J.Z. Smith 1938-2017

September 4, 2019: Please note the following essay with some elaboration and few edits will appear in Remembering J. Z. Smith: A Career and Its Consequence, “Significant, Significance, Signifier” in late 2020.

Scholars of religion will gather in Denver this week, the first Annual Meeting since the passing of Jonathan Z. Smith.

“In what I freely acknowledge is a necessarily imperializing move, theology is one appropriate object of study for religious studies. From the perspective of the academic study of religion, theology is a datum, the theologian is one native informant. As I have argued …., the study of religion is ill served by the “primordial” (itself, largely an interest of the “transcendent approach.” We need to be far more attentive to the exegetical labors of religious folk, to their systematic projects of articulations and understanding.”

Jonathan Z. Smith “Are Theological and Religious Studies Compatible”
in On Teaching Religion (2013, 74 (1997))
(Emphasis mine, n.b. please note the lack of a definite article)

The elements of J.Z. Smith’s work that we can take in, adapt, and apply to other case studies of “the labors, articulations, and understandings of religious folk” have been part of the common ground across critical scholars of religion within the AAR, SBL & NAASR and the rest of the community connected by the IAHR and those who happen to study religion globally, going back a few decades. I want to talk about my experience of how he inhabited the role of “esteemed scholar of religion” and also how he surfaced in one of most idiotic moments at a professional meeting in which I have been involved, as both speak to part of his impact on the study of religion.

I should be clear, I have no reverence for J.Z. Smith.

I did not take “Bible in Western Civilization” as one my oldest friends did when we were at Chicago. I knew there was a lot of work involved, and that she enjoyed the class, Smith’s lectures, and his wicked sense of humor enormously. I recall seeing him on campus, we never interacted, but I knew he had, along with several others devoted himself to sustaining undergraduate education in the years just before and while the college almost tripled in size after I left. Looking at the adjunctification of higher education in the time since, J.Z. stood by undergraduate teaching when some of my former teachers abandoned it with ill-concealed glee. I had no intention of studying religion at the start of college, Smith was not a factor in my turn to the study of religion, that was driven entirely by the near total absence of any handling of this mode of human expression after 1800 within the political and intellectual histories of Europe – save for church histories that were of practically no use to me. I was encouraged by a Catholic theologian, Werner Jeanrond, who told me that I could continue to study religion as intellectual history after my first religion class, taken so I could begin to parse a genre and complete a project. I read Smith during my “gap year” while auditing classes at the Divinity School and was particularly taken by “The Devil in Mr. Jones” and the rest of Imagining Religion (N.B. I have lent and lost 3 copies of that book in the last 10 years) and Map is not Territory. There is also that I love essays, and J.Z Smith’s are wonderful examples. His anthropological readings of historical religious texts and events appealed to me in terms of the extensibility of his insights and a clearly implied frame for the analysis of religion. I had not realized he had specifically commented on our operating terrain (note the quote above) until I reviewed On Teaching Religion years later.

I returned to the study of religion, post 9/11, deeply irritated with the public discourse led by religion professors who made thinly substantiated, dangerously over simplified claims about the event, religious violence, Islam, and American religion. I returned to the projects I had abandoned, the connections between religion, social orders, and social regulation to observe how humans assert themselves as they manipulate, regulate, and violence each other. J.Z.’s elaborations of the locative and the utopian (Map is Not Territory) were among the conceptual links across my work in the study of religion, intellectual and political history, and sociology of deviance and criminology.

I do not recall the exact year, J.Z. responded to a Law, Religion and Culture panel, he addressed the specifics of each of the papers in turn, without any “legend making incidents” or references to his own work. Before this, he lauded the program unit, the founders and committee among them at that time: Winnifred Sullivan, Robert Yelle, Natalie Dohrman, Greg Johnson, and Jason Bivins. He acknowledged that together they fought over years to establish and sustain the unit. He lauded them for moving discussions of Religion, Law, and Culture in the United States past what he specifically characterized as a field-limiting fixation on the First Amendment. He was genuinely pleased that the program unit had, and had for some time, attracted a wide variety of case studies connected by varied notions of law, religion, and culture in distinct and distant times and places. In his estimation, Law, Religion and Culture was a flourishing hub of exacting scholarly activity and he was clearly happy to be able to observe the accomplishments of others to those assembled. Not a word about their fealty to carrying out his vision, or their implementation of his agenda – but he was clearly elated that they had pursued their own. As he concluded, he mentioned in passing, but with a bit of frustration, a spate of 10 Commandment cases in various U.S. States, he mentioned Judge Roy Moore in Alabama. He seemed resigned as he observed to us that it seemed just beyond public and legislative understanding (I paraphrase) that “the 10 Commandments are not a thing…to talk about the 10 commandments… which portion of the Hebrew Bible, which translation?” After the panel concluded, I made a point of seeking him out. He was very approachable. “Dr. Smith, a Vanderbilt M.Div serving in the Tennessee legislature managed to stop a 10 Commandments bill in its tracks by talking about what religion scholars know about the 10 Commandments and that you have to ask “which one?” “which translations?”

I cannot recall J.Z.’s exact words, please note my bracket text is a translation of expression, he was genuinely surprised and unreservedly pleased, “[Holy Crap!] Someone used scholarship and made a difference?! [That’s fantastic!]. I affirmed that the incident had happened earlier in the year and had made the local TV news in Nashville. We genially parted company.

His last years of active attendance at the Annual Meeting were disrupted by the AAR’s unilaterally imposed decision to stop meeting jointly with the SBL, a decision that was reversed in late 2009 or early 2010. I know I wasn’t alone in wanting to “go with mom and not erratically behaving dad “ when what appeared to be a very final divorce, with baffling and ineffective visitation terms, were announced. I don’t think many of us bought any of the rumored and not actually officially tendered rationales, among them that it would “mitigate Christocentism.” To be plain, analysts of religion within the AAR remained and remain vastly outnumbered by both (white Protestant) Christocentrism and those who Smith described as “transcendental” scholars. What it did was abruptly separate study of religion scholars in the AAR from the largest vibrant network of linguistically-attentive critical theory wielding historians and archeologists whose perspective on and practice of handling religious data was most akin to ours. We were separated from the milieu that, pre-dumping of the term critical from its mission statement, sustained and shaped J.Z. Smith as he shaped and sustained it as a member and one-time President.

I think the connection across qualitative scholars of religion globally, regardless of area of material specialization across generations of scholars have been through scholars like J.Z. Smith and Liz Clark and later Bruce Lincoln, Tomoko Masuzawa, Hans Kippenberg, Tom Tweed, and Ann Taves. This is not to suggest other scholars were or are not worthy of being shared as part of a wide ranging analysis of religion spanning location and time, it is the case that they were not. As Rebecca Raphael has observed, the methods and theories of analysts of religion have been divided from critical study biblical literatures arbitrarily and with little utility. We don’t have a wider array of contemporary common ground because the conversations have been broken up, or homogenized under threat, and for reasons that do not hold up. Our capacity to talk about theory, conceptualization, and method has been deliberately and chronically under-resourced and disrupted. That said, scholars of religion have never stopped trying to suss out religious utterances, affect, worldviews, and connections with other modes of human expression and behavior so we can better understand how religion functions in the world without presuming how we look at the world is normative and that everyone must handle religion, however formulated, as we do.

J.Z.’s impact, was made clear to me one very trying afternoon 8 years ago. The first SORAAAD meeting in 2011 was a brutal disaster. It was salvaged with timely interventions by David Frankfurter (he gently shut down an off topic “comment more than a question” and returned us to our task), Jens Kreinath (racked up two bystander interventions) and a spate of involuntary giggling by people who were not me. I am not even sure that the worst part of that afternoon was “Olav the interfaith dialog guy,” (OTIDG) announcing to the room that, “ you all are delusional if you do not understand you are theologians!”

OTIDG was one of a few interruptions over my allotted time to speak, the other two were self-identified “study of religion” scholars, who were also, wait for it, white and male (cis and hetero). I had to deal with the red-faced angry pronouncement that “Women and people of color are lowering the quality of scholarship at the AAR!” and an assertion and vehement reassertion that “there was no tension between analytical work and theology.” Assumed in the latter assertion, working conditions in the U.S. were identical to those outside of the U.S. Implied, SORAAAD’s premise, that of being a space for critical SBL and AAR scholars to work on method, theory, and research design separate from the demands of religious scholarship tasked with servicing specific religious communities and working within their hierarchies, was invalid.

Or, by the time OTIDG started up, I was already at my limits. I am not sure what heated follow up remark of his to his to original declaration of our collective delusion prompted it, but my “conference face” failed and, I blurted out in half surprise “Thatamanil in that JAAR (December, 2010 N.B. Wherein it was asserted that all scholars of religion are inescapably in debt to Tillich.) piece??!? Olav beamed, thinking himself triumphant, as if the assembled heathens’ false god was finally smashed, said,“Yes! Exactly!”

Quiet giggling cut through the silence that followed. Floored and disgusted by the reaction and that we (the entire incorrigible lot of us) were unmoved by what he seemed to consider “Thatamanil’s magisterial take down of J.Z.” OTIDG stalked off without another word.

I suspect OTIDG (Don’t “@“ me) thought “taking out” J.Z. would make the rest of us come to Jesus, or at least kneel penitently before a “homogenized white Protestant deferent, Interfaith dialoging” religious studies. OTIDG’s appearance that afternoon, like Thatamanil’s puzzling article were built on the very problematic premise that J.Z. was a failed prophet or an apostate religious leader, and the rest of us as his “brainwashed” flock and that we shared a theological reverence for and dependence on origins, lineage, and celebrity religious leaders? I guess? We’re not a new religious movement and we don’t pay conference fees and membership dues to service theologians (note David Gushee’s campaign statement for AAR VP). Or, I don’t. I do my work with the hope that, among other things, it is useful to the communities I study, that my research design choices do justice to the portion of the human legacy for which I have evidence, and that the processes by which I conduct my work make sense to scholars outside of the study of religion. We’re scholars who develop and deploy a body of knowledge and extensible, replicable, and falsifiable scholarly practices, like any other discipline in the critical humanities and social sciences. To my knowledge Smith never directly responded to Thatamanil, but the essay quoted at the outset re-appeared just over a year later (early 2013). I think it was response enough.

I do not revere J.Z. Smith. And this is a vital point as we work with his legacy.

Within our own ranks? We don’t need pre-digested interpretations bordering on would be pastoral guidance to deploy his insights. Indulge me as I repeat myself, from my first readings J.Z. Smith has been, for me, an anthropologically-minded historian of the texts of antiquity and sometimes contemporary events, whose insights were useful directly and in their capacity for data-responsive adaptation. His conceptual work is useful and robust enough to take critique and have their limits identified (Peter Gottschalk, 2012). My ability to use the material insights of his work on Mediterranean Antiquity is limited, but his work provides functional examples for assessing how instances of social and political power and religious authority are normalized such that they can be productively compared in order to gain a better understanding of these dynamics function as a part of collective human behavior.

In the course of my work I can and have joined J.Z.’s insights into social scientific theories of human behavior (social theory) and critical theories. I find him useful. He was among the best historians deploying anthropology that I can recall – he happened to study religion. He has never been a substitute religious figure for me, then again my entrance to the field did not have its origins in my renouncing my religious background and I suspect this is the case for others in the field. I care about the network of scholars that have devoted themselves to this work. I do my level best to respect and sustain this community and our body of knowledge, but for me (and others) this has never been about fealty or regression (Weber, Riesebrodt 2001; – Smith 2013, 86) into the supposed thoughts (WWJZS) of this scholar or that.

My sense of J.Z. through his writings, conversations with some of his graduate students, and very literally one encounter with him, was that he developed or clarified concepts derived from historically situated case studies for others to mess around with to serve as pivots so we can try to understand the stuff we call religious, or the people that identify as such. That freedom to create and discuss scholarship attentive to the data associated with the contextually-situated particulars of “the exegetical labors of religious folk… to their systematic projects of articulations and understanding” is at least some of what he wanted for his students, those of us (like me) who read him, and the community of people dedicated to a expanding our understanding of religious activities, interpretations etc. Consider him license to assemble decentralized networks to pursue well anchored but free ranging projects, to assemble and build the tools you need to do rigorous justice to those you study, and actually finding those who have gone without study to better analyze their complex and entirely human stories.

Please don’t revere J.Z. Smith. Find him useful.

I want to thank Francis Stewart for her comments on an early version of this post.


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