Books of Interest: Theory in a Time of Excess

Edited by Aaron Hughes, Theory in a Time of Excess (Equinox Publishing, 2017).

Order from the book page using the code “Excess” and receive 25% off.

What does it mean to “do theory” in the study of religion today? The terms “method and theory” are now found in course titles, curricula/degree requirements, theoryarea/comprehensive exams, and frequently listed as competencies on the CVs of scholars from across a wide array of subfields. Are we really that theoretically and methodologically sophisticated? While a variety of groups at annual scholarly conferences now regularly itemize theorizing among the topics that they examine and carry out, it seems that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s). So, despite the appearance of tremendous advances in the field over the past 30 years, it can be argued that little has changed. Indeed, the term theory is today so widely understood as to make it coterminous with virtually all forms of scholarship on religion. This volume seeks to re-examine just what we ought to consider theory to signify.

The core of the book consists of chapters by leading theorists in the field — an anthropologist of religion, a literary theorist, a specialist in cognitive science of religion, and a philosopher of religion. Each statement is then followed by shorter response papers, and concludes with a response by the theorist.

Call for Respondents: The Things We Study When We Study Religion

NAASR 2017 ● Boston, MA ● November 18-19, 2017

Following NAASR’s annual programs in 2015, devoted to theory, and 2016, on method, the program for 2017 will focus on the things that we, as scholars of religion, study. What, for instance, counts as data? How is it imagined, handled, or constructed? Who decides what is a valid or invalid research topic—and which approach suits it?

There exist longstanding and still active debates in the field regarding whether the items that we study pre-exist our approaches or whether our approaches actually create the conditions in which the former come into existence. It should come as no surprise, then, that the inter-relationship between theory, method, and data is complex and hardly settled. In fact, for some the term “data” itself is to be avoided because it is thought to remove us from the human subjects whom we study. Such subjects, it is assumed, embody intentional centers of meaning-making and therefore they require methods of study that differ, both qualitatively and quantitatively, from those employed by scholars in other fields. Yet for others, people’s self-understanding as agents does not lessen the importance of the non-agential structures in which they live (from genetics to class). Such recognition requires scholars to study people’s claims and behavior in a way that is far less impacted by intentionality than some may assume. We could also add to this mix those who examine the conditions and shape of the field itself, thereby finding scholars themselves as the item of interest. It is clear, then, that to identify as a scholar of religion does not necessarily mean that we all study the same thing, let alone in the same manner. For the distance between those who now study what is called embodied or lived religion, on the one hand, and, on the other, the processes examined by cognitive scientists is great indeed. A pressing question, however, is whether this breadth strengthens or undermines the field.

Following the model used for the past two annual meetings, three main, substantive papers will be invited and distributed both to respondents and NAASR members approximately one month prior to the meeting. These main papers will only be summarized at the session. Each paper will then have four respondents, who will have ten minutes each to reply to the main paper. This will be followed by an open discussion of roughly one hour. As per the past two years, the aim once again is to see this this session published as a book (with responses from the main paper presenters).

This is therefore a call for respondents.

The three main papers will be invited, each to examine the implications of framing our research as focusing on one of the following: on objects, on subjects, and on scholars themselves. The main presenters will be asked to advocate/critique scholarship carried out in that vein and explore its implications for the field. Submissions for possible respondents (12 in total are needed) must each (i) identify the key term (one of the three immediately above) on which they wish to focus in their reply along with providing (ii) a brief (max. 500 words) statement on the most pressing issue(s) in need of consideration when framing the items one studies as objects, subjects, or scholars. NAASR especially invites submissions from early career scholars who have an interest in the topics explored in our sessions.

Apart from this call for respondents, and following a suggestion by Steven Engler, #naasr2017 will also host an invited panel focusing on the state of the field, devoting attention to the state of Departments (such as new programs, the health of the institution, etc.), Teaching (innovations, technology, learning management systems, etc.), Research (grants and publishing), and Labor (notably part-time etc.).

Please send your proposal as a file attachment by March 1, 2017, to NAASR VP Aaron Hughes at

Click here for a pdf of this call for respondents.

Job Opening at the University of Michigan

This opening might be of interest to NAASR members:

screen-shot-2016-12-26-at-11-18-16-pmMUSLIM AMERICAN STUDIES. The University of Michigan’s Department of American Culture and its program in Arab and Muslim American Studies (AMAS) seek qualified applications for an open-rank tenure-track faculty appointment in Muslim American studies.

We seek a theoretically sophisticated, rigorous, and interdisciplinary scholar with a strong commitment to contribute to the governance and development of the AMAS program. Candidates with scholarly expertise and teaching interests in Muslim American studies using intersectional approaches, such as frameworks of race, gender, and sexuality, are particularly of interest. Preference will be given to candidates who specialize broadly in Muslim American studies and examine multiple communities or issues – African American, South Asian American, Arab American, Latino/a/x, etc. The search will consider candidates who focus on the U.S. as well as those who incorporate comparative and transnational frameworks in relation to the U.S.

This is a university-year appointment with an expected start date of September 1, 2017. A Ph.D. degree in any relevant field in the humanities or social sciences is required prior to appointment. Applicants must demonstrate evidence of excellence in teaching and research.

Applicants should submit a digital dossier via email attachments to and include the following components (please submit each component as a separate PDF file):

All applicants should provide:

  • Cover letter addressed to Chair, AMAS Search Committee
  •  Curriculum Vitae
  • Writing sample (no more than 25 pages)
  • Statement of current and future research
  • Statement of teaching philosophy and experience
  • Evidence of teaching excellence (i.e., student evaluations of teaching, syllabi of courses taught, teaching awards)
  • Sample syllabus for a course on Introduction to Muslim American Studies
  • A list of 3 or 4 potential courses offerings in Muslim American Studies

In Addition:

  • Untenured applicants – please provide three letters of recommendation, which should be sent to directly from the signer’s (or credentialing service’s) institutional email address
  • Tenured applicants – please provide names and contact information of suggested reviewers.

Deadline to apply for full consideration for the position is January 15, 2017.

Women and minorities are encouraged to apply. The University of Michigan is supportive of the needs of dual career couples and is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.

Books of Interest: The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion

Edited by Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler, The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2016).

The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religions provides a comprehensive overview of the academic study of religions. Written by an international team of leading scholars, its fifty-one chapters are divided thematically into seven sections. The first section addresses five major conceptual aspects of research on religion. Part two surveys eleven main frameworks of analysis, interpretation, and explanation of englerreligion. Reflecting recent turns in the humanities and social sciences, part three considers eight forms of the expression of religion. Part four provides a discussion of the ways societies and religions, or religious organizations, are shaped by different forms of allocation of resources (i.e., economy). Other chapters in this section consider law, the media, nature, medicine, politics, science, sports, and tourism. Part five reviews important developments, distinctions, and arguments for each of the selected topics.

The study of religion addresses religion as a historical phenomenon and part six looks at seven historical processes. Religion is studied in various ways by many disciplines, and this Handbook shows that the study of religion is an academic discipline in its own right. The disciplinary profile of this volume is reflected in part seven, which considers the history of the discipline and its relevance. Each chapter in the Handbook references at least two different religions to provide fresh and innovative perspectives on key issues in the field. This authoritative collection will advance the state of the discipline and is an invaluable reference for students and scholars.

Books of Interest: Death’s Dominion: Power, Identity and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine

Nathaniel J. Morehouse, Death’s Dominion: Power, Identity and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine (Equinox, 2016)
Series: Studies in Ancient Religion and Culture edited by Philip L. Tite

Through a discussion of power dynamics with a critical eye towards the political situation of influential Christian leaders including Constantine, Damasus, Ambrose, and Augustine, Death’s Dominion demonstrates the ways in whiccover_issue_1797_en_us-201602250118h these individuals sought to craft Christian identity and cultural memory around the martyr shrine. Other recent scholarship on the martyr cult has conflated issues of the early fifth century with those from the early fourth, with little discussion of the development of the martyr cult during the intervening decades. Death’s Dominion corrects that omission by presenting a diachronic focus on the development of the martyr cult in the pivotal fourth century. During this period the martyr cult was repeatedly a decisive tool for the augmentation and solidification of civil and religious authority.

Late in the fourth century pilgrimage created a network within Christianity which ultimately led to a catholic Christian understanding of the martyrs’ graves by broadening the appeal of regional practices to disparate audiences. This simultaneously reinforced and subverted the desired message of those who sought to craft the meaning associated with the martyrs’ remains. Pilgrims helped manufacture a homogenized understanding of the martyr cult ultimately enabling it to become one of the most identifiable features of Christianity in subsequent centuries.

Update on Responses to the AAR Annual Conference Theme for 2016

Late last year, the American Academy of Religion announced that the theme for the 2016 AAR meeting is “Revolutionary Love.” This theme struck some AAR members as suspect, as it arguably blurs the line between theology and the academic study of religion. Last December, Russell McCutcheon expressed this sentiment in a letter to Jack Fitzmier, the AAR’s Executive Director. Fitzmier promptly replied and said that he would forward McCutcheon’s letter to Serene Jones, AAR President, and indicated that the AAR Executive Committee might be discussing the issue, but no subsequent reply was forthcoming.

More recently, Tim Jensen, President of the International Association for the History of Religions, wrote an additional letter where he expressed similar concerns.

To encourage awareness and additional discussion of this year’s theme and the role of the academic study of religion more broadly, both letters are posted below.


Russell McCutcheon’s Letter


The NAASR executive has discussed our concerns with the AAR’s 2016 conference theme of revolutionary love, given that both organizations share membership in the IAHR—a scholarly association that, like NAASR, is devoted to “the historical, social, and comparative study of religion.” We feel the recently announced AAR theme risks this hard-won disciplinary identity by not just inviting normative political and theological approaches but then seeing them as the central organizing principle for the upcoming meeting.

We have therefore alerted the IAHR of our concern.

As a longtime member of the AAR myself I posted on this topic some days ago, wondering what other members thought of this development.

I hope that the IAHR, as well as NAASR, have opportunities in the future to discuss these matters with AAR leadership and to develop mutually beneficial ways to promote the historical, social, and non-evaluatively comparative study of religion within the academy.


Russell McCutcheon
Chair, Department of Religious Studies
University of Alabama
North American Ass’n for the Study of Religion


Tim Jensen’s Letter

Dear Jack

I hope this email letter finds you in good health and spirits.

I write you on behalf of the IAHR Executive Committee (EC) with regard to the 2016 AAR conference theme on ‘Revolutionary Love’ and the concern expressed by the NAASR President, Russell McCutcheon in an email sent to you ( Cc: to the IAHR leadership) mid December 2015.

The IAHR EC discussed the matter at its annual business meeting in Helsinki late June 2016, and it was unanimously agreed that I should send you a few words.

The IAHR EC understands and shares the concern expressed by the NAASR. At the same time, though, the EC expressed its hope and anticipation that the AAR well-established and well-functioning procedures as regards acceptance and rejection of panel and paper proposals will be sufficient to ensure the academic quality and standard of panels and papers related to the presidential theme.

Looking forward to meeting in San Antonio.

Best regards

Tim Jensen, IAHR President

NAASR Annual Reception, co-sponsored by Equinox Publishing

Yard House

NAASR and Equinox Publishing are pleased to announce the details for our reception at the upcoming annual conference in San Antonio:

Date: Friday, 18 November 2016

Time: 7pm-9pm

Location: Yard House River Walk, 849 E Commerce St. (click here for a map)

We look forward to seeing you there for food, drinks, and conversation!

Yard House 2