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Between the Lines: S. Jonathon O’Donnell

Between the Lines asks researchers about the process of writing a book. Dr S. Jonathon O’Donnell reflects on the process of writing their first book, Passing Orders.

When did you first come up with the idea for the book?
I started thinking through the core ideas of Passing Orders towards the end of my PhD at SOAS, University of London, when I began interfacing my research on American demonologies with work in queer, Black, and decolonial studies. That then let me formulate a more granular and theoretically nuanced picture of how Christian demonology intersected with wider systems of dehumanisation and prejudice—homophobia, antiblackness, Islamophobia, settler colonialism. At the same time, the radical politics of that scholarship helped me see how those demonologies could be read against themselves as potential resources for political resistance and refusal. The book emerged through the interplay between these trajectories, as a study of systems of political demonization and a strategy of resistance to them.

Did you start out with the intention of writing a book about a particular topic, or did a book begin to make sense as you were researching?
I definitely set out to write a book on American spiritual warfare, although the specific book that I wrote was very much a work-in-process. The intersection of queer and decolonial theory, Black Studies and Indigenous Studies that informed the book was not part of its original outline but became absolutely essential to it, and is a significant part of what sets the text apart from other works on evangelicalism and the Christian Right.

What are the book’s main ideas?
Passing Orders is an exploration of the politics of evangelical ‘spiritual warfare’ in the USA today. Spiritual warfare is, broadly speaking, the idea that Christians are called to battle demonic forces. The book takes their belief in demons seriously, and shows how far from being a fringe part of contemporary religion “demonology” is integral to wider projects of US empire and the Christian nationalist movements we see on the rise across Europe and the Americas. It traces how demonology underlies and reinforces systems of structural violence in America today—queerphobia, antiblackness, Islamophobia, settler colonialism—and argues that demonology acts as a strategy of legibility for the creation and classification of difference, sorting humanity into hierarchies of being and non-being to justify certain models of social, political and religious order—what in the book I call orthotaxies, models of ‘right order.’ At the same time, the book reads these demonologies against themselves, excavating how reading these constructions of demonized difference otherwise can give us resources for thinking alternative social orders, for new futures that might still be forged through strategies of subversion, solidarity, and survival.

As a result, the book does a lot of thinking about the concept of “demonology.” Demonology generally refers to the subset of Christian theology that deals with the reality and activity of demons. This more institutionalized, formal demonology has fallen out of fashion in mainstream Christian denominations and in a lot of secular scholarship the term is now often used to refer simply to ideas of violent othering, of unjustly marking certain groups as threats. This is often what people mean when they use “demonization.” This framing tends to obscure how more formal demonologies remain vibrant parts of global Christianity today, especially the Pentecostal and charismatic variations in which ideas of spiritual warfare are often central.

More importantly, this framing also obscures how “demonization” often carries with it an archive, a set of concepts inherited from more formal demonologies that it seeks to impose on those it targets. Many of these—wilful deviance, ontological invalidity, denial of reproductive capacity—have been and remain central to material structures of systemic and direct violence, such as queerphobia and antiblackness. They also have a particular relation to ideas of sovereignty, which the book explores. In the process, Passing Orders pushes past understandings of demons as just ‘evil spirits’ to think of them as enframed by a specific radically asymmetric relation to sovereign power, one which structurally deprives them of legitimate being, action, and futurity. Archetypally this sovereignty is God’s, but in the context of spiritual warfare today it is also America’s, the settler state’s, Empire’s, and thus the wider apparatuses of coloniality and racial capitalism. These wider debates about sovereignty, ontology, and futurity have been discussed at length in Queer Studies, Black Studies, and Indigenous Studies, but these discussions had never been brought into dialogue with scholarship on “demonology proper” in a concerted way. That dialogue is one of the things the book tries to foster, even if only as an initial step, an opening.

What did writing a book allow you to do that wouldn’t have been possible in another medium eg. journal article?
As an interdisciplinary academic, writing journal articles often poses specific challenges related to both content and approach. Despite broad pushes towards interdisciplinarity in academia, most publishing outlets are disciplinary. At best, you often end up needing to do an introduction to a body of academic thought—say, Queer Theory in a Religious Studies journal, or vice versa. This can be compounded when you study a more outré form of religiosity, like demonology, which also needs to be explained. A book really gives you the space to develop that interdisciplinary frame and to explore your material in depth.

How did you decide which publisher to place the book with?
Fordham University Press is at the forefront of a lot of radical interdisciplinary scholarship in the humanities, especially on religions and theology. They also published one of the key books that shaped both my PhD and the book, Erin Runions’ The Babylon Complex, so they were always high on my list of potential publishers while I was writing. Passing Orders is also a slightly strange book—its use of critical theory to deconstruct evangelical demonology is novel and makes the work hard to place in a market which might expect either a literary content focus or a sociological or anthropological methodology. When I approached my editor, Richard Morrison, he was instantly enthusiastic about the project. He got what the book was doing and why it was important. That enthusiasm and his excellent guidance made Fordham the obvious choice.

How long did it take to write?
The book had a long gestation period and built on some of the work I’d done for my PhD, so you could probably argue up to a decade. The actual timeframe would be closer to four years, from starting to write it through to contracting and final publication.

Did you ever experience any moments of writer’s block? What did you do to overcome this?
Quite a few times. At the start I had a strategy of breaking up writing chapters of the book with writing other articles and invited book chapters. This helped a lot to keep my engaged and give me alternative projects when I hit blocks, but it didn’t always work. The biggest issue came with chapter four, which was originally meant to be a different piece on the Watchers—fallen angels from Enochian traditions who interbreed with humans. I was halfway through when I hit a massive blockage and realised the chapter just wasn’t working. I stepped back, thought about it, and ended up working on a completely new chapter on Leviathan. The chapter was probably the easiest to write. It’s also one of the strongest.

What advice would you give someone thinking about writing a book?
Don’t be afraid of changing things that aren’t working, even if it initially seems like more work—doing so can reinvigorate your writing, and end up being both a lot easier, and more rewarding. Writing a book is a dynamic process, and sometimes sticking too closely to your initial outline can become more of a hindrance than a help.

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before you started writing, what would that be?
Have the courage of your convictions and don’t be afraid to make your claims explicit. At first glance, the movements the book is about initially seem to be fringe ones—they aren’t. While individuals may be idiosyncratic or fringe, the movement itself is part of the largest growing aspect of contemporary conservative Christianity, and its cultural and political influence is only increasing. They exemplify a form of Christian nationalism that exerts tremendous influence on American politics, before, during, and after the Trump era, galvanising the broader reactionary agenda we see attacking reproductive rights, queer and trans rights, studies of systemic racism. Time has, perhaps unfortunately, demonstrated why this book was important to write, people will see that—that’s what I would let myself know.

Dr S. Jonathon O’Donnell teaches Religious Studies in the School of Religions and Theology at Trinity College Dublin and is a visiting scholar in the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast. They hold a PhD from SOAS, University of London, and have held positions at institutions in the UK, Japan, and Ireland.

Their research on contemporary American demonology and the politics of dehumanisation has published in journals such as Religion, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and Environmental Humanities. Passing Orders is their first monograph. They are also hosting a conference with Dr Zohar Hadromi-Allouche entitled “Demons Good and Bad” in the Department of Religions and Theology at Trinity on October 27–28.