Religion at the AAR: The exhibitors’ hall

Baltimore3Another annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is drawing to a close, and as usual it has left me in a state of agitated frustration—which is a more academic way of saying that I’m in an extremely pissy mood.

Back to the academic language: I am frustrated by the disconnect between what religious studies scholars tell students and administrators that the “academic study of religion” consists of and what we actually do when we get together at conferences like this one. Open an introductory textbook to the study of religion, or point your browser to the website of any number of religious studies programs at colleges and universities, and you’ll find ritualized explanations of the difference between “teaching religion” and “teaching about religion”—explanations which are necessary, in the U.S., to satisfy constitutional requirements for the teaching of religious studies at state institutions.

But then show up at the AAR, sit in on a few sessions, go hear this year’s keynote addresses, walk around the exhibitors hall—and you’ll quickly find that the distinction between religion and religious studies is less clear-cut than we claim it is in other contexts.

It could be more clear-cut. We could maintain a high wall of separation between religion and religious studies if we, collectively, as a field, had the will to do so. But we seem not to have that will. And that’s what gets me pissy.

Perhaps on another occasion I’ll allow myself to rant at greater length about how many program units there are in the AAR dedicated to theology—or about the number of AAR attendees who seem not to recognize that their pluralistic or Elidean theologies of religion are theologies. But for now, I’ll confine my ranting to the exhibitors’ hall.

May I propose that a professional association that claims to represent teaching about religion, not the teaching of religion, ought not to open its exhibitors’ hall to the following:

(a) Organizations whose names alone reveal that they are operating from a religious insider’s perspective: Bahai Publications, International Institute of Islamic Thought, International Nimbaraka Society, Liturgical Press, Messianic Jewish Publishers, Shambhala Publications, Soka Gakkai, Swedenborg Foundation Publishers, Wisdom Publications.

(b) Organizations whose slogans advertise that they are promoting religiosity of some kind: “Serving in Faith” (Abingdon Press), “A Vision for World Peace” (BDK Press), “Spiritual Living” (Crossroad), “Gospel-Centered Publishing” (Crossway), “Daylight Come” (Deo Publishing), “Personal Growth” (HarperOne), “Faithful Books” (Kregel).

(c) Any publisher whose display includes Bibles for children. Haggai Books was this year’s most patent offender, but the Common English Bible people were likewise operating under the impression that scholars who teach courses in biblical studies at the college level would be interested in Bibles for kids. Who in the SBL is giving them that impression?

(d) Probably—emphasize probably—any publisher who has to tell me their publishing is academic. Evangelical presses in particular are fond of this device: Baker Academic, IVP Academic, Zondervan Academic. Any year now I expect to find Eerdmans jumping onto that bandwagon.

1382619789017-495339312(e) Any exhibitor who can afford to rent the equivalent of more than two booths, unless they have the words “University Press” in their name. That’s a new rule of thumb I’m toying with, anyway. Look around next year’s exhibitors’ hall; tell me if you think the rule is justified.

But the hands-down winner of this year’s Who the Blazes Let You In? Award is BlueNose Press for their booth promoting Dr. Rocco Leonard Martino’s latest apologetic novel, The Resurrection: A Criminal Investigation of the Mysterious Disappearance of the Body of the Crucified Criminal Jesus of Nazareth. “Would you like us to tell you about our book?” one of the vendors asked as I stared appalled at their display. Absolutely not.

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