illustration of abstract figures waling in overlapping but diverging paths towards a church and a mosque


Whence and for Whom Do We Study Religion?

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Laura S. Nasrallah​

Recently, I was asked to participate in a panel, “God and the Study of Religion,” hosted by the Center for the Study of World Religions—a topic so wide as to defy my small imagination. I am not sure that I succeeded in addressing the topic, but I did find myself reflecting on why and how I go about studying dusty, ancient Christianity, and not just ancient Christianity and its one God and one religion but also the world in which it emerged—what we often call the pagan or Greco-Roman world—and its gods. In fact, perhaps because I am a scholar of the New Testament and of early Christianity, when I consider the title “God and the Study of Religion,” I turn not toward the current debate over the definition of the study of religion, but instead I watch the topic fragment into gods and religions, and even into the complexities of Christianities that today, and even in the ancient Mediterranean world, are multiple and inflected by culture, history, and place.

The question of God and the study of religion also led me to consider whence and for whom we who study religion do our work. What I love to investigate is religion in its place and in its particular, small manifestations. I feel privileged to work in the field of New Testament and early Christianity; this work also feels a bit intellectually inevitable. Part of my childhood was spent in Beirut during the civil war. Lebanon is a country carved out by colonialism and full of ruins from the Roman imperial period. Those ruins, which I saw in my childhood, are part of what I study today: the material realia, monumental like the ruined temples of Baalbeck or small like the bones and teeth of the dead that quietly reveal ancient disease, malnutrition, life span, suffering or success, and the rituals of what we do with our beloved dead and even with the dead so insignificant (and why insignificant?) that they are barely given some ritual end.

Lebanon is a land where sacred space was long contested, and still is, and where the capital of Beirut during the civil war was literally divided by the Green Line that separated Christian from Muslim and, as I was later to understand, sometimes also bilingual French-and-Arabic or English-and-Arabic from monolingual Arabic-speakers, the educated from the uneducated, the elite from those of lower status. This invisible Green Line was made visible especially after the civil war. Driving the streets of Beirut, one could see the concrete of buildings near and facing the Green Line pocked by bullets, and the spaces for windows made unintelligible by bomb blasts. Dark stems of steel rebar bloomed.

During the war, this invisible Green Line put you at the heart of religious violence (which was simultaneously political, social, and economic) and was a portal of tragedies. Since my father, mother, brother, and I, although Christian, lived on the campus of the American University of Beirut in West Beirut, the Muslim side, we could not see our family 10 miles away. Small tragedies on an invisible line: I have heard that my aunt in labor was waving a white handkerchief out of a car window as my uncle tried to cross the Green Line so that his wife could safely deliver their longed-for first child at the university hospital. And my family’s stories are the ones with comparatively small losses, given the tragedies of that war.

Last week a family friend happened to mention with laughter what it was like to be in a traffic jam near this Green Line during the civil war: total gridlock would occur (no surprise to those of you who have been to Beirut even lately), but this was a total gridlock where drivers got out of their cars and, depending on their religious predilections, shouted to each other: “I curse your Muhammad!” Or, “I curse your cross!” Part of me thinks this is incredibly funny and it may even remind us of recent politics in the United States as satirized, for example, on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart: Aasif Mandvi heading up “Team Muhammad” while Wyatt Cenac stands in front of a wheat field to represent “Team Jesus.” Part of me thinks that this traffic jam and the Green Line itself are like complicated art installations, temporary eruptions, since traffic jams go away and since there is no real line, and it is not green, even if it is so drawn on maps of the period of the civil war. You could even go further: there is no simple Muhammad versus Christ, no Muslim versus Christian, but an unraveling into Shiite, Sunni, Druze, Maronite, Orthodox, Protestant; or, further, Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire; the politics of Israel and the United States and the Arab League.

Civil war Lebanon, with its Roman and more recent ruins, is thus one source for my work now, founded as it is in both literary text and archaeology, interested as I am in the fragmentation of religion into many manifestations. After my family’s evacuation from Beirut at what was perhaps the height of the civil war, I spent part of my childhood in Southern Baptist schools in Atlanta, Georgia, where the Bible was both sacred object and sacred text. You could not place it in a stack under other books. The more dog-eared one’s copy, the more prestige accrued. We memorized Bible verses so that the word of God would be inscribed on our hearts. This work was especially urgent in view of the predictions of the book of Revelation, which seemed to be coming to pass during the Cold War: the Russians (forgive me, Russians) were the forces from the north, ready to attack and take our Bibles and our way of life; the Beast (forgive me, Roman Catholics) was the pope, and the Vatican was the mysterious location of a computer that somehow (my childhood imagination cannot remember it all) was responsible for all credit cards, and these credit cards hid the number 666 and the sign of the Beast within them. In Atlanta in the late 1970s we were whirling toward apocalypse. We children sang, “The B-I-B-L-E; yes, that’s the book for me.” We pled our little child sins nearly daily and washed them away with altar call and the hymn, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” The King James Version was the only version of the Bible to be read and memorized, a fact mysterious to the present biblical scholar me. It’s not exactly a good translation.

Thus, I feel that it is a little bit inevitable that I should have become a scholar of New Testament and early Christianity, and one particularly interested in archaeological ruins, in how religion manifests in space, in how politics and religion are never separate, in the preciousness of sacred text where every word matters, in how religious communities engage with each other so that the intimate and proximate other becomes an object of differentiation and even hatred. In the early Christian period and beyond, in the narthex and at table, invective regarding orthodoxy and heresy is muttered; in the city square and at the time of holy festivals, Christianness comes to be defined over and against Jewishness; in the ebb and flow of inspiration, claims are launched about “us with our pure prophets, and you with your women and charlatans.”

In sharing these stories that I have rarely said aloud and never brought together, I do not imply that my career in the study of religion is a long working out of childhood issues. Rather, in hindsight I have seen how my research and teaching have emerged from very old passions involving scriptures, archaeology, and the blur of political power and religion. To give some examples: Early on I engaged in a project on how claims to prophetic knowledge and rejections of others’ prophets are simultaneously claims to power and self-definition within early Christian community. A more recent project tries to place earliest Christians within the built environment of the Roman Empire, and tries to understand Christian appeals to Roman emperors and to educated Greeks and the pressures of colonial power and cultural imperialism upon a new sect’s articulation of its own religious, philosophical, and cultural choices. Work I am doing now brings together the letters of Paul—scripture par excellence for the Protestant—and the archaeological remains of the cities to which he wrote in order to think about those in the earliest Christ-communities who struggled alongside Paul but also against him, and especially to try to reconstruct something of the lives of those who were poor, slaves, marginalized.

I have shared these childhood stories, too, because I believe that my research and teaching have both emerged from and (I hope) have stimulated a respectful and critical understanding of how theology and religion in thought and action profoundly affect people’s lives, and how places—Beirut, Atlanta, you fill in your cities and towns and mountains and fields—ineluctably mark our thinking about and our experience of religion. I want to encourage you—encourage us—to think about your pursuit of God and the study of religion and how these might intersect deeply with your life and how, if this is not true for you, it may be for someone who studies beside you in the library or speaks across the table from you in a seminar.

If I had to conjure up a take-away message about God and the study of religion, I suppose it would be to point to this mysterious place where we study the religious lives of others—their beliefs, practices, imaginations. How can we hold together in our studies a reverence for others’ reverence and, at the same time, how can we develop our own critical approaches and sharp acumen toward religion? How can we hold together in ourselves a singing joy or visceral hatred of a certain aspect of religious practice or certain theological articulations and how, at the same time, can we cultivate in ourselves the discipline of the study of religion—the askēsis, in ancient Greek, from which we get our word asceticism—by which we question our own emotional and intellectual approaches to religion? How can we approach the study of God and the study of religion with a humility that never demands our own humiliation before religious institutions or, more ridiculously but more commonly, our humiliation before the academy? For whom do we study the divine or others’ ideas of the divine? For whom do we pursue the study of religion or religions? Whom are we called to serve? If, indeed, all flesh is like grass (Isaiah 40:7; taken up in the New Testament by 1 Peter 1:24), what community or conversation makes our own work meaningful, and more than the mere tedious production of papers in classes and the guild, talks for talk’s sake?

In her poem “In a Landscape of Having to Repeat,” Martha Ronk writes, “How perfectly ordinary someone says looking at the same thing or / I’d like to get to the bottom of that one.” I think and hope that we are those who say in our quest toward the study of religion and in our quest toward God or gods: “I’d like to get to the bottom of that one.” Not “I will get to the bottom of that one,” but “I’d like to”—a yearning and striving, in proximity with each other, to engage in the study of the perfectly ordinary and extraordinary: religion.

Laura S. Nasrallah is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. This piece stems from her remarks during a panel discussion among Harvard Divinity School faculty, September 2, 2010.

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