Voice, Irony, and Writing Seriously about Religion

Charles McCrary

A few weeks ago, at a dissertation defense, the discussion turned to the topic of voice. In his dissertation, as in many of his blog posts here at RiAH, Adam Park[1] wrote in a tongue-in-cheek, ironic, at times even sarcastic voice. But what does this voice imply or presume? This question exposed a central yet often under-discussed aspect of scholarly writing: Who is writing this? In Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction, Stephen Pyne defines voice as the “transtextual persona of the author” (48). What, or who, is this persona? What is your persona, scholarly writer? In this post I want to think through this question of voice, specifically ironic voice, and how it relies on readers’ and writers’ assumptions—and what this discussion might have to do with the injunction to “take religion seriously.”

Scholarly personas commonly take on ironic voices. Pyne notes, “Irony requires distancing. Literary irony results from an incongruity, a distance, between what a speaker says and what he means, a gap perceived by the reader. Historical irony involves an incongruity, or distance, between what is said (or thought, believed, or expected) and what actually happens” (48). Historians and other scholars often use this latter form of irony when discussing past events, since the writer (and, in many cases, the reader) knows how the story is going to turn out. This sort of irony is a great source of both tragedy and humor. We can write about what someone did to prevent the Civil War, or why Microsoft made the Zune, or how news media in 2015 covered reality-television-star Donald Trump’s spectacular presidential campaign.

Literary irony, to use Pyne’s term, might be opposed to sincerity. When a writer or speaker employs sincere discourse, she has no distance from her words. She says what she means. “Distancing” can happen not only at the level of content’s immediate meaning, but stylistically as well.[2] As Elizabeth Markovits has argued in The Politics of Sincerity, “hypersincere” speech is not only believed by the speaker, but it is presented in an unaffected style, since even affectation or rhetorical flourish might indicate a distance between meaning and text. Crucially, in ironic discourse, the reader perceives the gap. I, the reader, know that the author doesn’t really mean exactly what she writes.

I want to focus here on literary irony. In Adam’s dissertation, he often writes in his own voice, though the ideas are those of his subjects and/or the readers. “This was barbaric,” he writes. When I read this, I know that Adam does not think this (the “this” in this case being, say, a bloody mixed-martial-arts fight) is barbaric. But I know that certain subjects he’s writing about think that—and, importantly, he presumes that the reader might think that. During the defense, one question was, in so many words, if that move was fair. If we write in ways that play off our presumed audience’s assumptions, what are the implications of that scholarly voice? For one, we expect the reader to perceive the incongruity between what the speaker says and means. This might be easy if we know the speaker, but it’s more difficult, perhaps even unfairly so, if we don’t. Second, and more important, this type of ironic voice could be used to smuggle in normative assumptions about the validity of our subjects’ actions, ideas, and interpretations. This type of smuggling is quite common in the study of religion, and I think it’s a problem.[3]

Here’s an example. In 2013 at the Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture Valarie Ziegler discussed her research on evangelicals’ dating, courtship, marriage, and sex, and how these practices relate to their readings of the Bible (see pp. 51–52 here). In the room, scholars chuckled and gasped at descriptions of “Princess Bibles” and husbands practicing “Christian domestic discipline” (CCD) by spanking their wives. Why the chuckles? I suspect, for many in the room, they were produced by the perceived incongruity between Ziegler’s subjects’ interpretations of the Bible and the chuckling scholars’ own interpretations. That’s a weird way to read the Bible, right?[4] These chuckles bothered me, and I think about them often. We can see in the published version of Ziegler’s talk that humor, or at least incongruity, was clearly intended. In the last paragraph, she writes, “What is surprising, perhaps even shocking, about CCD couples is the loving intimacy and sexual ecstasy they associate with corporal punishment.” Why is that surprising? To whom? Were the people in the room shocked? Should we have been shocked? To conclude her piece, Ziegler lamented that “Christians who practice this theology are in cultural captivity to a variety of unlikely motifs, including…most of all, to two concepts that never appear in the biblical text at all: gender ‘complementarity’ and ‘biblical’ manhood and womanhood.’” Here, in the conclusion, Ziegler’s voice slips away from the ironic. Instead, she’s blatantly accusing her subjects of having ridiculous—that is, deserving of ridicule—theology. But still, even here, the motifs are “unlikely.” Again, to whom? Why are they unlikely? And who says these concepts don’t appear in the biblical text?

I don’t mean to single out Ziegler or this particular event as exceptional. I’ve seen this happen many times (including last week at the Society for the Anthropology of Religion biennial meeting), more often in conference settings than in published writing.[5] You will hear this voice in strategic uses of the word “actually,” as in “he actually believes Jesus is coming back in his lifetime” or “creationism is actually a sophisticated and complicated idea.”[6] Actually, this subverts your expectations. Here, the audience learns what expectations they are, well, expected by the writer or speaker to have.

Which brings me to taking religion seriously. Scholars often use this phrase, though its meanings are multiple and generally unclear. In her 2010 JAAR essay, “Seriously, What Does ‘Taking Religion Seriously’ Mean?”, Elizabeth Pritchard leveled a number of insightful critiques of the phrase. In concluding she argued, “Whereas these calls [to take religion seriously] are issued for the express purpose of creating public and scholarly places in which religious voices, qua religious (and not necessarily reasonable, familiar, polite, or liberating) may be heard, this goal is undermined by a tacit discomfort with, and ritualistic management of, difference and conflict” (1108). Scholars must authorize religious voices, create for them a “seat at the table,” and thus liberal secularism solves a problem created by…liberal secularism. Religious voices were marginalized, but now they’re welcome, because actually—contra your expectations—they should be taken seriously. This is analogous to, and sometimes identical to, the problem discussed above: When we write ironically, playing on our audience’s expectation that “religion” would or should be one way and is in fact another way, is that necessarily a theological or normative statement on our part? Or, differently, are we forcing our reader to make that judgment? Is that OK? Is it good scholarly practice? Is it good writing? The answer to each question, of course, is “it depends.” But considering the ironic voice, the distancing between a speaker and her speech, and the role the audience plays here, can bring to light familiar yet ever-important questions of positionality and authorial perspective. We’re confronted by our own “transtextual personas,” however carefully we’ve crafted them. Whose tongue? Whose cheek?

[1] For the record, Adam gave me permission to write about this and to “use names all u want” (text message, May 22, 2017).
[2] Pyne’s “essential point” in Voice and Vision is that “style and subject so intertwine that one cannot be disentangled from the other” (17). I agree with this!
[3] To be clear, I don’t think this is a problem in Adam’s dissertation. I think it’s more accurate to say that he was exposing his presumed readers’ normative assumptions, not his own. I do think it was a good critique to say that’s not a fair way to treat a reader, which is different from accusing the writer of sneaking in his own evaluations. Anyway, I just want to be precise about whom I’m critiquing here.
[4] I am using an ironic voice in this sentence (the one in the main text, not the one in this footnote; this one is very sincere).
[5] Perhaps this is because the ironic voice benefits from intonation, facial expression, and so on, and is thus harder to pull off in print. Furthermore, an audience can be cued by other members of the audience: once someone laughs or gasps, the crowd learns that this is indeed an acceptable or even intended response.
[6] My examples are all about (white) evangelicals, and that’s on purpose. In my experience, this is by far the most common topic about which you’ll hear this voice used. I’ll leave it to the reader to ruminate on why that might be.


Adam Park at: May 25, 2017 at 1:03 PM said...

Good stuff, Charle. Two questions: 1) Do you think "taking religion 'seriously'" precludes the use of humor in academic writing? 2) Do you think scholarly disinterestedness/detachment/neutrality is potentially "insincere" (insofar as it is a kind of thought experiment or synthetic disciplinary posture we take whilst writing)?

Charlie McCrary at: May 26, 2017 at 8:05 AM said...

Thanks, Adam.

1) No! I like humor and especially playfulness in academic writing. It depends what we mean by "taking religion seriously," which is a phrase I'd never use without scare quotes and is something I probably would never claim that I'm doing. I did want to point out the seeming incongruity between some scholars' willingness to poke fun at certain subjects while at the same time claiming to take them seriously (again, whatever that means).

2) Maybe. But all writing is a performance of some style or another, and I'd be hesitant to suggest that certain styles are more or less authentic than others. Some people "hide behind" a type of neutral, authoritative persona. I am aware that some scholars must perform a more serious style in order to be taken seriously, and of course there are sub-disciplinary differences here. In *Voice and Vision,* Pyne says that main point is to make sure your voice and your argument/content work together. I really believe that what we say and how we say it are very closely connected. So, I suppose that the most sincere author writes in a style that is self-aware and matched to the content.

Tom Van Dyke at: June 24, 2017 at 1:10 PM said...

...to two concepts that never appear in the biblical text at all: gender ‘complementarity’ and ‘biblical’ manhood and womanhood.’” Here, in the conclusion, Ziegler’s voice slips away from the ironic. Instead, she’s blatantly accusing her subjects of having ridiculous—that is, deserving of ridicule—theology. But still, even here, the motifs are “unlikely.” Again, to whom? Why are they unlikely? And who says these concepts don’t appear in the biblical text?

Excellent, Charlie. There is no place in scholarship for superciliousness; we must speak of the serious things seriously. For many or most believers, there is nothing more serious in their lives than their religion, understandably, since eternity is involved.

And "gender complementarity" is normative in the Christian religion. A scholar's assessment of its theological or Biblical legitimacy is above the sociologist's pay grade.


Vatican City, Jun 8, 2015 / 03:52 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The value and beauty of marriage, based on the complementarity of man and woman, is lamentably being challenged by “gender ideology,” Pope Francis warned the bishops of Puerto Rico on Monday.

“The complementarity of man and woman, the crown of the divine creation, is being questioned by gender ideology in the name of a freer and more just society,” the Pope said June 8 at the Vatican's Santa Marta hall.

“The difference between man and woman is not meant to stand in opposition, or to subordinate, but is for the sake of communion and generation, always 'in the image and likeness of God.'”

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