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:

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”:

Putting religion in its global context (2): three premises for teaching religion in high school

It’s been a few weeks since my first post (see ‘What’s wrong with “World Religion”?’) on the topic of rethinking and reshaping my class formerly known as ‘World Religion’, which we’re rebranding as ‘Religion in Global Context’. I’ve completed a couple of lessons, so I’m ready to resume blogging on the topic. The first lesson—1.1, Why Study Religion in High School?—is built around AAR‘s ‘Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. Now, I teach at a private Episcopal school, so I don’t have to worry about violating the First Amendment, or tearing down the wall that separates ‘church and state’, but I do teach a diverse body of students who are associated with a variety of religious traditions. Therefore, I think the same rationale for trying to teach about religion rather that training in religion applies.

AAR promotes three premises for why we should teach religion to high schoolers:

  1. There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion in the U.S.
  2. One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.
  3. It is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary schools.

I’ll begin by asking students to explain what they think these three premises mean. Then, I’ll go premise-by-premise in order to better explain them. To teach the first premise, I’ll be walking students through a series of absolute statements—’Christians believe…Judaism teaches…Buddhists practice…’—and I’ll push students to think critically about these statements in order to help them recognize that the religion is far more complicated than most people recognize and that it needs to be rethought, as a conceptual category, in order to avoid dangerous oversimplifications.

To teach the second premise, I’ll talk to my students about (1) how Sikhs have been mistreated in American; (2) how Islamaphobia fuels this mistreatment; and (3) how Islamaphobia itself is a problem that needs to be addressed (in other words, mistreatment of Sikhs isn’t wrong just because they’re mistaken for Muslims but because Islamaphobia is a dehumanizing and misleading ideology that doesn’t represent Islam and doesn’t correctly address how to respond to difference). I’ll make sure to give students a basic introduction to Sikhism as well (no reason to show them how many Americans misunderstand Sikhism only to leave them without any understanding) using Religion for Breakfast’s helpful video:

To teach the third premise, I’ll lead them through a discussion on what makes our class different from a ‘devotional’ approach to studying religion. Then I’ll give them several reasons for studying religion even if the class isn’t teaching them what to believe religiously.

Here’s a PDF draft of this first lesson for those who are interested:

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?

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!