“Yes, but…”

If you’re paying attention to US news then you may have been seeing the recent stories leading up to the Senate vote that failed to pass the necessary financial deals to finance the federal government — which resulted in the shutdown that we’re now in. While some parts of the federal government are still open, other parts aren’t.

At present, the political drama continues. Continue reading

In Search of…

Students in REL 490 are currently reading a couple of essays by Joseph Kitagawa (d. 1992), longtime (and influential) faculty member at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (from his 1987 collection), to help set the stage for our eventual reading of some of the works by the late Jonathan Z. Smith.

In Kitagawa’s essay, “The History of Religions in America” (1959 — originally published in that once influential set of essays on methodology), we find the following:

[O]ne must remember the admonition of Tor Andrae that the origin of religion is not a historical question; ultimately it is a metaphysical one.

It’s an interesting line, I think; given that the classic History of Religions approach was rather concerned with using the comparative method to identify the universal essence of religion, Kitagawa’s repetition of this warning has an ambivalent status in both his essay and in the field — not to mention how it could also serve to retain certain sorts of key inquiries for theology alone.

But without elaborating in detail here, I admit to being curious how people today read that advise… While for me discourses on origins are an effective rhetorical technique, employed in disputes among social actors in the present, I know plenty of people who still aim to figure out the origin of this or that religion (let alone a myth or a ritual) or who are set on explaining the pre-historic origins of religiosity in general.

So it seems that the admonition didn’t have much effect, unless there are more in our field than I realize who instead think of skin care products when they hear the word.

Let’s Get to Work

Mid-afternoon today, the last day of 2017, I received word that Professor Jonathan Z. Smith, of the University of Chicago, had passed away the day before (due to complications from lung cancer). You can read the obituary his family has written, which is posted on Prof. James Tabor’s blog.

In the coming days and months there’s sure to be a number of stories circulating about Jonathan — in fact, I’ve already seen many kind remembrances posted on social media. And, like others, I too have a few of my own. But one in particular stood out to me as I sat here, thinking about the sad news that I received earlier today. Continue reading

At the movies…

Each semester, REL 360 students write a blog post on one of the films that they watched throughout the semester. The first in this semester’s posts hit earlier today and the others will be posted throughout the winter break.

REL 360 is a one credit hour course offered each semester
which looks at religion and pop culture.


MA Students Taking Over the Study Religion Podcast

You guys ready for everyone's minds to be blown?

Our podcast has been taken over. For the latest episode of Study Religion, we’ve turned it over to our MA students–Emma Gibson, Sarah Griswold, and Sierra Lawson. This Fall these students were all part of our MA foundations course REL 502: Religious Studies and Public Humanities. In the course the students learned to use digital tools and our field’s main professional organization, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) served all semester as the example on which they applied these tools So to end the semester we invited them to talk a bit about the last four AAR Presidential Addresses (2013-2016)–giving us their take on how the field is shaped and where it all might be going.




In Other Words…

Like some of you, I woke today to an email soliciting submissions for a special issue of the open access online journal Open Theology. The email opened as follows:

A person who reads texts from other religious traditions sometimes encounters what the reader understands to be a transcendent encounter with ultimacy.  Encounters with the ultimate – not only with texts but also with practices and persons – need to be taken into account theologically….

Now, I’m not going to harp on why a scholar of religion received this email but, instead, say that theologians of course have every right to pursue such lines of inquiry. That many who identify as scholars of religion yet use that old Tillichian nugget “ultimacy” is indeed a problem, I’d argue, but even that’s not what occurred to me as I first read that message. Instead, two other things dawned on me: (1) how nicely the call makes evident the second order work going on when people study other people — or the things those people produce or leave behind, such as texts, and (2) how quickly we often forget that our analysis is not simply innocent description of so-called facts on the ground. Continue reading

REL’s 5th Annual Honors Research Symposium

As you finish up writing essays for the Fall semester (well, since it’s only Monday of exam week, maybe we should instead say: as you consider starting to write essays to finish up the Fall semester…), keep in mind that Prof. Bagger is once again organizing REL’s 5th annual Honors Research Symposium in the Spring. You’ll need to talk to an REL prof, perhaps the person for whom you’re writing that essay, and ensure that they’re game to help you with some revisions so as to get it ready for presentation — and they’ll let Prof. Bagger know that you’re interested in participating.

We don’t have a date yet but we try to hold our event prior to the campus-wide event, so our students get in a little practice before the big show.

Talk to Prof. Bagger to learn more details.

(By the way, if you’re writing a BA Honors thesis
then you’re expected to present…)

Why We Use Slack in the MA in Religion in Culture


Have you ever heard of Slack? I first heard about it in an ad on one of my favorite podcasts. It’s a group messaging app that allows to build a closed “workspace” where a team of people can send messages, share files, and communicate. It can even assign your office Secret Santas for you. But here in the Department of Religious Studies, we’re using Slack to communicate across our new MA program in Religion in Culture.

Part of our new MA program is a foundations course, REL 502: Religion and Public Humanities, that I was in charge of teaching this year. In that class students learn a whole bunch of new digital tools for conducting and presenting their research and I knew we’d need an easy way to communicate, share links and files, and collaborate on projects. Email would have been to clunky for all of this so I decided to use Slack. When I told other faculty about this, it became clear that we could use Slack beyond just REL 502. Slack could provide a space for faculty and graduate students to share information, collaborate, and communicate.


So, rather than a Slack workspace just for my class, we have had a Slack workspace for the MA program as a whole and it has been really helpful. Every faculty member and all of our graduate students have access to it and it has made communication much easier in our new program. Within the workspace we have channels for each of the two foundations courses (REL 501 and REL 502), a channel called #gradhacks where we post advice for navigating graduate school, a general channel for information and announcements, and one for digital humanities within religious studies. The REL 501 class is using it to share brief responses to their readings each week while my REL 502 class uses it to collaborate on our digital projects.


More than communication, though, Slack provides camaraderie across the MA program. One student told me yesterday that she liked Slack because it was something more professional than a Facebook message or a text because it’s dedicated “for work” but less formal and complicated than an email because of its easy to use desktop and mobile apps. As our MA program grows and begins to produce alumni, we hope the Slack becomes a space where MA graduates can share ideas and advice with current MA students. The workspace will grow as the program grows and provide a stable digital hub for students and alumni. And it’s fun to share gifs.






George and Jerry talking at a coffee shop

The last week of classes for the Fall semester is here, and my REL 100 students have some group projects to present in class, on Tuesday and Thursday.

The assignment: dramatize one of the questions/answers in Religion in 5 Minutes. It has to be a video that can be shown in class and on which every worked in some way, it can have only two speaking parts, must be less than 3 minutes long, have credits and a narrative arc of some sort, and filmed somewhere on campus — oh, and everyone in the group must appear on film in some way.

My hope is that a few will be worth posting in public (will anyone don togas for a Platonic dialogue?), so we’ll see how this all turns out. If nothing else, it should be fun and, if we’re lucky, informative too.

By the way, I had the impression others were using the book this semester,
so I’m curious what you’ve done with it…?