What Get Religion Doesn’t Get About “Monk” Class

Normally I don’t respond to an article or blog post unless it warrants a response. In the case of a recent critique on the Get Religion blog by Terry Mattingly of Kathy Matheson’s AP story Penn Class teaches students to live like Monks” about my colleague Justin McDaniel, I am going to make an exception. 

Mattingly’s February 14th post How to live like a monk? Not!” (later changed to How to live like faith-free monks”), lamented the fact that the AP neglected to talk about a spiritual tradition or any disciplines. Let me quote Mattingly’s opening:

On one level, nothing in the following story is surprising.

Stop and think about it: What kind of class could a mainstream university professor possibly teach these days about monasticism that featured a strong element of student-participation? The key is that it would be impossible to choose one tradition in which to root that experience, because to choose one is to reject others. Thus, the only solution is blending pluriform traditions, creating a kind of do-it-yourself synthetic tradition.

Call it “emerging” academia.

I was amused by the fact that Mattingly referred to this as “Emerging Academia.” Heh. I know you all love talking about emergent church and evangelical churches adding candles at Get Religion, but that’s not what this course is about. Mattingly was a bit perplexed that I immediately commented on his post to note that the course wasn’t about a particular religion or practice specifically. Here’s my original comment and his response:

TM:
I’ll respond to your blog at Religion Dispatches. I’m surprised that you didn’t see the bigger picture. Penn is a. not religiously affiliated and b. we are a religious studies department, not a Div school or Seminary.
Thanks for your opinion. I think this will be an interesting interchange of differing opinion.
Prof. Butler

PROF. BUTLER:

Make sure you understand my post.

I am not criticizing the CLASS. I am saying that the STORY should have addressed why the class did or did not contain a spiritual tradition or any disciplines. The university’s choice may be totally logical. I do not doubt that.

But for AP to be SILENT on that issue?

Please make sure you focus on the fact that my essential point is JOURNALISTIC, not academic.

If you write in defense of the course, you missed my point entirely.

It’s not that I didn’t see a bigger picture. I am writing about a different picture.

Funny, I didn’t say anything about criticizing the class did I?

But here’s why the story was silent about the course being about a particular spiritual tradition or disciplines: It was designed that way. The AP reporter interviewed Justin McDaniel for an hour, and attended a class session prior to writing the article. She did not leave anything out. The religion story is in the article. It is not a ghost.

Problem is, it isn’t the religion story Mattingly wants it to be. Mattingly’s jaundiced journalistic eye can’t see past the word Monk being disassociated from a religious tradition. In other words, his whole critique of the “journalistic” point is embedded in his understanding of the word monk and its connection to tradition. To wit:

Monks, you see, have to have a tradition. Tradition is the frame that surrounds the life of a monk. The goal is to live a tradition and to be transformed by it.

The goal of this course is not to live by a tradition and to be transformed by it. Nor is it to create a pluriform tradition, or to make Penn Monastics. The actual course title is Living Deliberately. The course is rooted not only in one religious tradition, but a series of bodily practices and disciplines, that can be observed across religious lives, monastic or otherwise. Ascetics from several traditions are studied, including Hinduism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Protestantism. The word monk for the AP reporter was a shorthand, a way to connect readers to the actual course. Perhaps Matheson could have used another word, but that’s how she decided to construct her lede.

Leaving aside the monk argument for a minute, discipline and practices are a large part of studies in religion. In our department at Penn, it happens to be an interest of several of our professors, including myself. Prof. McDaniel also taught this course at his previous institution, so he had a good sense about what happens to students through the course of the semester. The conversation we had as a department prior to the course being offered was a lively one, but one that also noted carefully what the class could and could not be in the context of an institution that does not have a religious affiliation and has many religious traditions represented in its student body.

In the course Living Deliberately, students are required to follow modes of awareness that are shared practices across many religious traditions, including food, sexuality, listening, and spending. Along with a class partner, students abide by rules for each awareness point during the semester, and journal their progress. Their days are ordered. Class time is spent studying the ascetic life across different religions. The course does not claim to make them practitioners, nor do the practices substitute for their own religious tradition or lack therof. The course is an elective, and there was a long waitlist for it, (100 + students) across schools at Penn, including the Wharton School. Due to the nature of the course, enrollment is limited.

For Mattingly, the course can’t possibly be about Monasticism without certain elements, which are embedded in his understanding of tradition, and his wish to impose journalistic integrity on the AP reporter. Mattingly asked: “So what is the bottom line? What is the point of monasticism, if not transcendence, submission and union with Another? What is the purpose of this class?”

Justin’s answer to the AP was simple: “Its not about individual restrictions. It’s about building a hyperawareness of yourself and others.”

Prof McDaniel is not a spiritual father, nor is he there to convert students. Yes, he has lived as a Buddhist monk, and is a Catholic. He is their professor. He’s no Thomas Merton, but hey, he wouldn’t be the first Ivy League professor with an interesting personal narrative of religious beliefs.

Get Religion likes to complain about how religion stories are not covered well. It is part of their website’s purpose. I can agree that religion stories are frequently covered inadequately. In this case, Mr. Mattingly’s complaint is misguided, and overwrought. The AP story has been reprinted around the world, and as a department, we are happy that a deserving, award-winning professor’s work is gaining attention.

I’m sure I’ll be branded as an elitist Ivy League professor who is picking on “believers” with this rebuttal. Go ahead. As a graduate of both a religious and secular institution, Fuller Seminary and Vanderbilt University respectively, I’ll wear that badge proudly.

Yes, journalists don’t always get it right, but in this case, AP reporter Kathy Matheson’s characterization of the course was spot on. AP reporter 1, Blogger 0.

Now I can get back to preparing my own discipline for Lent. What am I giving up, you ask? Reading Get Religion.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.