January 2023 Update

A year ago this week we departed from Southwestern Ontario for Thunder Bay, and arrived in the North amidst a terrible snowstorm. But since then, many things have become clearer, including the research programme that I use this site to catalogue.

2021 was a big year, with the publication of a journal special issue that I edited and the defense of my dissertation in early May, some teaching in the Spring and Fall, taking over as Director of Pandora Press midway through the year, the beginning of a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in September, and the publication of my first book, Postsecular History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) at the end of the year.

2022 was all the more intense, with an 18-hour move to a new city, the launch of my book, several lectures and presentations, a book chapter summarizing my Mennonite work, a few articles (including one in Angelaki!), the publication of several books I edited for the press (including one with praise from Margaret Atwood!), the first review of my first book and the publication of a symposium on it, and an exciting new position as a Research Associate in the Centre for Social Accountability at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine University. And amidst it all, I managed to unpack my library and settle into a new home and a new community of people.

2023 has already been a whirlwind, and it’s only been a few weeks. A few days ago I submitted the final revised manuscript for my second book, Ontologies of Violence (Brill, 2023) – a text that has come a long way since the dissertation version of two years ago, thanks to two helpful peer reviewers and comments from series editor Ulrich Schmiedel and some friends. The conclusion of the book turns from the abstract reconceptualization of the concept of violence that the book focuses on to form connections between violence, public health, social accountability, and the social determinants of health.

My current and future work, beyond my postdoctoral fellowship (which concludes in a few months), will carry these themes forward, especially as I make connections between my third book project on conspiratorial thinking, and the study of public health. In connection with three large grant proposals that were submitted last year, I am also working on bringing together the discourse on Social Accountability (in the area of medical education) with the conversations I specialize in, most especially the interdisciplinary study of religion and critical theory. I have posted some initial thoughts here, but this is a piece of writing that will be expanded this year into a shorter book called Social Accountability: A Critical Theory (so it is all subject to change).

On top of it all, I am fortunate enough to be teaching 200+ students at the University of Toronto this term, in an online course called “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” hosted by the Department for the Study of Religion. I’m fortunate to have an excellent team of teaching assistants, and a great group of first-year students, which makes teaching a joy. The syllabus for the course is here, and in the future I hope to turn the course material into a short booklet on religion and apocalypse, so keep an eye out for that if the topic interests you.

Later in the year, another project that I have been working on will come to fruition. I am excited to re-launch the Pandora Press series in “Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies” as a new independent scholarly book series, and the first five volumes will be published in 2023 under my editorship, in consultation with several helpful peer reviewers and the Pandora Press editorial board. More details on the series are available here, and submissions are open, with several titles scheduled for 2024.

For those who encounter my work for the first time, it may be difficult to trace a through line in all of the projects outlined above. The best way that I have to describe my approach is to say that I am trained as a scholar of religion and culture in the Social Sciences and Humanities, and I take an interdisciplinary approach to key terms and topics by drawing from critical theory, political theology, and the philosophy of religion. Key terms like the ‘postsecular,’ ‘violence,’ ‘conspiracy,’ and ‘accountability’ are the focus of my work, and I see deep connections between the study of the religious-secular distinction, the notion that violence is defined by the violation of value-laden boundaries, the problem of conspiratorial thinking, and the social bonds of public trust that underpin social accountability. My future work will aim, in a variety of ways, to clarify these connections.

Postsecular History Symposium!

A symposium on my book Postsecular History has just been published in Political Theology (online 2022, forthcoming 2023). See below for links to the contributions, and an open-access link to my response. I feel really lucky to have such thoughtful mentors and peers responding to my book, so please enjoy!

Postsecular History, continued.

I have just heard that the proceedings of the launch event for my book Postsecular History will be published as a mini-symposium in the journal Political Theology, including reflections from my friend Jen Otto, my doctoral supervisor Travis Kroeker, and my postdoctoral supervisor Pamela Klassen (and my own response, titled “Beyond the Postsecular?”). I couldn’t ask for more generous engagements with my work.

I have also just received an email with the first review of Postsecular History, written by Paul Doerksen (whose dissertation was also supervised by Travis Kroeker). Paul’s review is also generous, and amidst his supportive comments he points out the structural limits of the book that I too would have noted if I were reviewing it. Postsecular History is an essay collection that collects published and unpublished graduate school essays of mine, united under the banner of a critique of the postsecular. But its unity is questionable, and my attempts to unify it were at times forced – all of which I’m happy to accept, now that the book is published, public, and being read.

But I have more thinking to do about how criticism features in scholarly book reviews, especially because in the same issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review I reviewed Layton Boyd Friesen’s new book Secular Nonviolence and the Theo-Drama of Peace. Whereas Paul’s review of my book was almost entirely positive, my review of Friesen’s book was predominantly critical. I don’t enjoy writing critical reviews, and I don’t take pleasure in criticizing the hard work of others. Instead, I try to reserve my critical voice only for those areas of inquiry that have high stakes. For me, in this review, the stakes are high because the distinction between secularity and religion is so often used by Christian theologians to prop up caricatures of ‘bad secularity’ and ‘good religion’ without critical attention to the ambiguities of these terms and the profound limits of using the religious-secular distinction to explain things in the world. I have too often seen this distinction used as a normative and polemical means to write off entire fields of study and forms of life, and I found Layton’s approach to the distinction to be too simplistic, and potentially harmful inasmuch as it contributes to the gatekeeping and boundary maintenance that underpins Christian orthodoxy (which is so often constructed by processes of implicit and explicit demonization and heresy-making).

That said, it is disorienting to read such a generous review of my own – very limited – book, just a page after my highly critical review of another scholar’s first book, and I hope that my criticisms do not shut down, but instead open up, the discourses that I am trying to intervene in (political theology, Mennonite Studies, etc.). The theme of openness, and the difficulty of critiquing violence without repeating the violence of critique, are central to my next book, which I aim to submit to Brill by the end of the year. In Ontologies of Violence I argue that concept of violence is defined by the violation of value-laden boundaries, and that treating violence as a diagnostic concept that reflects the values of its users and critics is a helpful interpretive strategy for reading the approaches to violence taken by Jacques Derrida, Grace Jantzen, and Mennonite philosophical theologians. I see this paradigm intersecting with my work in Postsecular History because each of my main sources in Ontologies of Violence uses theological and political terms to periodize the relationship between origins, essences, and ends, as part of their critiques and metanarratives. So too with the forms of conspiratorial thinking I will attempt to delineate in my postdoctoral project, but more on that another time…

The Centre for Social Accountability at NOSM University

My work with the Centre for Social Accountability at NOSM University continues, and I would like to share this piece I wrote on the launch celebration for the centre earlier this year. I’m continuing to link my work on violence, conspiratorial thinking, and political theology, with social accountability, and I am excited to see where these connections go. The conversation on social accountability has already made some connections with the study of religion and critical theory, via the social determinants of health, but I’m eager to go further and examine the character of the social bonds that compose socially accountable institutions.

June 2022 Update

Many changes have occurred in the past few months since our move to Thunder Bay, and most all of them for the better!

In April 2022 I joined the Centre for Social Accountability at NOSM University as a part-time Research Associate. The Centre is led by an interdisciplinary group of medical doctors, researchers, and scholars, and its aim is to improve health and wellness in Northern Ontario through policy leadership and advocacy, research and innovation, and education that better aligns medical training with community needs. It is situated on the Anishinabek Nation and hosts several programs including NORTHH, MERLIN, and an Indigenous data sovereignty working group.

The team I work with is currently developing a unique approach to social accountability in medical education and health care, and my work with the Centre is focused on writing, communications, and the epistemology of social accountability. I am also interested in how my work on violence and conspiratorial thinking bears upon issues of public health, from the complexities of the World Health Organization’s definition of violence to the severe and negative effects that conspiracy theories continue to have on public health.

In another vein, in late 2021 I took over operations of a publishing company called Pandora Press that specializes in scholarly works in the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. The press has published landmark books like C. Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology and Astrid von Schlachta’s From the Tyrol to North America: The Hutterite Story Through the Centuries.

As the new Director of Pandora Press I am interested in working with authors who write critically, creatively, and rigorously on topics related to Mennonite Studies and the history of the Anabaptist groups. See here for a catalogue of our titles, here for a brief history of the imprint, and here for covers of our recent and forthcoming titles.

Beyond that, my work as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto continues, and I am currently revising my dissertation for publication and writing my postdoctoral book on conspiracism and critique!