Review: “How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others” by T. M. Luhrmann

In How God Becomes Real, T. M. Luhrmann’s goal is simple: to explore and explain why and how humans “conceive of that which is not available to the senses” (xi). And while other scholars highlight imagination’s role in enabling religion, Luhrmann specifically investigates how religious behavior toward the invisible other enables “what is unseen to feel more present and alter[s] the person who performs them” (xii). Put another way, her central claim is that “god or spirit – the invisible other – must be made real for people, and that this real-making changes those who do it.” To substantiate her claim, each chapter works through a different hypothesis.

In Chapter One, Luhrmann argues that “people don’t (easily) have faith in gods and spirits” (xii). She develops this argument first by highlighting that while the modern West has a culturally specific way of thinking about what is real, indeed all cultures do so, humans nonetheless “distinguish what counts as natural from what is beyond the natural, even though they may draw the line in different ways and come to different conclusions at different times about what is on which side of the line” (5). So, drawing on a range of psychological and anthropological literature, she highlights how people – cross-culturally – think about and behave regarding invisible others in a way distinct from how they interact with ordinary objects. Put another way, “one remembers and anticipates as if gods and spirits matter” through religious ritual. Luhrmann makes sense of this line between the material and invisible other by introducing what she calls the faith frame: “In this way of thinking and interpreting, people hold gods and spirits in their awareness as if those gods and spirits are present and engaged” (22). She explains the faith frame via the notion of serious play, wherein Luhrmann echoes previous anthropologists who observed that “the sacred has a play-like quality” in which “the play claims,” namely, claims with no clear root in reality, “are also serious claims about the world.”

In Chapter 2, Luhrmann explores the role of narrative and world building in establishing believable religion [1]. This world, or paracosm, enables religious followers “to sustain their faith frame” (26) and grips their “private imagination so powerfully that . . . they kindle the sense that they are true”: world building and the paracosm make god feel more real. Such religious narratives occurring within a paracosm, a constructed world, thereby enable “us to imagine the characters as if they were real” (29) and build a sort of relationship with characters; however, in Luhrmann’s discussion, those characters with whom we build relationships in the world are gods and spirits. Thus, she effectively and rightly leverages narrative cognitive sciences to explain aspects of religious experience. Moreover, while a religious world, a paracosm, can mirror fiction, the religious paracosm has certain rules of engagement, signs of participation, and means of interaction, and such “interaction with the invisible other is one of the central features that sets the special world of faith apart from fiction” (32). After describing her in-field experiences regarding these through requirements for a religious paracosm, Luhrmann again highlights how serious play, the faith frame, allows practitioners 1) to use narrative and ritual to imagine and represent an invisible god and 2) to create a “private-but-shared imaginative world” (56).

In Chapter 3, Luhrmann explores the central role of training and orienting imaginations for their respective paracosms: “Absorption and inner sense cultivation kindle the realness of gods and spirits” (58). That is, based on her fieldwork and academic studies, “something like talent and training facilitates the felt realness of gods and spirits and the kinds of experiences people deem spiritual” (60). This claim is justified first via her fieldwork on witchcraft in England and on Christianity in evangelical Christian communities, wherein individuals learned how to treat what would normally be considered internal phenomena as external with an invisible other. Such an observation is reinforced by the Tellegen Absorption Scale, which shows that “people who score highly in absorption are more likely to say that God speaks to them” and that they have experienced God being present and alive (71) – an invisible other. Furthermore, based on her fieldwork, Luhrmann argues that inner-sense cultivation enables people to experience an invisible other. That is, various traditions encourage practices wherein people treat words and images internally generated as if they were generated externally or developing more vivid mental imagery and explain its origin as externally based on a constructed paracosm. Simply put, developing one’s ability to imagine vividly and to blur the internal-external boundary yields perceived relationships with invisible others.

In Chapter 4, Luhrmann builds on the previous chapters by not just highlighting the inner-outer boundary in one’s mind but by showing how the boundary, or the in-between area, plays a role in the religious imagination inasmuch as the boundaries speaks to how different ideas of “the mind” impact understandings. Indeed, how one thinks about the mind directly impacts how one judges or interprets an event or experience. So, Luhrmann discusses three case studies involving Christian churches. Here, she highlights that people experienced God in different ways in these diverse contexts “because of the specific ways that they attend to their own experience” (100). Similarly, the means by which God “spoke” back differed based on local training, cultures, and other factors. Therefore, Luhrmann effectively demonstrates that how people understand mind-stuff, real-stuff, and the in-between directly impacts how God becomes real for them.

In Chapter 5, Luhrmann’s more technical approach shows how “practices of attention shape the most basic evidence people have that gods and spirits respond” (111). For example, individuals in certain contexts might have goosebumps; and such a stimulus in some contexts is taught to be indicative of divine presence. Therefore, she works to account for this sort of attention to stimuli. First, Luhrmann draws from Emil Kraedpelin’s notion of “kindling” to suggest that religious experiences attributed to a supernatural source shape how one experiences the events itself and future events; and kindling in an ongoing process becomes “more habituated and more fluent for members of that social group” (113). Such kindling comes about through building blocks and event cognition: certain bodily events are “incorporated into accounts of gods and spirits” (114) and “categories through which people identify the events” (114), respectively. With this theoretical framework, Luhrmann designates three broad kinds of events: phenomena with names but no specific bodily anchor (e.g., certain feelings, such as goosebumps, when they perceive god as speaking to them), bodily affordances (i.e., experiences that occur everywhere but can take special meaning in a religious tradition, such as “a Holy Spirit experience” after crying in a church setting), and anomalous events (e.g., sleep paralysis) that “may or may not carry culturally specific labels” (116). While heuristic in nature, these categories nonetheless enable Luhrmann to define how people relate to and perceive their bodily experiences. So, she links these categories with her theory of spiritual kindling from previous work to show that “the theory of spiritual kindling predicts that the frequency of events deemed spiritual is shaped by culture” (120). Finally, she shows the value of this framework through two case studies, one of a US-based charismatic church and the other of Thai Buddhists: both groups pay attention to different things. So, she concludes, “their attentional patterns can alter something as basic as their perceptual experience. ‘Kindling’ is a more specific account of how attentional learning unfolds for people” (135).

In Chapter 6, Luhrmann explores a simple question: why does prayer work? Fundamentally, she describes prayer as a metacognitive process that naturally involves emotion management and thus changes “the way people attend to their own mental processes” (139). Here, she explores how multiple facets function metacognitively: reorienting toward the positive (gratitude), organizing experiences (confession), the assertion of hope (asking), words meaning more when speaking to an other (even an invisible other!), and the brain treating personalized prayer to an invisible other as if a person were speaking to a friend forming a real social relationship. Of all of Luhrmann’s chapters, this was one of my favorites.

In Chapter 7, Luhrmann works to bring the various chapters together by describing more broadly how people create social relationships with gods and spirits, with invisible others. So, she shows how various field experiences of a god’s social relationship can be good for individuals but not the social whole. Such diverse parasocial experiences, Luhrmann suggests, derive from differing senses of inner other and imaginal relationships. And she also shows examples of how social relationships with gods are clearly not good for the social whole. Thus, Luhrmann fundamentally addresses not only “why people think gods and spirits are real but about how they become and are real for them” (184).

Overall, I enjoyed Luhrmann’s work. And because the Ood will undoubtedly sing Doctor Luhrmann’s praise, I will instead focus on engaging with specific aspects of How God Becomes Real.

First, although I agree with and appreciate Luhrmann’s frame for religion, the as-if frame derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, more engagement with H. Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’: A System of Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, would have strengthened her notion of a faith frame. Although I do not have access to Huizinga’s book at the moment, Luhrmann’s representation of Homo Ludens does not consider what underlies the work. Vaihinger uses the as-if framework to explain the psyche’s logical function: everything is perceived “as if” because we can never describe reality in the truest sense. As such, the human logical function, or how we perceive things, always uses fiction by necessity. So while Luhrmann rightly draws from how play theorists use Vaihinger’s as-if framework, more engagement with Vaihinger may have enriched her discussion. For example, if we agree with Vaihinger that all human perception is filtered through this as-if framework and that this as-if framework is necessarily a fiction working toward understanding reality, how might that impact her work? After all, the as-if framework aims to describe reality, but focusing on making an invisible other become real runs contrary to this logical function, especially when people using this as-if framework fail to recognize that they are, in fact, using a fictional framework. In short, more attention to Vaihinger would have enriched this study. (Admittedly, this critique may have more to do with the play theorists than with Luhrmann.)

Second, to substantiate Luhrmann’s idea of a paracosm, we ought to turn to an outright construction of a paracosm. Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World within the Bible” explicitly argues that the Bible is not about history but rather leads readers “into a new world, into the world of God” ( This statement affirms Luhrmann’s comment that a paracosm, or in this case the Bible, enables followers to know their god through narrative. To push this point further: the fact that Barth explicitly theologized a paracosm raises another question: to what extent does intentionality in creating a religious paracosm impact how gods and spirits become real to followers? I ask not only in light of Barth but my own practices. As I reflect on my Jewish spirituality, I know that I am creating a paracosm for understanding and interpreting the world, but I also know that the paracosm is not necessarily reality. Rather, it is fictional. So, how might Luhrmann approach this matter? Put another way, we have three tiers: people who construct paracosms without realizing they are doing so; people who construct paracosms intentionally and perceive them as representing reality; and people who construct paracosms while recognizing those paracosms don’t necessarily align with reality. While I don’t have an answer, I will say that the issue of recognizing whether something is fiction (in Vaihinger’s sense) again highlights that additional consideration of Vaihinger’s philosophy on its own terms may have strengthened Luhrmann’s theoretical constructions.

Third, as much as I enjoyed Luhrmann’s discussion on prayer, her discussion about prayer as metacognition could take into consideration metarepresentation. Within Theory of Mind, metarepresentation is our ability to tag and track information. What if, though, part of the metacognition in prayer is reorienting and retagging our metarepresentations of events, people, and ideas? Indeed, Luhrmann alludes to this idea, inasmuch as she says that prayer is a reflection that attempts “to sculpt, shape, reframe, reword, and remaster thoughts and feelings” (140). Incorporating metarepresentational reconsiderations as part of prayer in some ways aligns with Luhrmann’s comment on confession in prayer, that it enables people “to organize experience” (146). Ultimately, linking metacognition with intentional metarepresentation may be a more precise, helpful way of thinking through why prayer works. Moreover, intentional metarepresentation also becomes a means by which a follower and person praying can reinforce their faith frame, which compliments her discussion from chapter 1.

Overall, I highly recommend How God Becomes real by T. M. Luhrmann. As my extensive marginal notes in the book suggest, her work is a helpful theoretical model for thinking about religious experience and related phenomena.

[1] To be clear, Luhrmann does not use the language “world building” but rather simply a world. I redescribe Luhrmann’s work with world building in light of Building Imaginary Worlds by Mark J. P. Wolf.

Reflection: “Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine

Although I typically read scholarship directly related to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, recent conversations inspired me to begin pushing those limitations. For one, a friend of mine with a PhD in English would frequently highlight that English Literature has already done what many biblical scholars are doing with the Bible. So, I figured reading into recent scholarship in the English literature field would be beneficial to biblical and religious studies. In this case, Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction fits the bill.

As usual, this reflection will first provide a thorough summary. Subsequently, I will engage with specific ideas and issues, either critiquing them or showing how certain ideas would be helpful for scholars of religion.


Part I introduces Theory of Mind (ToM) and how ToM relates to reading fiction. Using an example of Peter’s trembling in Mrs. Dalloway, Zunshine suggests that recent studies in cognitive psychology show our ability “to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind” (4) and offer insight into how and why we interact with literary texts. So while ToM is often discussed in social contexts, ToM can be helpful for thinking about literature, which “capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms” (10). She then offers The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time to explain how ToM can work in relation to storytelling, though she carefully nuances that work in this area of cognitive studies is ongoing. Subsequently, Zunshine highlights an important distinction between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists: whereas literary scholars view one’s effortless mind-reading (i.e., ToM) on a correct-incorrect spectrum, cognitive psychologists view all mind-reading as effortless even if wrong. Next, she draws from various cognitive and literary studies to make one of her key claims (for which she offers much nuance): we read fiction because it tests and makes us aware of our mind-reading capabilities. To exemplify the value of a ToM approach, she reads Mrs. Dalloway and illustrates how we as readers engage with the process of mind-reading through Wolff’s embedded intentionalities. Foreseeing the danger of folks claiming that this ToM approach to literature may one day be the only way, she nuances her claim that this approach is one of many cognitive approaches and that many aspects remain in the realm of literary analysis. Finally, she connects her cognitive analysis to previous scholarship in order to show the importance of interdisciplinary work when it comes to literary studies (in her case with cognitive studies).

Part II shifts from generic ToM to metarepresentation: “Our metarepresentational ability allows us to store certain information/representations ‘under advisement’ [. . .]. The ‘meta’ part of the representation, that little ‘tag’ that specifies the source of the information [. . .] is what prevents the representation from circulating freely within our cognitive system and from being used as an input to ‘many inferential processes, whose outputs are inputs to others” (50). Such metarepresentation, “always context-dependent and potentially fluid” (52), relates to ToM inasmuch as we must track the sources of information when mind-reading (esp. keeping track of ourselves as the source of information as opposed to others). Next, Zunshine articulates how a damaged metarepresentational capability impacts social situations by considering 1) schizophrenia reflects one’s inability to source-monitor and 2) Katerina Ivanovna’s conflict occurs due to her inability to source-monitor. Moreover, as Zunshine shows through an example from New York Times, all people struggle with source monitoring to a degree. And “our capacity for ‘monitoring and reestablishing the boundaries within which each representation remains useful’ thus underlies crucially in our practice of literary interpretation” (64).

These observations engender a bigger theoretical question: How can metarepresentation and source-monitoring explain how we discriminate “among the levels of truth-value associated with a given representation” (72)? Here, she suggests that “our cognitive makeup allows us to stre a given representation with a very strong, perhaps permanent, source tag.” Then, “once we are decided on the overall metarepresentational framing of the giving story (a decision mediated by a variety of cultural institutions), we can process its constituents as so many architectural truths” (72). Notably, this section of Zunshine’s work was remarkably synthetic, bringing together a wide range of voices that can be helpful for theorizing more broadly on literature, truth-value, and metarepresentation.

Before shifting to a range of literature that challenges source-monitoring and ToM, Zunshine begins by showing how even a simple text without multiple levels of intentionality, like Beowulf, nonetheless reflects that our ToM and metarepresentational capacity results in the reality that one can always have a different experience reading the same fictional texts at different times in life. The next five sections go into great detail to articulate various aspects of ToM and metarepresentation through specific examples in the story of Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Lolita. In this context, she addresses Don Quixote’s story as a key example of compromised source monitoring (prior to the more extreme examples in Lolita and Clarissa), the role of an unreliable narrator in engaging and titillating our metarepresentational capacity, the implied author debates as related to the broader “function of the source-monitoring ability paid out in a very particular social environment, that is, among the people self-selected to pay attention to textual ambiguities” (81), the extreme problem of source-monitoring in Clarissa, and the also complicated and problematic source monitoring in Lolita.

Part III explores another aspect of ToM: concealing minds. She does so by examining the detective novel, which she equates to “lifting weights at the gym,” in as much as the detective genre intentionally plays with ToM and metarepresentation. After discussing key elements of detective novels, she concludes that while “all fictional narratives rely on and tease our Theory of Mind, some narratives engage to a higher degree one cluster of cognitive adaptations associated with our ToM than another cluster of such adaptations” (153). Moreover, she draws the broader conclusion that her approach to literature avoids a fear expressed by some literary critics that assuming the fictional reading and writing process is “dependent, contingent, or a mere reflection of other more basic social and psychological processes” (153) is dangerous. Instead, Zunshine argues, a ToM approach enables scholars to see “such narrative as endlessly experimenting with rather than automatically executing given psychological tendencies,” and “this approach opens new venues for literary historians wishing to integrate their knowledge of specific cultural circumstances implicated in the production of literary texts with important new insights into the workings of our brain/mind” (155).

Her final conclusion is simple: in light of an in-depth consideration of ToM and metarepresentation in relationship to literature, “we do read novel because they engage our ToM, but we are at present a long way off from rasping fully the levels of complexity that this engagement entails” (164). Put another way, fiction is a quality workout for our ToM capacities.


As implied at the outset of this review, I am less concerned with critiquing Zunshine’s work and more interested in showing the value of her work for the study of religion. So, let’s get started.

First, the broader framework of ToM and metarepresentation is particularly helpful for thinking through book-centered religious traditions. Indeed, fiction is not necessarily “true” in the sense that it does not work to represent lived reality but rather an imaginary world. Nonetheless, Zunshine rightly highlights the tension between the “fiction-history” division as it relates to metarepresentation. Where Zunshine’s use of ToM and metarepresentation can be helpful, though, is in regard to how folks categorize and source monitor religious texts. Beyond modern fiction as a locus for metarepresentation, the same issue appears in biblical texts. For evangelical Christians, for example, the source of the biblical text is less rooted in a real individual and more rooted in a god made visible (thinking with Tanya Luhrmann’s framework). Similarly, Second Temple period literature like the book of Jubilees purports to be from God (i.e., our metarepresentational capacity is direted to tag the source of the narrative to God). I suggest a tension emerges between the god of Jubilees and the god of evangelical Christians precisely because the language for such cognitive metarepresentation is the same, but the actual sources are not. This observation is especially true when we consider evangelical Christians who often claim that Jews and Christians have the same god: even if texts overlap and the same term is used to designate the source of the particular texts, the nature of the source via metrepresentational tagging is distinct.

Second, and especialy in light of Luhrmann’s recent How God Becomes Real, the cognitive processes Zunshine introduces to the study of literature can be equally helpful for theorizing how religion works and how we determine the boundaries for what constitutes religion in the twenty-first century. As Zunshine writes, “Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all” (10). These interactions through our developed ToM are delivered “by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Key here is the idea of “imaginary approximation.” As Luhrmann shows, people make a god real by treating their imaginative faculty as if it were actually real. Thus, we can see a close relationship between the notion of fiction are representing and recreating a social environment engaging our ToM and a religious text engaging our ToM. While I have no doubts I could take these observations further, this will suffice for now.

Third, recent studies support Zunshine’s work. In a recent study on the brain and fiction, “Researchers found that the more immersed people tend to get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves” ( Importantly, brain imaging backed up this conclusion. As such, we can clearly see that how we process fiction and Self directly overlap. Undoubtedly, this idea ties directly into ToM and metarepresentation: as an individual begins to structure information from a novel in her brain, she ultimately thinks with the part of the brain that she uses to think about herself. Perhaps, then, our cognitive metarepresentation is not only tied up in how we perceive others but the extent to which we perceive ourselves and our relations to those sources. Returning to Luhrmann, then, we see yet again that one’s ToM in literature and the neuroscientific way of processing fiction can shed light on how our boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we’d like to admit in the West. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about “fiction” and “reality” but simply of metarepresentation and physical, observable objects.) In Zunshine’s words, “The pleasure of being ‘tested’ by a fictional text . . . is thus never completely free from the danger of allowing the ‘phantoms of imagination’ too strong a foothold in our view of our social world” (19).

Admittedly, I have many more thoughts on this book, and I plan to reflect on them (or incorporate them into my own work) in the future. For now, though, these three observations suffice. Basically, Zuneshine’s work is particularly interesting in light of recent neuroscientific studies and Luhrmann’s 2020 book.

When Religion becomes Fandom, or Why the MCU and Its Fans Reminds People of Religion

One approach to comic books currently in vogue is to view comic books, comic book culture, and fandoms through the lens of religion. As Aaron Ricker suggests, though, “By choosing what to study as religion, scholars help define religion, and the ways in which we do this can often look lazy and (confessionally and/or professionally) self serving” [1]. This approach follows Aaron W. Hughes and Russel T. McCutcheon’s recent emphasis that “we may be less interested in studying religion than in shifting the ground and, instead, studying the act of calling something religion,” namely, the discourse around religion [2]. Thus, we must ask not whether the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through a lens of religion but rather why the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through the lens of religion. One answer to this question is by exploring the notion of world-building as it relates to both religion and comic book culture. This world-building, I argue, forms a bridge that results in scholars often viewing comic book culture as a sort of religion.

In what follows, I first identify what constitutes world-building and why it is important. Then, I examine the MCU and religion as separate categories through these lens of world-building. Third, I bring the MCU and religion together through the lens of world-building in order to identify one aspect of why religion scholars sometimes us a religious studies lens to approach the MCU. Finally, I show how the flip side of this observation might give have potential, namely, exploring religion through the lens of world-building and fandoms.


World-building is an idea in the field of media studies that Mark J. P. Wolf recently synthesized and developed in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation [3]. Simply put, world-building is the subcreation of a secondary world, not simply a fictional world but a world in which the represented reality is “different enough (and usually detached or separated in some way) from the Primary World [i.e., our world and reality] to give them ‘secondary’ status” [4]. Importantly, world-building is distinct from narrative. Whereas a narrative is a means by which the world is experienced, world-building is a separate act which does not always include narrative. As Wolf highlights regarding Oz, L. Frank Baum’s best world-building occurred outside of his well-known work The Wizard of Oz, other works often counted as his weakest stories regarding narrative [5].

World-Building in the MCU

A recent example of world-building as opposed to story in the MCU is Disney’s She-Hulk. Although I’m only on the fourth episode, my wife and I agree on one thing: the story is mundane, unadventurous, and no particularly engaging. Such a narrative contrasts starkly with, for instance, Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings, which included all the elements of a good story paired with world-building. Because She-Hulk‘s narrative is so mundane (and frankly somewhat boring), the show’s reception has been relatively poor. Where She-Hulk excels, though, is in world-building. In the first four episodes, She-Hulk has worked to map out the MCU world, itself a subcreation, by showing the audience how things work and raising key questions that enable viewers to engage with the world: What happens when superheroes and villains just want to be normal? How do casual viewers perceive the folks with superpowers after the events of the first three phases of the MCU, more commonly known as The Infinity Saga? Can previous-known villains be rehabilitated and become good (e.g., Loki)? These questions are what She-Hulks explores, and the show makes secondary the importance of the narrative.

Importantly, most MCU fans or casual viewers expect that the world-building will pay off in someway down the road with more consistent and inventive films [7]. (At least I hope so.) Put another way, world-building is engaging and interesting for certain MCU fans because it pushes, (re)articulates, and clarifies the boundaries of the secondary world, the subcreation, that Disney developed since the first Iron Man movie. And this world-building keeps viewers interested. (Naturally, we need some quality stories soon.)

World-Building in Religion

World-building is also a feature in some religious traditions. In particular, though, I am interested in religious traditions that look toward history to illuminate, for instance, the “world of the Bible.” For many scholars in the twentieth century, fields like Assyriology and classics were not an end in and of themselves but served to expand the world of the Bible, sometimes the Hebrew Bible and sometimes the New Testament. Notably, though, world-building in relation to religiously authoritative scriptures, otherwise known as “the biblical world,” is not typically viewed as fiction. Instead, the world-building of a secondary world isn’t secondary in terms of reality and plausibility but only along the lines of history. And as L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” [8]. Thus, although world-building in relation to the Bible in religious studies is not necessarily about constructing a new, all-together separate secondary world, the world-building that occurs around the Bible nonetheless is a sort of world-building activity that is separated from the Primary World due to time and history, even if folks practicing religion view such things as reality to a degree.

Why the MCU as Religion via World-Building?

As noted, both the MCU and religion tend to partake in world-building. The difference, though, is that religion’s world-building does not decouple the subcreation from the Primary World, from reality, whereas the MCU clearly expects the audience to decouple the subcreation from reality. (Note that I know of specific children who believe that that MCU was part of the Primary World.) Such overlap in world-building, I propose, is why some religious studies scholars like to see the MCU and its fandom as religion. Although they may not say as much, fandom practices and comic book culture more broadly participate in the world-building activities of the MCU in the same way that some religious communities participate in the world-building activities of the Bible. Such a parallel creates an impression that the MCU and its fandom should be understood as a sort of religion.

The Coin’s Flip Side

The observation that religion scholars view comic book culture through the lens of religion opens up other fruitful methods for approaching religion. What if rather than approach religion through the lens of religion we instead utilized tools from fandom and media studies to explore religion and religious studies discourses as a form of world-building? This approach would essentially follow Hughes and McCutcheon’s approach of exploring why we call some things religions as well as generate new, more fruitful theories of how religion works in the twenty-first century.

[1] Aaron Ricker, “The Third Side of the Coin: Constructing Superhero Comics Culture as Religious Myth,” Arc 43 (2015): 104.

[2] Aaron W. Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon, Religion in 50 Words: A Critical Vocabulary (New York: Routledge, 2022), 250. This emphasis reflects a broader, more recent trend in religious studies. See the referenced page for further references.

[3] Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[4] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 25.

[5] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 29.

[6] I am intentionally ambiguous regarding what I mean by “Bible” because I don’t have sufficient time to sift through Jewish and Christian times when this sort of thing happened and happens.

[7] Regarding world-building, “audience members and critical approaches that center on narrative, then, may find such excess material to be extraneous, tangential, and unnecessary, while those that consider the story’s world will find their experience enhanced.” Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 3.

[8] Wolf mentions this quote in Building Imaginary Worlds, but I was unable to find it in the book.

Philosophical Friday: Giovanni Boccaccio and the Obscurity of Poetry

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian scholar, raised in Florence. He wrote a wide variety of works: allegorical poems, prose tales, romances, and more. Among Boccaccio’s most well-known books is Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, “a mythological sourceboook that would introduce readers to the study of the ancient poets” [1]. One goal of Genealogy of the Gentile Gods was to provide an argument in favor of poetry as a means for locating truth, setting himself apart from Plato who saw poetry as opposed to truth. Instead, poetry is understood as being from “the bosom of God.”

I am interested, though, in how Boccaccio deals with the problem of poetic obscurity and how Boccaccio’s perspective builds off of and develops older traditions. Initially, Boccaccio frames his argument in terms of a caviller, a person that raises petty quibbles, who objects “that poetry is often obscure, and that poets are to blame for it, since their end is to make an incomprehensible statement appear to be wrought withe exquisite artistry” [2].

In response, Boccaccio offers a few example of texts and writers who are equally obscure but not criticized. First, he makes reference to the philosophers. He offers a question: “do they”, namely philosophers, “always find their close reasoning as simple and clear as they say an oration should be? If they say yes, they lie; for the works of Plato and Aristotle… abound in difficulties…” [3]. In short, philosophical writings are unclear. Second, Boccaccio notes that even the Holy Writ is obscure sometimes. Therefore, any condemnation of poetry on account of obscurity results in the blaspheming of the Holy Ghost. After all, even Augustine comments that certain passages of Isaiah are unclear to him.

On this basis, Boccaccio argues that “no one can believe that poets invidiously veil the truth with fiction,” but they rather veil truth “to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure the object of strong intellectual effort and various interpretation” [4]. In other words, the Holy Writ and non-Holy Writ texts alike veil truth as a means of preventing it from becoming worthless and too common. Such an explanation is remarkably similar to how Augustine explains the obscurity of the Holy Writ: “It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones” [5]. In other words, the obscurity in the Holy Writ is intentional.

While Boccaccio and Augustine both discuss the problem of obscurity and poetry, the reason and way they employ it is distinct. Augustine refers to the obscurity of scripture and its divine cause in order to provide a theological explanation for misunderstood and obscure biblical texts. In other words, his formulation in On Christian Teaching is intended to deal with a theological problem. Although Boccaccio draws from Augustine, inasmuch as he notes the theological problem of viewing obscure texts like the Holy Writ as being impractical, Boccaccio takes Augustine’s framework and applies it to non-biblical material. So, whereas Augustine primarily considers obscurity as reasonable within the Holy Writ, Boccaccio expands this to include non-Holy Writ.

In doing so, Boccaccio creates a divide between that which is Holy Writ and that which is not Holy Writ. By distinguishing between a special, select group of texts and all others, Boccaccio implies a distinction akin to the distinction between secular and religious. In his situation, the Holy Writ is a religious text, whereas all other texts are secular texts.

Boccaccio’s distinction is worth emphasizing because it illumines how the foundations of poetry as an academic object of study are themselves historically defined and understood as that which is not Holy Writ. Such a genealogy is worth examining further.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 201.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206-207.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 208.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism168.



Philosophical Friday: Augustine of Hippo and Signs

In previous experiences, I viewed Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century Christian writer most well-known for texts like On Christian Teaching and City of God, primarily as a theologian. Although he is concerned with theology, he sought to understand more clearly the Christian biblical texts. One of the consequences of this aim was the development of a link between signs and language, namely signification, a issue most famously addressed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In what follows, I will briefly lay out his view of “signs” and “language” and offer a few thoughts on his ideas.

Augustine defines given signs as “those which living things give to each other, in order to show, to the best of their ability, the emotions of their minds, or anything that they have felt or learnt” [1]. That is, signs are primarily meant to signfify something intended to be transmitted to another person. They include language, shouts of pain, facial expressions, etc. Now, because spoken words, words themselves being signs, “cease to exists as soon as they come into contact with the air” [2], Augustine suggests that writing was invented. From his theological approach, though, writing was invented in order to enable divine scripture to be circulated through the world.

With this foundation, Augustine continues by describing the problems in written texts: the meaning of signs in texts “may be veiled either by unknown signs or by ambiguous signs” [3]. In order to deal with this problem, Augustine encourages readers to refer back to the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin original texts. Essentially, he encourages a triangulation of the texts in order to identify the meaning of the text, that is in order to interpret the ambiguous or veiled sign. Another solution to unfamiar signs is simply a problem with knowledge of things. For example, when a biblical text refers to hyssop, Augustine notes that we may not understand the sign in a text because people are “unaware of its power to cleanse the lugns or even (so it is said) to split rocks with its roots” [4]. In other words, in order to understand certain phrases, the reader much have pre-knowledge which will help to inform how certain signs should be interpreted.

At base, then, Augustine argues that knowledge of literature and how literature works, namely the issue of signifiers and the signified. For, “A knowledge of them is necessary for the resolution of ambiguities in scripture because when a meaning based on the literal interpretation of the words in absurd we must investigate whether the passage that we cannot understand is perhaps being expressed by means of one or other of the tropes” [5].

From this brief summary of Augustine’s perspective, I want to emphasize two aspects.

First, Augustine explicitly describes letters, written signs of words, as an extension of speech. Without them, speech ceases to exist when it comes into contact with the air. This is an important point to me because, in my perspective, all texts are, to a certain degree, a simulation of a speech situation. This same principle may be extracted from Augustine’s treatise On Christian Teaching.

Second, and in a similar vein, Augustine recognizes that all people speak in figures of speech: “Almost all these tropes, which are said to be acquired through one of the ‘liberal’ arts, are also found in the utterances of those who have had no formal teaching in grammar and are content with the style of ordinary people” [6]. On account of this, Augustine suggests that all people should understand should understand the metaphorical nature of speech itself. By understanding the metaphorical nature of speech itself, both in literature and ordinary speech, a reader of the Christian biblical texts is more likely to investigate the meaning of the passage.

This comes back to something I observe in the field of Biblical studies and Near Eastern studies: there is a surprising lack of engagement with literary theory. Augustine goes as far as to suggest that those who are ignorant of tropes and the names of certain types of metaphors are uneducated. Though I don’t go that far, I do think he has a fair point: people should know how language works. In my case, this principle is applied to scholars: scholars should know how language works and how literature works. Only in doing so can we begin to more fully examine and understand the texts that we study.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 166.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 167.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 168.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 172.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 177.

[6] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 176.

Marvel, Religion, and Cloak & Dagger

One of the problems in Religious Studies is thinking about what constitutes religion.

For this reason, I was particularly impressed by the critical acumen of the script writers for the Marvel TV show Cloak and Dagger. In one scene, one character leads a tour through a church in New Orleans. Click here to watch the video clip on YouTube.

What stood out to me was the following line: “But you see Voodoo isn’t always its own religion; that’s a misconception. Voodoo is, at its core, a diverse collection of religious and cultural traditions that can either stand alone or be added to your faith.”

This description of the relationship between Voodoo and religion is, I think, helpful. Essentially, the character, and therefore the scripter writer(s), accurately captures the liminal nature of Voodoo. That is, it isn’t exactly religion. Why, though, is this so?

A brief look at the US Department of State’s coverage on Haiti can help to explain this. Describing the role of Voodoo in Haiti, the US Department of State reports: “While society generally is tolerant of the variety of religious practices that flourish in the country, Christian attitudes toward voodoo vary. Many Christians accept voodoo as part of the country’s cultural patrimony, but others regard it as incompatible with Christianity, and this has led to isolated instances of conflict in the recent past” (Haiti). In other words, a conflict exists between Voodoo and Christianity, some viewing it as legitimate, some regarding it as not legitimate. Unfortunately, with the rising predominance of Christianity in Haiti, Voodoo has become categorized as a sort of religion. What is the significance of being considered a religion?

As a practice (not necessarily a religion), Voodoo functioned historically within Haiti as a means to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti”, a political power which stood in distinction to Euro-American political power (Religion and Revolution in Haiti). As Voodoo has come to be categorized as religion, though, this function of Voodoo is problematized. As a religion, it is simply became “a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans)”. When not categorized as a religion, though, it served as “the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite).”

Returning to Cloak and Dagger, the previously discussed material is precisely why I appreciate the show’s description of Voodoo in relation to religion and culture. It recognizes that Voodoo cannot simply be categorized as religion. In doing so, Voodoo is deprived of its social and historical value and contexts. Instead, the script writers were careful to describe Voodoo as something not equivalent to religion, being a form of social protest derived from Brazilian and African traditions and giving practitioners a place in society that is not framed solely by Western notions of belief and religion.

Mesopotamian Monday: A Prayer by Assurbanipal to Assur

Within religious traditions, a primary aim and orientation is sometimes to secure a blessed life for descendants. In Catholic and Christian traditions, this can occur through infant baptism. In Deuteronomy 11:19 and 6:7, teaching children Torah is emphasized. And in any case, depending on social status, the performance and language which are perceived to have efficacy for blessing descendants can vary.

Naturally, Mesopotamian prayers by kings were also aimed at securing blessings for descendants. So, how did Mesopotamian’s performance rituals in order to attain and secure a blessed life for descendants? One way to think about this question is by looking at a prayer by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal [1].

For the majority of the prayer, Assurbanipal praises Assur [2]. For example, the speaker exalts Assur as the creator:

[Let me exalt] the sovereignty of [Assur] forever.
[Cap]able one, profound of wisdom, sage of the gods, princely one,
[Father], creator of what is in the heavens and earth, who formed the mountains,
[Assur], creator of the gods, begetter of goddess(es),
[Whose heart] is inscrutable, whose mind is ingenious,
Lofty [hero] whose name is feared… [3]

Evidently, the speaker attributes creation itself to Assur, views Assur as a warrior, and consider Assur to be the wisest of all beings (i.e. “sage of the gods”).

In the second half of the hymn, we read of a focus on the descendants of Assurbanipal:

Among descendants, in far-off days,
For future reigns, years without number,
May th(is) praise of Assure be not forgotten, may it keep one mindful of Esharra, a temple in Assur.
Let it be in (every) mouth, may it never cease to enlarge understanding,
So that, as to me, Assur will deliver into your hands sovereignty of land and people [4].

Essentially, the speaker Assurbanipal prays for the perpetual reign of his offspring on the basis of his prayers and role in supporting the temple at Assur. Note, though, that Assurbanipal explicitly says “your hands,” with reference to his descendant. Although it is unclear whether he used a 2nd person form because his descendant is present where the hymn is performed or he imagines his descendant as being present, it is clear that the prayer is explicitly focused on his particular offspring, not the general concept of “descendants.”

Based on Assurbanipal’s father, though, this is no surprise. In a famous text typically called Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, a covenant stipulates that all people within the Assyrian empire ruled by Esarhaddon commit to serving his son, Assurbanipal, as king when Esarhaddon dies [5]. Thus, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. For just as Esarhaddon attempted to ensure that Assurbanipal maintain reign and sovereignty, so Assurbanipal attempted to ensure that his descendant maintain reign and sovereignty [6].

 Therefore, Assurbanipal’s prayer to Assur uses religious language, imagery, and activities as a perceived means of securing political sovereignty for his offspring. This echoes how Esarhaddon ensured that Assurbanipal maintain sovereignty. At base, it demonstrates how a particular social class, namely that of the royal family, attempts to secure a blessed life for descendants.


[1] As noted previously, individuals and groups with different social statuses will have different rituals and performances to attain blessed life for descendants. Now, the prayer which I am analyzing here was written for Assurbanipal. So, at most the text represents the ways in which a very small and wealthy social class sought to attain blessings for descendants. Therefore, we should be careful not to apply the paradigm and rituals represented within this hymn to every social group in ancient Mesopotamia, even if they do overlap is some places.

[2] In particular, he praises Assur as a primeval deity called Anshar. See Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 817n1.

[3] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 817.

[4] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 818. Italics added for clarity in the text.

[5] For an example available on, see Jacob Lauinger, “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty at Tell Tayinat: Text and Commentary,” in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 65 (2012), pp. 87-123.

[6] Interestingly, perhaps Assurbanipal also looks backwards to his father, Esarhaddon in The Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Prince (SAA 03 032 r. 26). See Ramond C. van Leeuwen, “Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel,” in From the Foundations of the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible, eds. Mark J. Boda and Jamie Novotny (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), pg. 414.  



“The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions”

Routledge Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Religions. General editor Eric Orlin. NY, New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 1054.Religion

In a day and age when new encyclopedias seem to be published every other day, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (henceforth referenced to as REAMR) is a breath a fresh air. Unlike many specialized encyclopedias, REAMR attempts to offer a general overview of a wide variety of cultures and practices relevant to the Mediterranean. These entries provide a cross-cultural perspective, noting unique and distinct elements of particular topics. Similarly, authors for entries were instructed to focus on writing for the Religious Studies field who did not share that specialty. In other words, a scholars writing an entry about the Hebrew Bible would assume the reader is within the field of Religious Studies; however, it should be oriented to a non-specialist in that particular field, such as a scholar of Islamic Studies.

This was, I think, successful for the most part. Although there were a few problematic entries, they generally presented the information in a clear and concise manner. Because the academic environment encourages inter-disciplinary scholarship, this volume offers an entry point into sub-fields distinct from ones own. Furthermore, the volume covers from the Bronze Age up to Late Antiquity. In terms of the traditions, it attempts to be as comprehensive as possible. So, the volume includes, though is not limited to, Judaism, Roman religion, Greek religion, Persian religion, Ugaritic religion, Canaanite religion, Egyptian religion, South Arabian religion, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Thus, in terms of its diversity of represented religious traditions, this REAMR is distinguished from other encyclopedias.

Before I offer notes on particular encyclopedia entries, I have one primary criticism of the volume. The beginning of the volume comments on the issue of defining the category of religion: “The term religion is itself disputed, as a number of recent discussions have highlighted. Because we realized early on that we would need to include many headwords to provide cultural background that might not be strictly religious (such as Hellenistic Age), we decided that it was not necessary to offer a specific definition of “religion” in order to exclude material felt to be “non-religious”. (xvii)” They continue by noting that religion was often times not seen as a distinct category from social or cultural. In principle, this decision makes sense.

Even though it is difficult to define religion, the editors of REAMR missed an opportunity. For an entry titled “Religion” could have at least offered a succinct overview of the history of scholarship, problems, and various ways of defining ‘religion.’ This criticism, though, is minor. Even so, the volume is incredibly valuable as a whole. While individuals probably will not purchase this volume, there are two groups in particular for which is will be helpful: small organizations in need of a thorough dictionary on ancient Mediterranean religions [1] and universities with a small library budget. Regarding the latter, the volume is $285 as an eBook (Hardback $408). Because REAMR covers such a wide range of traditions and time periods, though, it is well worth the investment. As far as I am aware, few encyclopedias offer such a comprehensive overview of Mediterranean religious traditions at that price.

Following, I will offer notes on specifics within the volume:

  • Some contributions were unnecessarily lengthy. For example, the entry on ‘Conversion’ is about four pages. So, it seems more like a lengthy argument regarding the topic of Christianity and conversion than an overview/succinct explanation of conversion. Similarly, the following are too lengthy, each for differing reasons: ‘Gnosticism’, ‘Imperial Cult’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Jupiter’, ‘Sacred Law’ (6 pages), ‘Mithraeum’, ‘Orphism’, ‘Revelation of John’, and ‘Women’.
  • One contribution is particularly exemplary in terms of providing a broad overview of a major religion topic: ‘Cult Statue’. Although three pages long, it does an excellent job at offering an overview of cult statues in Mesopotamia, Egypt/Northwest Semitic areas, and Greece/Rome (See also the entries on ‘Domestic Religion’, ‘Myth’)
  • The entry on ‘Figurines’ is far too lengthy as an entry. More problematic, though, is that it seems hyper-focused on Greek figurines. It only briefly mentions ancient Near Eastern figures.
  • The entry on ‘Purity’ is far too focused on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East. Purity in other contexts is ignored.
  • The beginning of the volume has a series of maps and a chronology. The chronology places the following side-by-side: Near East, Judea, Egypt and North Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, and Italy. Both the maps and chronology are particularly helpful for understanding the broader world events within specific time periods.

Even with these critiques, the volume is excellent. REAMR offers a broad overview of many religious traditions and cultures. Because of this, it is a valuable addition to libraries, in particular to small schools with low budgets. The value of REAMR is well worth the cost.

Typos: pg. 321: “… resemble AGNES” martyrdom.”; pg. 87 “… The Arabization of the Near East let to a decline…” (presumably “led” to a decline); p. 334, ‘Ezra, Vision of’ (the caps formatting is funky).

[1] I make this comment based off my experience visiting a local NPR station. At it, a few encyclopedias were sitting around. I suspect that the were used as general references for reporting on any relevant issues.

Music Wrestling with Religion: Hopsin (Explicit Language)

Lately, I’ve been interested how music reflects upon religion and religious topics. So, I plan on sporadically posting the music of some artists who have wrestled with this issue through their own music. Regarding the explicit language, I am not interest in censoring how people deal with the question and issue of religion.

Ill Mind of Hopsin 7 (Explicit):

What Do I Think About the Hebrew Bible?


14th century CE copy of the Bible (Source: Wikipedia)

Previously, I posted about how we can think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. As I continue this series, I plan to continue exploring this question. Although it may not seem important, one of the most important things we can do first is ask ourselves a question: what do I think of the Hebrew Bible? Preconceived notions of the Hebrew Bible will often times guide how we read and understand the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, this can happen across the spectrum. In order to demonstrate this, I will offer thoughts from both sides of the spectrum. I know these are not representative of everybody. I use these generalizations in order to make the point that we have to think about what we think of the Hebrew Bible, regardless of where we stand.

On the far right, we have conservative groups. These groups may be Christian or Jewish. Often times, when more conservative readers approach the Hebrew Bible, there is a preconceived notion that the text of the Hebrew Bible is holy in some manner. Being holy, it will speak the truth. Therefore, what we see in the bible is probably historically accurate.

Naturally, this view is not necessarily wrong. As I pointed out previously, some parts of the Hebrew Bible may be historically reliable. Other parts of it may not be historically reliable. So, in one sense, it is good that conservative groups automatically assume the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. Many part of I and II Kings, for example, are historically reliable.

However, this view is also problematic. Think about, for example, Genesis 1:1-2:4. Many would argue that this text reflects and records the history of how God created the universe. When we look the Hebrew Bible’s historical context, though, it becomes apparent that there are many versions of how deities created the world and established kingship. Historically, these texts were never meant to present a material history of exactly how the deity created; rather, they were meant to demonstrate that the deity was a legitimate ruler. In other words, the goals was not to write history.

Therefore, it is problematic to see Genesis 1:1-2:4 as a historical account of how God created the world. I make this claim  based on the historical context of Genesis 1:1-2:4.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, we have people who are strongly opposed to religion. And the Hebrew Bible is a religious book. Therefore, we should be extremely skeptical about it [1]. In reading the Hebrew Bible, they may be substantially more skeptic about accepting anything in it as historically reliable. This approach, of course, is valuable. Like I posted previously, some part of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely not historical. Genesis 1:1-2:4, for example, is myth. It is not history.

However, some part of the Hebrew Bible are historically reliable. So, viewing the Hebrew Bible entirely skeptically is problematic. Consider, for example, II Kings 18-19. In this passage, we see an account of Sennacherib attacking Jerusalem. What is more, we also have written documentation by Assyrians during that period which reference this attack upon Jerusalem. Although both texts differ in how they understand the event, they nonetheless point to the same event. Therefore, we should be cautious to quickly dismiss the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible.

In either case, whether conservative or liberal and strongly opposed to religion, we must recognize that we often read our own preconceived notions and ideas into the Hebrew Bible. These notions may sometimes be valuable, such as skepticism of the historical reality of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Or, on the other side, acceptance of the historical reality of Kings. In either case, the reader needs to be critical not just of the text; rather, the reader needs to be critical of where they come from.

By asking ourselves, “What are my preconceived ideas about the Hebrew Bible,” we are able to approach it critically. We are able to ask questions which we normally wouldn’t ask. Only by doing this are we able to think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible [2].

[1] Please let me know if this is totally inaccurate. This was not my background. So, it is more difficult for me to explain.

[2] This is a constant process. No matter how long one has been reading the Hebrew Bible or studying the ancient Near East, we must constantly ask ourselves what our own preconceived notions are.