Reading J.Z. Smith

Interviews & Essays

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Willi Braun, Russell T. McCutcheon
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     152 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the past half-century, no one in the field of religious studies has wielded more influence than Jonathan Z. Smith. Provocative as he was prolific, Smith has become the embodiment of the critical, historical approach to the study of religion. Reading J.Z. Smith: Interviews and Essay, edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, provides a glimpse into the mind of a giant in the field, nearing the end of his career and the end of his life, reflecting on his legacy and on the field that he played no small part in creating.

There is, Smith concedes, a certain degree of myth-making at work in this volume, “As with any sort of mythic discourse,” Smith said, “I’m aware that my presentation has largely been a recital of elements of a story of origins (125)." What are the elements of this myth—the myth of J.Z. Smith—that he told himself, that we tell ourselves about him, that has, in large part, become an archetype for our field as a whole?

The first element of the myth of J.Z. Smith is what he called “chance determinations”—those moments of contingency within his life that, had they gone the other way, would have made it a very different one (115). Smith wanted to be a botanist, not a humanist. He enrolled in Cornell’s agriculture program, but soon transferred to Haverford’s philosophy program. Our field has inherited Smith's language of taxonomy and classification—“religion, if you want, is the genus, and underneath that there are species,"—from his love of grass (32). It was through another accident—a missed joke—that Smith made his way to Yale. He asked his Haverford philosophy professor where he could obtain a PhD in Greek Myth. His professor replied that he should study the New testament, “the biggest piece of Greek myth that is still around.” Missing the joke, Smith enrolled at Yale Divinity School, where it was a third chance determination—the 1963 Supreme Court ruling Abington v. Schempp—that would send Smith from YDS to the newly created History of Religions PhD program, of which he would be the first graduate.

The second element of the myth of J.Z. Smith is that of the solitary genius, alone with his books, without need for the messiness of human relationships. Smith had a boundless curiosity for the written word, but a puzzling lack of interest in human beings in the flesh. A grade school teacher, recognizing his brilliance and bookishness on his first day, sent him to another school where he was allowed to spend most of his days alone in the library. Yale’s history of religions program was so new there was no faculty or set coursework, so Smith spent his years of graduate study in the library chasing down footnotes from James George Frazer’s Golden Bough (46-47). He preferred the study of archaic religions because “everyone’s dead." No one would challenge his interpretation, no one could get offended, “nobody talks back” (4). Smith ells a story about how he was once wandering the Old City of Jerusalem and found himself before the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, “a site to which I had devoted a chapter of a book.” When told where he was, Smith “went no further inside remarking, ‘I prefer my church to theirs.’” He argues that this “self-limitation”—only knowing the world through books, never people, places, or things—“yields cognitive gain.” It seems true to this reviewer that the act of scholarship is translating translations; that there is no “pure” or “authentic” tradition against which interpretations can be measured; that there is no "religion" out in the world; that "religion" is a category that we have invented; that the scholar should be a critic, and not a caretaker. But it is also true that the tradition of scholarship J.Z. Smith inspired was another of his “chance determinations.” What became a generational shift in the way we study religion began as a way for a man who was deeply uncomfortable around humans to be a humanist.

And then here are the elements of the Myth of J.Z. Smith that, I believe, we can do without. Smith saw the academy as a destructive place, where new scholars built careers atop the ruins of others. “This is a business that lives by high noons. It's shoot-'em-ups and rewards. Your job, in part, is to take somebody down,” and the bigger the reputation the better. There are some corners of the academy (thankfully, I don’t think religious studies is one of them) that live by Smith’s wild west ethic. But that is not a guild this reader wishes to be a part of.

Another element of the myth of J.Z. Smith that I think we ought to be more critical about is the scholar’s relationship to the people we study. Smith is given several opportunities throughout the interviews in this collection to explain his interest in religion. In one such conversation, Smith confesses that his interest in religion arises out of his “extraordinary faith in reason and rationality.” Faith, according to Smith, is “so nuts.” His interest in religion was, in part, to “find some sense to the nuts.” Smith made sense of religious people the same way he made sense of grasses: he sorted and categorized them, his daring comparisons a kind of intellectual crossbreeding. But what he didn’t do was try to enter their world. He didn’t consider whether it was he, not them, who was nuts. That requires more vulnerability—and more epistemic humility—than Smith was willing to grant.

I am not convinced we should turn religion into a scientific object of study, or that what and whom we study can be isolated from our selves, our pasts, our families, and our ghosts. That is where the myth of J.Z. Smith enters. Through the myth of J.Z. Smith we have built a superhuman being. We have written a myth upon which we can map the history of our field as we see it, from divinity schools to religious studies departments, from faith to non-belief. J.Z. Smith is our Scientist of Religion, his unkempt hair, thick glasses, and unwieldy cane straight out of central casting, carefully categorizing religions with the cold efficiency of a botanist. The scientist protects us from the fright of unreason and from the absurdity of belief. When we place these beliefs, these practices, and these people in neat little rows and columns, we are able to master them, or at least prevent them from mastering us.

The time will come when we stop thinking with J.Z. Smith and start thinking about J.Z. Smith. I hope that time comes later rather than sooner. Our field needs more of his influence, not less. But as we cultivate this myth of J.Z. Smith, we should be selective about what we want to include and what we should discard. I think Smith would demand nothing less.

For, as Smith taught us, myth is adaptable. Religious people take what they want from a myth—what is helpful to them—and they discard the rest. Why should the myth of J.Z. Smith be any different?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard Kent Evans is Research Associate in Quaker Studies at Haverford College.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Willi Braun is Professor of Religion in the Department of History and Classics and in the Interdisciplinary Program in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. He is the author of Feasting and Social Rhetoric in Luke 14. 

Russell T. McCutcheon is Distinguished Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He is the author of Manufacturing Religion


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