Sovereignty and Spiritual Warfare
Podcast with S. Jonathon O’Donnell (21 June 2021).
Interviewed by Savannah H. Finver
Transcribed by Allison B. Isidore
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sovereignty-and-spiritual-warfare/
Demonology, Jezebel, Discourse Analysis, Evangelical, Religious Studies, Critical
Savannah Finver (SF) 0:03
Hello listeners and welcome back to The Religious Studies Project. My name is Savannah Finver, I will be your host for this episode. And today I am delighted to be joined by my colleague Dr. S. Jonathon O’Donnell. Dr. O’Donnell is currently an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin and a visiting scholar in the School of Natural and built environment at Queen’s University, Belfast. Their work focuses on demonization, sovereign power and the religious right while also tackling such global contemporary issues as Islamophobia, antisemitism, transphobia, and religious nationalism. They also recently published their first monograph Passing Orders Demonology, and Sovereignty and American Spiritual Warfare; which was released earlier this year through Fordham University Press. Welcome, Dr. O’Donnell. And thank you so much for joining me today.
S. Jonathon O’Donnell (SJO) 0:52
Thank you, Savannah. It’s pleasure to be here.
So, I’m really excited to do this interview. And I suppose my first question, and maybe this seems obvious to you, or maybe it doesn’t is, why demonology? I mean, I studied the Satanic Temple for my master’s thesis so I can say for myself that talking about the devil is always interesting. But I want to know, what got you specifically interested in studying, thinking about, writing about, and talking about demons of all things?
Okay. So, I guess there’s a few different ways I can answer this question. I guess, the most kind of scholarly and professional response is that I found a research gap. To give a bit of background, I started my PhD doing research on apocalyptic discourses during the American War on Terror. And as part of that research, one of the things that I noticed was that demonology was not really being discussed. There was occasionally references to Satan, sometimes the Antichrist as part of apocalyptic discourses, but no kind of discussion about demons generally, in the way that I was seeing them kind of crop up in the literature that I was looking at. Particularly the prime resource that we’re talking about a bit later. And so like, my focus on demonology, kind of grew specifically out of that, in terms of filling a research gap that I felt needed to be addressed. And, I mean, there’s a certain levels, which it did, like in the very last month of my PhD is when Sean McCloud released American Possessions. So obviously, I was not the only one who noticed that this was a specific issue.
The older, I guess more personal explanation for this is that my interest in demons kind of goes back to me being an angsty goth teen during the during the early to late 90s, into the early 2000s. And just generally there’s a number of elements. There’s, the kind of weird experience of growing up as like a queer kid in Britain in the 90s, under Section 28, where like, the majority of queer representation that you see is villains in things. Which kind of ended up having perhaps the opposite effect to the people who designed these thing—goals—in that it just made me want to be a supervillain most of the time. Which I think like then ultimately kind of led to a fascination for like villainized figures in media, in religion, and discourse, which then kind of fed ultimately entered this kind of fascination with demonology. That then kind of took on a kind of more like, political bent through my research. I mean, one of the ways that the research focuses, specifically is on that relationship, that intersection between the demon as a kind of cultural figure or as a kind of discursive object, and like politics and the workings of power in society.
Yeah, that’s fascinating. I mean, I feel like especially recently, we see this coming up a lot in political discourse, right? Particularly in the United States, I feel, especially with a strong evangelical presence in the Christian right. You know, we hear a lot of, “the devil’s at work.” So, is that kind of what drove some of your research?
I mean very much. There was very much that element in which—I wanted—I ended up being interested in demons and I was kind of looking for where the demons were. And where the demons primarily were, was the United States definitively. At least like to the point where I kind of made my decision to kind of do the research focus. To give a bit of background on that, like I did my master’s thesis on sovereignty and apocalyptic discourse which specifically looking at kind of seventh eighth century, like early Apocalypse, or not early, early apocalypses. But like early by contemporary standards. And one of the things I wanted to do for my PhD was to take the themes that I’d kind of picked up in those apocalyptic texts, and talk about them in a more contemporary political, explicitly political, contemporary context. And when I looked around myself, where I saw these things playing out in a way that was accessible to me also—like linguistically—was America.
Right. Yeah, the English language focus, that makes a lot of sense. So you started out with an interest in demons. That seems like it kind of led into this interest, right into American political discourse. So, I’m curious as to how this ultimately led into your project, your larger project that culminated in Passing Orders, your monograph that just came out.
So this is really interesting element. Because there’s a certain chicken and egg scenario that goes on that in terms of like, whether my interest in demons led specifically to the focus on American politics, or whether my initial research into American politics pointed me in the direction of demons. And there’s kind of these two kind of working in conjunction, I think, and complicated it and that was difficult to unpack wires. I guess the more immediate trajectory regarding the demons and protecting the demons in its context of American politics was that one of the elements when I was doing the literature review for my original dissertation was that the vast majority of literature that was theorizing demonology, or like theorizing demons, was entirely focused on either, two periods of history. Most of it was in the early modern period, or the late medieval period, and focused on the European witchcraft. demonology is essentially. So, a lot of kind of critical theoretical scholarship, primarily using things like discourse analysis, that kind of is operating in that sphere.
The other aspect was late antiquity, like very early Christian demonologies, or demonologies in the kind of second temples of Jewish culture at that period. There was very little that was like theorizing and looking at demons in the contemporary era. Although like McLeod’s book kind of came out, like, right at the end of when I was doing my dissertation, but that was kind of the first major book that really, like, tried to take demons seriously in the contemporary scenario. But this actually led me in really interesting directions, because it led me to kind of looking at what are the themes that were being unpacked in early modern demonology like by these theoretical texts? And how would—to what degree—could I translate that like those scholarly works for contemporary context? And I ended up realizing that there are a number of kind of conceptual themes around which Christian demonology tended to orient itself. In terms of the way that the demon was constructed as a kind of discursive object or as a discursive figure. Perhaps the most obvious that I think a lot of people know about is rebellion, the idea of kind of, of rebellion of willfulness, of kind of willful deviation from divine order…
So like the Miltonic Satan, kind of?
Yeah that’s the theme that Milton’s Satan picks up on and gets appropriated and reappropriate and the kind of post Miltonic, romantic Satanist tradition. But there are also elements there are elements of what I call it in the book, kind of ontological negation or ontological invalidity, like the idea that the demon due to their rebellion against divine order is kind of stripped of the capacity for legitimate substance. They don’t really exist in a way that is sustainable. They have no they have no ontological, true ontological state. And the third one that I talk about is this kind of denial of futurity, that kind of runs through demonology. This denial of reproductive capacity that kind of emanates from both their willful deviants and the ontological negation. The demon is structurally positioned as incapable of founding or creating any kind of lasting order.
And I started reading more widely in contemporary theory about places where those ideas were being theorized and taken up. And that’s kind of what led me ultimately to closer engagement with Queer Studies and with black studies and postcolonial theory where these themes of the negation of being of the accusation, their willful deviance, the denial of futurity, like these were major themes, in that body of kind of critical theoretical scholarship. And I think, the combination of looking at, at those themes through the lens of this kind of history, and perhaps ultimately secularization of themes from Christian demonology in the European political tradition, and then ultimately, the American political tradition, is kind of what led to the specific creation of the rather strange commercial book; that Passing Orders kind of ultimately became.
Yeah, it’s really interesting that you bring up Queer theory and postcolonial theory, I’ve noticed being a student in comparative studies and doing more interdisciplinary work now that you see kind of these questions about what constitutes the human? And also, of course, who is not human, right? Who does not get to qualify as human? You see that actually, interestingly, less than religious studies, I feel like then you see in some of these other disciplines.
I definitely think that’s the case. And I think, in order to understand contemporary demonology, and the way that contemporary demonology, in its technical, religious sense, as belief in demonic spiritual entities that are active in the world. I think the way I think to understand how that operates today; you need this interdisciplinary focus. You need to be able to look at the way that demonology both arises in conjunction with and intersect with, constructions of whiteness, constructions of patriarchy, constructions of colonialism, both like in its historical kind of emergence, but also in its contemporary, contemporary effects.
Yeah, and I think that comes through very powerfully throughout your book. I think, going off of this, since we’re kind of jumping into some of the theories and the theoretical works that you were looking at, as you were working on your monograph. I’m curious to know, and I’m sure our listeners also want to know; what your methodology was for a book like this? Of course, we talked a little bit about discourse analysis already, and looking at rhetoric and political rhetoric, especially. So that would be, the general theoretical framework that you were operating within. But how do you go about, finding resources on this topic? I’ve read a pretty substantial portion of the book now and the Jezebel chapter is of course, one of my favorites. And it seems like you’re working a lot with primary texts, and then using kind of this interdisciplinary theoretical framework to contextualize some of these primary texts.
Yeah. So I mean, Jezebel is bae and we stan (laughing). That has to go out there. But the book kind of sets itself up as a discourse analysis of contemporary demonology. And to kind of to work through this, I basically tracked down a whole series of primary source texts, primarily what are referred to as spiritual warfare manuals. Which are books written by evangelicals for evangelicals, that are primarily designed to incite us. They operate as this curious hybrid of kind of a self-help manual, kind of military strategy guide, and like kind of demonological treaties and like different measures. And they also exist on a kind of continuum from what I think of as a pure self-help narrative. That’s primarily about the idea that demons are active in the world and in your personal and familial life like causing problems and this is how to kind of channel the power of Jesus to kind of get rid of that in a very personal sense. And on the other side of the spectrum, you have kind of more what might think of as conspiracist or conspiratorial texts that are about the operations of the demonic like at the level of global politics. Or at the level of kind of nations and national halls. But these kind of exists on a continuum with a kind of shared underlying worldview that operates and you get a lot of texts that are, situated in in the middle, or along this continuum. So I read about a read about 200, from my original PhD thesis, and then I read about 100 again, since. The ultimate kind of sample size for Passing Orders is about three, there’s about 300 texts in title, not all of which gets cited in the book, about 100 of them cited in the book, ultimately.
But then when I read this vast kind of set of primary source texts, I picked out sudden commonalities that and features that are recurring because this is one of the other interesting things about this is that, although a lot of these figures in this kind of vast millia that exists in contemporary America, like they don’t all know each other; like sometimes they do, sometimes they come to know each other later, like due to the similarities of their work, which is also interesting. But I noticed that even among like, disconnected—unrelated individuals—they were writing, on similar themes, about similar things in similar ways, like not explicitly drawing on each other, but still kind of articulating shared ideas. And I kind of became interested in theorizing, like, what are these ideas like? How are demons being theorized? And this led me to, I think, one of perhaps what is one of the more interesting parts of Passing Orders, which is the way that different demons are used to conceptualize different kind of marginalized or subject populations in distinct ways. Because there is a tendency, even amongst scholarship that talks about demonology to homogenize the demonic like as simply a kind of concept of otherness, a kind of category of otherness, more broadly, or of threat. But when you look at specific when you look at demonology, kind of in a more granular level, you see the way that specific figures become embodiments or specific kinds of threat. Jezebel is, to use one of main case studies of the book is primarily associated with gender, with queerness. But also with kind of internationalism, there’s this element of—I like to think of Jezebel as a spirit that is used to conceptualize the breakdown of quote, unquote, kind of proper boundaries around things. And whether that’s the normative family, like normative gender and sexual relations, like the nation as a kind of organic model the whole.
Because that’s what was also used to conceptualize ideas of like addiction, and like, abusive power dynamics between people as well as these kind of more macro level, there’s this element of which Jezebel is used to conceptualize this kind of breakdown of the proper boundaries between objects, within these people’s worldview. But Jezebel was very rarely, if ever used to conceptualize Islam, for example, which is a common bug within evangelical discourse, like they’re often writing many Islamophobic tracks. But without exceptions, like Jessica never arises in that context. There are odd exceptions, but they tend to be the books that literally cite Jezebel is behind everything. Like there are books, for example, that a key is just about love being behind like, LGBT rights in America, ISIS, Buddhism, Hollywood movies, basically anything they don’t like. But right outside of those contexts, where Jezebel just kind of adopted, like, essentially everything. Jezebel was never used to conceptualize Islam. Islam was always conceptualized through other demonic figures. The one I use and the one I analyzed in the book primarily is the Antichrist the idea of the Islamic Antichrist. Also, Baal is sometimes used and other figures. But this is for kind of for a number of reasons. One is that Jezebel is heavily gendered as female, within spiritual warfare texts, and Islam within the worldview is heavily coded as masculine.
That’s so interesting
It tends to be heavily masculinized; it very much relies on these Islamophobic tropes of the violent Muslim man who’s the threat to European and American society. And within that framework, like if Jezebel arises, as this feminizing force that undermines the virility of Western civilization, that then kind of leaves that open to this masculinized other that kind of comes from outside. So, the Antichrist in that context emerges as this, almost like this double or this mirror to the very specific concept of patriarchy that the evangelicals are actually trying to institute, but rendered abject and wrong, because it’s supposedly like, based in “Islam”, rather than “Christianity.” But it’s essentially just a projection of, of the very order that they are trying to create, but in slightly twisted terms, like within their worldview.
Right, like inverted kind’a?
That’s very interesting.
But this kind of gets, I think, on to the broader point, which is, I think, when you start looking at demonology, on a granular level, theoretically, you need to start using different theoretical lenses depending on the way that the demon is being conceptualized within that context. So there is an element to which like, I derived my theory from the primary source materials to a degree. So with Jezebel, for example, I was looking at her and I’m like, okay, so she’s primarily associated with gender, with like, ideas of hyper feminization with ideas of the kind of the breakdown of the nation state with queer and trans subjectivities. So I started drawing on the resources of gender theory and of queer theory to kind of think through this and queer international relations theory, for example, in the context of the more internationalist dimensions of Jezebels demonologies. With Islam—with demonology of Islam—I looked at scholarship on Islamophobia, like scholarship on, critical race theory, like there’s a significant element of anti-Blackness that goes into that, due to the way that like blackness and Islam I kind of have this very specific relationship within American Christianity and American culture generally. So, there was this element to which I drew on these untheoretical lenses that I thought were illuminating for conceptualizing and thinking through the way that the specific demonic figures that I was kind of analyzing operated. Which leads I think, to the book being ultimately very, very interdisciplinary. It draws on, religious studies and occasionally on theology, although it’s not theological, but it uses like the people who study us theology. So there’s some theology that’s kind of necessary to contextualize that. But it also draws heavily on critical theory, on queer theory, on critical race theory, on black studies, on settler colonial and postcolonial theory and decolonial criticism. I felt kind of these, this kind of broad range of different theoretical insights, I thought were necessary to actually really get to grips with and really unpack the discourses that I was uncovering through my research into primary sources.
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting how your work with the primary sources really drove how interdisciplinary the project ultimately became. I think so much of what you’re bringing up about all these different critical lenses that you use to interpret the various demonic figures that were popping up in your research leads nicely into a question that we are very focused on here at The Religious Studies Project. I was wondering if you could tell our listeners a little bit more about how you see Passing Orders and maybe the rest of your work more broadly, as well fitting into this larger project of like, critical Religious Studies? So many of the disciplines you mentioned, or the theoretical frameworks that you’ve mentioned, you know, all start with critical, right, critical race studies, critical gender studies. So I’m curious what you make of that and how your work fits into this much larger question.
Yeah, I mean, there’s a number of directions you can go with that. That’s the most obvious is like the simple question, does it fit into your studies? I think to kind of really get to grips with that, you have to kind of look at what is critical religious studies, like as a kind of sub discipline of, or as the discipline of religious studies or as a sub discipline in religious studies. Discourse analysis is a very common feature of the critical study of religions and to that degree, it is very much part of critical Religious Studies. However, like, the book doesn’t really interrogate, say, the concept of religion in a way that I think is a key feature of the critical study of religion, like more broadly. The book is not really interested in unpacking the concept of religion in a way that I think like, makes it slightly ajar to that kind of broader disciplinary project. On the other hand, if you mean critical religious studies as like, separate from like, more theological framework, or more confessional frameworks almost, within the theological, more apologetic; it’s very much in critical religious studies in that context, very much like it’s not a theological book. Although I did see it once listed as under practical theology in a bookstore, which I’m pretty sure whoever bought it from there is going to be very disappointed. (laughs)
But like, the book is very critical. And the book draws on various critical frameworks that I think are perhaps important and necessary for broadening the critical study of religions as it currently exists. I think a core feature of critical study of religions is partly like an interrogation of the way that religion emerges as a conceptual category, like through the enterprise of European colonialism, for example. And like that history of, and the cost of the ways that the concept of religion historically is and even in contemporary media is used as a synonym for Christianity, like to be religious is frequently to be coded as Christian. And the book very much kind of wrestles with and takes up like that, that trajectory of the critical study of religions, it’s very focused on colonialism, like, and indeed on Neo colonialism, like on the continual perpetuity of the kind of colonial mode of extraction and epistemic violence. It’s like, heavily tied up with the interrogation of categories of, of race, of gender, of citizenship, of sexuality that emerged, kind of with the category of religion, like in modernity, like emphasis, specifically in colonial modernity. So I think that’s kind of how it fits into that broader project. I think it contributes in a way that, importantly, brings critical analyses of the history of religion into closer dialogue with other kinds of critical theoretical frameworks drawn specifically here from what is often classified as kind of critical theory and cultural studies as a broad interdisciplinary framework. It’s heavily invested in kind of drawing on those resources and bringing them to bear like, on what would be classified, I think, generally is like, “religious discourses.”
Yeah, absolutely. I think, there’s, especially recently, there’s a way in which the critical study of religion has, you know, for a long time, I feel like you’re right. Like you mentioned, at the beginning of what you were just saying that there was this real focus on critiquing the category of religion itself, but it feels like especially with as cultural studies has solidified as a discipline, there’s been a move towards incorporating other kinds of critical theory other disciplines of critical theory to bringing all of that back to bear on the things that we’re looking at in a typical religious studies concept. I see that we are quickly running out of time, there’s so much more we could say about this, but I want to make sure that you get a chance to tell us about what is coming next for you. I feel like so many people are going to want to know like after demonology and the American religious right, and you know, what’s next?
The answer is, I think, is going to be the answer for a very long time is, there’s always more demons. So I currently have two projects kind of on the go. One is, in some ways it’s like the flip side of the project that became Passing Orders in that it also like Passing Orders also grew out of—is growing out of—ultimately of my doctoral dissertation. Which it should make the Passing Orders, is very much not the doctoral dissertation (laughing). Its relationship to the doctor dissertation is as the relationship of a horror movie to the true story it’s based on (laughing). But this—I haven’t—a shorter projects that I’m working on, which is specifically kind of genealogy of the relationship of demonology to political sovereignty as a kind of more historical concept as opposed to a contemporary kind of American political framework. And so it’s focused, it’s specifically going to be oriented around looking at key historical theorists of sovereignty, like Jean Bodin, like Thomas Hobbes, for example, and the way that demonology influences the way that they construct sovereignty. And thus, ultimately, the way that demonology underwrites the concept of the sovereign nation state, as the kind of arises in modernity, as a disavowed foundation that intersects with for example, fears of international anarchy, and things like that.
So kind of a prequel?
Yeah, it’s the prequel book (laughing). It’s currently tentatively titled Over Pandemonium. Which I just like as a title (laughing), although the title might change. The other project that I’m working on, which is a longer project, and is more of a direct sequel to Passing Orders, is also looking at contemporary American demonology in the contemporary period. But it’s focused far more on discourses of ecology, discourses of the human, of post humanism, it’s going to be looking specifically at intersections between evangelical demonology, climate skepticism, rising eco fascist currents. But using a combination of eco criticism and of post humanist theory, and things like that, to interrogate the intersections of demonology ecology and technology in contemporary America.
Nice. I think that’s going to be very timely, especially with all of our discussions around climate change and climate activism, that have been so prevalent in American political discourse recently. So I’m really looking forward to the kind of rounding out of this trilogy, I’m excited to see what comes next for you.
I should point out I have a fourth book planned after that. So that’s very early in the planning stages, but I’m hoping to look more distinctly at like discourses of property in demonology. One of the things I pointed out in a few articles and in the book that I haven’t really had time to theorize is the way that demons are frequently equated to squatters, within evangelical discourse.
And I really want to look at the way that that intersects with American—specifically—American concepts of racial capitalism, private property, and things like that. But that’s very early stages. That’s like, that’s like the fourth books.
So there’s lots coming up for you.
But I’m sure—it’s one of those things where I’m like, “oh, maybe I’ll write something that’s not about demons” and the demons kind of come up. And they’re like, you should write about this next.
Yeah, I feel like once you start, once you start down that rabbit hole as somebody who has also studied demons (laughing), once you start down that rabbit hole, you start, it pops up more, it feels like almost
Well, Dr. O’Donnell, thank you so much for joining us today. I had…
It was a pleasure.
Good! I had such a good time talking with you. And I just want to remind our listeners once again, about your monograph Passing Orders that’s out through Fordham University Press. And definitely do listeners take a look. And thank you again…
It’s available in paperback for the low price of $30!
Yes, absolutely! Make sure you get that paperback—that sweet, sweet paperback. All right, Dr. O’Donnell. Thank you again, so much.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
O’Donnell, S. Jonathon and Savannah H. Finver. 2021. “Sovereignty and Spiritual Warfare”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 21 June 2021. Transcribed by Allison B. Isidore. Version 1.0, 21 June 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/sovereignty-and-spiritual-warfare/
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