7 Questions for Sacred Matters

I was interviewed last year for Sacred Matters, a really interesting web magazine focussed on “public scholarship that undercuts conventional understandings of religion and reimagines the boundaries between religion and culture”. You can read the full thing here.

Most scholarship on conspiracy theories starts by attacking the rationality of their ideas. But to state that Jesus rose from the grave is obviously to challenge scientific knowledge too. Where are the scholars attacking the rationality of an idea that the majority of US citizens hold dear? In fact, much – if not most – of what we do as supposedly “secular” humans is not driven by the scientific method at all – including nationalism, political views, sport, even falling in love. As social scientists, our job is to describe, not prescribe, human social activity.

Conspiracy theories are a site of contestation as to how we understand the world. A conspiracy theory is not “a theory about a conspiracy” – I give lots of examples in the book – but rather something we are not permitted to think. That so many conspiracy theories relate to people in positions of power should make this even plainer. The important issue in conspiracy theories is not what is said, but whether we are allowed to say it. That scholars so often reinforce this good thinking/bad thinking dichotomy makes it clear that a properly critical and disinterested study of conspiracy theories is sorely needed.

 

 

The Week in Conspiracy, 20th Feb 2017

 

“Health Ranger” Mike Adams claims “I am being threatened with the ‘complete destruction’ of my reputation, my brand and my character by left-wing media operatives who have issued a new threat this week: ‘Destroy Alex Jones or we will destroy YOU.’” Poor snowflake – sounds like he’s been triggered.

https://nexusnewsfeed.com/article/geopolitics/threats-directed-towards-health-ranger-mike-adams/

Image result for growing up in the new world orderAn interesting graphic novel which wants to WAKE THE SHEEPLE. And no it’s not by you, it’s by Tom Hoover and Michael Lee:

https://www.bleedingcool.com/2017/02/19/baking-minds-growing-new-world-order/

 

Steve Bannon’s Apocalypticism:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/steve-bannon-apocalypse_us_5898f02ee4b040613138a951

 

Fake News is not a new phenomenon:

https://drdavidclarke.co.uk/2017/02/17/100-years-of-fake-news-the-german-corpse-factory/

 

Winston Churchill discusses alien life in newly-found 1939 essay:

http://www.space.com/35713-winston-churchill-discusses-search-for-alien-life.html?_ga=1.222001176.1057865260.1483620055

The Week in Conspiracy, 20 January 2017

By Mitch O’Connell, via BoingBoing

I haven’t done one of these in a while. That’s because all the wild conspiracy stuff I used to post is now our everyday reality, and the stuff of the regular news shows… So perhaps today is a good time to post.


John Carpenter publicly denies that They Live (1988) is an allegory for the secret Jewish control of the world:


Erich von Daniken appears on the Richie Allen Show. Yes, he’s still alive, and still promoting the Ancient Aliens thesis:


Delegates at the Contact in the Desert UFO conference see UFOs. A weird coincidence? Were these delegates more “ready” to see UFOs? Or were the ETs deliberately reaching out to them? Whichever reason, this sighting is by no means the only such example, and you might enjoy the Last Podcast on the Left’s take (but put the kids to bed first) – http://cavecomedyradio.com/podcast-episode/episode156-the-coronado-group-abduction/


The CIA have declassified 13 million documents and published them online. Most news outlets are focusing on a small number of inconclusive UFO reports. Sky news, however, focused on their tests on Uri Geller, something that Geller has claimed for a while, though not always being taken seriously. The papers provide evidence, however, stating that “As a result of Geller’s success in this experimental period, we consider that he has demonstrated his paranormal perception ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”

8 Thoughts about Alan Moore’s Jerusalem – Part 1

Alan Moore’s second novel, Jerusalem, was published in September 2016. It was ten years in the writing and weighs in at 1100 pages (allegedly making it the 10th longest English-language novel). Like his debut, The Voice of the Fire (highly recommended, by the way), Jerusalem again focuses on Moore’s hometown of Northampton, although this time the focus is tightened even further to the area in which he grew up, known as The Boroughs. The historical detail is all factual, and it would seem that many of the characters are drawn from Moore’s own family.

There is so much in this to talk about that I am going to follow the book’s tripartite structure, and write a post for each of Jerusalem’s three sections (it is actually available as a three-volume slipcase edition). This post is on Book 1, titled The Boroughs, and so probably won’t spoil much, as I haven’t read further yet myself.

1. Short Story Structure

As with Voice of the Fire, the first section of Jerusalem is essentially a collection of short stories. These are apparently self-contained – at least at first. The historical sweep is not so grand; Voice of the Fire starts in 10,000 BCE whereas Jerusalem only goes back to the early Medieval period, with a pilgrim arriving at the centre of England carrying a cross from Jerusalem. Here, the characters are more recent: we meet an 18th-century painter restoring the roof of St. Paul’s; a drug-addicted teenage prostitute; a black American immigrant with a bicycle with rope for tyres; and hinting at things to come, a ghost. As it progresses, it becomes clear that many of the characters are members of two families, the Warrens and the Vernalls.

2. Stylistic Experimentation

This first section is relatively free of the kind of stylistic experimentation which was a part of Voice of the FireThe Black Dossier and the latter parts of Promethea. There are clearly different voices, but on the whole, the prose is very accessible. If anything, the progression is from a very plain, contemporary mode towards more stylised chapters like Snowy Vernall’s rooftop soliloquy, but nowhere do we have the dense ‘adventures in style’ that punctuated The Black Dossier.

3. Alan is Alma

It seems that much of the historical material in Jerusalem are drawn from Moore’s family, and indeed the central events of the overall narrative – four-year-old Michael Warren’s several minutes of lifelessness after choking on a cough sweet – happened to Moore’s brother Michael. But in Jerusalem, Michael’s elder sibling is a girl named Alma. Nevertheless, Alma is clearly Alan (and the caption on the photograph on the dust jacket tells you so), and he paints quite a coruscating portrait of himself, downplaying his success, and frequently mocking his physical appearance.

Ironically, gender-swapping characters has become a feature of the mainstream comics and superhero movies of which Moore is famously ‘less than keen’.

4. Leitmotif

There are the usual vocal tics (think of Rorschach’s “hurm” or William Gull’s “I just made a little sound”), the most obvious being the drunk’s “Ah ha ha ha ha!” There is also a sort of meta-language mentioned several places, described as “unfolding” in the brain once heard (ironically, something which Grant Morrison also played with in The Invisibles). But here the most obvious use of leitmotif is visual. The image of the arms being raised, the various uses of “corner”, the repeating circular pattern of the Bedlam Jennies, and so on. This reminds us that Moore was an artist first – and drew the book’s cover – and despite the lack of illustration here, Jerusalem is still a very visual piece.

5. Leave it to the Prose

Moore’s comics of the 1980s were famed for their long captions of purple prose, and while this feature disappeared from his comics in the 1990s, his descriptive skill is very much in evidence here. As with the previous point, these are often visual, but there is also a playful and sometimes course sense of humour at play. A couple of random examples… “She’d loitered, liminal, in libraries, skulked spectrally in sitting rooms and crept, crepuscular, through classes”; “the grat majority of men found Alma to be ‘generally alarming’ in the words of one aquaintance, or ‘a fucking menopausal nightmare’ in the blunter phrasing of another, although even this was said in what seemed almost an admiring tone”; “all the world with its shining marble hours, its lichen centuries and fanny-sucking moments all at once, his every waking second constantly exploded to a thousand years of incident and fanfare, an eternal conflagration of the senses where stood Snowy Vernall, wide-eyed and unflinching at the bright carnival heart of his own endless fire”.

6. Time is a Dimension

As suggested by that last quote, Moore is again playing with the idea of time as a dimension. Characters like Snowy Vernall and the Deathmonger seem aware of past and future, and the chronological sprawl of the chapters seems to link all times together with hints of some grander narrative. As with Watchmen‘s wonderful Dr Manhattan sequence, Moore suggests that all of time is as set as space, completely demolishing the idea of Free Will. This will become even more apparent in the second book, however.

7. When Narratives Collide

Despite the numerous narrators across several centuries, there are nevertheless hints that those set in the present day will come together in some event. Indeed, it seems that they all take place on the evening of Alma’s exhibition, anticipated in the prologue, and which is also mentioned by other characters. For example, Marla, a teenage prostitute and addict is mentioned at least three times in later chapters, being seen by other characters and being mentioned in a conversation between four angels. It seems likely that these characters will come back into play in the third and final book.

8. A Plot!

Only in the final chapter of this part does the de facto plot begin, although it was discussed in the prologue – Michael Warren’s choking on a cough sweet, aged four, his subsequent several minutes of apparent death, and the memories of where he went during those minutes, newly recovered following a bump on the head in his 50s. And so we move into Book 2…

Channelled Texts in the Classroom?

During my co-teaching assignment in 2014-15, New Age Beliefs and Practises, when stuck for a seminar topic for the first week’s class, given the lack of a set reading, my senior colleague simply went to his office and produced a stack of primary texts on the New Age from the 1940s to 1990s. These he distributed among the students, asking them to try and find examples of the typical New Age elements as presented during the lecture – millennialism, Eastern religions, UFOs, “energy” and so on.

With a bit of coaxing, this worked surprisingly well. What interested me about this activity was that the students were given the data cold, and asked to interpret using what we had learned in the class. Also, it gave them the original material in their hands – unlike most classes on religion, I could actually give them a copy of the original document and ask them to leaf through it. This neatly makes the point that religion – whatever it might be – is both something mundane, and something which is continuing to happen in the modern world.

Inspired by this, I tried a different version of the same technique in my adult education course, Alternative Religions, in 2015. Rather than a book, in the session where we focussed on prophecy, I gave each student an anonymised channelled text and asked them to speculate on where and when it came from. Roughly half of the texts were “UFO” texts from the post-War period, ranging from George Adamski’s messages in the 1950s to Bashar’s in the 2000s, and the remainder were made up of more conventionally religious channelled texts ranging from the Old Testament prophets, to Aleister Crowley’s 1904 Book of the Law, to modern revivalist Christian preachers.

This exercise had two benefits. Firstly, it was quite simply fun. I deliberately “gamified” it: they were a small group, but chatty and enthusiastic, so when some – pleasingly – got it right, there was as much fun as when someone did not. In essence, they forgot they were learning. Moreover, tests have demonstrated that competition improves student’s retention of information (Worm & Buch 2014).

Secondly, without foreknowledge of which was modern and which was not, which was Christian and which was not, the students found it hard to tell the difference. Therefore they realised that the assumed self-evident difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” religious formations was proven to be fallacious – at least in terms of their texts and the teachings they contain. UFO Contactees in the 1980s, ceremonial magicians in the 1900s and revivalist preachers all used a common language drawn from the Bible, even though they are typically considered to antithetical to Christianity. In other words, when preconceptions were removed, the data proved to have a lot more similarity than difference, and again the point is made that without preconceptions, the difference between mainstream and alternative religions mostly comes down to expectation. And crucially, the group – apparently – discovered these facts for themselves.

From a disciplinary perspective, this is of crucial importance to me. For Religious Studies as a discipline to earn its place at the academic table, it has to do more than legitimising certain discourses at the expense of others (McCutcheon 1997). A fine ideal, but one which is often made more complicated by the concerns which drive people into the field in the first place. You cannot make a student – almost certainly raised in an implicitly or explicitly religiously normative culture – comprehend these issues simply by telling them, but you can lead them to realise it for themselves.

This exercise makes that point succinctly, and in a non-confrontational way. I can give a student a piece of religion happening right now (or at least, within memory), where they have as much context as I do. At the same time, I can challenge the perceived need to separate real religion from popular narratives, and at the same time expose the power plays of those who deem it necessary. It is a simple and enjoyable exercise, but when successful it leads students to see profound issues at the heart of the discipline. This makes it a very powerful strategy for the classroom.

Refs:

McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford University Press

Worm, Bjarne S. and Buch, Steen V. 2014. “Does competition work as a motivating factor in e-learning? A randomized controlled trial”. PLoS One, 9(1).

The Week in Conspiracy, 30 August 2016

A review of Holy Hell, a documentary by Will Allen about his years in the Buddhafield, a Californian group led by hypnotherapist Michel. It seems like the tone is relatively even-handed, which means that this will be of interest to scholars like me, as well as the use of archival footage. I say “relatively even-handed” however as I have yet to see it, and there is certainly a slightly sensationalist tone to the trailer. Ideas of sexual misconduct are, of course, the standard accusation in the construction of malevolent Otherness, and has been since the Classical world, and financial misconduct is another. Nevertheless, they do happen, and there have been a number of recent documentaries (“Going Clear”, “The Family”) which trade on the “corrupt leader and his brainwashed stooges” model, which is worrying. As religious identities become more polarised, are we seeing a return to the media universally constructing new religions as dangerous cults?

Richard Bartholomew has an interesting piece of the growing presence of the more outlandish conspiracy theories in American evangelism, entitled “Jim Bakker and the David Ickeization of Christianity”:

Pentecostalism has a strong sense of the other-worldly, and its emphasis on spiritual forces sometimes means a readiness to accept claims about “occult” and Satanic conspiracies. Sometimes, pop-culture science-fiction elements may be incorporated, such as the idea that UFOs are visions of demons. However, the extravagance of the conspiracy theories now being promoted by Bakker are closer to the realms of David Icke’s imaginings than the exhortations of old-time religion or even the old conspiracy theories that were dusted off and made less overtly anti-semitic by Bakker’s old employer Pat Robertson in 1991.

James Carrion has new evidence suggesting a larger role in the UFO story for the Joint Security Control, a strategic deception unit formed during WW2 and answerable directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A revised charter allowing them to operate in peacetime, as well as wartime, come into operation in May 1947, immediately preceding the original wave of “flying saucer” sightings. A long, very detailed, but fascinating read for anyone interested in the historical development of the UFO narrative, and its origins. At http://historydeceived.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/human-deception-at-playduring-ufo-wave.html

What makes an engaging teacher?

What makes an engaging teacher? By thinking about some of the teachers and lecturers I have had, and what I consider to be their strengths and weaknesses, I might be able to clarify for myself what I could do from a practical point of view to improve my own teaching.

One thing that my favourite teachers have done is to create a sense of community – that the class and teacher were discovering together. Carole Cusack used to add details from her life in the lectures – I remember her telling a story about her best friend’s husband having an affair and thinking that she was exactly the same lecturing as she was in person in the pub. But of course, that makes her more relatable and dissolves some of the distance between student and teacher. I have used this technique myself, I think to good results. For example, I will often make self-deprecating jokes and refer to myself as “David”, rather than “Dr Robertson”. Something else I’ll do is to make occasional slightly sarcastic side-comments about the scholars we are looking at. These probably go over most students’ heads, but add another layer of commentary and critique for the more advanced students.

A different example of a teacher creating a sense of purposeful community was in the course From Primitive to Indigenous which James Cox ran in 2007. The course was based around his then-unpublished book of the same title, and we were encouraged to be as critical in our tutorial work as we could be. I took him at his word, and he responded with genuine enthusiasm to the challenges, and I believe some of the criticisms were addressed in the eventual book. So the tutorial work, in this case, actually meant something beyond my own marks, and our involvement in the class and the discussion actually involved us in the larger scholarly community.

Another variation of this is the seminar-style classes that some Biblical Studies classes use, where there is no formal lecture material at all, but rather the group work through a text together, with the discussion taking shape as it will. In Helen Bond’s classes at New College, University of Edinburgh, one or more students would have prepared some type of presentation on a significant section of the text, chosen by the lecturer, which provides the seminar assessment. For the rest of the session, however, the group is free to move at whatever pace it wants, going into more depth on whatever piques interest, or even to go off into interesting tangents. This obviously requires the lecturer to have a great deal of knowledge at their fingertips, so might not be realistic for a junior lecturer. Less obviously, however, it requires a firm but subtle hand on the tiller to make sure that the session gets to where it needs to to work through the course. On a more mundane level, such an arrangement only works for a small group of perhaps fourteen at most.

These latter two models of teaching are examples of what Dominic Corrywright refers to as “complex learning”: rather than a model in which “the tutor informs the class of certain facts”, the teachers become “co-users of open access information” (2013, 4). Indeed, Cusack’s style of lecturing brings some of this complexity to the traditional lecture format, by levelling the presumed differences of status and authority between student and teacher. As Corrywright acknowledges, although complex learning emphasises the use of multiple platforms of learning (including group discussion and tasks, audio and video, apps, etc.), the traditional lecture can still be an important component of pedagogy.

An important way of “complexifying” our lectures, then – and something which all of these teachers have in common – is that they give you a lot of interesting data first, rather than top-loading with theory. That model is still followed by more traditional lecturers: my supervisor once told me “If I don’t give them the theory before the data, how will they know how to interpret it?” The issue of authority is clear here – in a complex model, the teacher would be “discovering” the data with the students, rather than presenting their interpretation fait accompli.

Moreover, this approach can alienate a lot of students: essentially, by the time you get to the data, you’ve already lost them. This is a particular problem, perhaps, as an increasing proportion of students are at university as a necessity, rather than on a quest for personal intellectual development. For example, around 40% of Edinburgh Religious Studies students in 1st and 2nd years are student primary school teachers, why typically have no interest in theoretical issues. Similarly, there are always a number of “seekers”, who see studying religion as a way to enhance their “spiritual lives”. If we lead with data, however, the student is led into discovering the theoretical material for themselves – although naturally the course was structured in that way all along. The different groups of students are therefore interested from the start, and are almost tricked into theorising.

REFS:

Corrywright, Dominic (2013) “Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being”, in DISKUS 14 (2013), pp 1-20. At http://www.basr.ac.uk/diskus/diskus14/corrywright.pdf