Deconstructing the AAR

[World, December 24, 1994]

As late fall slides to winter, across the country Christians are winding up another year of living the religious life. Late fall, and across the country members of the American Academy of Religion are winding up another year of studying the religious life.

The distinction between living it and studying it may seem artificial; most Christians study scripture, as well as theology and devotional works. But the study based in faith is not like the study of religion per se. In the halls of academe, religion is just one more sociological phenomenon, to be appraised from a safe distance (after all, He may not be a tame lion). Not that all the members of the Academy are religious abstainers; there are mainliners, goddess-worshippers, Buddhists, and the odd evangelical or two. But the AAR meets in the ivory tower, not the church.

The Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion is stunning in size; 7600 attend the four-day event, with as many as 44 workshops taking place simultaneously on 19 floors of two hotels. This year I am flying to Chicago to see it for the first time, and I’m a little intimidated. Though I’ve had enough practical religion to armwrestle any challenger, and even earned a modest theological degree, I’ve never stood on the lofty peak of analysis, critique and deconstruction.

There are many ways to deconstruct the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. My Dead/White/Male Oppress-o-Meter indicates that attendees are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, but to all appearances still alive (overwhelmingly so, judging from the humidity level in the cattle-jammed hotel corridors).

Or one could analyze the meeting in terms of culture-war politics: a notice in the convention newsletter about conservative criticism of the 1993 “Reimagining Conference” is titled “Harassment and Violence Against Women Scholars.” A buzz-word generator of workshop titles would spit out two basic areas of interest: “Rethinking Womanist Ecological Categories of Queer Multicultural Spirituality” and “New Horizons in Ugaritic Studies.”

Lines of analysis like these look promising, but my airplane seatmate suggests another approach: reading the Annual Meeting of the AAR as a fashion event. “These guys don’t know how to dress,” Vince, an ethics professor, explains. “You’ll see. They’re all the same: old sports coat, slacks, dull tie. Tattered old tweeds. Not a Harris in the bunch.” Vince, in contrast, is resplendent in a blond genuine-cashmere jacket; I hold up a pocket mirror so he can tie an elegant gold and red bow tie. “Know why I wear a bow tie?” Vince asks. “Because nobody else does.” Upon landing, I wait outside the men’s room while Vince changes into contact lenses, then we’re off for the convention hotel. I may be a little dowdy but, hey, at least I’m not wearing a sports coat.

My first challenge in sartorial analysis: a woman asks if we are going to the meeting and if she can travel along. Everything is pale: styleless beige suit, flat shoes, no makeup, crimped gray hair, and a necklace of carved African beads. I think, “Disgruntled Catholic nun.” We hike the sidewalk and chat, and eventually I ask, “Are you Catholic?” Silence, then, “Yes. But not very happy about it.”

The convention registration area is jammed and gives a good opportunity for clinical observation, as everyone that I can see is wearing clothes. Number of khaki slacks with blue work shirts: 4. Number of ponytails on men: 5. Number of ponytails on women: 2. Proportion of people in line wearing glasses: 80%. Supply of short, brainy guys: more than I could ask or imagine.

Vince’s reckoning is off: not everyone is in the sports jacket uniform. There are plenty, of course, many of them wearing a wan and desperate look that suggests they haven’t seen daylight since last year’s meeting. A hundred avatars of Bartleby the Scrivener dot the crowd.

But there are also relaxed, confident old men with ruddy faces and white hair, laughing jovially together; their suits look expensive, and I take them to be the Old Guard. On the other end of the chronological spectrum are hip ‘n’ hungry grad students, prowling for a job. These are dressed stylishly, and where possible ethnically. In contrast, two guys in boring knit shirts and jeans seem to say, “Hi, I’m clueless.”

Into the exhibition area, with 124 booths selling nothing but books. Number of males browsing the Ex Libris second-hand booth: 6. Number wearing glasses: 6. Number wearing a sports jacket: 5. Number wearing a beret: 1.

On one aisle, the corner booth is displaying Meeting the Great Bliss Queen (about Buddhist feminism, whatever that means) and God’s Phallus (please don’t tell me what that means). The next booth proudly displays the Hittite Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; its dignity stands as a rebuke to anyone who hoped they could get by with a bootleg Hittite Dictionary purchased out of the trunk of a stranger’s car. The third booth is Crossway Books, with titles by Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson. The proprietors of these booths look across the aisle at a banner reading, “In the name of Allah the beneficent, the merciful.”

I run into Vince again by the lunch line. “I saw another bow tie, but it wasn’t as good as mine,” he says. He flips the edges of the silk proudly. “I have a cummerbund to match.”

Workshops run 2 1/2 hours, which tempts the visitor to sprint about taking samples. In a cavernous gilded ballroom, a panel of book editors is speaking words of comfort to anxious scholars perched on folding chairs. The topic: how to break out of academic publishing and into the dazzling world of popular trade. “Angels, miracles, saints;” says one editor, “people are hungry for heroes. But they’re looking for a spirituality that doesn’t require you to go to church on Sunday. I call it ‘low-rent religion’: you don’t have to change your life, but you can buy the book.”

The “Feminist Theological Hermeneutics of the Bible Group” features a panel of 6 women. Average hair length: 3”. Average size: generous. Average mood: indignant.

A woman in the audience introduces herself as “a woman, a non-observant Jew, committed to women’s empowerment—and also world peace.” She wants to know if a troublesome Bible text might be “essentially oppressive; it could not be rescued, but only interrogated and perhaps rejected.” Another audience member chimes in that her church has a life-size statue of Rachel’s handmaid, in itself a puzzling bit of news. The woman disapproves of the handmaid’s ensemble, which includes chains and a tattered dress slipped below one breast. She would like a plaque near the statue to read, “The views of women expressed herein are no longer held in this church,” and recommends similar labels over select Bible verses.

The Women and Religion Section has allowed a fledgling group of conservative Christian women to meet in its name, probably because the women are Eastern Orthodox and a there is a persistent rudimentary assumption that Western = Bad, Eastern = Good. But even though the word “multicultural” appears in the meeting’s title, few of the feminist ruling class appear; one knowlegeable audience member says later, “The generals would rotate in, verify that they didn’t like it, and leave again.” Attendance in this Women’s Section meeting averages 70% male and 90% friendly.

This is probably the only workshop to open and close with prayer. The convener explains that Orthodox women “do not experience language like ‘Father, Lord, King’ as oppressive.” A panelist from Bulgaria, whose relatives were slaughtered for their faith under Communism, speaks bitterly of being labeled a “white female oppressor” at Harvard Divinity School. “I have been rejected and marginalized for being a traditional Christian,” she says.

The session’s respondent, a female Episcopal priest from Hong Kong, brings light from the upper reaches of the Women’s Section. She gently but authoritatively tackles the inclusive language problem. “Since Mary Daley’s Beyond God the Father, Westerners have been cautious about using gendered language to name the sacred,” she says; nevertheless, if these women want to say Father, Son, and King, “we should not impose a Western framework of analysis on others.”

Is the Western interpretation, then, more liberated? Or is true liberation traditionalism—the freedom to say “Abba, Father”? The poles of the compass begin to swing, and when the respondent refers to “Eastern” perspectives there is momentary confusion as to whether she means her experience as an Asian or that of the Eastern Orthodox panelists. It would be simpler if everyone just wore black or white hats.

The final fashion word: the tall, bright-eyed man who issues my press pass is wearing a tie that shows Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird bursting out of baroque picture frames. I compliment him on it, and he looks around the vast hall. “I don’t say this,” he confides, “but sometimes it’s looney tunes around here.”

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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