Teaching the Bible in Culture: Identifying Room for Questions Unanswered

Students doing group work.

Prof. Newton reflects on his approach to teaching the Bible in a public university. Study religion and find out about the Bible in Culture here, part 1, and in future posts.

One of my aims in my Introduction to New Testament course is to lead students in thinking carefully about the actors and drama represented in the text. As Adele Reinhartz notes, when our explanations employ terms like “Pharisee,” “Jews,” “Samaritans,” or “Romans” too assuredly, we probably have more questions to ask about what’s at play. Just as a quick point of comparison, we wouldn’t be so cavalier using terms like “the Blacks,” “the liberals,” or “the South,” especially in mixed company, right? So what is to be gained by taking these ancient typecasts at face value and without qualification?

We spend a lot of time time complicating the idea of identity. In fact, using the comparison above, students seem to have little trouble recognizing the notion of sacrosanct identity as a politically-loaded packaging of what Jean Francois Bayart termed, “operational acts of identification.” But this takes practice. Part of thinking about the “applications and traditions” associated with New Testament texts is considering the work these terms do in various first century Mediterranean scenarios.

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An Introduction to Studying the Bible in Culture


Students reading the Bible and eating pizza in a seminar room.

Prof. Newton reflects on his approach to teaching the Bible in a public university. Study religion and find out about the Bible in Culture here on the blog over the next few days.

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The Department of Religious Studies — Early Times, Part 2

Article from the Tuscaloosa News, on campus protests, on April 6, 1968

Dr. Joseph Bettis was the first Chair of UA’s Department of Religious Studies, and the following article was commissioned for and then published in our Spring 2005 issue of the Department newsletter; it is reposted here, in its original form, with his kind permission. (The above photo is from the front page of the Tuscaloosa News on April 6, 1968.)

I came to Tuscaloosa in 1964, one year after George Wallace had “stood in the schoolhouse door” to prevent Autherine Lucy’s registration at the University. At the time, I had no interest in civil rights or politics. I did not come to the University of Alabama in 1964 to join the civil rights movement. I came to teach religious studies and to participate in the creation of a Department of Religious Studies. I was fresh from graduate school, full of academic arrogance, ego, and enthusiasm.

At the time, Religious Studies courses were taught by various campus ministers and listed in the Philosophy Department. The quality of the courses was mixed. Leon Weinberger, who was a rabbi, and a Presbyterian Campus Minister, whose name I have forgotten, taught respectable courses with small enrollments. Other campus ministers taught courses that were notorious for being “an easy A” and they had very large enrollments. Iredell Jenkins was Chair of the Philosophy Department, and he knew that this was not a good situation. Continue reading

The Department of Religious Studies — Early Times, Part 1

Manly Hall in the 1970s

The following reminiscence about the Department’s history, written by the late Patrick Green, onetime Chair of REL, was commissioned for and printed in our Spring 2004 newsletter. It is re-posted here in its original form.

It began with a man on a motorcycle, smoking a cigar.

Joe Bettis, a recently minted Ph.D. from Princeton, was hired by the College of Arts and Sciences to start a Department of Religious Studies. It was1964, a few years after the Supreme Court had declared that teaching “about” religion was permissible in state supported universities. All across America, and especially in the South, state universities were quick to respond. Within a few years departments were started at the University of Florida, Florida State, Georgia, and Tennessee. Bettis and Leon Weinberger were appointed to the first inter-racial committee that Alabama had seen since Re-construction. The Ku Klux Klan was still very much a part of the local culture, and both men were targeted by that group as “liberal trouble makers.”

In 1969 the Department became at hree person operation with the hiring of Patrick Green. He arrived just a few months before the university-wide demonstration that next spring against the bombing of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State. All three members of the department were on the so-called Faculty Student Coalition, a group that at-tempted to negotiate a settlement with a recalcitrant, and decidedly backward, administration that timidly refused to talk with the students. But a settlement was not to be. After the longest running demonstration of its kind in the United States, the embarrassed administration declared an end to the academic year and sent the students home—with no final exams!

A year or so later the department hired Mr. Dorsey Blake, a Ph.D. candidate from Berkeley, who was one of the first black faculty members to be appointed by the University. (The basketball team had been “integrated” two years before and football was soon to follow.) His classes on “Black Religion” were immediately popular among both black and white students, but his efforts to visit various local churches with his class were not so successful. Two white churches turned the students away, telling them to go to their “own” church. However, after the story ran in the Tuscaloosa News, the group was welcomed by a number of other churches, including Calvary Baptist and First Methodist.

Joe Bettis left in 1973 to become an Associate Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Nebraska. Green became Chair at that time and Joe McCowan was hired to teach Phenomenology of Religion and Ethics (which Bettis had taught). McCowan was also the first faculty member to teach a course oriented to Feminist Studies. Indeed the early ’70s saw a cultural shift in Religious Studies. While courses in Old and New Testament, the History of Western Religions and Comparative Religions continued to be offered, Black Religion, Feminist Thought, Revolutionary Theology and the first early forays into Deconstruction were making a place for themselves.

The ’70s generally saw several educational innovations. A “free university” offered courses for a couple of years with Bettis and Green participating. Green was on the founding committee for New College and taught courses there for several years. Green and Emmett Parker, a Professor in French literature, de-signed the first Humanities course for the College of Arts and Sciences with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After McCowan took an early retirement in the late ’70s his position was lost to “proration,” a drastic reduction in the state budget, which of  course directly affected the university. Indeed, “Alabama” and “proration” would come to seem synonymous. These were some very lean years for the department. There was virtually no hope of adding faculty even though student demand for classes remained high. Increasingly the department came to rely on part-time instructors. Sam Haun, Barbara Jamestone, and more recently, Jon Berry and Ana Schuber were among those who served with dedication and distinction. William Doty was hired in 1981. He brought with him a vast erudition, an incredible work ethic, a love for his students, and an ability to be at home in a number of  disciplines.

While Doty would have his hand in an incredibly large number of  projects during his tenure at the university, his latest—aiding and abetting the inauguration of  the Blount Under-graduate Initiative—was perhaps among his finest. He would Chair the Department from 1983 to 1988 and again in 2000 when Green retired. He would himself retire in 2001.

While there are still budgetary concerns in the department and the university, there have been some exciting recent developments. We have established an endowed Chair in Judaic Studies. The Provost’s office, to the department’s surprise, saw fit to fund the appointment of a faculty member in Asian Religions. And when Leon Weinberger retired in 1998, we were able to hire both Ted Trost and his wife Catherine Roach, who held joint appointments in the department and New College.

Even more recently Steve Jacobs came to fill the Chair in Judaic Studies, while Kurtis Schaeffer came from Harvard in Asian Religions.

One thing has remained consistently true. The department has always and continues to attract some of the very best and brightest students on the cam-pus. They have been an exuberant presence who of-ten taught as much as they learned and who never failed to support this odd, if feisty, department.

With Doty’s retirement the “old guard” was gone. Russell McCutcheon became the Chair and the department was, in effect, brand new. It is now a young and vigorous faculty that faces the future with a great deal of optimism. The “old guard,” who had a hell of a ride, wish them well.

“Dr. Green Rocks!”

Spring semester 1984 flyer for courses in the department

There was a memorial service on campus yesterday for Patrick E. Green, who passed away on October 20, 2019. He came to the University of Alabama, from the University of Texas, back in 1969. That’s back when the field that some of us today take for granted was just getting going and the UA Department that we nowcelebrate as being over 50 years old was in its infancy, with its few faculty housed in ten Hoor Hall. For that was just a couple years after the first time someone other than campus ministers were teaching courses on religion, and back when doctoral programs in the study of religion, as we think of them today, didn’t exist. Continue reading

Bringing REL to San Diego–#aarsbl19 #naasr2019

San Diego Convention Center, Palm trees are in the front of it.

November is in full swing, and that means it is annual meeting season for scholars of religion. The North American Association for the Study of Religion, the American Academy of Religion, and the Society of Biblical Literature will all conference in San Diego, November 23-26. Many of our REL faculty and graduate students will be on the program. Learn a bit more about what they’ll be up to and where you can find them.

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We Can’t Leave Tesla Alone

Montenegrin monument to Nikola Tesla

Madeleine Lewis graduated from UA in 2017 with degrees Religious Studies and Applied Mathematics. She is now teaching English and Computer Science in Montenegro with the Fulbright Program.

This past September, Elon Musk tweeted, “Finally, we will do Nikola Tesla proud by having his cars in his countries of origin!” This claim about beginnings, coupled with the fact that I have lived in what some people assert to be Tesla’s singular country of origin for over a year, sparked my curiosity as a scholar of religion.

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Revising our Mission

Screen shot of Tweet saying: How does a professional org recalibrate to take higher ed changes into account, esp when grad students/un- & under-employed comprise a large portion of members & annual attendees...? A question we should have already answered. So let’s get cracking.

I posted the above the other day while retweeting a story on Twitter about some of the obstacles that can stand in the way of early career scholars — notably those that are financial, such as annual registration fees at our conferences. Stories like these are not new to social media commentaries on the current state of academia, of course, but they took on even more urgency in the light of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature’s joint decision to put QR codes on name badges for the upcoming 2019 conference. Although the retraction statements that came out a few days later (read the AAR‘s and the SBL‘s) emphasized the goal of using the codes for enhanced networking (as the SBL statement put it), at least according to the email that SBL members received when their name badges were first distributed online, the codes were to be used to identify people using someone else’s badge (a so-called “pirated name badge”) — prompting such attendees either “to register immediately or be removed from the meeting.”

Unless there’s a rash of people in the wider public pirating name badges, it’s not tough to imagine that those who would be directly impacted by the spot scans would be grad students and under-employed scholars, sharing a name badge to get into the book display. Continue reading

A Good Book with Prof. Richard Newton

Ppening chapter of Wilfred Cantwell SMith's book, discussed in this post.

The tenth episode in our A Good Book series has been posted to Vimeo, featuring Prof. Richard Newton discussing Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s book, What is Scripture?

Take a look…

Interested in learning more about Prof. Newton?
Watch his appearance on our other series, ar·ti·facts

#AmericanExamples2020 Cohort Announced

American Examples

Some snazzy new American Examples mugs have started appearing on social media.

That’s right. The 2020 American Examples cohort has been assembled. You can find all of the participants and learn more about them at the American Examples site.