Sacrifice (RS Seminar)

Steven G. Smith                                                                                    Christian Center 11—office hours posted
Home phone 601-354-2290

Religious Studies 3900/4900 [Core 10]
Spring 2009

Diane Sawyer:  On this morning of 3,218 U.S. military fatalities and 24,042 U.S. wounded—not to mention the some 60,000 Iraqis who have been killed—on this morning, would you say to Americans that if it takes four more years and another 3,000 fatalities that you’ll stay the course; that that must be done too?

Condoleeza Rice:  Well, Diane, first we have to recognize the tremendous sacrifice, and nothing that we can say is ever going to lessen the hurt for those families that have lost loved ones or for those whose lives have been irrevocably changed.  But I would say . . . that nothing of value is ever won unless there is sacrifice.

            —“Good Morning America,” 3/19/07

            “Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.

            “Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely.  “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

            “Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller.  “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us?  Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the trunk of the World Ash Tree?  Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea?  You at least know the magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning.  You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill . . . unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”

            —The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)

Sacrifice is a deceptive topic.  People often use the word as if they know exactly what it means, and even in religious studies or theology conversations it seems easy to give just one or two paradigmatic examples of sacrifice.  But any good look at the literature on sacrifice will reveal a great diversity of important phenomena and issues.  If we are studying sacrifice we are probably studying ritual (with an associated mythic understanding of the constitution of the world), and perhaps a supreme action of giving; but we are also studying an act and interpretation of violence and death in many cases, of eating in many cases, of an enforcement of power relations amongst humans and other beings, and perhaps of ultimate respect or love or self-transformation, and even (according to some ideologies) of an ultimate rectification of human affairs or of the whole world.  It is not easy to see how just one of these meanings of sacrifice could be said to be the dominant one—not even in one tradition, in view of the fact that sacrificial practices and ideals have changed significantly over time in most traditions.  Moreover, there are difficulties lurking within the various possible key meanings.  For example, if sacrifice is supposed to be a gift, does the giver really give anything up if something greater is accomplished by the giving?  Or:  if a world can only be set right by sacrifice, was such a world worth sacrificing for?

In this course we will examine a range of significant evidences of sacrifice and theories of religion and sacrifice.  We will sift this material, considering not only the subject matter but what makes for effective argument in religious studies and theology.  Each of us will develop his or her own perspective on sacrifice, both descriptively—accounting adequately for the phenomena of sacrifice in human life—and evaluatively, judging the appeals and meaningful coherence of sacrifice.

Our readings will be drawn from various sources including these required texts:

Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion

Jeffrey Carter, ed.  Understanding Religious Sacrifice

Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice

The ingredients of the seminar, and of the course grade, are daily participation and serving several times as a recorder of class minutes (10%), weekly writing (35%), designing and conducting a course unit in partnership with another student (15%), and making a course book (40%).   Assignments and grading are explained below.


subject to revision by announcement in class and/or e-mail                                                       

Jan. 13 Introduction to course.

Jan. 15 Theories of religion.

READ Pals, Introduction & Chap. 1 on Tylor & Frazer

Jan. 20 Theories of religion cont.

READ Pals, Chaps. 2-3 on Freud & Durkheim

Jan. 22  Theories of religion cont.

READ Pals, Chap. 4 on Marx

Jan. 27 Theories of religion cont.

READ  Pals, Chaps. 6-7 on Eliade & Evans-Pritchard

Jan. 29 Sacrifice:  evidence.

READ Carter, Understanding Religious Sacrifice [URS] Introduction, 1-9

Feb. 3  Sacrifice:  evidence, cont.

READ McClymond and Indian scripture TBA

Feb. 5  Sacrifice:  evidence, cont.

READ Levenson, URS Chap. 25; Hebrew Bible TBA

Feb. 10  SUMMERS LECTURE  [required attendance]

Luke Timothy Johnson (Emory U.), “How the Bible is True”

Recital Hall, 11:30; lunch & response, 12:45-2:00

READ New Testament TBA

Feb. 12  Discussion of Johnson and New Testament.

Feb. 17  Theories of sacrifice:   the original importance of the communion meal.

READ Robertson Smith, URS Chap. 3

Feb. 19  The function of mediation.

READ Hubert & Mauss, URS Chap. 5

Feb. 24  The function of mapping the world.

READ J. Z. Smith, URS Chap. 19

Feb. 26  The importance of excess.

READ Bataille, URS Chap. 10

Mar. 3  The importance of gender.

READ Jay, URS Chap. 22; Beers, URS Chap. 23

Mar. 5  The role of hunting.

READ Jensen and Burkert, URS Chaps. 11, 13

Mar. 10  Scapegoating.

READ Girard, URS Chap. 14

Mar. 12  Shift to theology.

READ  Heim, Saved by Sacrifice, Introduction

Mar. 17, 19  SPRING BREAK

Mar. 24  Heim cont.

READ  Chaps. 1-3

Mar. 26  Heim cont.

READ  Chaps. 4-5


Apr. 2  Heim cont.

READ  Chaps. 6-7

Apr. 7  Heim cont.

READ Chaps. 8-9

Apr. 9  Heim cont.

READ Chap. 10

Apr. 14, 16, 21, 23  TBA (student-led)

Course book due by end of finals week.



  1. For the benefit of everyone in the class, make a concise record of the main points and questions of a class session. On average, something like five or six points, all fitting onto one page (with single-space typing), would be best.  Do not aim for complete minutes—aim for useful ones.  Do not submit a transcript as opposed to your own synthesis of what took place.
  1. This is your own portrait of the class and you should exercise your own judgment about what to include and what to leave out. But you should also feel free to check your notes and recollections with fellow class members and/or the instructor.
  1. Give printed copies to all class members as they arrive at the next class meeting. There may be some discussion of the minutes.  Don’t be offended if changes or additions are suggested.



  1. Identify several issues in the assigned reading (and/or other experience) that you think would be worthwhile for the class to explore. Give a brief explanation of each issue, leading up to a question or two.  Keep this on one sheet of paper.  Thus, your question sheet will typically contain two or three short paragraphs.
  1. Avoid posing factual questions. (Factual questions may be quite important, but if you want an answer to a factual question you should find it for yourself right away!)  Try to pose at least one good interpretive question and at least one good evaluative question.

Example of an interpretive question:  What does Eliade mean by “sacred”?  (What does he think?)

Example of an evaluative question:  Is there a main core meaning of the term “sacred”?  (What do we think?)

  1. Give copies of your question sheet to all class members at the beginning of class (after we’ve approved the minutes). Present the issue that you would like to be discussed first.



  1. By the end of each class week you should turn in a written reflection of at least 250 words (that would be one page typed) on any subject relating to the course. You may use any strategy you like to get at something.  Try not to toss out a question without working toward an answer; working toward answers is what your journal is for.
  1. You may skip one week’s journal writing without penalty.



You will create the most wonderful compact package on sacrifice that could possibly fall into the hands of a curious reader.  Your goal will be to identify the main issues pertaining to sacrifice, marshal a powerful array of relevant evidence, and put to work the most promising approaches to understanding sacrifice—all according to your personal vision of this topic and its relevance to your audience.

Here is a general design for your course book (you may, however, do it differently, if you offer an acceptable rationale).  The book should include the following parts:

  1. An introductory essay. This 8-10 pp. essay will lay out, for readers who are coming to the general question of sacrifice for the first time, a program of thinking about it.  It will explain the question and why it matters.  It will provide some sort of map of the issues that are to be confronted.  Most importantly, it will indicate how these issues can be addressed—what sorts of analysis will be helpful, what sorts of evidence will be needed, and what sorts of answer will be helpful.
  1. An anthology combining primary material with focused critical reflections.

(a)  Primary material:  a usefully limited selection from documents (religious, political, imaginative etc.) and perhaps other visual or aural material to stimulate the reader’s reflection as strongly as possible, to represent the range of material that the student of sacrifice ought to take into account, and to serve as points of reference for arguments made in the critical reflections.

You will want to compile some sort of index or scrapbook through the semester from which you can make a final selection of primary materials for your anthology.  These primary materials should probably add up to at least 10 pp. of written text and no more than 25 pp. altogether.


(b1)  Focused critical reflections in the form of four to six short essays (300-600 words each—around 2,000 words total) on specific issues.  Most should refer to primary materials that are included in the anthology.

Every week you’ll have written journal reflections on the course.  These will be relatively spontaneous and “artless.”  You can turn some of these into more “artful” pieces of writing.  You can create entirely new pieces, too, if you wish, but at least two of the short essays for your anthology ought to be rooted somehow in your weekly journal writings.


(b2)  SATISFYING THE CORE 10 REQUIREMENT:  A 6-8 pp. reflection on your intellectual growth during your time at Millsaps, taking account of (a) the larger experience of liberal learning and the goals set for all Millsaps students, e.g. in the liberal arts abilities targeted by your previous Core courses, and (b) the more specialized experience of the religious studies major.  How, in particular, does our investigation of sacrifice affect your understanding of the possibilities of enlightenment and empowerment you now see in oral and written communication?

  1. An epilogue of 3-4 pp. on how study of sacrifice relates to one or more of the theories of religion reviewed by Daniel Pals in Eight Theories of Religion. How helpful is the theory in interpreting the phenomena and issues of sacrifice?  How might phenomena and issues of sacrifice imply refinement, major revision, or rejection of the theory?
  1. You may turn in a draft of all of your course book, or some portion of it, to the instructor at any time to get a preliminary evaluation and suggestions.



The course book will be letter-graded.  Weekly writings will receive a  –  (unsatisfactory), \/ (satisfactory), or + (very good), depending on the thoughtfulness they show and, as appropriate, clarity of communication.  Your record as of midterm will be interpreted by a midterm letter grade for which you will receive a rationale.  In general, “A” means doing all assigned work carefully, thoughtfully, and successfully; “B” means a good overall record; “C” reflects a mixture of good work, unsuccessful work fairly attempted, and unsatisfactory work;  “D” reflects a significant portion of work undone or a dominant portion done unsatisfactorily; and “F” is worse.



  1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected.  One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late.  Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, the assignment of sharing in the class’s work that day will be counted as only half done.  Overall, a course point is lost for every absence after the second; thus someone who was absent a total of five times would lose three points, i.e. a third of a letter grade.
  2. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent.  Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date.  No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations.  Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  3. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  4. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end.  The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  5. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.