2015 - Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion

Friday, November 20,2015
Pre-Workshop Refreshments 12:00 pm
Workshop, 12:20-5:45 pm
Georgia State University
Atlanta, Georgia


“...in any given society, the social practices of reading and writing are systematically regulated. The social effects of this regulation are produced, therefore, by the concerted operation of social institutions, not only by acts of individual judgment.  

Once this point has been given its due, it should be possible to shear away the philosophical problem of aesthetic value from the historical problem of canon-formation… The problem of canon-formation is one aspect of a much larger history of the ways in which societies have organized and regulated practices of reading and writing…”

John Guillory “Canon” in Lentrichia and McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary Study, 239, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990 (1995).


In canon, the canon would limit me. We students are the laboratory of canon, the experimental space of working on, working out, and augmenting what it is. In metaphor canon is a limitless language I use, whose origins are my origins. To paraphrase Baruch Spinoza, nothing is canonical in an absolute sense apart from the mind. A canon is an act of the mind. It is a metaphor. The aporia, the opportunity, is the question of the relationship of the two metaphors of laboratory and canon; the relationship, further, of the two canons of laboratory and metaphor. Course, canon, introduction: In what sense am I bound? And to what?

Nancy Levene, “Courses and Canons in the Study of Religion (With Continual Reference to Jonathan Z. Smith)” JAAR, December 2012, 1001-02. Emphasis ours.


In year five, SORAAAD will focus on the role of canon. Twenty-five years after Guillory, what does canon mean as a conceptual valence of research design? How is canon – its creation, imposition, and contestation – meaningful for those we studyWe will look at the implied and overt canons we deploy in designing qualitative research, the canons deployed by the subjects of our research, and the politics of representation and classification. Karen King, Jennifer KnustKecia AliTerje Stordalen, Karen Fields, Rudy Busto, Laura Ammon, and Doug Cowan will speak. Topics will include canon and canon-making in the study of Early Christianity; Gender and Islam; Race; and Science Fiction. 

Participants and panelists in this year’s workshop will explore questions crucial both to their areas of specialization and to religious studies as a discipline. How can we track the varied and dynamic ways that ‘canon’ morphs as an assertion of hegemony across space and time?  How do we relate deep studies of relatively small populations to larger discourses without distorting particular expressions as definitively representative? Who gets to canonize?  How do we track factional fixations within canon? To what end and with what pivots can we productively compare canons? How do we continue to integrate research that demonstrates how canonical concerns have warped our study of religions both in- and outside a “Western context,” e.g., by privileging some forms to the detriment of scholarly understandings of factionalisms, esotericisms, indigenous religions, fictional religions, and new religions? Beyond text and logocentrism, how can we talk about canons of emotion and art?  

Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion” will be of interest to scholars who already enact social science and critical humanities research methodologies; to those who want to develop techniques to denaturalize canon; and to anyone who wants to rethink how canons materialize, function, and are used to normalize specific power structures.

The full program is available as a PDFrecommended for smart phones 


12:00 Pre-Workshop Refreshments: light snacks and beverages will be provided

12:20-12:30 Introduction: SORAAAD Year Five    Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion 

Ipsita Chatterjea, for the SORAAAD workshop committee.


Part One: Canon, Canonicity, and Comparison

How do we compensate for or contextualize privileging extant texts without distorting particular expressions as definitively representative? Who gets to canonize?   How do we shake up our understandings of the complex time- and space-contingent structures that generate Canon?


12:30-1:35 Segment One:  Canon: Anatomies and Materialities

As we work across case studies in different traditions where canon is a key component, to what end, with what compromises, and with what pivots can we productively compare canons? 

Terje Stordalen, University of Oslo 

Deconstructing Canonical Anatomies

Jennifer Knust, Boston University 

There is No Bible/There is a Bible: Thinking about the Materiality of Text

Krista Dalton, Columbia University - Moderator


1:40-2:35 Segment Two:  There is No Author/There is Author-Function: Further Thoughts on Practices of Ascription and Canon Formation

Karen King, Harvard University  

William Arnal, University of Regina - Moderator


2:35-3:15 Workshop Break 

Sponsored by the University of Regina Religious Studies Department

A light lunch and beverages will be provided.


Part Two: Shaking off Canonical Constraints 

How has canon constrained our units of observation for research on religion? Can we use work in fields that have to contend with canon as a problematic or warping frame to shake ourselves loose of canonical presumptions? How do we do that at the level of designing, coding, reading, or notation? 


3:15 -4:20 Segment One: Canon, Collective Identities, Hegemony, and Social Regulation

Who are you calling “fringe,” “heterodox,” “apostate” or “primitive”?  How is canon created? What functions as canon? How does any thing become “Canon” or canon? How has canon malformed our research design for indigenous religions, new religions, esotericism, secularism, and the paranormal in relation to “religion.”  What of our understandings of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity? Or, what has been useful in restructuring work where this has been a problem?

Kecia Ali, Boston University 

Canon and Gender in the Study of the Muslim 'Tradition'

Karen Fields, Independent Scholar

Race in America: An Elementary [or Elemental] Form of Religious Life

Ipsita Chatterjea - Moderator


4:25-5:45 Segment Two: Canon and/in Science Fiction

What is Canon for those we study and what are the terms of Canonization and how are understandings of Canon wielded?  What functions as canon for those we study, how do we track this and talk about it? On message boards, moderators admonish posters not to argue with each other on the basis of “Head Canon” and then ban them from discussion when they will not stop.  How have people analyzed events where fights over priorities in variously asserted common canon play out? How do we chart the evidence of self-identification of elements within a canon, discern the rules of deployment and note the emergence of conflicting canons? How do we analyze these phenomena where notions of canon are very much in play, sites of extended, personal heated arguments and other forms of enactment?

Rudy Busto, University of California, Santa Barbara  

The "Nine Billion Names of God" and Science Fiction's Disloyal Canons

Doug Cowan, Renison University College

Lo(o)se Canons: Rethinking the Need for Canons at All

Laura Ammon, Appalachian State University - Respondent

David Walker, University of California, Santa Barbara  - Moderator


The SORAAAD workshop is sponsored by: the AAR’s Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group, the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group, the SBL’s Metacriticisms of Biblical Scholarship Group, and the SBL’s Redescribing Early Christianity Group

The SORAAAD workshop and the break have been underwritten by the University of Regina Religious Studies Department, whom we thank for its ongoing support and the support of William Arnal, Head of Department.

SORAAAD's committee would like to thank Monique Moultrie and the Religious Studies Department at Georgia State University for supporting SORAAAD 2015. 

SORAAAD’s committee would like to thank Matt Sheedy and The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog for their ongoing support of the workshop.

Registration.  Please send an email to soraaad@gmail.com. Place “registration” in the subject line, and include your name, indication of rank (independent scholar, graduate student, professor, etc.), and institution if applicable in the body of the email.

You might wish to review the SORAAAD Workshop Ethos.

Registration is free

Registration Limit: 55 


We ask that everyone read:

Guillory, John, “Canon.” In Critical Terms for Literary Study, 233-49,Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.  

Levene, Nancy, “Courses and Canons in the Study of Religion (with Continual Reference to Jonathan Z. Smith).” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 998-1024, December 2012.

Smith, J.Z. “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon.” In Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, 36-52, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982

Robinson, Lillian, “Treason our Text: Feminist Challenges to Literary canon.” In Adams & Searle, Critical Theory Since 1965, 572-82. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1990 (1986).

Stordalen, Terje. Canon and Canonical Commentary: Comparative Perspectives on Canonical Ecologies. In T. Stordalen & S. Naguib (Eds.), The Formative Past and the Formation of the Future: Collective Remembering and Identity Formation (133-160). Oslo: The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 2015.


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