it for you. And then as we were all there we might have some stuff to offer.

SO: Yes, when I was asked to organise the conference, I immediately thought of my colleagues in media, film and culture to help co-organise it. Because I’m the only person in Religious Studies at my institution. And that turned out to be really great collaboration, particularly with Stefano Odorico who is a documentary film maker. And he’s really interested in developing new digital skills among students, and also in research with interactive documentary film making in particular. And one of the things, when we were discussing various titles, we didn’t want to make religion too prominent because he thought that it would be off-putting to people from his side. And so we came up with “Visualising Cultures: media, technology and religion”. In the end it really was a BASR conference, as most of the participants were BASR people (10:00). But I think it was also trying to emphasise that religion is not a rarefied thing, I suppose. Just part of a bundle, in this title. And also to try to emphasise the kind-of collaborative projects that might be happening, or interdisciplinary projects – which, I guess, Religious Studies is by nature, for the most part. But in the way that we might be using different disciplinary skills in the study of religion in order to do our research. And so visualising cultures seemed to capture everything that we wanted to bring to the conference, and to allow people to come that might not ordinarily come to a BASR. And we did get a few participants in that group; they came because of the theme. And most of them did do a study of religion of some kind, but not all of them. So that was really good to see.

CC: Excellent. Yes I mean I saw papers to do with… well it James Kapalo talking about archival work, Vivian, and Jonathan, and few others presenting about virtual worlds .And I remember Michael Dudeck – it was quite an innovative paper – was developing a sort-of virtual constructed religion. He called it the Temple of Artifice. And so his presentation was very interactive, and very on the nose. And I guess sort-of pushed us to think a little bit about what we’re doing in the Study of Religion. Can we be constructing things in that sort of way? It was excellent.

SO: Yes, it’s interesting that Michael Dudeck’s project – where he’s deliberately creating a religion that’s digitally available to participate in – in some ways we’re doing the same thing. But we think we’re doing it for real, I guess. And it’s really good to see that actually, what we’re doing is just as constructed and fictionalised.

VA: (Laughs). I mean, I would probably argue that what I’m doing isn’t for real, and yet it is at the same time. (Laughs). So, yeah. Because what I tend to look at is constructed fictional narratives that people are engaging with. So these are ones that nobody is working at it from say the perspective of like “We’re trying to form this into something.” Very seldom does that happen. And yet it tends to take off in that direction. And so, very often, it’s that sense of real-but-it’s-not, simultaneously. And I think it kind-of reveals a lot about how we actually do see the world as not always being these strict dichotomies between fiction and reality, but that they can be blurred and they often are. And that the internet, and the way that the online story-telling really works, ends up actually revealing that to us.

SO: Yes. And what Dudeck produced was actually real as well. And that word reality and real was used quite a lot in the conference by participants, I noticed.

VA: Yes. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine!

CC: Do you want to say a bit more about that Vivian? You’ve got the air-time!

VA: Yes, sure. You see it a lot even outside of the academic circle, of the “real world” versus the “online world”, or the “virtual world”, or the “digital world”. And essentially what that’s doing is painting this virtual world as being completely not real, and therefore all communities formed, all relationships had, all experiences are therefore painted as not real. Because it’s being put up against the physical world, which is the real world. So I pick “physical world” rather than real, to distinguish. Because I don’t want to take away from the experiences that are actually being had, that are very really felt by participants, by painting them as not real.

CC: Exactly. I mean what is qualitatively different from the experience that someone is supposedly having, whether its mediated through sound,or in a particular building, or through radio waves, or though the telephone, or the television, or online, or in a field, or whatever? These are all just different media that are being utilised. There is definitely a current bias towards the online world as being, in some way, not as authentic. Yet, as I’m sure we would all agree, for many it can be more – quote –”authentic” than the physical world (15:00).

SO: Yes. It’s interesting, because this distinction in fantasy fiction is similar where they have primary and secondary world. And the primary world is meant to be the real world. But there is no real world in fiction, or any kind of representation. And also it’s creating a false boundary, really.

TH: So I struggled with this a lot when I was doing my research about online churches. To try and work out what would be the “other” thing that I was distinguishing this from. And I started off thinking, “Well, it’s online churches versus offline churches”. But that doesn’t make sense. Because lots of those offline churches have websites, or some sort of online presence that maybe you communicate with the pastor of the church by email, or something like this. They’re not digital-free spaces. But they’re mediated differently in some way. And “physical”, to me, didn’t quite work either. Because we use physical technologies, of course, to connect with digital communications as well as anything else. So I ended up talking about “the online” and “the local”: trying to catch that sense of a thing that is defined by the place when it happens, rather than the media through which we . . . or the digital media through which we communicate it. But it’s still not quite right.

SO: Yes, kind-of acknowledging . . .

TH: The other point that I wanted to catch, there, is: one of the moves that is often made in the conversations I hear is to say, “Well, the online and the offline are no longer distinct at all. And we need to abandon this binary.” Which also doesn’t quite work for the groups I’m looking at. Because the value of the online space is partly that it is not the face-to-face. It is – so, as Vivian was saying – it’s real, but it’s sort-of not-quite-real at the same time. Which gives you the freedom to be more playful. So the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture in Colorado, at the University of Boulder, has been talking about digital as a third space – which is helpful, I think. They’ve been writing about this for years and years. Trying to focus on the as-if-ness of a place that is sometimes treated as if it is real, and sometimes treated as if it is just a game, and used as a space to reflect on what happens elsewhere. Because one of the things that I’ve found, in the very kind-of clearly bounded online spaces I was looking at, where people would say, “This website is my church” – or whatever it might be – they would use those to then reflect on everything that was happening elsewhere in the world. But that would include face-to0face, and Facebook, and the rest of internet culture, and the email conversations that participants had with their parents. So, everything that happened outside the boundary. So there was a really important distinction between what happens inside the boundary and outside the boundary, but it wasn’t drawn in the same place as the online and offline distinction. And it wasn’t quite in the same place as the real and virtual distinction. But it was important to people that this was different from a serious real place and a little playful.

CC: I think actually, if I’m correct in remembering, Vivian, it came up in your paper at the BASR, how there’s often this notion that, I guess, “We can’t trust what people say online”. Or, you know . . . Actually, what can happen is that people’s online expressions can, in some ways, be maybe less filtered and more – quote – “real” than they might be in face-to-face social interactions. Am I remembering correctly?

VA: Yes. And it obviously is going to depend on individuals. But what I found was that, at least when talking with academics who have a bit of a bias against virtual worlds – to kind-of paint something more broadly there – they tend to say that because things can be anonymised, therefore you can’t trust anything. What I found during my fieldwork, as well as just from my own personal experience of living in various online spaces at various points in my life, is that there was still an identity that is tied to the username (20:00). And often users can feel more empowered to act in the way that they might not be able to. So, for example, if I’m on, say, even just an academic forum and I’m using a username, I might feel more compelled to be more strict in my opinions, because I’m not going to feel like I’m going to be questioned for being a woman. Like I might, if I’m in a physical space, where people can look at me and see that I’m a woman. So I might feel more willing to express myself when people can’t tell how young I am, how female I am. And I see this play out even on line as well. And, interestingly, I had strange responses, when I was conducting fieldwork, where I had people reaching out to me to discuss their experience on these forums. But they would use throwaway accounts, which essentially means they would create a new account solely for the purpose of our communication and then immediately get rid of it. And this was because they didn’t want what they said to be tied to their identities. So they were anonymising themselves, through what other people see as an anonymous username. Because it’s not an anonymous username. It’s tied to their identity there. It’s tied to their experiences, and lingo, and neighbourhoods that they trawl. And experiences and relationships are all tied to that name in the same way that, you know, those same exact things are tied to my Vivian Asimos name.

CC: Yes. Excellent. So it’s interesting that, although we’re trying to have this broad discussion around media and the state of religion, our focus is quite naturally being drawn to, I guess, online, digital, virtual and so on. And I guess that might be because it’s the latest medium of our times. I guess if we were having this discussion around the time of the printing press or the telephone or the television and stuff, you know, our conversation might be differently inflected. So maybe . . . . Because, Suzanne, you mentioned working with sort-of more, we could call it, traditional forms of media. Do you have any thoughts on your work there?

SO: Yes. And in some ways it is the same kind of research, because I’d interview artists about their artwork. And, of course, some artists portray their art in a kind-of non-conscious way, but I was still able to elicit some kind of discussion about the themes that they’re interested in. Because they were all depicting an extinct indigenous group in their artwork. And I thought there was a way that they could show their relationship to that subject in a non-verbal way, which offered an interesting insight that was different from the way that written texts or museum exhibits represent that group. And I did, I got a really different kind of perspective. So I think different kinds of media can bring out different kinds of insights, for sure, in research. It also reminds me a little bit of when I used to do theatre: there was one time, just for ourselves among the group that were doing the play, we did an experiment with masks where we were wearing different masks. It was just reminding me of what Vivian was saying with online identities, and how the mask then becomes the focus of your interaction. And they’re no longer the person behind the mask, but the mask could be sort-of male, female, androgynous, animal, human, alien. And our relationship, then, just completely changed. And I think that’s the beauty of different kinds of media, that you get really different kinds of responses and interactions.

CC: Time is, bizarrely, moving on as it tends to do. And I do want to get to the idea of how media can be utilised in the teaching of the study of religion. But I couldn’t resist getting a compliment in here about how . . . . I’d be interested in your thoughts. Much of the work that I encounter that seems to be taking a media approach – or looking at media in relation to religion – a lot of it tends to trip up on that sort of critical problem of, “there is something there, that is being mediated” (25:00). I guess, in a lot of this work, there is the assumption that there is religion, or there is, I guess, a deity that is being mediated through things. Rather than, perhaps, talking about a social constructivist approach. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on that?

SO: Yes. As we were saying before we started recording: sometimes researchers think there is religion out there, and that is being mediated throughout various things like news or digital spaces, whereas we should really look at stuff that’s out there that gets mediated as something. Maybe as religion and discourse –a discourse analysis kind-of approach. Where the contesting . . . that there is something that exists prior to the discourse about it. You know, that religion is not a priori in that sense.

CC: Yes. And I guess you know, Tim, you’ve been talking about working with churches and churches in online space. How did you . . . ? Did you wrestle with that? I’m just allowing the group to define what it is, and then I’m looking for that being mediated online. How did you go about setting your boundaries?

TH: Yes, so around this question of reality – thinking back to my early research in online churches – on the outside of those online communities, one of the big conversations about them was whether this was considered real church or not. Which, from a kind-of sociological perspective is not a very useful category for me! Because, of course, for me there are a lot of different Christian traditions. They all define what a real church is differently. People from those traditions mix up together in online communities. So if you actually push the question, you’ll quite quickly find that people may agree or disagree about whether what they’re doing is real within the same group – and just politely don’t mention it very often. So I tried to allow groups to define themselves and just said, “If you’re calling what you do church, then I’m interested in finding out what it is.” But while keeping in mind that ambivalence, I guess, about who gets to decide whether this group calls itself church, or not? In some cases, the person who set up the thing decided, “Let’s call this the church of such and such”. But actually, if you had conversations with people who had been participating here for ten years every day, multiple hours a day, they’d say “Oh, of course it’s not really church.” So it was an inherently undefined word. And when people did want to claim that word, they often didn’t want to do it in ways that traditional Christian authorities would respect, shall we say? So they might want to say, “OK. So traditionally, my group has said that church has got to do these particular rituals, and you’ve got to have this particular authority structure. I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that I’ve made really important friendships here. It means a lot to me that this is a space where I have very important relationships and real emotional commitment. And so I call it church. And how dare you question whether this is church for me? Are you saying my friendships aren’t real?” Which is fascinating. Because that is not . . . that is . . . I don’t know if it’s a new way of thinking about church. But it’s a way of thinking about what is real that is different from the institutional tradition, perhaps. So – in line with this question about “Is there a previous, pre-mediated thing?” – there are conversations in the study of religion, media and culture for many years now that I’ve found really helpful, trying to reconceive religion itself as a kind of mediation. So people like Jeremy Stolow, and Birgit Meyer, and others, have argued that any study of religion and media that frames it as religion and media, as though there are two separate things, is not catching the really interesting part of the study of the . . . not the really interesting part of the field. Which is that religion itself is always mediated: religion itself can be understood as a kind of media, or a set of practices of mediation. Certain things that are permissible or forbidden, or expected within a certain group, that make connections between the human and the non-human (30:00). And I found that really helpful as a way of positioning what I’m interested in, in this very current study of digital religion, as part of the same kind of thing that all of my colleagues do in their studies of religion across centuries.

 CC: I considered trying to get mediating or mediatising into the title of the podcast. I might make it “Mediation and the study of religion” or something, just to emphasise that. Vivian, I know that you sometimes use the lens of myth in what you’re studying, as well. So, again, how do you decide when it’s religion that’s being mediated and things like that?

VA: (Laughs) I tend to not be too bothered about the word religion. Which might be a bit strange to say, as somebody who is a religion scholar, and in a religion department. But that’s how I see myself, because I don’t think anyone really knows precisely what religion is. And, therefore, how do you try to go about finding it, if you don’t know precisely what it is? So myth, to me, is a much more useful word than religion – although it probably has just as many problematic definitions throughout its history as religion does! But I see myth as being essentially defined by the individual or the community, which means that it’s not up to me – like what Tim was saying about leaving the community to kind-of define for themselves what matters and what doesn’t matter, and what words matter, and what words don’t matter. And seeing how they connect to a narrative in a very meaningful way. So I tend to focus more on myth than on religion, because of that. So I’m a mythographer as well as a religion scholar. And it has gotten me into trouble in the past. And that’s interesting in itself to think about how we, as scholars, are mediating our own understanding of religion onto our own discipline. So, my first year review board, I was asked why I was in a religion department, if I’m not looking at religion? Which I felt like I both was, and wasn’t. So it’s interesting to be told, time and time again, that you’re not studying religion when you feel like you are, but in a slightly different way. Because, essentially, we’re ascribing our own understandings onto our own disciplines, and mediating that through our own podcasts, as well as in books.

SO: I think the problem is everyone does know what religion is, or says that, or thinks that they do. And that’s why there’s so many ideas about religion, because everybody is so sure that they know what it is. Whereas, I think that there isn’t something there anyway. Like with any kind of thing, any kind of abstract subject, it is obviously mediated and created; born out of relationship and dialogue and discussion; and what people portray, or what they define as . . . . So comparing definitions is one of the first things I do with students in first year. It’s to show that there are many definitions of religion, and there are some essential differences between these definitions, and what does that say about it? What are they emphasising, and what they selecting and excluding, to create this thing called religion that they’ve defined? It’s an ongoing sort of disagreement I had with my own supervisor about whether or not you should define what you’re researching. And of course I’m seeing it more as: those that I’m researching are defining terms.

TH: Yes. So, in response to what Suzanne was saying a moment ago about the discourse approach, or discourse analysis approach to religion: an advantage, or disadvantage – depending on how you look at it – of that kind-of approach, I think, is that actually the word religion is very rarely used by the people I’m interested in. Unless they’re trying to step back from their engaged experience and be more analytical about it, and say “Well, maybe this is the kind of religion. . . .” In Christian contexts it’s quite common for people to say, “Well, this is not religion. Religion is that bad thing . . . . We are better than religion, because we are spiritual”, or something like that. Religion, as a term, is mostly imposed by academics onto the field in things like department meetings! (35:00)

SO: Yes.

VA: (Laughs).

TH: “Religion is a real thing because we study this”. But then, reflecting on what Vivian was saying, I had similar experiences myself. And that’s maybe a useful pointer for people listening to this podcast, particularly if you’re just starting out in an academic career. If you’re studying something unusual and exciting to do with pop culture, at some point somebody will say, “Yes – but is it religion?”

CC: Exactly.

TH: And even if that is a made-up word that doesn’t really exist, religion departments do exist. Those are definitely real. And it’s a question that it’s worth, you know . . . It will come up at some point. It’s worth having an answer to it. When people asked me that question, I was left slightly taken aback. So it’s worth anticipating it, before it arrives.

CC: Absolutely. So that brings us quite nicely, I suppose, to our final question. And we’re a little over time, but we’re going to run with it. Because we’ve been talking, there, about students, and about supervisors, and how the subject of the study of religion – whether that’s religious studies, or sociology of religion, or anthropology, etc. – how we mediate the very topic. But I wonder . . . Tim was mentioning, before we started, how institutions are now increasingly wanting us to incorporate media in various forms. And I wonder if anyone’s got any thought about that, or any useful stories or useful failures, and things like that? (Laughs).

VA: This is actually something that more recently I’ve been engaging with, but not using things like the internet or podcasts so much as using the kind-of more traditional media, primarily with pictures, with my students. Normally, as a teaching assistant you tend to not get quite as much creativity allowed to you when it comes to teaching. But I’ve been able to play with it a bit this year, because there’s a new first year module where we’ve kind-of shifted study of religion to being a worldviews approach by Douglas Davies. And the whole conversation on how he’s structured this, and whether or not it’s successful, could probably be an entire podcast episode in and of itself. So I’ll kind-of skip over that. But because it’s a bit more experimental it allows us, as teaching assistants, to be more experimental in our seminars. And one of the things that myself and Danny Riley – who’s a PhD student at Durham University, as well – have decided to do, was to do photo-elicitation – but as a teaching useful tool, rather than as an anthropological interviewing tool. So one of the ideal types that Douglas has set out was a natural worldview. So I asked students to take a picture of what they think embodies a natural worldview. And then we sat around and we chatted about all of the pictures that we had in a variety of formats, asking them very solid questions like, “Which picture makes you feel uncomfortable?” And then we’d sit around, and talk about why we had picked the picture that they had, and ended up revealing a lot more about how people see the world differently from one another – which was always difficult to get to, especially at Durham where most of our undergraduates are all from very similar socio economic, racial and geographical background. So, to be able to pull out their inner thoughts through the images, actually was incredibly useful.

CC: Excellent.

SO: I had a really good experiment with our first year students in Intro Week. They’re just coming in and being inducted. I had them take a photograph of what they think is the heart of the university – to represent it with taking a photo on their mobile phones – and then to send me the photo, and then we can look at the different images. And I got a really nice spread, from obvious choices like the chapel or the bar, or the coffee place. But also some more creative ones, like there was an image they took of themselves to show that the students were the heart of the university. And those were the ones that came to mind. So I’m interested in getting students to produce media and hopefully, in the future, to actually make more sort-of media. We’ve already had them doing little documentaries, or podcasts, or digital things. But maybe to even make something more . . . interactive documentary film making in the future – which is what our university specialises in (40:00).

CC: I think there’s a lot of scope now that everyone’s got a sort of portable – most people, I should say – at a typical UK university will have sort of portable media studio in their pocket, producing video content and audio content. And just one thing to throw in there . . . I always have these great intentions of doing a lot of innovative things that I never quite have time . . . . But what I’ve started to try and do . . . I was getting a bit fed up constantly typing up comments in the student’s essays – and I noticed that in our sort of marking suite it would give you the option to record audio. And I thought that this might . . . because you can get a lot more over in the tone of your voice. The nuance might not come through in text. So I’ve started to try, where I can, to offer audio comments on essays. And I’ve also offered audio feedback on my dissertation submissions, and things like that. I think it’s a way to . . . . You can really emphasise what’s actually important. And they can also tell from the tone of your voice if you actually do like something. And you can be a lot more reassuring. Things can come across maybe quite harsh in text forms. So that’s a way, I guess, of trying to incorporate more innovative things in the teaching on the assessment side. How about you two?

TH: Well, from my point of view, having been in this field of research now for ten or fifteen years, I’ve gone through quite a journey of trying to persuade universities that what I do is a really significant thing that is worth having in their department. Because, to start with, people would say, “Well digital seems a bit niche.” So I’d try and present media as a lens onto studying “what really matters” – whatever that might be. Or perhaps considering media, as we’ve been discussing before, as a way of thinking about religion itself, and how religions, worldviews, experiences and practices really work. What’s actually taken me a bit by surprise, over the last year or so, is to realise that actually the research I’ve been doing – as I slightly pejoratively introduced it, way back at the beginning of this podcast – is basically about big clumsy traditional institutions, struggling to adapt and catch up to a media world that they don’t quite understand, but they’re pretty sure that the young people are really into nowadays. That’s basically the story of what I’ve been doing for my whole career. And suddenly I’ve discovered that, joining a university department, that that’s the institution I’ve joined. That’s exactly what they’re doing! The same conversations that I used to study from the Pope writing in 2002, I’ve now got the Vice-Chancellor of my university saying in 2018 – almost word for word, repeating the same arguments. And the digital has gone from being a niche topic that a few people study, to an imposed agenda for our teaching programmes. It is necessary to ensure that students are learning digital skills for the workplace as well as traditional Humanities essay-writing and examination skills. And so, very suddenly, I’ve found that I’m required to attend a hundred and five different committees, and think-tanks, and organisations, all of which will plaintively say, “Well, we feel like we should be doing something digital.” And that’s going to be a rapidly changing environment, which is very interesting to watch. But we’re starting to have university-wide conversations, which are ongoing, about how we ensure that every lecture is recorded, and how we then ensure that everybody watched the videos. And do we then have any data to suggest that watching videos of lectures actually helps students learn? And how do we replace essays with new forms of assessment that might teach some digital skills? And, in that case, is there any way that we could actually teach some digital skills to the teachers? Which is a bit of a problem that is emerging, I think. It’s very easy to say, “All students need to do a video assignment”. But, apart from Suzanne who has a huge advantage from her colleagues at Leeds Trinity, those of us in traditional Theology and Religious Studies departments probably don’t have a colleague who does a lot of video (45:00). So there’s a hope that sometimes comes up in some of those meetings, that “Of course, our students nowadays will have all of these digital skills. So maybe the students could teach some of those digital skills to the lecturers, in order to have them taught back again for assessment?” So there’s not exactly a solution to that at the moment. It’s also a programme that, by its nature, seems to be essentially evolving. Once you’ve decided that your institution will invest heavily in technology, you then need to upgrade all the technology next year – forever. And once you have taught everybody how to use one system, you need to then give them a refresher course on the next system. So in my own teaching, I’m introducing a new assignment that will require students to produce videos or podcasts and reflect on that experience. But there are a lot of technical challenges to doing that. It turns out when everybody in your class has their own video-making device but none of those devices are compatible with the other devices, you can actually spend weeks trying to work out how you actually upload all of those things into the university systems so that they can be stored properly, and assessed through an online marking system, that was not set up to do any of this! There are probably not enough technical support people in the university for every class to have somebody who is full time just reminding the students which cables they need to use to plug their phones into things. So it’s interesting to see . . . It’s nice to study disasters sometimes, as I said at the start. It’s very important.

CC: Yes. You often find that by the time academics are paying attention to something it’s already out of fashion. (Laughs). Right. We’ve talked a lot longer than I intended, but it’s been an excellent discussion. But we’re going to have to wrap it up, for that sake of our poor Listeners and poor transcriber! Thank you all so much for joining me on the Religious Studies Project.

TH: Thank you very much for inviting us.

VA: Thank you.

SO: Thanks for listening!

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

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July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

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Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

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African, Christian… Fake? Explorations in Religious Authenticity

A highlight of Afe Adogame’s interview is his emphasis upon the brimming capacity for African Christianities, whether in Western or African settings, to contribute to the broader, age old discourse on religious authenticity. Adogame asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic?” Certainly, as he asserts, to answer this question as a scholar is to make a loaded theological statement, and I would add, to also assume a rather provocative level of religious authority. Nevertheless, the question is important for both the practitioner and the scholar.

Presently, many Westerners (and Africans) address Christianity’s place in contemporary Africa as a colonial import. A subsequent repercussion is that Western forms of Christianity are referenced as the normative standard bearers for Christian authenticity. Indeed, in some parts of Africa, people refer to mission-based mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as “orthodox” churches. From this perspective, the question of “which kind of Christianity is authentic” is less about critically examining issues in authenticity and more about asking whether indigenously-led Christianities ought to be treated as legitimate expressions of Christianity, or as exotic Africanized pseudo-Christianities.

Adogame rightly problematizes this framework in a couple of ways. He reminds listeners that Africa has fostered Christian communities since the emergence of early Christianity, and therefore, the continent has always been relevant to discussions of authenticity. Further, he reminds listeners that transculturation is not a simple, unidirectional scheme. While African communities have appropriated Western Christianities in numerous ways, so too have Western Christian communities participated in ongoing cultural appropriations. Thus, Adogame suggests that many contemporary African Christianities are not “Africanized” versions of Christianity, but “African interpretations of Europeanized Christianities.”

This latter point is an excellent one, although I do not think that Adogame has taken it quite far enough. When he speaks of “the West” in this interview, he refers only to Europe, which inadvertently discounts the significance of Africa’s relationship with North America. Might we also consider contemporary African Christianities as “African interpretations of Americanized Christianities” or, perhaps even, “African interpretations of American adaptations of Europeanized Christianities?” My intention is not to get caught up in petty linguistic criticisms, but it is important to acknowledge the drastic differences between North American forms of Christianity and those of Europe, as well as North American relationships with Africa and those between Europe and Africa. These differences significantly affect the forms and trajectories of Christianites in Africa, including the growing presence of African ministries in Western settings.

While Adogame mentions that many African Christians today perceive Europe to be a religiously “dark continent,” I have not found the same sentiments to be very consistent when applied to North America, particularly the United States. Rather, many African Christians, especially those in the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic sector, look to American evangelical leaders for ideas on missions strategies, organizational structures, styles of preaching, as well as Christian thought and theology. This is not to say that Africans in the Pentecostal-Charismatic sector uncritically mimic thriving forms of American Christianity, but the parallels cannot be ignored when viewing the growth of the African Christian self-help literature, franchise-style church institutions, televangelism, and prosperity gospels.

Nevertheless, Adogame’s commentary makes a strong case as to how studies of African Christianities can elevate current approaches to authenticity, and I stand in full agreement. Because of Africa’s place within the longue durée of Christian history, its complicated relationships with colonial powers and missions projects, as well as its recent role in “reverse missions,” African Christianities are particularly well-positioned to elucidate issues in power, religious authority, and the ways in which religious interpretations and practices are culturally informed. All of these factors can significantly contribute to any discourse on religious authenticity.

In the remainder of this short essay, I want to turn attention to one additional dimension of religious authenticity through a quick illustration from some of my own work. When Adogame rhetorically asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic,” he implies that conversations on religious authenticity revolve around evaluating various strains of interpretation and practice. Or, put another way, that religious authenticity is a matter of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But is it?

A recent ethnographic project of mine examines what I call a “fake pastor phenomenon” in Ghana. One of the most densely Pentecostal-Charismatic places in the world today, the nation is experiencing an eruption of quackery accusations aimed at leaders in Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries from local street evangelists to African celebrity pastors such as TB Joshua or Enoch “Daddy G.O.” Adeboye. It is truly a media sensation, with fiery accusations and juicy exposés reported nearly daily in local press and tabloid sources, comedians and rappers mocking “fake pastor” prototypes, and Ghanaian film industries frequently featuring a “fake pastor” character in their plotlines. But, it is also a focal point of community gossip. Many worry that African Christianity is being run amok by charlatans. There are numerous circumstances in which a Pentecostal-Charismatic leader may rank among the accused, but the general premise is that “fake pastors” are those who are perceived as abusing their position of religious authority for the sake of personal (usually financial) gain.

One of the things that I like so much about the “fake pastor phenomenon” is how well it wonderfully complicates questions of authenticity. It places issues of sincerity and intentionality center stage, reminding us that there are more dimensions to the authenticity discourse than questioning orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I also like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications in the West. What does it mean when leaders of African churches, like Bishop Kofi Adonteng Boateng and his Virginia-based Divine Word International Ministries, are accused of “fakery?” What does it mean when influential platforms in the West such as the evangelically-inclined periodical, Christianity Today, feature a Ghanaian news dispatch that condemns religious quackery in Ghana while simultaneously attempting to bracket mainline denominations from the phenomenon?

Most of all, I like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications for responsible scholarship. How are we, as scholars, to consider “fake pastor” accusations when illustrating forms of contemporary African Christianities? When building (or deconstructing) taxonomies? When theorizing trends in global Christianity?