Book Note: Harvey Cox’s The Market As God

Harvey Cox, The Market As God (Harvard University Press, 2016). (Amazon; Bookshop)

In The Market As God, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Harvey Cox, ponders the deification of “the Market”. This begins will a series of comparisons between the way people have spoken of the personified “Market” and deities like the biblical “God”. For example, the “Invisible Hand of the Market” echoes discussions around Providence in Christian theological works. The Market is presented as a Creator who brings into existence the “corporation-person” or the corporation-with-personhood. This deity is contrasted with some of the images of the biblical “God” who prohibits things like “usury” (i.e. predatory lending) and calls for periods of wealth redistribution (e.g. the “Jubilee”).

Once Cox has accustom the reader to a theological way of talking about economics, he explores the many unhealthy deficiencies in our capitalist system. To be clear, Cox will come to argue at the end of the book that “the Market” can redeemed when it is saved from the burden of being “divine,” so he doesn’t appear to be anti-capitalist, per se, as much as critical of what he perceives to be abusive forms of capitalism that can’t bear the weight of our expectations.

The final third of the book explores the history of how money and religion have related, looking at how money may have played a role in providing St. Augustine with his victory of the (declared heretical) monk Pelagius; how Adam Smith’s economics was grounded in his theology; and other similarities between modern economic-speech and theological-speech, such as a sense of mission and the missionary mindset, the function of “liturgical” seasons, and various forms of eschatology.

This book is insightful. While connected, certain parts could be read independently of the others as mini-essays. Whether or not Cox’s confidence in the small-m “market” is justified is something not all readers will resonate with but his broader comparative insights are thought-provoking and at least raise the question of whether work and business is taking the place in people’s lives that religion once occupied.

On a related note, I’m happy to promote a video that I had a small part in scripting: Religion For Breakfast, a.k.a. Andrew Henry, has addressed a related book, Carolyn Chen’s Work Pray Codehttps://brianleport.home.blog/2022/06/03/book-note-carolyn-chens-work-pray-code/ in the video (“Tech Companies: A New Religion?”) linked below:

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A non-confessional alternative to BibleProject

This morning a news article was shared in my Facebook feed that provided yet another example of why so many public schools avoid promoting/offering religious studies courses in spite of the obvious danger that religious illiteracy presents. It’s titled “‘How to Torture a Jew’: Chattanooga mother raises concerns with Bible class taught in public school”. In short, in public schools you can teach about the Bible, contrary to the imagination of some, but you can’t teach the Bible from a religious perspective or with the intent to proselytize. The teacher mentioned in this article appears to be doing the latter.

In a Facebook post by the mother, she mentions that the teacher uses BibleProject videos. This got my attention because I use BibleProject videos in my classes as well. For those who aren’t familiar with BibleProject, they are videos about the Bible made by Evangelical Christians mostly for Evangelicals though maybe with a less stated goal of proselytizing. My main concern with BibleProject, which admittedly makes excellent videos, is that they’re clearly supersessionist. Often they talk about how the whole Bible is a “unified story that leads to Jesus” which is a fine thing to say in the Evangelical bubble but very problematic outside of it, for the basic reason that you have to apply that meta-hermeneutic to the Bible. The very existence of Jewish hermeneutics indicates that there are other ways of reading the Bible that don’t point to Jesus as the central figure of the canon, not to mention that Judaism doesn’t recognize the Christian New Testament as authoritative. Likewise, critical scholarship from the past few centuries strongly pushes against the idea that the Bible is unified. It takes a special kind of confessional hermeneutic—like “inerrancy” or “infallibility”—to arrive at that conclusion.

Now, I teach at an Episcopal school, so the legal questions related to using these videos (i.e. basically violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment) don’t apply to me but (!) I do try to teach from a non-confessional; non-sectarian perspective. I have students who are Christian but also students from a wide array of religious and non-religious persuasions. I’m proud of the fact that my students constantly recognize my classes as a confessional neutral space. Some of them may be bothered by the critical scholarship that’s employed but I don’t try to make my Evangelical kids give up their identity any more than I do my Muslim kids. The goal is to introduce them to the Bible as a cultural item that continues to influence civil discourse. I want them to be biblical literate not because I’m concerned with influencing their religious identity but because I want them to be informed citizens in a society where political and legislatures still quote and appeal to the Bible.

One thing that’s nearly essential when teaching a generation shaped by Instagram and TikTok is that you use visuals. I use plenty of YouTube videos. As I said, I use BibleProject. I’ve tried to balance it by using Unpacked’s videos which provide a Jewish perspective (works for Hebrew Bible but not Christian New Testament). Unfortunately, the only really good resource that consistently creates videos from a non-confessional perspective is Andrew Henry’s “Religion for Breakfast” project which is excellent but needs more financial resources if it were to offer a non-confessional alternative.

So, what’s to be done? Can AAR and SBL members take up the task of finding something like this? We have Bible Odyssey which is great and provides us all with resources. I know some members of SBL wouldn’t be interested in creating a Religion for Breakfast alternative to BibleProject because BibleProject fits their hermeneutic and pedagogy but what about the rest of us.

As Gen Z continues to enter college and grad school, I’m convinced that teachers at that level will want high-quality resources like what Henry produces. I know as whatever-is-after-Gen Z arrives, I’ll continue to need videos to supplement my teaching. How can we make this happen? How can we create a BibleProject-alternative? How can we help Religion for Breakfast become that alternative?

[If you’ve benefitted from Henry’s Religion for Breakfast, or if you agree with what I’m saying in this post, here’s his Patreon.]

Introducing Confucianism

One of the final projects for my “Religion in Global Context” class asks my students to do a YouTube or podcast episode explaining what Confucianism is and whether it’s a religion. (I’ve blogged about it: see “Chinese Religions Podcast Project”.) Future renditions of the project will juxtapose Confucianism with Daoism and Shinto and not just Daoism. Thankfully, my life as a teacher keeps getting easier as Andrew Henry’s “Religion for Breakfast” project, which already includes several episodes on Shinto, now will have a series on Confucianism. The first video was released a few days ago:

Digital resources for studying the Bible and archaeology

A YouTube page, a YouTube series, and a podcast have all emerged recently dealing with topics related to the Bible and archaeology. For those interested:

  • Dr. Robert Cargill, Associate Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa has a YouTube page, XKV8R, where he’s already discussed topics such as The Shapira Strips and the Tel Dan Inscription.
  • Dr. Andrew Henry, creator of the famous Religion For Breakfast YouTube page, has been working on a series in partnership with Patheos titled “Excavating the History of the Bible”. He’s covered several topics already including the origins of the Israelites, the identities of the Canaanites and Philistines, and personalities like King Ahab, King Josiah, and King Herod.
  • The podcasting collective known as OnScript has released a spin-off podcast called OnScript: Biblical World. Their first episode looked at King Hezekiah and his reforms.

The Origins of Satan

Satan has received a lot of attention on this blog:

So, unsurprisingly, I’ve got to share Andrew Mark Henry’s new “Religion for Breakfast” video, “The Origins of Satan”:

Defining ‘religion’: four options

In Units 1.3, ‘Family Resemblance v. Suprahuman Essentialism’, and 1.6, ‘The Three B’s: Belief, Behavior, and Belonging’, I’ll be introducing a handful of definitions of religion to my students who are taking ‘Religion in Global Context’ this year. Unit 1.3’s first draft is finished. Unit 1.6 will be complete next week, probably. I’ll share them in due time. For now, I’m writing out some of my thoughts on these definitions as part of my thinking-process.

Family Resemblance

The first theory, and the one that probably resonates the most with me personally, is the ‘Family Resemblance’ theory. This way of defining religion is inspired by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on the definition of words. Wittgenstein challenges the idea that there can be a definition of the word ‘game’, as one example, that actually represents all the things we call ‘games’.

In his book, Philosophical Investigations (§ 66), Wittgenstein asks these questions:

“Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. – Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared!”

As we can see, there are board, card, and ball games. There are games we play without an opponent. There are games without a winner/loser. There are games like ‘ring-a-ring-a-roses’ played by kids that are for pure fun/amusement. We might say that this game has a goal (fun! falling!) and rules (sing this song until you fall down). But does it have a feedback system? If someone doesn’t fall, can they still have fun? Do they ‘lose’? You get the idea.

In an excellent summary of Wittgenstein’s thinking, ‘Wittgenstein: Family Resemblance’ (very much worth reading in its entirety), FEEST.IO says this:

‘The ‘family’ that constitute games may share various features between them, but need not all share any one feature, like in the following sets:

{A,B,C} {B,C,D} {C,D,E} {D,E,F}

‘We see here that ‘C’ is common to the first three sets but not the fourth just as balls may be common to rugby, golf and tennis but not chess. However, golf, tennis and chess share the feature of being non-contact whereas rugby does not. We would call all of these activities games, however, even if they are not united by any singular property.’

The same might be true of religion. Maybe four religions have divine beings but the fifth doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not a religion. It just means that not all religions share the exact same features.

To see this idea applied to religion, I recommend Andrew Mark Henry’s ‘What is Religion?’:

Suprahuman Essentialism

Of course, what bothers some philosophers is that Wittgenstein’s family resemblance approach seems to leave the door open for all sorts of things to be considered a ‘religion’ including sports, Wall Street, and even Coca-Cola. Yes, Coca-Cola. See Henry’s view on that idea here:

So, while I don’t know of anyone who would argue in a Platonic/Augustinian sense that the word ‘religion’ has some essential meaning—some ‘form’ if you will—there are scholars like the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith who advocate for definitions that at least include some sort of suprahuman being. This isn’t a ‘superhuman’, per se, but something above human. Let me share Smith’s definition from his book,  Religion: What it Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, p. 22 (emphasis mine):

Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.

Smith’s definition covers a lot of ground. It can include more ‘personal’ gods like those common to forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It can include the dynamic found in Hinduism which has both a monoid (Brahman) and various gods. It can include ‘the Dao’ of Daoism, which is impersonal, and sort of like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars mythology. It can include ancestors and their veneration, as we find in all sorts of cultures. But it rejects all non-theistic ‘religions’, whether that be a form of Buddhism, Confucianism, Satanism, Dudeism, whatever.

The Albanese Definition

Catherine Albanese of UC Santa Barbara has a definition of religion known popularly as the ‘4 C’s’ listed in her book, America: Religion and Religions (the summary of which I’m drawing from Joseph P. Laycock’s Speak of the Devil, pp. 118-119):

  1. Creed: ‘an explanation about the meaning of human life’;
  2. Code: ‘rules than govern human behavior’;
  3. Cultus: ‘rituals that perform the creed and codes’;
  4. Communities: ‘that are bound together by the other three elements’.

The Bostian Definition

My colleague, Nate Bostian, has one more C. His definition of religion that’s he taught students is this. Religion is:

A Religion is a shared CONSCIOUSNESS of Ultimate Reality, Supreme Value, or Collective Identity, which is bounded by a shared CREED of beliefs about the world and humanity, a shared CODE of moral values and standards, and a shared CULT of sacred rituals and events, – all of which unify and bind together an identifiable COMMUNITY of persons.

In essence, this definition is an agreement between Smith and Albanese.

I won’t push my students to choose one. In fact, I hope that the course continues to complicate their understanding. They’ll learn about a variety of religions with Hinduism and Judaism receiving the most attention. Confucianism will be highlighted toward the end to complicate matters further. They’ll encounter Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Pastafarianism, and Dudeism, at least. As you can see from that list, some of these aren’t religions by one definition but are religions by another.

Teaching about Paul and his letters online

Rembrandt’s ‘St. Paul in Prison’ showing Paul being productive while practicing ‘social distancing’ (via Wikimedia Commons)

Students taking my class ‘The Christian Scriptures’ (a.k.a., ‘New Testament’) will spend most of the last few weeks of the semester engaging the Pauline Epistles. Due to COVID-19, there’s a possibility they’ll have to do this from home. Therefore, it’s time for me to begin gathering some online resources. If you think of something to add to this list, please leave a comment (but remember, I teach high school):

  1. Laura Nasrallah of Harvard University has a bunch of short videos on Paul and his letters: The Letters of Paul. I think I may use a lot of this material, especially since the videos are shorter.
  2. BibleProject has overviews of each epistle: New Testament Playlist. And recently they created an introduction to the Epistles.
  3. Some of Religion for Breakfast‘s (Andrew Henry) videos, such as ‘Where Did Ancient Christians Meet?’ and ‘Why Did the Romans Persecute Christians?’, could be useful.
  4. Bible Odyssey has articles such as Davina C. Lopez’s ‘Paul’; Paula Fredriksen’s ‘Paul and Judaism’ and ‘Paul and the Kingdom’; and Cavin C. Concannon’s ‘Paul and Authorship’ that are all bite-size and mostly readable.
  5. And obviously, I’ll have my students read from Paul’s letters themselves via BibleGateway.com.

Also, while students won’t be able to enter class to a ‘Song of the Day’ if we are forced online, I want to continue providing my Slides with one slide containing an embedded link to a YouTube video with what would’ve been the Song of the Day. So, what songs would you choose for Paul and his letters?

Resources for teaching Religious Studies online

Fun fact: my first teaching gig was through an online campus. (Shout-out: Western Seminary!) Also, because so many of my students miss a lot of class during the Spring Semester due to athletic events, fine arts conventions, etc., my curriculum has been 90% digital for about a year (in-class and homework). I use Google Classroom, Google Docs, Google Forms. So, when my employer announced we’re extending spring break due to COVID-19, and then going online indefinitely after that, I felt ready. I’ve been doing classes with an online element since I started teaching.

Many of you don’t feel as confident. One thing I’d stress is to not be a perfectionist about this. My class notes are digital not to supplant in-class educating but to supplement the learning of students who may miss a day or three because of a baseball tournament out of town. My recommendation: aim to be realistic. This is a pandemic. You weren’t given months and months to prepare for this. Build your online class to maintain learning but don’t try to match the glory of your classroom. It’s can’t be done. Online learning is no replacement for brick-and-mortar education.

Also, for those of you who work in higher ed: consider not doing an excellent job. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but as I said on Facebook and Twitter this morning: ‘Ok, but seriously, educator friends at the college-level and higher: if your classes move online do a decent job but don’t do a great job because you know many administrators will be looking into the feasibility of moving your classes online permanently so they can cut costs because education is a for-profit product to many of them.’

I’m not alone in this sentiment. See Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s ‘Please do a bad job of putting your courses online’.

If you need to provide lectures for your students, consider Andrew Mark Henry’s advice for how to use YouTube:

For those who teach Religious Studies, Wabash Center has a bunch of resources available (some which may be useful for other subjects). Also, AAR sent out an email with suggestions and links. Also, don’t forget, I shared a series of YouTube channels I think will have helpful content.

Is Jediism a religion?

‘What is religion?’

This is the question I ask in a variety of ways for the first couple weeks of my class ‘Introduction to World Religion’ (to be named ‘Religion in Global Context’ in 2020-21). One of the ways I’ve had my students wrestle with this question is through a debate. I would split the class in half. One side had to represent the legitimacy of Jediism* and the other Pastafarianism. (Aside: Eventually, I dropped Jediism because it won most of the time…like 90% of the time. I replaced it with ‘Dudeism’—a Taoism-like religion based on the cult film The Big Lebowski. The outcome is more even now. Which makes me wonder why Jediism was so easy to embrace as a religion compared to Pastafarianism and Dudeism.) The point of this exercise is to get them thinking about how we use the word ‘religion’, what it defines, and how subjective our uses can be.

I mention this because Andrew Mark Henry, the scholarly and creative mind behind the YouTube page ‘Religion for Breakfast’, has created a timely video on this topic. I’ll definitely be showing this to my students in the future. If you haven’t checked out Religion for Breakfast, please do. The videos are good and getting better. The content is well-researched. (Henry put notes in the video description and often has in-video citations.)

I think it’s worthwhile to ask questions about newer or lesser-known religions in order to challenge the ‘world religion’ paradigm that equates authentic religion (consciously or subconsciously) with the older, more adhered to, structured religions. It’s one thing to suggest that Coca-Cola is a religion but something else to ask if Jediism or Pastafarianism are (or is it?).

Anyway, if you’d like to see the most recent version of my debate guidelines (I plan on enhancing the criteria and structure before I teach again next fall), here it is:

*WordPress kept trying to change ‘Jediism’ to ‘Judaism’. Even the algorithm has a bias.

Why do people leave their childhood religions?

According to the Pew Forum’s analysis in 2016:

Among those who say they were raised exclusively by Protestants, roughly eight-in-ten now identify with Protestantism, including 80% of those raised by two Protestant parents and 75% of those raised by a single parent who was Protestant. Most who were raised exclusively by Protestants but who no longer identify as such are now religious “nones,” with smaller numbers now identifying with Catholicism or other religions.

‘One-in-Five Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes’

What does this tell us? Well, it indicates that at least among Protestants the greatest indicator of your potential religiosity is the religion of your parents. Other researchers have confirmed this theory.

In Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, Christian Smith, Bridget Ritz, and Michael Rotolo make this observation on pages 6-7: ‘The best general predictor of what any American is like religiously, after comparing all of the other possible variables and factors, is what their parents were like religiously when they were raising their children…when viewing Americans as a whole, the influence of parents on religiousness trumps every other influence, however much parents and children may assume otherwise.’

This raises an important question: What about the rise of the ‘Nones’, i.e. those with no religious affiliation? Surely, most of their parents weren’t Nones! Andrew Henry’s recent episode of Religion for Breakfast attempts to tackle this related question, ‘Why Do People Leave Their Childhood Religion?’ Since this the first question that arose in my mind when I read that most people follow the religion of their parents, I was excited to see this video being released at this moment. Watch it!