Burton L. Mack in conversation on the topic of "In Search of an Anthropology of Religion"

On 27 September, 2007, the ISS hosted Burton L. Mack, distinguished and innovative scholar of religion, as speaker for the second edition of the ISS Distinguished Speaker Series. The event, a conversation between Burton Mack and the ISS director Professor Vincent L. Wimbush on the topic, “In Search of an Anthropology of Religion,” was a dialogical probing into Mack’s evolving interest in the social process of mythmaking at work in the dominant Christian discourse. “I’m not an historian of religion,” he stated, “I just want to unpack Christian myth and ritual.”

At Professor Wimbush’s prompting and cognizant of Sartre’s dictum “you never know where you are until you look back,” Mack charted the development of his thought and career. Born into a conservative Christian family, Mack’s questioning of the ground on which Christians base their faith started early. He found little attractive in the Christian story, but sought to make sense of it. Relentless inquiry prompted Mack to search diverse venues for satisfactory answers. In seminary, Mack investigated Presbyterianism, which, in contrast to the Christianity of his upbringing, holds closely to the Bible as its charter document. He began to identify the feedback-mechanism aspect of scriptures, where consulting the Bible is based on one’s presumptions, providing already anticipated answers.

Mack left for Germany to study under Hans Conzelmann, but he still could not resolve the problematic issues that he apprehended. He searched in vain for reasons that Christians assume that the gospel stories are self evident. Why was the Christian story attractive, how did the story of a sacrificial death appeal to early Christians, and how and why would anyone (modern or ancient) convert? The body of academic literature that purported to uncover how Christianity worked resorted to “insider discourses” and hermeneutical circles.

It was then that Mack changed tack and broadened his approach to the study of religion. He incorporated anthropological studies and theoretical models as a way to translate the Christian cosmos into a secular parlance for understanding religion. Through the work of Emile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and life-long friend and conversation partner Jonathan Z. Smith, an historian of religion and social theorist at University of Chicago, Mack felt equipped to negotiate the growing data of other cultures (and his own) and to examine the investiture of culture and society with meaning and value. Such theorizing allowed Mack to expose what he saw as a naïveté in history of religions scholarship while allowing categories and terms to be used cross-culturally.

In his work on Christian mythmaking, Mack countered the academic focus on the historical Jesus instantiated by the Jesus Seminar. He emphasized the gospel narratives—their telling and retelling—as Christianity’s nucleus. Jonathan Z. Smith has argued that Christianity is unusual, if not exceptional, for its collapsing of myth and ritual: the myth is about the ritual and the rituals reenact the myth. Mack sees “worldview” as the seamless combination of natural and social milieus wherein myths are stories that exhibit the convergence of these two environments.

mackweba.jpgMack’s current two-part work coalesces a lifetime of thinking by using ethnography to articulate a social theory of religion. In his forthcoming Myth and the Christian Nation: A Social Theory of Religion (Equinox Press), Mack further explicates the theoretical parameters forged in The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy (Continuum, 2001). He traces the use of ‘religion’ from Columbus to Jonathan Z. Smith in order to identify mental mythic grammars that contribute to worldviews and articulate relationships in any given society. Mack applies the ethnographical range of functions of myths and rituals to an analysis of the Christian myth-ritual system and its social logic. He posits a dominant Christian logic of singularity that leads up to the modern idea of ‘nation’ and notes the urgency for rethinking the role of ‘religion’ in light of the observable pluralism.

Questions raised from the audience allowed Mack elaborate on the Christian resurrection myth as well as the value of theory for the study of religion. He explained that resurrection from the dead is apocalyptic myth and does not derive from the earlier communal explanations of Jesus’ death as martyrdom. At some point, social interest must have sparked the shift of meaning from martyrdom to sacrifice in order to make sense of the natural reality of the leader’s death, on the one hand, and his enduring cultural significance, on the other.

Audience members asked both Wimbush and Mack to continue their discussion of theory by elaborating on its merits: Is theory important because it induces self-reflexive thinking and allows crosscultural communication or because it helps the scholar better understand the phenomenon of religion? In America, Mack says, scholars habitually obfuscate the culture and refuse to acknowledge the context of their scholarship. The same negligence saturates Christianity, and the responsible scholar must call attention not only to the circumstances of discourse, but also to the situational erasure itself. Wimbush agreed, adding that, although everyone signifies, dominant culture forces those on the margins to be more conscious of the dissonance between their own mythmaking and that of normative culture. Theory allows conversation because it forces everyone to “look at yourself looking,” thereby shortcircuiting the unexamined power of religion—and academic discourse.

Burton Mack’s career has been marked by studying mythmaking at what he calls the “elite” level; it is deconstructive and academic, a posture that he sees complementing the constructive work of the ISS in theorizing the scripturalized mythic grammars expressed in a variety of texts and in heterogeneous cultural settings. Mack sees his role now as being much like an antenna, attuned to special patterns and rhythms of scripturalizing upon which the ISS community can focus and theorize. Modestly dismissing the social efficacy of his own work, Mack challenged the ISS to force a seachange in scholarship and “change the way” that people think about scriptures as windows onto significant meaning-making practices.

To see the event flyer, click here.

To read the original press release for the event, click here

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