Tag Archives: scripture

“So, You Pastor a Church?”

by Matt McKinnon

I'm no pastor and I don't play one on TV.

I’m no pastor, and I don’t play one on TV.

It’s a question I used to get all the time, mostly from me and my wife’s family members.  Good, God-fearing folks (for the most part) who simply assumed that devoting one’s professional life to the study of religion must mean being a pastor—since “religion” must be synonymous with “church.”  Why else would someone spend upwards of eight years in school (after undergrad?!) studying various religions and even languages few people on earth still use?

And while one of my three degrees in religious studies is from a non-denominational “divinity” school (Yale) and my doctorate from a Roman Catholic university (Marquette), my degrees themselves are academic, preparations for scholarship in the academy and not the pulpit.  But that still hasn’t stopped folks from asking the above question, and has also led to invitations to offer prayer at family gatherings, read scripture at special events, and even give short homilies when the situation arises.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a pastor, or priest, or imam, or rabbi.  Plenty of good folks are in these lines of work, many of whom I have studied alongside of in pursuing my education.  My wife’s cousin, in fact, is a Baptist preacher—a wonderful man who is much more qualified to pray and preach and—God forbid—counsel folks than me.  So the problem is not my disdain for this profession: the problem is that it is not my profession.

But the real issue here is not what I do but rather the underlying problem that most folks have in understanding exactly what “religious studies” does—and how it is different from “theology” and the practice of religion.

This was never as clear as in the recent Fox News interview of religious studies scholar Reza Aslan about his new book on Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

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Lauren Green

Lauren Green

Never mind that Fox religion correspondent Lauren Green gives a horrible interview, spending much more time on what critics have to say about Aslan’s book than on the book itself.  For while this may be bad, even worse is that it becomes painfully clear that she probably has not read the book—and may have not even perused even the first two pages.  But what is most troubling here is that the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network is working with the same misunderstandings and ignorance of what exactly religious studies is and what religious studies scholars do as regular folks who are not RELIGION CORRESPONDENTS.

Zealot

Aslan’s Zealot

Her assumption is that the story here, the big scoop, the underlying issue with Aslan’s book about Jesus is that…the author is a Muslim.  And not just a Muslim, but one who used to be a Christian.  Despite Aslan’s continued attempts to point out that he has a PhD in religious studies, has been studying religions for over twenty years, and has written many books dealing with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Hinduism, Ms. Green cannot get past what she—and many of his critics—see as the real issue: he is a Muslim writing a “controversial” book about Jesus—the “founder” of Christianity as she calls him.

Now I put “controversial” in quotations because, as anyone even remotely aware of scholarship on Christianity knows, the most “controversial” of his claims are nothing new: scholars since the 19th century have been coming to many of the same conclusions that Aslan has come to.  And I put “founder” in quotations as well, since these same folks even tangentially aware of New Testament scholarship know that Jesus himself lived and died a Jew, and never “founded” a new religion.

Dr. Reza Aslan

Dr. Reza Aslan

Not being aware of any of this is not really the problem, but rather a symptom of the bigger issue: Ms. Green, like many folks, simply does not understand what the discipline of religious studies is, or what religious studies scholars do.  So why would she be aware of information that is common knowledge for any undergrad who has sat through a survey course on the introduction to religion at a mainstream college or university?

Except that, uh, she is the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network, and would thus benefit from knowing not just about the practice of religion, but about the way it is studied as well.

Now, my own mother has been guilty of this (though she’s no RELIGION CORRESPONDENT), one time explaining to me why she would rather have a class on Buddhism, for example, taught by a practicing Buddhist, or on Islam by a practicing Muslim.  And here we have the crux of the problem: for the role of a scholar is not simply to explain what folks believe or what a religion teaches, though that is part of it.  The role of a scholar is also to research and discover if what a religion says about something has any historical veracity or is problematic or even inconsistent.  Our role is to apply critical analysis to our subjects, the same way a scholar of English Literature or Russian History or Quantum Physics would.

Scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, have argued that there are two competing and contradictory creation stories in Genesis, that the book of Isaiah was composed by at least three authors, that the genealogical narratives in Matthew and Luke disagree, and that Paul only actually composed about half of the letters in the New Testament that bear his name.  And you will find all of these ideas routinely taught in secular state schools like UNCG as well as mainstream seminaries like Princeton and Wake Forest.

It just doesn’t matter what one’s religion is, or even if they have one.  Some of the best and most reliable books on New Testament subjects have been written by Roman Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Women, and yes, even Muslims.  One’s personal religion simply has no place in scholarship, anymore than being a Christian or Jew or Muslim would affect the way that a biologist studies cells or an astronomer studies space.

Scholarly Books about Jesus

Scholarly Books about Jesus

One’s religion, or lack thereof, may point someone in certain directions and may inform what interests him or her—and may even make what they do a vocation or calling.  It may inform their training and influence their methodologies.  Or it may not.  But it doesn’t make them qualified to study one religion or prevent them from studying another.  One’s training—including those degrees that Dr. Aslan pointed out—is what does that.

As my first religion professor Henry Levinson (a Festive-Naturalist Jew who didn’t hold the traditional concept of God adhered to by his religion) often put it: “It doesn’t take one to know one; it takes one to be one.”

Dr. Henry Levinson

Dr. Henry Levinson

Religious studies scholars are trying to “know” religions and religious people, not “be” them, for that is something tangential at best to our roles as scholars.

So this should be the official motto of all religious studies scholarship, where what one’s religion “is” has no bearing on the quality of the scholarship they do.

Anything less is not scholarship.

It’s simply propaganda.

Nimrod: What’s In a Name?

by Matt McKinnon

My teenage son is a nimrod. Or so I thought.

And if you have teenagers, and were born in the second half of the twentieth century, you have probably thought at one time or another that your son (or daughter) was a nimrod too, and would not require any specific evidence to explain why.

Of course this is the case only if you are of a certain age: namely, a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer (like myself).

For if you are any older, and if you are rather literate, then you would be perplexed as to why I would think that my son was a nimrod, and why was I not capitalizing Nimrod as it should be.  Since it is, after all, a proper noun.

It is?

Yes, it is.  Or rather it was.  Let me explain.

It turns out, the word “nimrod” (or more properly “Nimrod”) has a fascinating history in which it goes about a substantial reinterpretation.  (Any nimrod can find this out by searching the web, though there is precious little explanation there.)   This, by itself, isn’t surprising, as many words that make their way through the ages transform as well.  But the transformation of “Nimrod” to “nimrod” is particularly interesting in what it tells us about ourselves and our culture.

Nimrod, you see, was a character from the Hebrew Scriptures, or as Christians know it, the Old Testament:

“Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, ʻLike Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.ʼ”  (Genesis 10:8-9 NRSV)

This is the manner in which older biblically literate folks will understand the term: “as a mighty hunter.”

But there’s more here, for these folks also might understand the term as referencing a tyrannical ruler.

Why?  Well, the etymology of the word links it to the Hebrew “to rebel,” not for anything that Nimrod actually does in the Old Testament, but because, as many scholars attest, it is probably a distortion of the name for the Mesopotamian war-god Ninurta.  And the later chroniclers of Israelite religion didn’t have much sympathy for the polytheism of their Mesopotamian neighbors—especially when it so obviously informed their own religious mythology.

So the word, when it very early on enters the biblical narrative, already shows signs of transformation and tension as referencing both a mighty hunter as well as someone rebellious against the Israelite god.

In fact, Jewish and Christian tradition name Nimrod as the leader of the folks who built the Tower of Babel, though this is not found anywhere in the scriptures.  This, then, is how Nimrod is now portrayed in more conservative circles, despite the lack of biblical attestation:

And as the word is already attested to in Middle English, by the 16th century it is clearly being used in both manners in the English language: as a tyrant and as a great warrior or hunter.

Now I can assure you, neither of these describes my teenage son.  So what gives?

Well, “Nimrod” shows up in a 1932 Broadway play (which only had 11 showings) about two lovesick youngsters:

“He’s in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.”

Here, however, the emphasis is still on the term’s former meaning as a hunter, though its use in the play to describe a somewhat frivolous and hapless fellow who moves from one true love to the next points us in the right direction.

And in a 1934 film You’re Telling Me, W.C. Fields’ character, a bit of a buffoon himself (and a drunkard), takes a few swings of a limp golf club and hands it back to his dim-witted caddy, saying in a way only W.C. Fields could:

“Little too much whip in that club, nimrod.”

So here we have the first recorded instance of the word’s transformation from a great hunter or tyrant to a stupid person or jerk.

But that’s not the end of the story.  After all, how many of us have seen You’re Telling Me?  (I haven’t, at least, not until I did the research.)

So the last, and arguably most important piece to the puzzle is not the origination of the word or its transformation, but rather the dissemination of it.

And that, as I’m sure many of you are aware, is none other than T.V. Guide’s greatest cartoon character of all time: Bugs Bunny, who first debuted in the 1940’s, not that long after You’re Telling Me premiered.

In this context, the one most folks born after World War II are familiar with, Bugs Bunny refers to the inept hunter Elmer Fudd as a “little nimrod.”  And the rest, as they say, is history.

For what emerges from Bugs’ usage is not the traditional reference to Fudd as a hunter (though this is the obvious, albeit ironic, intention), but rather Fudd’s more enduring (and endearing?) quality of ineptitude and buffoonery.

And anyone who has (or knows) a teenager can certainly attest to the applicability of this use of the term in describing him or her.

But the important thing is what this says about literacy and our contemporary culture.

For whereas my parents’ generation and earlier were more likely than not to receive their cultural education from Classical stories, the great literature of Europe, and the Bible, those of us born in the latter half of the 20th century and later, are much more likely to receive our cultural education from popular culture.

I have seen this firsthand when teaching, for example, Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” which offers a critique of Judaism and Christianity by parodying scripture.  The trouble is, when students don’t know the referent, they can’t fully understand or appreciate the allusion.  And this is as true of Shakespeare and Milton as it is of Nietzsche…or Bugs Bunny for that matter.

And the ramifications of this are far greater than my choosing the proper term to criticize my teenage son.

(Though ya gotta admit, “nimrod” sounds pretty apropos.)