Sacrifices, Flesh, and Blood

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17


By Mira Balberg, author of Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature

Evenings are still rather chilly in Jerusalem during the month of April. The priests, standing on a raised platform, were all shivering in their thin white linen clothes, especially after they had to remove their shoes and socks and purify their feet in water. Several hundreds of people were watching as the priests struggled to light a fire on the altar and to get a wooden spit to pierce through the sacrificial lamb. This somewhat clunky ritual event, titled “Practice Passover Sacrifice,” took place on April 18, 2017.

Several different organizations that strive to build a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and to establish a sacrificial cult therein have been working together to produce and promote “Practice Passover Sacrifice” events for over ten years. These events have become increasingly mainstream in Israeli religious-Zionist circles in the last couple of years, and are now endorsed by leading rabbinic figures as well as by political and municipal authorities. The events are framed as “practice sacrifice” since Jews are not allowed to perform actual sacrifices anywhere except for the Temple Mount, a space so contested and explosive that it is currently off limits for any form of Jewish worship. The organizers, however, encourage Jews descended from priestly families to learn and master the procedure, so that once government permission is given a sacrificial cult can be restored on a moment’s notice.

The Temple lobbyists are usually viewed through a political lens, as extreme right-wingers whose main goal is to secure Jewish/Israeli control over all of Jerusalem. What is often overlooked, however, is the centrality of animal sacrifice in their religious vision, almost 2000 years after Jewish sacrifice ceased to be practiced. This emphasis on animal sacrifice is not esoteric or arcane: it is a manifestation of what supporters of these organizations view as the only authentic, original, and scripturally-committed way of being Jewish.

Indeed, like members of most other ancient Mediterranean religions, ancient Jews equated piety, worship of God, and communal identity with rituals involving the slaughter and burning of sheep, bulls, and rams accompanied by libations of oil and wine. The common story, however, is that once the Jerusalem temple was burned in 70 C.E., Jews had to figure out a new way of being Jewish, which could no longer be connected to the Temple and to the sacrificial cult. The rabbis of late antiquity are the heroes of that story: they are often thought to have positioned the study of texts as the most important dimension of Jewish life, and to have instituted prayer and charity as viable and even superior substitutes for the sacrifice.

Judaism today, whose texts and practices rely heavily on the rabbinic corpora of late antiquity, is accordingly understood as stemming from the efforts of the rabbis of the first centuries C.E. to turn Judaism from a sacrificial religion into a book religion. These efforts were ostensibly so successful that today, most Jews in the world never associate Jewish life or faith with animal sacrifice, and they are often surprised (if not mortified) that there are still Jews out there who think that sacrifice is something to value and hope for. But the truth is that throughout centuries of Jewish thought and practice, sacrifice never truly went away: it remained a ghost of the past, a “repressed” that keeps returning, and a possibility that is always on the horizon, even if only to be dismissed and abhorred. In my book Blood for Thought I argue that sacrifice was never substituted by the rabbis, but rather reinvented. A process of sacrificial reinvention, both fascinating and troubling, is happening again in our own times.


Mira Balberg is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. Her first book, Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature, examines how ancient Near Eastern ideas and practices of bodily purity were reconfigured by Palestinian rabbis of the 2nd and 3rd centuries through the influence of Greek and Roman medical and philosophical doctrines. Her new book, Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature engages with the process known as “the end of sacrifice,” the rapid decline and ultimately demise of sacrificial modes of worship in the Mediterranean region in the first half of the first Millennium C.E.


Heretics and Ethnographic Investigation in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. This post originally appeared on the blog in August 2016 and is reposted in advance of the author’s review panel Saturday, Nov. 18. Program details below. #AARSBL17


By Todd S. Berzon, author of Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

We are always organizing knowledge. We are always aggregating data in order to arrive at a clearer, more coherent, and more systematic understanding of the world around us. But what happens when there is simply too much information to be collected? What happens when efforts to organize vast amounts of material fall short or fail completely? What happens when the knowledge we meticulously collect simply overwhelms the system or model designed to make sense of it? What are the epistemological implications and challenges that emerge in the production of ethnography—the process of writing about the customs and habits of peoples and communities? Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity investigates these questions within the context of late antique Christianity (ca. 150–500 C.E.). It provides an analysis of the ways in which early Christian authors not only produced ethnography (literally “wrote people”) but they also how they openly negotiated the very possibility and desire of undertaking such a task. Focusing on late antique heresiological literature (orthodox catalogues about heretics), I outline the techniques Christian writers used to collect, organize, and polemicize ethnographic knowledge about their Christian world. I show how the rituals, doctrinal beliefs, customs, and historical origins of the heretics functioned to map and delimit not only the composition of the Christian world but also the world at large. It is the epistemological challenges produced by such classificatory efforts that I explore throughout the book.

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In the late antique world defined by remarkable religious and political change, heresiology illustrates the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of discovery and exploration. But just as Christians wrote their movement into the history of the world as the organizing principle of human difference through models of heretical growth and diffusion, they also codified a deep ambivalence about the literary or representative capacity of heresiological ethnography. I argue that heretics were highly unstable theoretical scaffolding through which Christian authors sought to make sense of the diverse and diversifying world around them. Knowledge about the heretics was necessary to assert orthodox theological dominance, but it was also highly dangerous. Heretical knowledge not only contaminated the ethnographer, but it also confused and in some sense overpowered the compiler because such knowledge was seemingly without limit. There was simply no end to the process of collecting knowledge about the heretics.

Indeed, Christian ethnography reveals not totalizing aspirations of authority—a projected ideology of total epistemological mastery—but a far less secure knowledge about the heretics specifically and the world generally: writing and knowing were endeavors fraught with conceptual fears and uncertainties. In fact, Christian authors explicitly contemplated the danger of investigating the natural and supernatural worlds. It is not simply that they struggle to classify the world around them, but that they openly discuss their failures to do just that. The heresiologists explicitly pondered the epistemological limits of ethnographic investigation, the representative capacity of language, and the unmanageability of ethnographic knowledge in texts. They know that there are limitations to what they can know about the heretics and that their efforts to produce a literary model to contain them is and always will be incomplete.

Discovery, travel, and expansion were not singularly triumphant endeavors, but rather highly perilous and disruptive efforts. The discoveries of new peoples (heretics, nations, islands, etc.) cemented intellectual unease and ethnographic fear. Precisely because the heresiologists gave ethnography into a distinctly theological texture, Classifying Christians points toward the enduring and potent legacy of Christianity in shaping the discourse of centuries of ethnographic investigation. By investigating the role ethnography played in mapping the theological landscape of the late antique world, my aim has been to refine discussions of emergent Christian discourses about heresy and human difference more broadly.


Todd S. Berzon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College.

Join author Todd Berzon at SBL for a review panel of Classifying Christians
SBL Religious World of Late Antiquity Section
Saturday, Nov. 18
9:00 AM–11:30 AM
Hilton Boston Back Bay – Maverick A


Heading to AAR & SBL? Save 40% on These Religion Titles

If you’re headed to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature this week in Boston (Nov. 18-21), be sure to visit UC Press at booth #2800 for a 40% discount on our religion titles. During the conference, follow along on our blog as we share guest posts from our authors, and share on social media with #AARSBL17.

Want to get a headstart on the conference? Take 40% off today on these new and notable titles, a selection of just some of the books you’ll find at the conference. Get your promo code here.

Take Note of the Following Panels:

The FBI and Religion Scholars: Reflecting on the Past 25 Years—What Lessons Might Be Drawn?
Friday, November 17, 1:00-4:00PM
Sperry Room, Harvard Divinity School
Ahead of the AAR / SBL conference, join co-editor of The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 Steven Weitzman as he discusses liberty in the age of terror along with David T. Resch, Assistant FBI Director and head of the FBI Academy

Review Panel of Todd Berzon, Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity
Saturday November, 18, 9:00 AM–11:30 AM
Maverick A (Second Level) – Hilton Boston Back Bay (HBB)

Religion and Popular Culture in America: A Critical Analysis
Saturday November, 18, 4:00 PM–6:30 PM
Sheraton Boston-Back Bay C (Second Level)

Browse more UC Press Religion titles.


Thoughts on the Netflix Documentary One of Us

By Samuel C. Heilman, author of Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America


The recently released documentary, One of Us, about Hasidic drop-outs and the difficulty of their life’s journey has stimulated much debate, both among the Hasidic community and those who have dropped out of it – the so-called ‘off the derech’ (OTD) [off the path] – as well as in the general community. Some of that discussion is surely driven by the disturbing narrative it portrays on the three people it follows: Luzer, Ari, and Etty. All three have suffered some form of abuse in the community, and each is in one way or another cut off from it as a result of their decision to leave. In the case of Luzer and Etty this means losing free access to their children and with Ari being thrown into a kind of no-man’s-land of non-belonging. All three still miss the sense of belonging and community that they once had as Hasidim but the pain they obviously have been made to feel when they were inside was so great that they were unwilling to stay. The film makes us feel that these people are condemned to suffer, whether on the inside or the outside. It also suggests – in comments by at least one insider, a rabbi counselor who talks with Ari and the camera – that they are a minority in the Hasidic community and that most people are happy with the way of life Hasidism today provides. The unmistakable if not explicitly stated conclusion is that if one size does not fit all in Hasidic life, it does nevertheless fit most and unfortunately there must be something ‘wrong,’ with these OTD people that has led them to this sad end. This blaming of the victim would of course be preposterous.

Nevertheless, missing from this picture of these people the film paints alas is some context, and nowhere do we see what it is actually that the Hasidic life offers to so many. Surely it is not abuse, which seems to be a key factor in these three stories. So what is it? There’s a hint of the appeal in a scene in which some of the OTD people gather for what sounds and looks like a Hasidic tisch, a gathering around a dinner table during which food is shared, Hasidic niggunim (melodies) are sung, and a sense of camaraderie and belonging is deeply felt. But completely missing in this film is a first-hand account of this sort of attachment between the Hasidim and their charismatic leaders – the Rebbes – and of one another that are after all a key element of Hasidic identity and life. How else can we seriously understand a movement that has against all odds grown exponentially since the Holocaust and in places that no one (even the Hasidim themselves) predicted it could or would survive, much less thrive.  All of that is left unexplained. Rather in trying to deepen the tragedy of its three characters, the film stresses only the palpable sadness that this life yields and the fact that those inside do not learn the basic skills of how to adapt or even navigate the world outside their own. That’s a very limited picture at best.

To be sure, as Hasidism has moved from its origins as a folk religious movement led by charismatic leaders, it has become an increasingly insular fundamentalist-like movement that all too often demonizes the secular and liberal world, that limits the education and contact with that outside world its members receive, that controls and effectively diminishes the education of its adherents in order to prevent what some leaders (perhaps most prominently the Satmar Hasidism about whom I have written in my newly published Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America) think are the terrible risks of culture contact and assimilation. Risks that are all too common in the modern world and urban landscape of New York City where the bulk of Hasidim in America are to be found (not the least being the hip neighborhood of Williamsburg, the Satmar redoubt). In this Hasidic and fundamentalist society that is increasingly scrupulous about separating men and women from free and easy contact with one another, that strictly regulates and arranges marriages (as described in my earlier books: Defenders of the Faith and Sliding to the Right), normal relations between the sexes as well as between different cultures has become unthinkable – a situation that easily can result in all kinds of deviance.

Yet while all of this is true, the picture of contemporary Hasidic life is complex, in ways the film misses. On the other hand, it is not as if the anything-goes ethos of contemporary general society is all sweetness and light. If arranged marriages with lots of children at an early age and a life of regulations and rules that stress the community norms over individual autonomy that is normative among Hasidim can result in some unhappy people – like the three this movie follows – the anomie and search for the perfect life, that unattainable ideal, that is part of the modern west brings its own disappointments and sadnesses. Both sides leave room for abuse. The recent Weinstein scandal reminds us that even the life that seems the paradigm of glamour and freedom can turn out to be one of abuse and sufferings.

Watching the film, one wishes it had shown the nuance needed to understand this story. We really do not know the true sequence of events: the attachment to Hasidism and then the alienation. But instead, we see the main characters unconnected, as isolated individuals. We get no sense of where they were and now where they are in their life’s journey. Luzer, for example, a would-be actor tells us he has left the pain in his Hasidic life behind but at the end of the movie we see him broken by pain in some dark place and looking at photos of his children almost as if in secret and crying. Where is this? When is this? Is it after he has decided to move on in his life or before? What stimulated this review of the photos that seems to cause him so much pain? We don’t know, and one could not blame viewers for feeling manipulated.

Similarly, we see Ari thrown into a tailspin of drug abuse and loss but is that after his counseling with the rabbi who cannot help him or before? We do not know? We see him talking to people in the community and also in a church, but when? There is no clear understanding if life for these people becomes ever darker or if they at last can and do move on to a new dawn.

The Hasidic world fascinates us, not only because it seems so different but also because there is something in it that seems to appeal to so many and we on the outside are curious what that something is. In my work, I have tried to uncover some of this. I have found that when the opaque becomes more transparent and we do understand, we can also also see the common humanity that unites us all. As my Who Will Lead Us?  demonstrates: even the great and grand rabbis and their families are not altogether unlike us. If this film suggests that even the Hasidim that drop out can be considered “one of us,” then, I would add, it should also explain that those who stay within its community have aspects of their lives that would allow us to see them also as ‘one of us.’


Samuel C. Heilman is Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY.

Mark your calendars to join him at the Association of Jewish Studies conference for an author reception, co-hosted by Princeton University Press in celebration of new titles in Jewish Studies: Monday, December 18, 12-1:15pm, Marriott Marquis, Archives Room, 4th Floor.


Transforming Shattered Grounds into New Beginnings

by Christina Zanfagna, author of Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels

At UC Press, open access—the free, immediate, unrestricted, online access to peer-reviewed research and scholarly work—is central to our mission. In celebration of 2017 International Open Access Week (October 23-29), we are highlighting open access publishing initiatives at UC Press, including our Collabra and Luminos publishing programs. This year’s OA Week theme “Open in order to . . . ” is an invitation to answer the question of what concrete benefits can be realized by making scholarly publications openly available. Follow the full blog series here#OAWeek #OpenInOrderTo


The United States has witnessed an onslaught of catastrophic upheavals of both nature and culture in the second half of 2017—from the deadly Charlottesville, VA attack on protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally to the series of torrential hurricanes sweeping through the Gulf Coast and Caribbean to the mass shooting that killed 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas, CA. And now, as I write this, Northern California still smolders from deadly wildfires that have reduced whole neighborhoods to piles of ash and claimed more than forty lives.

How can we make sense of this level of loss and tragedy? Where can we find the imagination, strength, and beauty to transform these shattered grounds into new beginnings?

Folks in Southern California—an area that is no stranger to these kinds of disastrous environmental and social eruptions—were faced with these same questions in the 1990s after four major earthquakes rattled through the Southland. The Joshua Tree earthquake (M6.1), Landers earthquake (M7.3), and Big Bear (M6.5) earthquake, which all struck in 1992, and the Northridge earthquake of 1994 (M6.7), in addition to the mass flooding and firestorms that followed, caused over $43 billion of damage. 1992 also witnessed the rioting, looting, and arson that exploded in the wake of the Rodney King beating by five LAPD officers and their subsequent acquittal by a mainly white jury. Out of the ashes of these costly and calamitous events, Angelenos forged new modes of creativity and connection: the Bloods and the Crips brokered a historic gang truce in south L.A., community churches were erected in place of Western Surplus gun stores, and a subset of brown and black youth decided to share their struggles and aspirations through holy hip hop—sacred rhymes over hip hop beats that delivered wholeness, holiness, and hope.

These are the L.A. stories and soundings that permeate my book, Holy Hip Hop in the City in the Angels. They have a lot to teach us about the far-reaching effects of disaster as well as the power of creative practices of renewal. Sometimes music and art are the only way to make sense of such chaotic and widespread trauma. While the losses are real and must be meaningfully grieved, destruction also creates the conditions of possibility for transformations of all kinds. New ideas, expressions, and structures must emerge, even as they are necessarily grounded in the broken earth from which they spring forth. What artful spark will ignite the efforts to reimagine and rebuild in such turbulent times?


Christina Zanfagna is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University.

Holy Hip Hop in the City in the Angels is published in University of California Press’s Luminos open access book program. Click here to download a free digital copy of the book.

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Islamophobia, Close to Home

By Khaled A. Beydoun, author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear

Muslim Americans were intimately familiar with Islamophobia well before it became a cognizable term plastered on protest banners and echoed by media pundits. For Muslims, Islamophobia was central to their experience as American citizens or residents. It was manifested by the “random” checks at airports, the incessant stares while walking down the street, the presumption that they don’t speak English at the check out line, and the backlash that descended onto their communities after a terror attack. These experiences, and others, formed the core of the Muslim American experience after the 9/11 terror attacks and, most recently, the rise of Donald Trump, but also characterized the lives for numerous Muslim communities well before these transformative moments.

On April 27, 1995, roughly one week after the domestic terror attack remembered as the “Oklahoma City Bombing” and years before the term “Islamophobia” existed, the phenomenon hit close to home. My family lived in Detroit, right outside the densely Arab and Muslim populated community in East Dearborn, widely regarded as the symbolic hub of Muslim America, and for hate mongers then and today, an easy target. One of my mother’s friends, Zeinab, a middle-aged Lebanese woman that wore the hijab (headscarf), was shopping at a grocery store on Dearborn’s (then predominantly white) west side. It was the evening, and as she was walking to her car in the dimly lit parking let, sensed footsteps tracking her own. As she stopped to unpack her cart and place her groceries in her car, two teens pounced on her.

“They weren’t trying to rob me, like I thought,” she recounted in Arabic, “but were trying to pull my headscarf off of my head, they didn’t try to take my purse.” The teens called her “stupid A-rab,” a racist slur for Arab, and told her “to get out of our country,” although her and her three children were citizens, and had made Michigan their home many years ago. Yet, their message was clear, and manifested a core baseline of the phenomenon we understand as Islamophobia today: that Islam was unassimilable with American values and identity, and Muslims were presumed to be foreign, subversive and terrorists. It did not matter that the culprit of the Oklahoma City Bombing was a white man, Timothy McVeigh, and that roughly 63% of mass shootings since 1982 were commit by white men. The terrorist stereotype eclipsed these statistics, and drove the violent backlash Zeinab endured in that grocery store parking lot and the frightening uptick in anti-Muslim bigotry unfolding in America today.

Source: Mother Jones’ Investigation: US Mass Shootings, 1982-2017 (6/14/2017)

And the law followed suit. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was enacted because of the Oklahoma City Bombing. But instead of grappling with the white separatist element that conspired to commit that horrific terror attack, it fixated on Islam. This, before 1995 and indeed well after it, is the very dynamic that not only embeds Islamophobia, but also advances it. Instead of dismantling or disavowing stereotypes about Islam or Muslims, the law, most potently through the War on Terror policy and strategy, endorses and advances it. Therefore, although Islamophobia is today a widely known term as a consequence of 9/11 and the Trump Era, it has long prevailed as a phenomenon and system deeply inscribed into the law. Muslims living in America know this quite well.


Khaled A. Beydoun is Associate Professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. A critical race theorist and political commentator, his writing has been featured in top law journals, including the California Law Review, UCLA Law Review, and Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. He is also the 2017 winner of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination (ADC) Advocate of the Year Award.


From Tupac to Lorca: Finding the “Soul” in Hip-Hop and Literature

By Alejandro Nava, author of In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature, and Religion

Taking its name from a song by Bobby Byrd and James Brown, Eric B. and Rakim released a single in 1987, “I Know You Got Soul,” from their album Paid in Full. By sampling the funky rhythms and throbbing drums of James Brown’s signature sound, the rap looks backward to soul music while at the same time looking forward to a new age that will put on wax many of the hip-hop generation’s distinct idioms, brags, syntaxes, and struggles. The song epitomizes the fresh new prosody and poetics of the hip-hop generation, a generation that will use ghetto tongues to name and scrutinize American possibilities and shortcomings, American opportunities and grave injustices. As time goes on, other rap artists will jump aboard the soul train and pilfer its propulsive beats and energies, but they will also increasingly bring with them the weights and burdens of black lives in the twentieth century. As the title of their tenth album suggests—How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul—Public Enemy, for example, drags these issues to the forefront. Typical to their prophetically charged vision, the album philosophizes and raps with a hammer, warning its listeners to the commercial and cultural forces in American life that seek to steal and cheapen the soul. In our own day and age—the age of Trump—Kendrick Lamar has burst on the stage of hip hop with some of the same anxieties and judgments. In song after song—“For Sale,” “How Much a Dollar Cost?” and “Mortal Man,” to name a few—he describes and dramatizes a soul in anguish, fighting and grinding for survival in a culture of consumption and callousness, doing what it can to resist the temptations of “Lucy” (his epithet for meretricious charms of Lucifer).

Though my book, In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature and Religion, is broader in scope than the soundscapes of rap, I see it as sharing the same airwaves and preoccupations as hip-hop artists in the mold of Lauryn Hill, Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Immortal Technique, Chance the Rapper and others. Simply put, the book is a response to the crisis of the soul in our age, and it considers the pressures by way of money, power and greed that can tarnish the highest ideals and values of the soul. More specifically, though, it explores the different nuances in the meaning of soul, from religious interpretations to profane and musical accounts. Part I of the book defends the basic values associated with the soul in the Jewish and Christian traditions: contemplation, compassion, spiritual depth, and fundamental human rights. I follow the lead of Lauryn Hill when she remarks that we need to “change the focus from the richest to the brokest,” as well as the famous adage of Jesus, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Part II, then, moves to a cultural, artistic, and musical exploration of “soul” in African American and Hispanic traditions. In this second inflection, “soul” is a metaphor of artistic excellence and cultural/musical creativity. By examining the transformation in the grammar of “soul” from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison to Federico García Lorca and hip-hop, I consider how this concept became a counter-cultural trope and a weapon of protest against oppressive forces in American life. In the hands of these artists, it became synonymous with a spiritual force that could repel and overcome powerful tides of injustice.

By weaving together these different strands of “soul,” the book draws not only from my experiences in the classroom at the University of Chicago (where I studied religion), or at University of Arizona (where I’ve been teaching courses on religion and hip-hop); it is also a product of my schooling outside the walls of the university. For whatever else is true about the question of the soul, it is certainly the case that there is something fundamentally inscrutable and uncanny about the concept, something that requires an existential commitment to untangle its labyrinthine mysteries. In my own life (as in the religious, literary and hip-hop artists that I consider in this book), the pursuit of soul has taken me down surprising and uncharted roads, beyond the restricting borders of academic codes and norms, beyond the divisions of the sacred and profane. In learning from the street scribes of hip-hop, I have come to realize that whaling can be one’s Harvard and Yale (Melville), that the slums and tenements of New York can be the finest tutors (Stephen Crane), and that “beyond the walls of intelligence, life is found” (Nas).

Playlist on “Soul”

Literary Samples

Federico Garcia Lorca, In Search of Duende

W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison

Virginia Woolf, “The Russian Point of View,” in The Common Reader

Michael Eric Dyson, Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur


Alejandro Nava is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona and author of Wonder and Exile in the New World and The Mystical and Prophetic Thought of Simone Weil and Gustavo Gutierrez.


Burmese Buddhists and the Persecution of Rohingya Muslims

By Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 4th Edition

In the past two weeks, at least 313,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, roughly a third of the Rohingya population living in the predominantly Buddhist country. As we seek to understand the Rohingya people’s situation—and why religious power has manifested into violence—we turn to Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God. In this excerpt from the chapter, “Buddhist Faces of Terror,” Juergensmeyer visits the monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been credited with inciting angry Buddhists in Myanmar to riot against the Muslim minority. The author has adapted this excerpt for the UC Press blog.


When I talked with Ashin Wirathu in his comfortable office in the Ma Soe Yein monastery in the central Burmese city of Mandalay he was prepared to defend himself against the terrorism label branded him by Time magazine and by many other journalists. Wirathu was blamed for fanning the flames of ethnic hatred. He is the most well-known spokesman for the “969 Movement”—named after the nine special attributes of the Buddha, the six distinctive features of his teachings, and the nine characteristics of monks—which was formed to defend the purity of Burmese Buddhist culture against its adulteration from outside influences, primarily Muslim. Hence it was widely regarded as an anti-Islamic hate movement.

“They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” Wirathu said. He claimed that this was the reason that he and the 969 Movement were trying to protect Burmese Buddhism from what he regarded as a program of cultural annihilation.

Representatives of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights, however, have seen this differently. They have identified Wirathu as one of the main figures in Myanmar’s pattern of human rights abuse against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya who live in the northern portion of Rakhine province adjacent to Bangladesh. Though the Rohingya people claim to have lived in the region for centuries, many Burmese regard them as aliens, and the most recent government census refused to let them identify themselves on the rolls as Rohingya rather than as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Wirathu has been outspoken in his insistence that the Rohingya are not legitimately native to the country but are interlopers.

In the years immediately following Burma’s establishment as an independent country in 1948 there was an effort to extend citizenship to all groups within the country. This was the vision of Aung San, the symbolic father of Burmese nationalism—and the actual father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize–winning activist whose party came to power in the 2015 elections. In the first years of independent Burmese rule, Rohingya were included as cabinet members of the government.

In 2012, however, tensions between Burmese and Rohingya in Rakhine state came to a boiling point. Burmese leaders claimed that the increase in the Muslim population would soon make them the majority, and riots ensued, with killings on both sides. This tension spread throughout the country in a spiral of anti-Muslim activism, fanned by the rhetorical of activists monks like Ashin Wirathu. The government responded to the anti-Muslim sentiment with a series of enactments that greatly restricted the rights of Rohingya within Myanmar, essentially making them citizens without a country. In 2015, some twenty-five thousand Rohingya set sail on crowded boats seeking asylum in surrounding countries. It is estimated that hundreds died attempted to set shore on Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

This dismissal of the rights of Rohingya in Myanmar is one of the things that has been criticized by the UN Human Rights Commission. According to Wirathu, rich Muslim countries have bought off the UN, and its human rights accusations were part of a Muslim plot. “It is not the United Nations,” Wirathu told me, “but the United Muslim Nations.” Wirathu claimed that U.S. President Barack Obama was also duped by these influences, and this is the reason why he spoke about the rights of Rohingya people in his visit to the country. From Wirathu’s perspective, however, it is not a matter of human rights but a battle for the cultural integrity of Myanmar. It is a war between good and evil, between Buddhist morality and the Muslim hordes he imagines to be poised to conquer Burma’s soul; and Wirathu would like to be its savior.


Mark Juergensmeyer is Professor of Sociology and Global Studies and Founding Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Terror in the Mind of God, now in its fourth edition, analyzes in detail terrorism related to almost all the world’s major religious traditions. Drawing from extensive personal interviews, Juergensmeyer takes readers into the mindset of those who perpetrate and support violence in the name of religion. Identifying patterns within these cultures of violence, he explains why and how religion and violence are linked and how acts of religious terrorism are undertaken not only for strategic reasons but to accomplish a symbolic purpose. Terror in the Mind of God continues to be an indispensible resource for students of religion and modern society.

Read a sample chapter or request an exam copy for your courses.


Gender, Sexual Politics, and the Religious Presidency of Mr. Trump

This guest post is published as part of a series related to the American Sociological Association conference from August 12 – 15 in Montreal, Quebec. #ASA17

By Kelsy Burke, author of Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet, winner of the 2017 Distinguished Book Award for the ASA Sociology of Religion section

It is glaringly obvious that President Donald Trump is not an ideal representative of conservative Christianity, boasting about sexual escapades, disparaging the poor and marginalized, and idolizing money and wealth. Yet, white evangelicals are among his strongest supporters. Why? One explanation is that when Mr. Trump defends and promotes conservative gender and sexual politics, he caters to and reflects an evangelical worldview.

In my research on the evangelical sex advice industry in my book, Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet, I find that conservative evangelicals have learned to have their cake and eat it too: they can be extremely permissive and progressive when it comes to sexual practices within monogamous heterosexual marriages, but still exclude and disparage sex in any other arrangement. In other words, the book authors, bloggers, and other website users I studied drew from secular cultural attitudes that good sex is good for you—your health, happiness, and your relationships—but still depended on their religious beliefs to create boundaries about who is allowed to have sex.

I see a similar logic unfold as family-values conservatives face a cultural quagmire. They can’t rely on many of the typical cornerstones they once used in secular debates to define “good” and “healthy” relationships. Marriage, monogamy, parenthood, and domesticity, are now visibly occupied by GLBT families. Even a President like Trump is forced into the realm of religious beliefs in order to find evidence for conservative gender and sexual politics.

Take the most recent example: A White House Memo (based on the now infamous 6:00am tweet) where President Trump declared a ban on transgender people serving in the military.

It is easy to debunk Trump’s claim that medical costs associated with transgender healthcare are burdensome: these would comprise between 0.04 and 0.13 percent of healthcare expenditures according to a RAND study. The argument that transgender soldiers may diminish unit cohesion is also weak, given that it has been used and successfully challenged as military positions became open to non-whites, women, and gays and lesbians.

The only argument left to withstand scrutiny is a religious one—where conservatives can claim that their beliefs come from God. The idea that transgender people should be managed, excluded, and outed is justified by claims of conservative Christian leaders that a binary gender order was divinely created. By emphasizing their own religious convictions, conservatives need not address other challenges to their logic.

So when a secular President like Mr. Trump tweets about conservative gender and sexuality politics, make no mistake: he is preaching to the choir of the religious right.


Kelsy Burke is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska – Lincoln.


Recommended Reading for Independence Day

Together with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution is one of America’s most important documents, vital to our political life. While the Declaration, signed 241 years ago today, listed grievances against the king of England and warned of a destructive government, the Constitution was and is the fundamental framework for the United States. Since today is a celebration of our freedom, we draw inspiration from the First Amendment, the most important for maintaining a democratic government.

This selection includes titles that address aspects of these First Amendment protections — as well as the fallout when these freedoms are threatened.

Freedom of Religion

The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 Edited by Sylvester A. Johnson & Steven Weitzman

As early as 1917, the FBI began to target religious communities and groups it believed were hotbeds of anti-American politics. Whether these religious communities were pacifist groups that opposed American wars, or religious groups that advocated for white supremacy or direct conflict with the FBI, the Bureau has infiltrated and surveilled religious communities that run the gamut of American religious life. This book tackles questions essential to understanding not only the history of law enforcement and religion, but also the future of religious liberty in America.

Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide by Ruth Braunstein

In the wake of the Great Recession and amid rising discontent with government responsiveness to ordinary citizens, Prophets and Patriots follows participants in two very different groups—a progressive faith-based community organization and a conservative Tea Party group—as they set out to become active and informed citizens, put their faith into action, and hold government accountable. Both groups viewed themselves as the latest in a long line of prophetic voices and patriotic heroes who were carrying forward the promise of the American democratic project. Yet the ways in which each group put this common vision into practice reflected very different understandings of American democracy and citizenship.

Freedom of Speech and the Press

When Government Speaks: Politics, Law, and Government Expression in America by Mark G. Yudof

Government’s ever-increasing participation in communication processes, Mark Yudof argues, threatens key democratic values that the First Amendment was designed to protect. Government control over the exchange of ideas and information would be inconsistent with citizen autonomy, informed consent, and a balanced and mutually responsive relationship between citizens and their government. Yet the danger of government dominance must be weighed against the necessary role of government in furthering democratic values by disseminating information and educating citizens. Professor Yudof identifies a number of formal and informal checks on government as disseminator, withholder, and controller of ideas and information.

American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media by Neil Henry

In this vividly written, compelling narrative, award-winning journalist Neil Henry confronts the crisis facing professional journalism in this era of rapid technological transformation. Drawing on significant currents in U.S. media and social history, Henry argues that, given the amount of fraud in many institutions in American life today, the decline of journalistic professionalism sparked by the economic challenge of New Media poses especially serious implications for democracy. As increasingly alarming stories surface about unethical practices, American Carnival makes a stirring case for journalism as a calling that is vital to a free society, a profession that is more necessary than ever in a digital age marked by startling assaults on the cultural primacy of truth.

Right to Assemble and Petition the Government

The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs & Scott Kurashige

A vibrant, inspirational force, the late-great Grace Lee Boggs participated in all of the twentieth century’s major social movements — for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and more. In this powerful, deeply humanistic book, Boggs shrewdly assesses the political, economical, and environmental crisis right up to 2015, drawing from seven decades of activist experience and a rigorous commitment to critical thinking, to redefine “revolution” for our times. In a world dominated by America and driven by cheap oil, easy credit, and conspicuous consumption, this book is a manifesto for creating alternative modes of work, politics, and human interaction.

The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century by Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw’s hard-hitting guide to winning social change details how activists can best use the Internet and social media, and analyzes the strategic strengths and weaknesses of rising 21st century movements for immigrant rights, marriage equality, and against climate change. Whether it’s by inspiring “fear and loathing” in politicians, building diverse coalitions, using ballot initiatives, or harnessing the media, the courts, and the electoral process towards social change, Shaw—a longtime activist for urban issues—shows that with a plan, positive change can be achieved. The Activist’s Handbook is an indispensable guide not only for activists, but for anyone interested in the future of progressive politics in America.