Profane: Sacrilegious Expression in a Multicultural Age

by Christopher S. Grenda

This guest post is part of a series leading up to the upcoming joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego. Eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics will share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for a new post every few days between now and November 21st.

Many years ago while studying theology, I read the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. I laughed aloud a few times, particularly at Hume’s satirical humor. Hume was writing about religion and much of his humor was aimed at Christian scripture. At the time, I didn’t much consider whether the satirizing of religious texts and beliefs was appropriate. In fact, in the very days I was enjoying Hume’s profaning humor, I was also engrossed in the texts of Reformed theology that comprised much of my theological studies. As years went by and I continued to grow in appreciation for theology as an intellectual discipline – a way of thinking and reflecting upon human experience – I continued to find myself chuckling at a variety of early modern texts that employed wit and raillery in scrutinizing religion. I still smile every time I think of the pamphlet entitled Room for the Cobler of Gloucester and His Wife: With Several Cartloads of Abominable Irregular, Pitiful Stinking Priests.

Profane: Sacrilegious Expression in a Multicultural Age grew out of this type of delight with early modern humor. I hope readers find similar amusement in reading my contribution to the volume. Yet I also hope they find much more in the essays of other contributors who examine profane expression in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, Profane reflects not just my habits of reading theology and finding humor in theological critique, but also the perspectives of many others, some of whom share my proclivities and some of whom do not. The volume itself, in other words, is multicultural, giving voice to scholars from different continents and disciplines, uniquely brought together under one cover to address questions whose urgency has become unavoidable in recent decades: When does expression become criminal? When does spirited criticism reach such a degree of derision or incitement as to require censorship? Are democratic states even equipped to craft legal answers to these questions? And what happens when conflicting judgments about expression contend across national and cultural boundaries? Profane enters these churning cultural and legal waters. It does so with a focus on the contemporary and an eye toward the historical. For, as John Witherspoon—a signer of the Declaration of Independence—mused about satire long ago, “it is essential to this manner of writing, to provoke and give offence.”

Christopher S. Grenda is Professor of History at Bronx Community College, City University of New York.

 

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