The Heart of the Matter

Russell T. McCutcheon
Chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama
B.A. 1983, M.Div. 1986, Th.M 1987

UntitledThose following US politics may know about an exchange back in January, between Trump spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, and CNN’s Chris Cuomo, concerning what some still interpret as Trump’s mocking of a handicapped reporter during last fall’s campaign. The episode came up again because of Meryl Streep’s recent speech at the Golden Globes, back in early January, in which she commented on how:

the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

All along Trump and his team have denied that he was mocking the man, of course, but what stood out for me in their recent efforts was the manner in which an inner, unseen world of intention has been invoked.

Give Conway’s reply to Cuomo a listen (from the 2:10 point if you want to get straight to the example I have in mind):

You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart…

Now, what I find interesting about this move is not that his spokesperson made it—after all, the distinction between inner and outer, unseen and seen, private and public, is a strategic “divide and conquer” move that social actors have long used. Think of the proverbial rebellious teenager retreating to her room and slamming the door (complete with a “Keep Out” sign on it?), and turning up her music, all in order to deal with disagreements with her parents or siblings—the faux privacy of the room providing an escape from public conflict. Or, again, think of the rise of the discourse on conscience in the 17th century, as a way to manage dissent—so long as one only disagrees inwardly, and behaves as required by the sovereign, then dissent is tolerated and you won’t be burned at the stake.

So it’s not the move that’s interesting but, instead, it’s the response to the move that should attract our attention. Consider this Washington Post article, for example:

UntitledFor the ease with which her distinction between words and intentions, or between public action and private meaning, was derided differs sharply, I’d argue, from how most of us respond to this distinction when others use it; after all, the foundation of the academic study of religion has much to do with the longstanding, and still widely shared, presumption that scholars have no choice but to study secondary, symbolic manifestations or expressions of some prior, unseen thing.

Almost no one sees that as laughable.

It’s the basis of the comparative method, in fact; as our 19th century predecessors thought, and many still do, we need to find cross-cultural similarities in narratives, behaviours, and institutions in order to infer the unseen universal.

So when we hear participants—or, for that matter, colleagues—talking about such things as faith, or belief, or experience, or feeling as if they are all intangible and actual inner states that are, in some subsequent step, projected outward into the world, in some coded fashion, few of us listen with the sort of critically-minded ears that Conway’s response seems to have elicited. Instead, many of us listen reverentially, take many of the people talking that way at their word, and then go so far as to try to understand such things as how those inner states determine action—e.g., it’s not tough to find the pollsters trying to figure out how religious faith impacts voting trends.

Moral of the story? What’s supposedly in some people’s hearts is therefore not just seen by most of us as real but also as deeply valuable, primary and causal; whereas when some others talk that way…? Well, we immediately hear their claims as a sly rhetorical move.

I think back to a colleague who once told me about a shift he made in his work on the Reformation, while completing his dissertation—when he came to understand that, regardless what they themselves may have thought, social actors from that period who were writing about faith could be read as using the term as a rhetorical devise, to create the impression of a privileged zone free of social influence and governance—not unlike the effect of that teenager’s closed bedroom door.

Free of judgment, contest, and consequence too.

So it’s not that I’m defending Conway’s usage—far from it. Instead, I’m asking how scholars know when to hear such claims as substantive and when to hear them as rhetorical? For few of us read John Wesley’s classic claims about his “strange warming of the heart” as a rhetorical move that a social actor, in a specific circumstance, used for practical effect. No—we mostly see it as a metaphoric attempt to put something real, that defied (maybe even pre-dated?) language, into language. But what if we did? How would the field be reshaped if we listened to all of the people we study—and not just those with whom we may disagree—as situated, strategic social actors, all trying to do things with words, rather than hearing just some as neutrally, even naively, reporting on self-evident matters of the heart?


Russell T. McCutcheon, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, works on issue of classification in the history of the study of religion. He also earned a B.A., M.Div., and Th.M. at Queen’s university in the 1980s, prior to going to the University of Toronto for an M.A. and Ph.D. in the academic study of religion.


Sacred Pain and Consensual Sadomasochism

Morgan Oddie
PhD Student, Cultural Studies, Queen’s University
MA 2014


Pain hurts. As a general rule, we don’t like pain. We are averse to painful sensations and experiences precisely because they hurt. But if this was completely true, what is the explanation for chosen pain? If you should be averse to pain, why choose it? Surely, it is not solely reducible to notions that some people have higher pain tolerances than others. There are many scenarios where people consent to varying degrees of pain, including participation in sports, medical procedures, and aesthetic body modifications. Rhetoric of “no pain, no gain” is common, where pain is thought to serve the end goal of the activity, rather than acting as the focus of the goal itself. In addition to these examples, some people consent to pain in a sexual context with participation in the large range of activities that fall under the umbrella of BDSM (Bondage / Domination / submission / Sadism / Masochism). There is no single definition of BDSM, but it can be understood as loosely encompassing a number of different practices that include the consensual negotiation of erotic power exchanges, involving techniques and tools to help facilitate these exchanges. Although there are many instances of consensual pain, it is specifically the BDSM sexual context where consent to bodily hurt is often interpreted as pathological.

pain1There has been a recent shift to de-pathologize BDSM, but most of this work focuses on the normalization of psychological characteristics of practitioners and potential psychological benefits. Although the psychological elements of BDSM are important, these are often emphasized at the expense of the embodiment of the practices. So, kinksters are psychologically well-adjusted people, but they are still fleshy, living bodies that are experiencing and inflicting pain. Not all practitioners are purely sadomasochists (those who derive sexual pleasure from the giving and receiving of physical pain), but pain is a common technique for maintaining power dynamics in BDSM scenarios. What if, instead, we focus on the re-contextualization of this embodied pain? I propose that theories of sacred pain are useful here.

Ariel Gluckrich characterizes sacred pain as the experiences of religious adherents that are thought to serve “higher ends” and produce states of consciousness and cognitive-emotional changes that affect subject identity and sense of community belonging.[1] In this way, religious discourses, rituals, and artefacts are mapped onto the body to provide meaning for the experiences.[2] This contextually mediates feelings of pain and results in different interpretations of pain, but also creates different bodily sensations. None of this denies the biology of pain or discounts the corporeal experience, but contributes to discussions of contextually mediated experiences of the body. That is, pain is neither solely sensation or entirely socially constructed, but is a combination of the two.

pain3I argue that frameworks of sacred pain are applicable to BDSM. Consciousness changing experiences and their physical parallels occur in BDSM, known as subspace, and the less common equivalent of domspace. Additionally, some practitioners describe their experiences as relating to spiritual transformation and religious-type experience.[3] Aside from varying sadomasochistic inclinations, the use of pain as a BDSM technique on the body is felt and experienced differently because of the context, including the role of consent, the connection to community, and the elements of ritual in activities. This is not dissimilar from account and analysis of the “sacred pain” of religious adherents.





[1] Ariel Gluckrich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003, 6-7.

[2] Joanne Burke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014: 92.

[3] Alexzandria C. Baker, “Sacred Kink: Finding Psychological Meaning at the Intersection of BDSM and Spiritual Experience,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy (2016): 1-14,; Staci Newmahr, Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2012.


Revelation, The Walking Dead, and Small Talk

Alex Cox-Twardowski
PhD Student, Cultural Studies, Queen’s University
MA 2015


“Revelation? That’s the one about the end of the world right? With the antichrist and the rapture and all that stuff?”

These were the questions a polite man asked me this past summer at a wedding reception. We were making small talk and discussing our occupations. His response, in my experience, is very common among nonreligious scholars. Many, without having read it, seem to be familiar with Revelation. The text appears to excite and interest secular audiences more than any other narrative in the New Testament.[i] From being quoted directly in horror classics like The Omen (1976), to contemporary comedic romps like This is End (2013), and even inspiring material for all of the sixth season of Showtime’s Dexter, The Book of Revelation is seemingly everywhere in popular film and television.

The man at the wedding’s response was interesting because it sums up common appreciations of the apocalyptic text. The fact that the antichrist is not mentioned once, or that the rapture is not even stated anywhere in the bible, does not change how most preconceive, know, and even expect certain elements from Revelation. For many, it matters not that the Whore of Babylon is interpreted to represent Rome, or if the lamb to be slaughtered is actually on the throne or beside it. What does matter are the sensations, fears, hopes, disgusts, attractions, anxieties, and catharses that are experienced through Revelation. This is where Affect Theory and zombies come in.

walking_dead_posterMany overt connections can be drawn between Revelation and The Walking Dead, but what matters most are the impressions that both texts make. Revelation and The Walking Dead are actually studied much in the same. Non-specialists often analyze Revelation as allegory, working on unveiling, decoding, and deciphering of socio-political messages to learn more of its historically situated culture. Zombie films are written about much in the same. A trend inspired by the works of George A. Romero, zombie films are frequently studied for their criticism, parody, and insight toward their respective cultures.

To think about Revelation and zombie cinema is also to study bodies. The texts present contradictory bodies. They are alive and dead, consuming and consumed, repulsive and attractive, othered, othering, and contagious. To read these embodied stories is to be encapsulated with fear, disgust, endings, beginnings, hope, death, and life. To study Revelation, for instance, solely for its political and ideological symbolism, or zombie cinema for its criticism of American race relations, is often to ignore the bodies involved and their affects. An affective interpretation of Revelation facilitates the investigation of the represented bodies and audiences. Revelation and The Walking Dead are both revelatory of the sensations, intensities, and experiences involved while dealing with death, chaos, destruction, and historical-cultural change. This research falls in the growing field of affect and biblical interpretation. I suggest that affective biblical interpretation, specifically on Revelation, is an exciting and potentially impactful area to explore in relation to the study of religion and film.


[i] Harry O. Maier. Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), ix, 3.