In an essay recently posted on the NPR site , Patrick Jarenwattananon asks, “Does a Jazz Critic Have to Be a Musician, Too?”  His answer: “Playing music isn’t a prerequisite for that understanding, but it can only help. Duh, right?” I have recently seen somewhere else a similar discussion about art criticism.  Does an art critic have to be an artist?  There is a whole genus of such questions (does a food critic have to cook seriously?), and although they are hardly new they are worth revisiting now and again.  What is the relationship between a practitioner and a “critic” of the art that he or she produces?

Jarenwattananon attempts to strike a sensible middle course.  No, critics do not “have to be” practitioners of the craft they critique.  But they do need to understand that craft, and actually doing it helps to gain that understanding.  The implication is that those who have at least some familiarity with actually creating in the medium know the material better and thus produce better criticism.  I am sympathetic to this view.  I have recently dabbled in drawing and now when I see drawings at a museum or gallery I appreciate them in a very different way than before.

Here, now, is the nub: is the same logic true of academic discourse?  Does being an American, brought up and immersed in American literature, culture, etc., and having a vested interest in America, make for a better American historian or critic of American literature?  Or, getting progressively closer to (my academic) home, does religious practice make for better scholarship on religion?  Does being Jewish help the study of Jews and Judaism in the context of the academy?

These latter two questions in particular have been extensively discussed, and with a few outliers the strong majority answer has been resoundingly negative.  This conclusion rests on the assumption that scholarship is a dispassionate application of critical, rational (and hence universally accessible) methods to a set of data.  We have all become more self-aware of the problems of this assumption – we all are positioned in life as a result of our gender, class, race, religion, etc., and thus are never truly “dispassionate” – but given these unavoidable biases, we can still attempt at least to acknowledge our positioning and proceed, adopting a “critical distance” from our material.

As I have written before, bias is a complex phenomenon.  Scholars are sometimes critiqued or written off because they fit into one or more easily identified categories: “white male,” “liberal,” “Orthodox Jew,” for examples.  Yet except in the most hackneyed of scholarship to think that this actually helps us to better understand that person’s scholarship than, for another example, uncovering that person’s relationship with his or her mother (often a case of “too much information”) is misguided.  Bias can rarely be reduced to ideologies.

The idea of religious bias in the critical study of religion makes many scholars uncomfortable.  Neither I nor the scholars I respect and admire want to think that our scholarship serves as a crude reflection or justification of our faith, or lack of such.  The common refrain – one that I too have uttered many times – is that critical scholarship on religion is entirely distinct from the practice of religion.  There is as little connection between religion and its study as between, say, jazz musicians and their critics.

Yet, as Jarenwattananon suggests, this relationship, like bias, is sometimes more complex than we would want.  Does the practice of religion help one to “understand” it better?

On that level, I think that the analogy is flawed.  The basic problem is that “religion,” unlike jazz, is understood (or “constructed”) differently by the practitioner and the scholar.  This is why the two communities often speak past each other.  Practitioners are often interested in ultimate meanings; scholars  are interested in the practitioners, their practices and beliefs.  They are after different things.

So, no, a scholar of religion does not need to be religious (whatever that might mean) to study religion.  And being religious does not necessarily make one a better scholar of religion.  But it probably is true that the practice of religion changes the perspective of the scholar.  This change is not necessarily predictable – it is just one piece of the whole of the scholar’s life – but it plays a role.