Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll talk with Anthony B. Pinn about God’s obituary
Dr. Anthony B. Pinn is currently Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies, and also Founding Director of The Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is also Director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies in Washington, DC. In addition to these titles, while at Rice Prof. Pinn has developed a robust PhD program in African American Religious Studies recognized for its intellectual rigor and emphasis on professionalization.
Spanning a career of nearly 25 years, Pinn has published over thirty books, which have impacted a variety of fields and subfields within the academic study of religion and have made him one of the most prolific and influential scholars of religion of his generation. In February of 2014, Prometheus Books released Anthony B. Pinn’s Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist. As this title notes, Pinn is also a well-known atheist, or non-theist (to use his own preferred moniker). His brand of theology doesn’t require “god” but emphasizes the ordinary as well as the extraordinary dimensions of life, and the cultural ingenuity humans muster in community, in particular the African American community.
Recently, we sat down with Professor Pinn to talk about Writing God’s Obituary (WGO).
MM/CD: After authoring, co-authoring, editing, and co-editing more than thirty books, among other publications, tell us about how this book emerged as an idea and why now — especially given the book’s brilliant remix of scholarly acumen with memoir styled writing?
ABP: You are very kind. I’d been approached about writing this type of book a good number of years ago, but I didn’t think the timing was right. The possibility came up again recently and I thought the timing was right. I was approaching 50 and it seemed time to reflect — in a somewhat systematic manner — on my intellectual life and its connection to my personal circumstances and history. I wanted to avoid getting lost in academic jargon; I wanted to wrestle with the intellectual concerns that have shaped my life and the existential arrangements that have housed my life. And, I wanted to discuss these two in a manner that was organic, that flowed and that wove the two together.
MM/CD: Much of the intellectual legacy you inherit, as well as your own work, places a premium on social context and interpretive location. As theologians, scholars of religion, etc., the conclusions we draw are at least partly the result of the assumptions we bring to the table. But there is context and then there is context, right? In Writing God’s Obituary, you’re doing more than merely situating yourself. You’re offering readers a sustained intimate look at all the dimensions of what has shaped your intellectual development. Were there any particular challenges you faced by opening up in this fashion on the written page? Were there specific parameters or methodological guideposts you followed that determined what to reveal or what not to reveal?
ABP: Well, it isn’t full disclosure. In part there are things from my history that I don’t care to share in that context. But, more importantly, memory is fragile and fractured; and so, there are elements of my life that are no longer available to me. This reality posed a challenge in that it raised questions concerning my ability to “know” myself in a way that could be shared — in a way that took fractured experiences and memories and wove them into something that resembled progression, and somewhat organized life movement.
Determining what to include and what to exclude was a bit difficult. However, I wanted to avoid getting lost in details. I wanted to provide enough texture and tone, without overwhelming readers. In certain ways, I tried to learn important lessons from some of my favorite writers — Richard Wright, Albert Camus, Zora Neale Houston, and a few others.
MM/CD: Much of your work — and we’re thinking about Varieties of African American Religious Experience (1998) and By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (2001) among others — has set about simultaneously to tell the stories of African American humanists and to demonstrate that the idea of a black atheist is nothing new, even if swept under history’s rug(s). It seems Writing God’s Obituary adds a chapter (so to speak) to these efforts. In what ways is WGO an outgrowth of these earlier scholarly efforts to tell your own story by telling the stories of other prominent African American humanists like Huey Newton, Zora Neale Hurston, or Richard Wright?
ABP: That’s right. There is a connection. Much of what I’ve written regarding African American humanism and atheism has entailed painting history with broad strokes as well as privileging key figures. The goal was to disrupt the typical narrative of African American intellectual history and activism by claiming particular figures of historical significance, who are typically assumed to be theists or of limited consequences in the advancement of African American socio-political life. Hence, I’ve highlighted figures like Newton, Hurston, and Wright — as you’ve noted. But it is also important to tell the story from the perspective of the ordinary figures of African American life (and letters). WGO is my effort to fill in some of the gaps in the story of African American humanism and atheism by giving attention to a rich and layered expression of non-theism. I’d given some limited attention to my own context and how it informs my academic life, but by expressing it more fully I meant to provide yet another perspective on what it means to think and live humanism — personalize the story.
MM/CD: Those who know you and/or are familiar with your work will not be shocked that one of the epigraphs beginning WGO is from Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Describe for us the impact of Wright on your thinking and scholarly trajectory.
ABP: Richard Wright has been extremely important to me. His work provided me with a way to think about humanism and its moral and ethical implications. I have also found compelling the poetic manner in which he highlights our existential dilemma. He looks at the troubles of the world without blinking and, unlike so many African American theists, he is not troubled by the uncertainty of progression and transformation. For several decades now I have found his work troubling, but also inspiring and challenging. There are ways in which my work is an extension of some of the themes in his writings — themes such as the nature of freedom, the contours of human history, the nature of struggle, the aesthetics of misery, and so on.
MM/CD: Some might be shocked to read about you speaking in tongues and having an embodied, “religious” experience, that is, being filled with the Holy Spirit. We can imagine many using this story to deconstruct some of the nontheistic positions you’ve proffered over the years. And, to push this a bit further, you tell readers that there are a number of possible explanations for these experiences. How do you make sense of these experiences now, and in what ways have those experiences continued to instruct/inform/shape your work — even if as data alone?
ABP: I can’t make sense of them, other than to say social persuasion and imprinting are real and operate within the context of black church life. At that time in my life, I believed those experienced to be real and substantive. I respect where I was at that point in my life. However, I now understand that there was nothing metaphysically significant about those church activities. They say more about communal interactions and the ritualization of conformity.
MM/CD: WGO, in our opinion, is one of the few books that deals at length with the complexities and nuances of living life without god while maintaining so many important, vital relationships with theists and your commitment to keep something like humanism as a viable religious option. From your family, in particular your mother Rev. Anne Pinn with whom you were very close, to many of the friendships you describe, the book demonstrates the complexities of such social arrangements. Could you describe some of the difficulties of maintaining relationships with theists, and perhaps, situate your answer in light of your more general perspective on the kind of exclusionary social work done by the idea of god?
ABP: While I disagree with theists, I understand productive struggle against injustice requires cooperation and collaboration. So, it becomes important to develop the ability to disagree with ideas and philosophies of life, and to do so with energy, but also to respect and appreciate the people who hold to those ideas and philosophies. The idea of God has protected believers from obligation and accountability — a type of vaccine against realism. However, I do understand and appreciate that for theists who care for and about me, their reference to God, and their statements such as “I’m praying for you,” or “God bless you,” is their effort to give me their best, what they consider best about the universe. And while I disagree, I have to appreciate how my friends and family who are theists seek to wrap me in what they consider the best they have to give. So, this is to appreciate the sentiment, the effort, while disagreeing with the structure, the framing, and the symbols of that concern and effort. It can be a delicate balance; yet, it is important.
MM/CD: Aside from having had a profound impact on nontheistic theological development and African American humanist thought, and connected to that work, too, you’ve done much to establish and legitimate hip hop culture as necessary and pivotal source material for the contemporary study of religion and for the study of humanist thought. Through works like Noise and Spirit (2003) and your first monograph, Why, Lord? (1995), you brought hip hop to bear on the academy in sustained ways. Recently, you’ve developed a (free-to-enroll) Massive Open Online Course at Rice University, which you’re co-teaching with recording artist Bernard “Bun-B” Freeman. Connect some of these dots for us. Are there ways that hip hop culture deconstructs the “ivory towers” of the academy, necessitating something like a MOOC? On this same front, what can students expect from the course and how has your effort to break down barriers between the academy and the broader community of cultural producers been met with roadblock? What have been some of the advantages?
ABP: Hip hop provides, from my perspective, a grammar and vocabulary for life that is organic and deeply compelling. It pushes us to step beyond our comfort and our familiar surroundings in order to engage the world as the world presents itself. Yes, something about this pushes beyond the Rice classroom and demands engagement with the city. My interest in hip hop and my work with Bun B has involved an effort to engage the city — to learn from Houston and to offer Houston something — to develop creative synergies and collaborations. Students who take this course will go along for the ride. They will encounter both religion and hip hop in new ways that push against their assumptions and uncertainties. They will get tools and insights that will help them analyze, explore, and explain their cultural context(s). The MOOC has allowed us to be really creative not only in terms of locations for the class, but also in terms of how technology impacts academic inquiry. We’ve put together something that is novel, a unique learning experience that draws from the overlap of interest in and expertise regarding two deeply significant cultural developments.
MM/CD: By way of conclusion, it might be fair to say that WGO is an unfinished story. It tells beautifully of your intellectual growth and development as a scholar and, more generally, as a person — complex, multifaceted, and unfinished. Can you leave us with a sense of where your work is headed next (in particular, we’re very excited about your turn towards zombies in your forthcoming volume with Miller and Bun B in Religion in Hip Hop: Mapping the New Terrain in the US?) What projects can we look forward to seeing, and what influences are shaping your current work? What’s next in line now that you’ve written god’s obituary?
ABP: That volume, Religion in Hip Hop, was a pleasure to pull together. And working with you, Monica, and Bun B made for a really rewarding experience.
There’s something regarding death that necessarily comes to mind based on the title — WGO. That’s not lost on me, and my interest in the dynamics and structures of death and dying continue. For example, I’ll continue working on the hermeneutical value of hip hop through a volume on the grammar of death and dying offered by hip hop culture. That book gives me an opportunity to extend my work on death in Religion in Hip Hop. I’m also working on a follow up to Terror and Triumph that extends my theory of religion (i.e., religion is the quest for complex subjectivity) and applies it to performance art and a few other cultural developments. That book — The Meaning of Things — also gives me an opportunity to respond to some of the critique of that theory the two of you and some others have offered. I also have a novel that will come out in May, and I’ll start work this summer on the next novel. I’ve turned to that genre because I want to continue to push myself to develop ways to express my academic/intellectual interests and ideas in a way that is “reader friendly” and mindful of the poetic nature of life. Writing novels offers a different way of exploring some of the theological and philosophical concerns that undergird and motivate my more academic (read: jargon) driven work.