Prof. Crews — Outside the Classroom

Prof. Emily Crews, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, recently joined us as an instructor in the Department of Religious Studies.  After serving two years as a volunteer in Namibia, she carried out fieldwork in Chicago Pentecostal churches. Currently, she teaches REL 105 Honors Introduction to the Study of Religion and REL 360 Religion in Pop Culture while she finishes her Ph.D. dissertation.

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A New Honors Day Tradition

We have a new award to announce, which will be given out each year at Honors Day on the balcony: the Alum Liaison Committee Award.

This award (funded by alums and the Department) will recognize up to four students (one Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior) who submit a short essay (500 words) on their experiences in our classes, e.g., how they found us, what surprised them about the field, and interesting uses to which it might be put. It’s open to any student in an REL course and each award comes with a $100 prize.

The members of our Alum Liaison Committee will be reading the essays and making the decisions, so please visit the page (linked above) for this new award to learn more and consider making your own submission in this inaugural year (due March 1).

Coming Attractions

It’s going to be another busy semester around Manly Hall — REL has some guests coming and things are happening.

Along with three candidates visiting campus this month for a tenure-track faculty position that we hope to fill for Fall 2019 (devoted to social theory of Islam) — and we’ll be talking to some students about joining each interviewee for a chat over coffee — we have Prof. Tim Jensen flying in from Denmark to deliver the 17th annual Aronov Lecture and REL grad Chris Hurt is due from California to join us at another Grad Tales event, hosted again by our Alum Liaison Committee. (Chris, on keyboards and vocals, is one half of the group Jamestown Pagans.) With our alums in mind, we should also mention that they’ll again be offering a careers workshop later this semester, with some practical advice that you’ll find useful, no matter what you’re aiming to do after university. And, as part of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Alabama/Greece Initiative, Prof. Touna will be hosting a professor from Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, for a week — he’ll be offering guest lectures and making some class visits — and a group of early career scholars are visiting campus as part of our new American Examples working group, organized by Prof. Altman and funded by both the Department and the College of A&S. (Did we say that we’re applying for a fairly large external grant to make this an annual event…?)

Did we mention the sixth annual honors research symposium at the end of February? You should talk to an REL prof — asap — if you have a paper you’d like to revise and present.

Of course Honors Day is also coming, the first Friday of April, with the Department’s annual ceremony on the balcony around noon (immediately following the completion of the A&S event at Moody Music Hall). Oh, and we’ve got something new to announce about Honors Day but we’ll leave that for a separate notice.

So welcome back and we hope you have a great Spring semester.

Note from the Field: A Comment

In his comment on the recent JAAR cover, Jack Llewellyn made reference to the caption (pictured above) that appears on the inside table of contents, in the current issue, which describes the photo in question.

I admit that I had not paid attention to any of this until I read his comment. And so what then caught my attention in that caption was the manner in which the seemingly descriptive voice can be far from merely descriptive. Continue reading

Well Scientifically… Traditions are an Idiot Thing

A cartoon image of a text message from "Mom" that says, "Your father is insecure about his intelligence."

Matthew McCullough, an MA student in Prof. Ramey’s REL501 course, teases out the stakes of classifying an act as a tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, are traditions really an “idiot thing,” as Rick declares? Not quite. As we’ve seen in the clip above, tradition, appearing in various forms, is a device that’s used when something is at stake. There is no real tradition of science projects being done by fathers and sons. Projects are just as likely to be completed individually, with one’s mother, with a group, etc. What is important to note is that Jerry uses the language of tradition here because something is at stake. Jerry is insecure not only about his intelligence but about his relationship with his son Morty. He feels his father-in-law Rick overshadows him in terms of influence on and respect from his son, and Jerry worries that this science project is just another occasion when he will be subordinated to Rick. Rather than having to state this incredibly uncomfortable reality, Jerry instead uses the language of tradition as a basis to argue for what he wants. This turn shifts the issue from violation of his ego to the violation of a tradition, a longstanding practice that therefore merits repeating. Continue reading

Note from the Field

The following is a recent post, to the Religion in South Asia list, from Prof. J. E. Llewellyn (reprinted here with his permission).

19 December 2018

Sisters and brothers,

Since I have carped about a JAAR cover photo in the past on this list, I want to commend to your attention the cover photo of the issue that I just received in the mail (86/4 December 2018).

Though I am no art critic, I think is a striking photo. It is divided into two panes by a trishul. The main figure in the right pane is identified in the photo credit as sadhu. The subject of the left pane is a woman who is sitting on the ground and bowing at the sadhu’s feet. The sadhu’s pane is hazy; he is covered in ash, but there is also smoke, doubtless from a fire, but one that is not visible in the photo. The woman’s frame is clear. The woman herself reaches across the barrier between the two panes, with her left hand resting the on sadhu’s left foot. I could go on about the composition of the photo, and the compelling information it conveys. Continue reading

Heineken Beer Dismantles the Traditional Family

A dozen people are smiling and holding Heineken beers. Text at the bottom of the image say, "Tradition doesn't always have to be traditional."

Caity Bell, a student in Prof. Ramey REL501 course, ponders the invention of tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

 

The holiday season is fast upon us and with it a substantial rise in commercials meant to tug upon consumers’ heartstrings, to invoke that special sense of holiday cheer that drives us, no doubt, to purchase more products than we have year-round. If you don’t run from the room the second the commercials start rolling then perhaps you’ve seen Heineken’s most recent holiday-themed ad, wherein those traditional notions of the American nuclear family are torn away.

As you can see in the video above, while the camera pans around the room—with Dean Martin’s classic You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You playing in the background—we’re exposed to what at first appears to be a holiday gathering composed of that classic family schema we’ve come to expect in American media. The father (as designated by small white text which briefly lights the screen) sits in a corner of the room, bottle of beer nearby (this is after all an advert for Heineken), while across from him sits the mother and sister, both pleasantly smiling at the camera as it glides across the large living room. Then, however, the camera shifts to a man cheerily painting, who’s designated to be the mom’s new boyfriend and from here we continue on our tour of the busy household with introductions to the boyfriend’s stepdaughter as well as various members of the dad’s “new” family (and a quirky moment when an apparent stranger is present, introduced as simply “and whoever that guy is”). The commercial ends with the image of this diverse family standing poised together before the fireplace while the words “tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional” flash across the screen.

Yet has tradition ever been traditional? In short, no. Tradition, rather than being some ancient, set in stone way of doing things, is more often than not a more recent invention, a way of authorizing one group’s set of ideals over another’s. A tool for providing a sense of social cohesion within a group, tradition serves as a means of binding present ideals and beliefs to some distant past as a way of validating their continued persistence. The word itself becomes invoked when something is at stake, a way of bringing value or necessity to some practice or ideal as being time-honored and revered when in fact it may not actually be so.

Take, for example, a 2014 Supreme Court case wherein the language of tradition was used by the defendants to win their trial. In the Town of Greece v. Galloway hearing, the town, brought to court on charges of violating First Amendment rights by beginning their council meetings with Christian prayer, was allowed to continue this practice on the grounds that, rather than being religious, the practice was a part of the town’s “tradition”. Thus, by rooting the practice in the town’s history, it was granted a semblance of authority and presented as a seemingly unbiased argument rather than a practice with some utility or underlying motive for an interested party. Have the town’s meetings always, in fact, began in this fashion? Perhaps, perhaps not, yet what is interesting to note, rather than debating the authenticity of this claim, is how the label of tradition comes into play as soon as the practice is contested.

The idea of the American nuclear family as well, with its image of one mother and one father together raising 2.5 kids, is not as traditional as we believe it to be, the idea largely popularized after the emergence and success of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution and only further cemented as the American ideal through popular television shows aired in the 1950s. Throughout our history families have held to many molds which don’t fit this traditional image—as long reaching and ever-present as it may seem. Even our beloved holiday traditions bear roots to a less distant past, as Christmas itself, with its festive trees and jolly ol’ Saint Nic, was banned for a time in the U.S. by Puritans who saw those traditions as having no place in a Christian nation. In fact many of the traditions now prominent in Christmas celebrations were not in practice until the late 19th century when they were merged into popular culture by the immigrants who brought them over.

So then, tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional? Well, it seems that tradition itself has never actually been “traditional.”  Thus the Heineken ad’s final line is absolutely right. Using the language of tradition to describe a family or a practice does not have to reflect some longstanding form; tradition has never been traditional.

 

Image credit: Still from video by HeinekenUSA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G15pfHZfNg

A Return to the Nacirema

Ryland Hunstad, a student in Prof. Simmons’s REL 100 this past semester, is a sophomore from Denver, Colorado majoring in finance & management information systems, with interests in politics, philosophy, & religion.

In the following post he offers some further reflections on a group of people who were originally studied, in the mid-1950s, by the anthropologist, Horace Miner.

Since the last expedition to the land of the Nacirema, anthropologists have had several more opportunities to visit these people and observe their customs and social practices, in an attempt to decode the seemingly cryptic meaning behind their traditions and religious practices as it relates to their society. Those outsiders studying the Nacirema, by learning the language and acquainting themselves in general with the members of the Nacirema tribe, have begun to understand these customs in more depth, especially as they relate to the class system present among the Nacirema. Our hope in this piece is to relay their findings so that these social practices may be studied and analyzed in greater detail. Continue reading

6 Questions with Markus Harris

We have a series that features grads that have ended up doing a pretty wide variety of things after leaving their REL classes (graduating either recently or a little while ago).  So we posed a few questions to each and let’s see what we learn.

1. When were you enrolled at UA and what major(s) and minor(s) did you graduate with?

Greetings! I had two tenures of enrollment with the University of Alabama. The second tenure is where I found a home with Religious Studies. I graduated in the Spring of 2011 with a B.A in African American Studies and a minor in Religious Studies.

2. When you first came here from high school, what did you think you wanted to do for a career?

Ha! When I first came to UA, I was going to be a Computer Scientist!

3. Any memories from your REL classes in Manly Hall that stand out and, more importantly perhaps, that you can share without incriminating anyone?

All of the things!! Were it not for the consideration given to me, I am not sure that I would have made it out with a degree. The Politics of Authenticity! It was at Manly where I learned what it meant to truly be a Scholar!! I will always cherish the time spent with Dr. Murphy in “History of Christian Thought.”

4. So what have you ended up doing and what path led you there? Tell us a little about your career now.

Currently, I am a Coordinator for the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. I also teach ESL at Richland College, and I do some private consulting for Higher Education. Fate has brought me here, existentially! Ha! I will complete a Ph.D. in History eventually.

5. Is it fair to think that some of your REL undergrad classes or skills continue to be useful to you? If so, do you have any examples?

I know that the experience I was afforded as an undergrad learning and growing in Religious Studies has certainly contributed to my current space in the world. For example, I facilitate English learning classes with people of conflicting religious backgrounds. Sometimes, it can get really interesting!

6. If you now gave some advice to your earlier self, the one in classes in Manly Hall, what would that be?

Listen and read much more! Pay more attention to Dr. McCutcheon, Dr. Trost,  and Dr. Simmons! Drink more coffee! Hang out with Betty more!! Speak up more (if you can imagine that)!