Definitions

I thought it might be useful to include an expanding page for technical terms I use frequently or terms I might be using differently from others.  I welcome suggestions if you spot words you think need to be clarified.

Gay, Same-Sex Attraction, Homosexuality: Scholarship on homosexuality has lots of pitfalls.  Social constructivists argue that “homosexuality” is not a trans-historical category but shaped by cultural context while “essentialists” argue that there is such a thing as a trans-historical, trans-cultural homosexuality.  I’d probably fit somewhere in the middle, so let me define my terms.  “Same-sex attraction” refers to that dimension that seems to have a biological trans-historical basis, regardless if or how it is acted upon.  I’ll use the more “clinical” term “homosexuality” to refer to same-sex sexual activity.  As for “gay,” I’ll reserve that for the modern sense of identity and community characterized by typically socially symmetrical same-sex romantic relationships (as opposed to say, the unequal relationship found in Greek or medieval Islamic expressions of homosexuality).

Homophobia: Like Islamophobia, this is not a classical phobia, but unlike Islamophobia this term implies a visceral and too often violent reaction to the target, in this case LGBT individuals or even people simply perceived as LGBT.  Islamophobes don’t typically fear to be mistaken as the target object (a more classic fear of the Other), but Homophobes often act out of exactly such a fear.  The fact that Homophobes and Islamophobes often happen to be the same people will be a subject of an incoming blog post.

Imaginative Fiction: I’m using this term very broadly to encompass both science fiction and fantasy in both written, oral, and visual forms. I believe that the best Imaginative Fiction makes use of what Berthold Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt, the notion that a stylization or removal of a narrative from the audience’s everyday experience could bring the narrative’s social and moral content to the fore.  In short, the weirdness of the context allows the audience to reflect more clearly on difficult truths and possibilities.

Islamophobia: Many right-wing bloggers complain about the term “Islamophobia”, claiming that it’s not a phobia in the classical psychological sense of “fear of” something.  However, this has become the term, however imprecise, for hatred of Muslims, analogous to the term Anti-semitism in the sense of hatred of Jews (even though at least the Arabs are also technically included in that term in its Nazi usage).  Given the lack of a better term, I’ll continue to use it (AP be damned).

LGBT: God, I hate cumbersome acronyms like this.  It’s trying to be inclusive, but many transgender people object to their inclusion in this group on political grounds (which I fully understand – desiring the same sex is not the same as desiring the opposite sex but being contained in an incorrectly-sexed body), while other transgender people advocate vociferously for their inclusion in the rubric (which I also understand – gender minorities need to stick together).  “Queer” might be a good alternative, except that people don’t always like the pejorative history (I understand this, too – why do we need to be like they imagine us to be?!).  Like the well-meaning adjective “Judeo-Christian,” a term like LGBT often effectively allows the larger constituency to swallow up and obscure the smaller constituencies.  I will use LGBT in this blog, but I use it in the most inclusive, non-normative way you can imagine for individuals and groups that do not conform to the heterosexual cis-gendered majority.  It’s OK if the terms evolve and we recognize their weaknesses, but we have to be able to talk about this stuff in the meantime.  Let’s just assume good intentions and correct one another when we need to!

My Religion: This is tough.  I was raised Roman-Catholic and still value that upbringing.  I would perhaps characterize myself as a Secular Catholic (in the sense that some call themselves Secular Jews) or a Pluralist Humanist (in the sense that I think the diversity of the human condition, including its religious expressions,  has inherent value – I would not be comfortable characterizing myself as an atheist, although atheism has a place in a pluralistic humanistic society). I’ve always avoided detailed descriptions of my religious views in my classes, because I vociferously believe the function of higher education Religious Studies is not religious formation, and I’m uncomfortable with presenting myself as a religious model.  It is not my job to persuade my students to deviate from their traditions nor to conform to some new norm.  I am honest when asked, but usually give a simple “Roman Catholic, but pluralist” answer.  But to a broader public, it’s perhaps worth saying that I consider the social teachings of my upbringing (such as the preferential option for the poor) to be central to who I am now, even though I consider some of the theological teachings debatable and the teachings about gender and sexuality either misguided or downright criminal (How many lives would have been saved from AIDS in Africa if the Vatican had not opposed the use of condoms?).  So, in short, the answer is not a simple one, but since I talk about religion a lot, it’s worth being up front about my stance.

Political Evangelicalism: Evangelicalism tends to refer to such a broad range of Protestant groups as to be almost meaningless – in Germany, for example, it tends to refer to mainline Lutheran. Likewise, the term “fundamentalism,” despite attempts by sociologists to shore up its utility, has proven inadequate to refer to many contemporary Christian and Muslim trends – the street understanding of fundamentalism as belief in the inerrancy of a literally-interpreted scripture really doesn’t even really begin to scratch the surface of what makes these religious orientations tick. For the moment, I’m using the term “political Evangelicalism” to refer to a wide range of American groups loosely related to the Southern Baptist Convention, particularly churches and organizations that seek to increase the role of conservative Christianity in politics, law, and society – the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, One Million Moms, and their ilk. A key shared feature is a rejection of the need for extensive training in scriptural interpretation or reliance on a trained class of interpreters – although such training is often pursued, anyway. The irony of rejecting two millenia of authorities in pursuit of “original meaning” is that individual interpreters become self-authorizing. Without mediation, Jesus Himself opens one’s eyes to the true interpretation of scripture whether or not you’ve consulted a human guide. The other irony is that many liberal interpretors of scripture ultimately follow the same logic in re-reading scripture through a progressive lens.

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