Reformation Study Tour 2015

Just in case anyone in our august readership is interested, in two weeks’ time I’ll be doing a presentation on the Reformation Study tour that Continuing Education is running in June 2015.

The presentation will be at 6pm on 7th October in the Maidment Theatre; you need to RSVP if you want to come (to the presentation) and you can do that here

Reformation altarpiece, Stadtkirche Wittenberg

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What should they know of England, who only England know?

Image of Chinese characters and English word

Attribution: Noncommercial; Some rights reserved by Jeremy Brooks

One of the best things that ever happened to my English was learning Latin. That’s not because there’s anything special about Latin. It’s just that, until I learnt Latin (and a few other languages) I’d never had to think about how English works. Because it was my mother tongue, I took it for granted. Because I didn’t fully understand that there were other ways of stringing thoughts together, I had no real mastery of my own. 

As many of our readers will know, Theology at the University of Auckland is developing a programme of courses in Religious Studies. This has been in planning since 2008, but it’s only begun to take shape since the review of the BA degree at the University of Auckland recommended the inclusion of Religious Studies as a major. We’re still waiting to see what form the new programme will finally take, but we’ve been offering a paper on Islam since 2012 and one on Religion in New Zealand since earlier this semester.

Since I’ve started working on the programme, I’ve met two criticisms that seem at first to come from opposite points of view, but are actually different versions of the same argument.

One is from the “insiders,” theologians working within the Christian tradition who feel that a move to Religious Studies somehow devalues Theology. If you’ll indulge a tendentious metaphor, they’re like people at a wine-tasting evening who find they’ve been gatecrashed by a group of opinionated beer drinkers and whisky aficionados.

Women at a wine-tasting

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The other criticism comes from the professional “outsiders” – the university crowd who think insiders should be kept well away from the study of religion (and preferably the university). They can accept Religious Studies (often grudgingly), but only if they can be assured it will be studied from the splendidly neutral vantage point they feel sure they occupy. Again, it’s as if the wine-tasting evening has been invaded by a party of tee-totalers, who insist that only they can appreciate wine objectively (though in fact they’d really rather not).

Prohibitionists tipping liquor from a barrel

I have two responses to these criticisms. The first is pragmatic: the hermetic seal between insider and outsider is now routinely violated in the real world.  It may breach your methodological purity code, but at international academic conferences and some of the world’s leading universities, the two approaches to the study of religions (i.e. Theology and Religious Studies) are in regular conversation – often in the same departments or administrative units. 

Secondly, though your maiden cheek blush and chaste scholarly heart flutter at the very thought, these encounters between religious insiders and outsiders can be intellectually productive.

In my own field a century ago you used to study either “Protestant” or “Catholic” Church History. The idea that a Protestant might have something useful to say to Catholics about their own history, or vice versa, was virtually unthinkable. But, despite what my colleagues in History sometimes appear to believe, Church History in universities is no longer just a recitation of doctrinal history and denominational particulars for students in training for the ministry. The history of Christianity – like every other sub-discipline in Theology – draws on the full range of methodologies deployed elsewhere in the university. Moreover it’s written, read and debated by insiders and outsiders promiscuously. 

I’m aware that this may be taken as a concession that Church History – like the rest of Theology – is really just about epiphenomena. In other words, it was never really more than a disguised story about “real” forces like economics or the human subconscious. But if that’s true then Religious Studies is likewise nothing more than the pursuit of anthropology, economics or sociology by other means. In fact the same totalising rigor could be applied to any discipline in the university. If everything is finally psychology, scientific method, or the elusive relationship between sign and signified, then so be it. But the university that emerges from this intellectual purity is a diminished place.

Again in my own field I can think of “insider” histories – ones that adhere to received standards of historical scholarship, but are shaped by the author’s religious background – that have had a significant impact on the field beyond “Church History” in the strict sense.

One is Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, which challenged complacent Whiggish accounts of the English Reformation as a kind of inevitability. What 19th and 20th century scholars saw as the oppressive world of late mediaeval Catholicism may actually have been quite popular. Thus when “liberation” came in the form of the Protestant Reformation, many had to have it forced on them from above. 

Another is Brad Gregory’s Salvation at Stake. This makes the claim (scarcely imaginable in the polite confines of the Arts tea-room) that 16th century people did consciously, willingly and even cheerfully embrace martyrdom for their religious beliefs. If that’s an imaginative leap we’re unable to make in 21st century New Zealand, then I suspect we have little chance of understanding what motivates many members of our own society, let alone further afield in the world.

It goes without saying that neither of these books has been uncontroversial – no decent work of scholarship ever is. But in both cases, the insights of scholars working from within a religious tradition has significantly shaped the way in which history is done by historians who don’t share their assumptions. On the other hand, it’s also true that the history written by Duffy and Gregory would have been the poorer if it hadn’t been part of a broader scholarly debate, and instead stayed mired the denominational trench-warfare that dominated the writing of Christian history until the middle of the 20th century.

To insist that there’s only one way of coming at a subject is to be an intellectual monoglot. That applies to the theologian, to the Religious Studies purist, as well as to the delicate individuals who wish that they didn’t have to trouble their minds with the nasty business of religion at all.  

To be able to imagine things from someone else’s vantage point seems to belong to the very essence of the Humanities. And even if you are a theological totalitarian, who bridles at being forced to think outside your discipline, remember that Thomas Aquinas, a man who believed that Theology was the Queen of Sciences, nevertheless stayed deeply engaged with Judaism, Islam and Aristotle. I would argue that his theology was all the better for it.

Benozzo Gozzoli,  (b. ca. 1420, Firenze, d. 1497, Pistoia) The Triumph of Saint Thomas

Benozzo Gozzoli, (b. ca. 1420, Firenze, d. 1497, Pistoia) The Triumph of Saint Thomas, 1471, Musée du Louvre, Paris.


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Win a book!

Over on Robert Myles’ blog there is a chance for you to win yourself a copy of Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historians Account of His Life and Teaching

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Two Theology public lectures

Theology and the School of Humanities at Auckland are delighted to welcome not one, but two distinguished guests to the University and the city this week. Professor R.S. Sugirtharajah and Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah (both from the University of Birmingham, UK) will each be presenting a public lecture this week at the University. Details are below, and we hope to see you at the lectures!

Professor R.S. Sugirtharajah, ‘The King James Bible and its impact on the Colonies’

Thursday 7 August, 6-7 pm, Lecture Theatre 209, Level 2, Arts 1 (building 206), University of Auckland.

r-s-sugirtharajahThe King James Version was promoted in the colonies as ‘the book your Emperor reads’. The first part of the lecture will look at how it acted as a cultural powerhouse determining the values and accuracies of various vernacular versions, but, more pertinently, how the colonized themselves subverted and desacralized the White Man’s book. The second part will examine how an undisputed universal script has now given way to a number of Bibles designated to attract specific audiences. Now there is a Green Bible, a Gay and Lesbian Bible, an African Bible, a New American Bible, a Youth Bible, The Bible in Cockney, a People’s Bible, and a Pocket Canon, each edition featuring a single biblical book commented on by a celebrity or media personality. The universal script has not only fragmented into several splinter Bibles, but, far worse, it has become closely allied to the entertainment industry and presented as an easy consumable commercial object. What this lecture tries to do is to look at the post-modern, post-colonial fate of an artefact which emerged as a shining example of modernity and the book of the British empire.

bible and asiaR.S. Sugirtharajah was born and brought up in Sri Lanka and had his postgraduate education in India and the UK. He is Professor Emeritus in Biblical Hermeneutics at Birmingham University, UK, and has taught and lectured in several countries. He is author and editor of significant volumes on biblical studies, including Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford University Press), The Bible and Asia (Harvard University Press), Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (Wiley-Blackwell), and The Bible and Empire (Cambridge University Press). His writings have been translated into several languages.

Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah, ‘Religious Pluralism: Hindu Perspectives’

Friday 8 August, 2-3 pm, Room 523, Level 5, Arts 1 (building 206), University of Auckland

sugirtharajah-sharadaReligious pluralism continues to be a contentious issue in today’s globalized world. This lecture will look at Hindu engagement with this debate. There has been a tendency to view Hindu approaches to religious pluralism largely through the prism of a particular Hindu school (Advaita Vedanta). The aim of the lecture is to show that there are multiple Hindu approaches to religious pluralism and that no one perspective can be privileged as representing the entire tradition. The lecture will look at how Hindus perceive religious diversity within their own tradition as well how they relate to other religious traditions. Focusing on modern Hindu thinkers, the paper will draw attention to similarities and differences in their approaches to religious pluralism and conflicting truth-claims.

imagininghinduism_largerfcDr Sharada Sugirtharajah is Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). Her research focuses on representation of Hinduism in colonial and postcolonial writings. With John Hick, she is editor of Religious Pluralism and the Modern World: An Ongoing Engagement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective (Routledge, 2003).

For further details, please contact Professor Elaine Wainwright, Theology, University of Auckland.

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The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew

cov266I thought I would help this blog out by engaging in a bit of shameless self promotion. In case you have an aversion to following my personal blog ‘The Bible and Class Struggle’ you may not be aware that my new book The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew was recently published by Sheffield Phoenix Press in the Social World of Biblical Antiquity series. If you order it from the publisher’s website, individual scholars and students can get a 50% discount. I’ve included the blurb below:

If homelessness typically entails a loss of social power and agency, then why do New Testament scholars so often envisage Jesus’ itinerancy as a chosen lifestyle devoid of hardship?

In this provocative new reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Robert J. Myles explores the disjuncture between Jesus and homelessness by exposing the political biases of modern Western readers. Drawing on the ideological politics of homelessness in contemporary society, Myles develops an interpretative lens informed by the Marxist critique of neoliberalism and, in particular, by the critical theory of Slavoj Žižek. Homelessness, from this perspective, is viewed not as an individual choice but rather as the by-product of wider economic, political and social forces. Myles argues that Jesus’ homelessness has become largely romanticized in recent biblical scholarship. Is the flight to Egypt, for instance, important primarily for its recasting of Jesus as the new Moses, or should the basic narrative of forced displacement take centre stage? The remedy, Myles contends, is to read directly against the grain of contemporary scholarship by interpreting Jesus’ homelessness through his wider economic, political and social context, as it is encoded in the biblical text.

To demonstrate how ideology is complicit in shaping the interpretation of a homeless Jesus, a selection of texts from the Gospel of Matthew is re-read to amplify the destitution, desperation and constraints on agency that are integral to a critical understanding of homelessness. What emerges is a refreshed appreciation for the deviancy of Matthew’s Jesus, in which his status as a displaced and expendable outsider is identified as contributing to the conflict and violence of the narrative, leading ultimately to his execution on the cross.

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Public lecture

Theology at Auckland is delighted to be hosting Dr Christopher Parr from Webster University, St Louis, when he visits Auckland next week to deliver a public lecture here in the School of Humanities. Dr Parr is a Kiwi, who now lives and works over in the US, where he teaches East Asian Religions. He also has an interest in religion as it stands in relation to political conflicts, international cultures, literature and the arts, and media and popular culture. His lecture promises to be fascinating, so please do come along.

Religions as Maps of Reality: An Approach to Understanding Religion(s) for use in Multiple Disciplinary Contexts

Dr Christopher Parr, Webster University

Tuesday 10 June, 12-1pm, Lecture theatre 209, Level 2, Arts 1 Building (14 A Symonds Street, Auckland)

Religions have not disappeared (as the secularization thesis and many earnest atheists have forecast) – instead, numerous aspects of contemporary life are profoundly affected by religious commitments, histories, and conflicts. Dr Parr will show that the model of religions as ‘maps of reality’ can enable academic disciplines, not least those traditionally inimical to religion, to take religious adherence into account, and cope with it productively. He will relate this model to literature and the visual arts, international politics, and the health sciences, and then invite the audience to raise other academic and intepretive contexts in which to test the model’s applicability. He will also propose this model as instructive for Religious Studies itself.


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A date for your diary


Come and hear Dr. Robert Myles, current Resident Scholar at Vaughan Park, speak about The Homeless Jesus of Late Capitalism on Tuesday 20 May 2014 at 7pm. For venue details and directions, click here.

Robert, a previous contributor to this blog, gained his PhD at the University of Auckland in 2013. His thesis, entitled, ““Jesus the Bum: An Ideological Reading of Homelessness in the Gospel of Matthew,” was recently awarded the prestigious Vice Chancellor’s prize for best doctoral thesis at the University of Auckland, 2013, and will be published later this year by Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Robert’s lecture at Vaughan Park will explore how the interconnected contemporary concerns of cultural indeterminacy, individualism, the free market, personal responsibility, deregulated capitalism, and the liberal masking of structures of power are deeply intertwined with modern interpretations of the Bible and most especially in interpretations of the connection between Jesus and homelessness.

Did Jesus ‘choose’ to live a homeless lifestyle as part of his prophetic mission, or was his itinerant condition thrust upon him by external socio-economic and political forces? This lecture analyses the Gospel of Matthew in particular to see what conclusions might be drawn.

To register, click on link or email / phone 09 473 2600.

Robert’s book The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is now available for pre-order.


Kramskoi, Christ in the desert

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