UNCG Research

Power in the blood

2015 Research Excellence Award winner Rogers on blood imagery in religion

Posted on Friday, October 21st, 2016 by Savannah Hutko.

Excerpt, spring 2016 UNCG Research Magazine

Professor of Religious Studies Dr. Eugene Rogers Jr., our interviewee, doesn’t shy from taking on some of the most controversial and important issues in religious life and in our culture. Dr. Rogers’ book Sexuality and the Christian Body, an evaluation of Christian arguments for and against same-sex marriage, was named essential reading by leading Protestant religious news journal Christian Century and has become part of the curriculum at prestigious universities such as Princeton, Yale, and Cambridge. Currently, Rogers is working in Jerusalem. The UNCG 2014-15 Senior Research Excellence Award winner’s new focus? Blood imagery in religion.

His new work

The book will be titled “The Persistence of Blood.” I’m thinking about how religious people, especially Christians, think about blood — how they use images of blood, symbols of blood, language of blood. To me, recently, it’s become strange why Christians talk about blood so much. I’m also interested in how other religious groups such as Jews, Muslims, Aztecs, and Hindus talk about blood.

A multi-pronged analysis

I’m not a historian. I think about these things more anthropologically, philosophically, theologically — that is, I look for patterns that recur over time periods. In this case, I am looking for ways that Christians use the symbols and language of blood to distinguish “them” from “us” — that distinguish the borders of the group.

Symbolism reinforces bonds

An example is when Christians think about creation and evolution. There has been a lot of controversy within Christianity about whether Christians can believe in evolution. In many Christian responses to evolution, both in the 1920s and recently, authors consider whether humans share blood with apes. This gets thought out in terms of the blood of Christ. “If the blood of Christ — the blood of the atonement — excludes apes, they’re not like us. If it includes apes, they are like us.” Both versions are controversial. Blood language has also been used, surprisingly, to reinforce gender roles.

Reconciling opposing views

My dissertation was on two figures who seemed to have opposite views on whether you can read the existence of God from nature. One was Thomas Aquinas, who is usually understood to say you can read God from the book of nature. And the other is a modern Protestant Calvinist theologian, Karl Barth, who is understood to think that any God whose existence you could show from nature would not be God. But both Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, who seem to have opposite views on this, comment on the same biblical passage: Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, where Paul says that the invisible things of God can be known from the things God has made. There, the Protestant and the Catholic, the medieval and the modern, end up saying very similar things, because they don’t want to disagree with Paul.

Danger in blood

There has been a critique of Christian blood language both outside Christianity and inside Christianity. For instance, there is a 2014 book called “Blood: A Critique of Christianity” by Gil Anidjar, who thinks that Christian blood talk is responsible for all the evils of the modern world. He thinks Christian blood language is responsible for war, violence, anti-Semitism, racism, and the evils of capitalism. That’s overdone in my view, but that’s a critique of Christianity from outside. Within Christianity, feminist theologians, especially, have observed a dynamic where the powerful tell the less powerful to take up their cross. They should bleed for Christ, they should suffer for Christ. This has been used by husbands to abuse their wives or slave masters to enforce slavery. Many people who observe this dynamic think that Christians should stop using blood imagery altogether. It’s just too dangerous.

Persistence of blood imagery

My view is that it is dangerous, but it is not going away. If some Christians avoid blood language, then other Christians will just keep using it and the danger will, at best, go underground to exercise its influence out of conscious sight. It’s better to acknowledge that Christians do it, and try to figure out how to do it better than to try to suppress it, because suppression isn’t going to work.

Aesthetics of religion

I study Christian thought because it is beautiful. It hangs together in an aesthetic way. It has a certain elegance and depth and pattern to it that is endlessly engaging.

“Power in the blood” interview by Mike Harris. Read this story and more in the 2016 spring issue of UNCG Research Magazine.

Click to read the 2016 spring UNCG Research Magazine

Click to read the 2016 spring UNCG Research Magazine