Faith as Small as a Peanut: What One Black Christian Scientist Taught Me About My Work

At the school where I teach and research we just finished our second week of the semester, and this past Monday we (as a nation) remembered Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision that he and the Civil Rights Movement leaders imparted to the rest of the nation. When confronted with great figures whose lives end prematurely, especially at the beginning of a new semester sets my mind to the question of calling: why do we do what we do?

This question is particularly salient as I am teaching a new grad seminar on how to write in the social sciences. As I prepped for the course over the winter break it was clear to me that calling has to be at the root of what we researchers do, and maybe a little bit of madness or possibly ineptitude at most other kinds of work. But really, as I enter into conversations with the new graduate students about why research is so important not only for society but also for their careers, the obstacles to accomplishing good research in the ever-changing rules of higher education seriously lead me to ask reflectively: why would you do this? [Read more...]

A Problem with Today’s Widespread Celebrity Culture

A defining feature of life today is we have a lot of celebrities. We live in a world of information, and much of that information is about specific people. We have celebrities in just about every area of life ranging from broad areas, such as entertainment, sports, and government to more obscure tasks such as noodling catfish (i.e., is catching them by hand) and baking cakes.

Think about it. How many people do you know a lot about via the media even though you’ve never met them? Quite a few, I’d wager. And if you want to learn about someone, it’s usually pretty easy on-line.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but it can cause a problem in how we evaluate our own lives. Celebrities are often known for doing something really well, and we naturally gravitate toward those celebrities who are experts in areas that we’re interested in ourselves. As I blogged about last week, we understand ourselves, in part, through processes of self-comparison.

The problem arises when [Read more...]

Do Sociology and Christianity Mix?

(Part 1 in a series of 4)

By George Yancey

I describe myself as “Just a Christian black sociologist trying to make his way in the world.” Well the black part is pretty clear but one might wonder about the Christian sociologist part. I mean can a person be a sociologist and a Christian at the same time? If not then am I just an walking living contradiction. Is my existence just a joke on rationality? Whoa. That is too heavy. Let me just look at the Christian and sociology mixture.

Now on the surface there does not seem to be a contradiction between a religious belief and an occupation. I mean as a Christian can I not be any occupation I want as long as it is legal? (I did try being a Christian drug dealer once but that just did not work out). Of course I can. So there should not be a contradiction between being a Christian who works and a sociology researcher and teacher.

Furthermore, can not a sociology have any religious belief he wants. There is not a religious test for being a sociologist is there. (Well not an official religious test. Read my book “Compromising Scholarship” for unofficial ways there may be a religious test in academia). So if there is no religious expectations upon being a sociology then where is the contradiction?

The contradiction seems to have developed because [Read more...]

The Black Church in America: Martin Luther King’s Legacy, The Social Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel

A Professor in Princeton University’s Religion department, Eric Gregory, once told me that many students in his Christian Ethics class know that Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader but do not know he was religious leader. Forgetting the religious roots of Reverend Martin Luther King’s legacy represents an at best impoverishment of knowledge, or perhaps as suggested in this article by Justin Dyer and Kevin Stewart on Public Discourse, an attempt to present in exclusively secular terms what Reverend King saw as a theologically and philosophically based argument: that African-Americans deserve full legal and substantive benefits of U.S. citizenship. As I’ve mentioned before on BWG, civil religion is an American tradition with many important legacies in American politics, and Martin Luther King is one example of this civil religion.

Although few of the black and white sociology of religion students I teach in the south do not know that Martin Luther King was a Christian pastor, many are nonetheless more familiar with the messages prosperity gospel preachers than with the social gospel of any kind. Realizing this blind spot made me more passionate to teach my students the historical roots of the political and social engagement of black churches. As early as the 18th century, when African-Americans lacked many other rights, African Americans organized their own churches as early as the 18th century. The religious freedom granted to African-Americans was used for their civic and political empowerment, producing powerful leaders like Martin Luther King.

To explain the close link between the black church and political mobilization, in their classic book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya stated:

“other-worldly religious transcendence can be related dialectically to the motivation, discipline, and courage needed for this-worldly political action.” (Lincoln and Mamiya, Black Church, p. 234)

In other words, the black church’s often passionate Pentecostal tradition, its belief in God’s providence, his love for his people, generate the much needed-virtues of perseverance and courage to go against the tide.

The social gospel, such as promoting civil rights for African-Americans, certainly went against the tide of many [Read more...]

What’s so bad about (the word) religion?

I’ve only been blogging for a few short months, and I’ve already reached a new low—responding directly to a YouTube video. What has the world come to? The video I’m referring to is the “Why I Hate Religion—But Love Jesus” clip that, as of Sunday evening, had already picked up 11.7 million viewers in a short amount of time. Since I’m a sociologist of religion, at times, I have something invested in the continued use of the term “religion.” It certainly sounds more academically acceptable than sociology of Jesus-lovers, not to mention that the term is not faith-specific.

While others have done an ample job of criticizing it where called for, here are a few tamer sociological observations about the content and claims in the video. You don’t tune in here for theological debate (although they are fun) so I won’t go there. After I watched it once, I thought the anti-Catholicism in the production was barely veiled. But since I’m all for debate, and I think far too little is had, I appreciated this fellow’s bringing it. But after watching it a second time, I suspected he has little clue about Catholicism, and isn’t actually subtly attempting to criticize it. It sounds like he’s wrestling with his former life as someone who looked good on the outside, but was inwardly wasting away. And so he turned his pen and camera—and he’s good at it—against that experience and the people in his former life that didn’t seem to call his bluff.

And in the end, I could be totally wrong. But my wife claims that I’m pretty good at psychological reads on people, so that must count for something. Given her stamp of approval, here are five observations:

1. It’s clear that such videos— [Read more...]


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