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.


A Deepening Political Divide

By Ruth Braunstein, author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide

The ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency, and the groundswell of resistance that followed, revealed a rift in the American populace. Some have been shocked by the depth, rancor and seeming intractability of this divide. The election of President Obama (twice) was widely viewed as a sign of national healing. Through this lens, Obama’s hopeful words of solidarity and progress had been a balm on the wounds left by centuries of racial strife, religious disagreement, and ideological antagonism. Trump’s election tore those wounds open anew.

But the apparent disjuncture between Obama’s and Trump’s victories can be reconciled by recalling that America’s history has not been a steady march of progress; rather, it has been marked by a pattern of advances and retrenchment. The age of Lincoln was also the age of the Know-Nothings; FDR provoked a backlash from groups ranging from conservative business and religious leaders to the Klan; and Kennedy’s moment was also Wallace’s. If Obama’s election represented an expansion of the symbolic boundaries of American belonging, then Trump’s rise marked the relatively predictable return of reactionary politics to the national stage.

Yet we should not forget that the country was also deeply divided during the Obama era. The divisions of those years may appear quaint compared to those that have revealed themselves since Trump’s election. But they laid the groundwork for the situation in which we find ourselves today. I spent several years on the front lines of that political divide during the Obama years. In the wake of the Great Recession and amid growing discontent with government responsiveness to ordinary citizens, I began conducting ethnographic fieldwork with a progressive faith-based community organizing coalition and a local Tea Party group.

While attending their rallies, protests, public actions, meetings with legislators, town halls, hearings, and internal meetings, I documented the ways in which members of the two groups told very different stories about America’s past, present and future. The Tea Partiers were nostalgic about the past and worried that the country’s turn away from its Judeo-Christian heritage and Constitutional principles foretold apocalyptic decline. Meanwhile, the progressive community organizers were critical of the country’s past (and ongoing) failings, but cautiously optimistic about its capacity to become a “more perfect union” that lived up to its founding ideals. The stark differences between the two groups’ visions of America mirrored differences found among the broader public, as described in an American Values Survey in 2015, when asked when America was greatest, and during discussions about American identity).

These were not merely stories that members of the two groups told; they were scaffolding for the interpretive worlds in which they embedded themselves, and from within which they evaluated the credibility of authorities and information, the appropriateness of different styles of action, and the democratic legitimacy of other grassroots groups.

As we reflect on the current crisis in which Trump’s supporters and resistors cannot agree even on a set of shared facts, view one another as stupid and un-American, and appear to live within entirely different realities, these two groups’ experiences offer insight into how we reached this moment.

Complicating matters, however, I found that members of these groups did not tell entirely different stories of America; they told different versions of the same story.

Members of both groups embedded themselves in a historical narrative in which active citizens have repeatedly played a pivotal role in saving the American democratic project from ruin. Whether they framed the protagonists in this narrative as prophets or patriots (and yes, these differences were significant), they agreed it was ordinary citizens’ sacred duty to hold elites accountable and to project their voices, values, and knowledge into public debates about the issues that impacted their lives.

In this way, members of both groups embedded their action within a populist story: in which ordinary citizens are heroes and out-of-touch elites are villains; in which grassroots power is virtuous and elite control (of any kind) is suspect. The grassroots populism I found among these progressive community organizers and conservative Tea Partiers was a far cry from the authoritarian populism that is currently on display among Trump’s “forgotten men and women,” who turn out for worshipful rallies while doing nothing to hold the president accountable for his promises to represent their interests.

By keeping these Obama-era movements in view, it becomes clear that the political divide we are witnessing today is not new, nor is Americans’ turn toward populist politics. Yet the divide appears to have deepened, while the populism has become shallower.

The questions we might now ask are how a commitment to grassroots populism that transcended deep political divides gave way to the authoritarian populism we see today (particularly on the political right), and whether there is a path forward to a shared vision of America that calls upon ordinary citizens across the political divide to play an active role in building a common life.


Ruth Braunstein is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.


Melania and Melania: Two Vexing Icons of Early Christianity

By Caroline T. Schroeder, co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


If you say the name Melania to your friends and family, what words come to their minds?  Wealth, fame for sure.  And perhaps recluse, devoted mother, though perhaps not devoted wife.

Tell them if they really want to read about a controversial and vexing Melania, they have two even more intense icons to choose from. Melania the Elder and her granddaughter Melania the Younger had wealth and fame to spare. Despite their ascetic commitments — even because of them — they were no recluses.  As two of the richest and most influential Christians in late antiquity, they traveled the Mediterranean, building institutions (monasteries and churches), patronizing important early Christian writers, and lobbying the imperial family.  True, Melania the Elder was once imprisoned, and Melania the Younger once sequestered herself in a tiny cell in her monastery.  Yet these moments of confinement, while telling, were not defining. Neither locked themselves behind the gates of their estates.  Instead both women were praised by late antique authors for their roles as architects of an emerging church.

Such influence did not put the Melanias beyond controversy, ancient or modern.  Although spiritual mothers to many of their fellow ascetics, neither dedicated their lives to the physical care of biological children.  Melania the Younger’s children died young, and her grandmother famously left her son behind in Rome to pursue her ascetic career.  Melania the Elder also ruffled the feathers of none other than the famous Jerome.  As several contributors to this book (Luckritz Marquis, Doerfler, Krawiec, and Darling Young) show us, this conflict with Jerome helped shape definitions of heresy and orthodoxy during the Origenist controversy and most certainly affected later Christian tradition’s memory of her.  Melania the Younger, her hagiographer tells us, went even so far as to interrupt and challenge Augustine, in what Susanna Drake calls a “curious case of scriptus interruptus” (171).  Jumping to the twentieth century, Melania the Younger “went viral” (as the kids say) when Cardinal Rampolla published her vita in 1905.  As Michael Penn recounts in the book, the story of the “richest woman in history” rebounded in the popular press. I find myself frequently returning to Elizabeth Castelli’s reading of the Melanias and “The Future of Sainthood.”  Castelli reminds us that these women’s ancient virtues remain provocations for modern readers.  For example, their status as slaveholders was an unquestioned part of their “birthright” in their own time, but one that disturbs the sensibilities of ours.

The work of my co-authors reminds me that we often see in the Melanias what we want to see.  They become ciphers for each interpreter’s own struggles with power and resistance.  Did Melania the Elder abandon her maternal duty or embrace a higher calling?  Was the patronage of Evagrius a dangerous slide into heresy or a courageous display of intellectual and political strength?  Is the swat of a hand a reminder of protocol or a refusal to perform on someone else’s terms?  Reading and writing about the Melanias in ways that reckon with these women as individual agents while simultaneously illuminating the social and discursive networks in which they operate requires tenacity, finesse, and scholarly self-reflection.  One of the privileges of editing this book was witnessing my co-authors write with such qualities, unearthing the many Melanias of history and legacy.  Many of us have learned (or, speaking for myself, have tried to learn) this kind of scholarship from the woman whose work inspires this volume:  Elizabeth A. Clark.  Clark was of course President of the North American Patristics Society and a founding editor of its journal,  the Journal of Early Christian Studies.  As Randall Styers writes in the afterword to the book, Clark’s scholarship has been “in the vanguard” of the field, “exerting enormous energy, creativity, and methodological innovation as she worked to remake the craft of late ancient history” and religion. (284)   Clark, too, is an architect of the field we have become. 

Early Christian studies is now a field that takes seriously theology and history while producing new critical theories of religion and gender, and one that does not shy away from examining its own history and politics.  And thus, we are thrilled that Melania, which wrestles with all of these theoretical threads, appears in our Society’s book series.


Caroline T. Schroeder is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific and author of Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe. She is co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family with Catherine M. Chin, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of California, Davis and author of Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World.


Why Late Antiquity (and All History) Needs Twits

By Andrew S. Jacobs, author of Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


“What a twit.” So a wise colleague recently described Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403), the oft-maligned subject of my recent book.

At a conference in March, another prominent historian described Epiphanius as “the stupidest of all Church Fathers.”

In conversations with friends and fellow scholars while writing Epiphanius of Cyprus, I heard him called “horrible” and “a liar.”

To be sure, Epiphanius — monk, bishop, controversialist, and author of a massive, multi-volume encyclopedia of heresies characterized by invective, mendacity, and intolerance — was probably not a nice person. But the pages of history books are not populated by “nice guys”: so why the persistent distaste for Epiphanius? This scholarly aversion to Epiphanius is a puzzle I return to in the concluding chapter of Epiphanius of Cyprus, a puzzle compounded by Epiphanius’s undeniable prominence in his own day and time: a celebrity among monks and bishops, dismissed (or, at the least, marginalized) as a liar and twit by scholars today.

I have no interest in promoting Epiphanius’s intellect (although he probably wasn’t so much stupid as he was unphilosophical) and I have no interest in making us like him (he certainly wouldn’t care for me). But I do believe that history-writing is always to some extent an exercise in answering pressing issues in the present by reimagining traces of the past. We find certain persons, texts, and events “interesting” precisely because of our own interests (meaning both our engagements and our stakes). If Epiphanius seems not to fit into our histories, it is because he works against those interests.

What kind of past are we determined to create that has no room for Epiphanius? Why doesn’t our late antiquity have room for twits?

The writing of history, like any cultural production, is a story we want to tell about ourselves. Late antiquity — born in the colonial 19th century, nourished in the postcolonial 1950s, and matured in the multicultural 1970s — was a period of intellectual ferment, transformation, and rebirth, a Eurasian renaissance from which emerged new thinking, new arts, and new religions. It reversed the sneering disdain of Enlightenment historians like Edward Gibbon. It claimed as its mascots the great thinkers and idea men (and, in more recent years, idea women), impresarios of change and authors of new worlds. It is entirely understandable that we would want to produce a late antiquity from which we might imagine a better present and future for ourselves.

History-writing, like all culture-making, is about inclusions and exclusions, about viewing our world with certain blinders. Epiphanius was perhaps a twit, certainly intolerant, absolutely dedicated to finding and rooting out “the other” from his orthodox empire. To exclude him from our culture-making forays into the past, however, is to leave ourselves open to all sorts of unpleasant surprises about the world we inhabit in the present. Epiphanius’s prominence in late antiquity was not, I argue, a fluke but rather the dark side of a new, transformative, diverse world being born. I am not calling for a return to Gibbon’s sneering condemnation of late antiquity, but rather a more clear-eyed appreciation of all of its shadows and nuances.

We may not like the twits of history, but without facing them head on we are disarming ourselves against them in the present and the future.


Andrew S. Jacobs is Professor of Religious Studies and Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Professor of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity and Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference.


Are Contemporary Political Movements Ancient “Heresies” in Disguise?

By Yonatan Moss, author of Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


In 1959 the British historian of the Roman Empire, A. H. M. Jones, published an influential article entitled “Were Ancient Heresies Political or Social Movements in Disguise?”. Despite the interrogatory pose assumed in its title, Jones’s essay was more of a response than a question. It responded to the then regnant understanding among historians that the series of “heretical” movements that rocked the late ancient Roman imperial church were motivated by national aspirations and social grievances. Jones effectively showed that this was not at all the case. National and social concerns were, Jones argued, predominantly modern categories which the historians of his day had anachronistically imposed upon the theologically-minded inhabitants of the later Roman Empire.

My recent book, Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society and Authority in Late Antiquity, studies one of those late ancient “heresies” examined by Jones: the group now commonly referred to as the Miaphysite movement. The Miaphysites (from Greek mia-one, physis-nature) disputed the definition reached at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, according to which there are two natures, one human and one divine, in Christ. Contrary to the imperial administration’s enforcement of Chalcedon as official policy, millions of Christians from Egypt to Eastern Turkey continued to adhere to one-nature theology. They gradually established churches of their own, separate from the ecclesiastical structures of the Empire. Although these churches ultimately came to be known under the names of Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox, each with its own distinctive language of liturgy and theological expression, Jones was right to point out that initially, in the fifth-and-sixth centuries, these were not “national” movements. Several of the foundational figures of the Syrian Orthodox church, such as Severus of Antioch, one of the main actors in my book, spoke and wrote in Greek, rather than in Syriac. Contrary to a narrative popular in earlier scholarship, according to which Severus of Antioch strove to separate from the official, Chalcedonian church of the Empire, Incorruptible Bodies shows that he actually did everything he could to remain within the imperial church, seeking to win it over to his anti-Chalcedonian stance.

The lesson learned from Jones’s article, one which we historians find ourselves relearning time and again, is how not to project contemporary categories back onto the past. Yet, does this mean that no connections exist between the past and the present? Having published my book last year, as I now witness the political events unfolding in Washington, I see deep similarities between the two. I have come to realize how, rather than viewing the past through the prism of the present, we can do the reverse.

While contemporary American political controversies deal with very different concerns than those that plagued the churches of the later Roman Empire, both revolve around disagreements over the proper route to what may be called individual and collective “salvation,” whether that salvation is spiritual, moral or material. The dilemma that now plagues the Democratic Party (and which similarly occupied Republicans during the Obama administration), is structurally equivalent to the key question underlying the disputes among the sixth-century anti-Chalcedonian bishops analyzed in my book: how must one implement one’s vision of salvation when power lays in the hands of those whose views one considers “heretical” and obstacles to salvation? Does one insist on ideological purity, or does one try to change the system from within, either in the name of social unity or in the name of shorter-term gains? The range of answers offered within the Democratic Party mirrors the array of positions defended by the late ancient Miaphysites. But whereas the end of the current political debate is still open, we do know what course of action the Miaphysite movement ultimately decided on. What was this course of action? Readers of Incorruptible Bodies, whether or not they happen to be Democratic policy-makers, can find out for themselves.


Yonatan Moss is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion.


Q & A with the Editor of Christianity in Late Antiquity

The Official Book Series of the North American Patristics Society

This Q & A is the first post in a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity and published in conjunction with the conference of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago. Stay tuned for more guest contributions from authors in the series. #NAPS2017


Christianity in Late Antiquity presents outstanding new scholarship on late-ancient Christianity in its various cultural contexts. The series represents the full range of approaches to early Christianity practiced by scholars in North America and internationally, combining the best of theological analysis and institutional history with newer approaches in social history, material culture, liturgical studies, and gender studies. Its geographical and linguistic purview includes the Mediterranean world, North Africa, Northern Europe, Arabia, and the Levant.

As the North American Patristics Society convenes this week in Chicago, we asked editor Christopher Beeley to discuss the series, his own research, and how these titles will contribute to the field of early Christian studies.

What inspired you to develop the Christianity in Late Antiquity series?

Several years ago I noticed that something important was missing. The field of early Christian studies was growing in very creative ways in North America, both numerically and in terms of new perspectives, but there was no standard, general series at an American press that one would immediately think of. So I proposed to the North American Patristics Society—our main academic association—that we recreate the Society’s official book series, which once played a vital role, to reflect the full range of methodological approaches being practiced by North American scholars, and to launch a new initiative with a major American university press. That led to the conversion of the Patristic Monograph Series to the new Christianity in Late Antiquity (CLA) series with the University of California Press. There was much energy among the senior membership of NAPS as well as younger scholars, and we have since seen a great deal of interest in the series.

Can you tell us more about your research interests and areas of expertise?

My favorite thing about the early Christian studies scene in North America is that, while we certainly have our squabbles and debates, people of different and often overlapping methodological approaches work alongside one another in what are usually creative and mutually-beneficial ways. This has not always been the case in other academic associations, regrettably. The interdisciplinarity of NAPS and the conversation we enjoy is an incredible asset, and the new series reflects that. As the series editor I work with authors with very different interests.

I have studied and taught early Christianity for over twenty years, and I am interested in numerous aspects of the period. Thus far I have concentrated on the development of early Christian theology, spirituality, and biblical interpretation, and I pay close attention to the construction of authority by theologians and church councils, the way early Christian writers position themselves rhetorically, and their nearly constant concern for practical matters of individual and social ethics. I have learned a great deal from my colleagues working in similar and different areas, and I am glad to have received their responses to my work as well.

What sets the titles in Christianity in Late Antiquity apart from other books in the field?

What distinguishes CLA from the other outlets is the broad and integrative quality of the work it represents. We don’t simply publish works that represent a wide range of perspectives individually, but we aim to present books that integrate them in new and creative ways. The first two volumes do this in spades.

Yonatan Moss’ Incorruptible Bodies examines the sixth-century debate over the nature of Christ’s human body—in particular, whether is was incorruptible prior to the resurrection or not—but it does so by examining how that question gets played out in the social and political configurations surrounding the major players. There are both old-school historical dividends and new-school theoretical perspectives involved. Moss shows not only that Bishop Severus of Antioch, the great patriarch of the non-Chalcedonian church in Syria, preferred to remain in alliance with the emerging Byzantine empire, despite his opposition to the fractious Council of Chalcedon—a fact that has eluded previous scholars—but Moss also sheds light on how the ecclesial bodies of the rival communities around Severus show different social dynamics in relation to their stance on Christ’s body. It’s fascinating.

Andrew Jacobs’ brilliant new study of the fourth-century bishop and heresy-hunter Epiphanius of Cyprus likewise gives us new details of Epiphanius’ life and works along with a very contemporary new perspective on the phenomenon of his wide influence. By attending to ecclesiastical power structures and making use of modern celebrity studies, Jacobs accounts for Epiphanius’ amazing success at network-building while also giving serious attention to his biblical interpretation and dogmatic theology. The result is a whole new picture of an important early Christian bishop who is typically overlooked as a person in preference for the otherwise lost sources by other authors that he transmits.

Our third volume, Melania, a collection of studies of the influential aristocratic ascetics Melania the Elder and Melania the Younger and their family and friends, opens new doors in the study of late-ancient Christian spirituality and social history. And we have several new books currently in production of equal promise: on early Christian Syriac poetry, fourth-century Greek ascetical theology, early Christian historiography, and Latin inscriptions.

How do you see the series influencing scholarship in your field?

I expect CLA is going to influence the field of early Christian studies—in North America and internationally—by presenting the sort of pioneering integrative scholarship that North American scholars have come to be known for. While we continue to practice the more traditional modes of study, such as historical theology and institutional history, we bring to these subjects new questions and new forms of inquiry that will yield insight in multiple directions. As the largest society among our international peers, the North American Patristics Society and our associates are poised to give new shape to the field of early Christian studies, and to make important contributions in several others fields as well, from late-ancient history to systematic theology to cultural studies.


Christopher Beeley is Professor of Christian theology and history and modern Anglican tradition at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition, and Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, which was the winner of a John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. An Episcopal priest, he has served parishes in Connecticut, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia, and he contributes to Berkeley Divinity School’s Anglican formation program.