Left of his field
Religion, radicalism and revolutionaries all fall under the critical gaze of theologian and writer Roland Boer.
Roland Boer is not your average scholar, nor is he a typical theologian. The academic who enjoys stirring up debate with articles under such arresting titles as Lenin the Nudist, believes a measure of provocation is a good thing if it stimulates thought and discussion about religion.
The researcher with the Faculty's Religion & Radicalism Research Network describes himself, on his curiously titled but well-patronised blog Stalin's Moustache, as someone who likes "speaking my mind" and basks in one reviewer's assessment of his sentiments as "the oddest I have ever read in a scholarly work."
But for all this spirited subversion, Boer is a widely read and internationally recognised academic theologian whose prolific writing has broadened dialogue not only in his specialty research field, Marxist interaction with religion, but across the spectrum of biblical criticism.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Boer's theological path took an unorthodox turn during a course in political and liberation theology while studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Sydney in the 1980s. Rather than read theologians writing on Marxism, Boer decided to go back to the source and read Marx, which proved a revelatory experience.
"There is a tradition within Marxism of engagement with religion that is usually characterised as atheistic and disinterested, but I argue there is a continuous stream of major Marxist figures who have written on questions of religion and engaged specifically with the Bible or with theological debate,'' Boer says.
"Some people contend that Marxism borrowed its main ideas from Christianity and Judaism and reconstructed them as secular ideology, but I think that is extremely simplistic – the relationship is much more complex."
Boer maintains that Marx's famous quote about religion being the "opium of the people" has been largely misinterpreted, given that, when Marx used the phrase, opium was as valued for its medicinal qualities as it was denounced for its addictive potential.
"That ambivalence over religion is really what is embodied in Marx's metaphor, rather than the notion that it is just a drug that dulls the senses and makes you forget your suffering," he says.
Boer has recently completed the final book in a seminal five-volume series that offers critical commentary on the tradition of interactions between Marxism and theology. The first three titles, Criticism of Heaven, Criticism of Theology and Criticism of Religion found a wide audience among theologians, Marxist analysts, historians, sociologists, philosophers and others, and were or are being translated into several languages. The final two books, Criticism of Earth and In The Vale of Tears, will be released in 2012.
The Criticism of Heaven and Earth series is part of a wider program of Boer's academic work. In 2012, he was awarded a prestigious Discovery Projects grant from the Australian Research Council, his fifth grant from the national body, to pursue a novel line of research on Lenin's interactions with religion (DP120103829 Unfinished Business: on Marxism and Religion). This grant came alongside a joint ARC grant with Macquarie University on Religion and Political Thought in Australia, which is part of a global project, and a faculty grant via the Humanities Research Institute for a team research programme investigating Religion and Political Life.
In 2013, he was awarded his sixth ARC DP grant for The Sacred Economy, which undertakes a wholesale reconstruction of the Bible's ancient economic context. The project is framed theoretically by the Marxian Regulation School of economic theory, Soviet-era studies, and works of ancient-world economists. The Sacred Economy will be published in the authoritative Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox Press.
Once an ordained minister, Boer still has a toehold in mainstream religion but prefers to "go incognito" on his visits to church these days.
"The Christian communist tradition is what really interests me and keeps me involved with religion," he says, "I am fascinated by the radical, revolutionary dimension of Christianity."