“Who said names were supposed to be easy to say? What are you, a candy bar?”

Picture 2Students in REL 237 are watching Avalon this week, a 1990 film about the changes that take place within a family of early to mid-20th century Americans who, like so many of our ancestors, came to this continent from somewhere else.

“I came to America in 1914…, by way of Philadelphia. That’s where I got off the boat,” says Sam, one of the film’s protagonists, recollecting an epic past for the grandchildren.

One of the reasons that I like using the film is the chapter on it that Bruce Lincoln contributed to a 1996 collection of essays, Myth & Method. If we watch the movie then we also read the chapter afterward. Continue reading

Have You Met Prof. Bagger?

Picture 7The Department recently hired Dr. Matt Bagger as an Instructor. So, as you probably guessed, a video was on the way.

And so, here it is.

If you see him around Manly Hall give him a warm Roll Tide welcome! He’ll appreciate it.

An Interview with Dr. Bagger from UA Religious Studies.

Beyond “Belief”

Picture 5There was a time when I preferred to say “beliefs, behaviors, and institutions” as my way of complicating the philosophically idealist presumptions that drive our use of the word “belief” in the study of religion — a word we often use to make sense of what people, like those pictured above, are doing.

But I try not to say that anymore. Continue reading

A Brief Chat with Prof. Touna

tounapicThe Department recently hired Vaia Touna as a new tenure-track faculty member. As has become our tradition with new hires, the REL film crew sat down for a brief interview with her. Give it a watch to learn about Prof. Touna, and be sure to say hello when you see her around Manly Hall.

Have You Met Prof. Touna? from UA Religious Studies.

Want a Sneak Peek for the Day Lecture?

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As many of you probably know, our annual Day Lecture is fast approaching.

This year’s lecturer is Dr. Jolyon Thomas from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Thomas put together a video to give you a sneak peek of his lecture. So give it a watch below! Hope to see you next Thursday at 7:00 in Smith 205 for the lecture.

Historic Artifact? An Open Letter to Department Search Committees from 1997

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The following (co-written with my then co-editor at the now defunct Bulletin of the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, the late Tim Murphy), first appeared as an open letter in our inaugural issue (26/1 [1997]) and was then reproduced as the appendix to chapter 6 of The Discipline of Religion (2003).  Though many things about the academic labor market may have changed over the past 20 years (e.g., many universities have moved to online application systems, complete with PDF uploads and automated emails to applicants, making the mention of self-addressed postcards an historical relic), it is re-posted here in its original form since, in large measure, the topics it addressed have — sadly — not changed much at all.

Given the characteristics of the current North American job market in the humanities and social sciences, where each year the number of qualified candidates far exceeds the number of tenure track openings, search committees sometimes fail to follow reasonable advertising and hiring procedures. In so doing, they increase not only their own workload but the workloads of all those who apply for positions. Overly detailed application requirements, coupled with vaguely defined job advertisements, suggest that search committees often do not define their departments’ needs before venturing into the job market. A casual survey of current job descriptions will suggest the manner in which candidates are sometimes confronted by virtual wish lists that few, if any, actual applicants could ever satisfy. Continue reading

Come One, Come All?

gonefishingsignOccasionally I see a job ad, in our field, that has an open rank, stating that people at different career stages/ranks are invited to apply, or an ad so general that I’m not sure what the search committee is wanting.

These ads strike me as rather problematic, for a few reasons. Continue reading

The Effects of “Bad Religion”

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By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is now working on her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

Many of you may be following, or at least aware of, Rowan, KY county clerk Kim Davis denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite the recent Supreme Court ruling (on June 26, 2015) that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States. In the days following Davis’s refusal to cooperate, I have seen a lot of “bad religion” claims being made on social media and news media sites — i.e., claims by some that she exhibits an improper or inauthentically religious position. It has also since come out in the press that Davis has been married four times and had an affair with one man whom she eventually married. So what strikes me as interesting are the types of reactions and articles I have seen while scrolling through Facebook, seeking to invalidate her: she’s a hypocrite, she’s playing fast and loose with the Bible, her “personal beliefs” are infringing on others’, as a divorcée and adulterer she has no moral high ground — the list goes on. Continue reading

Made Sacred Through Branding

Script A ManlyWhat makes the “Capstone A” (central on the banners outside Manly Hall in my photo above) special? What makes people associate it with the University of Alabama? It is not something inherent in the font or colors that gives it a different significance from any other uppercase A. It has been a long-term, extremely successful effort at branding by the University of Alabama, and especially its athletic programs, that give the symbol a generally positive, sometimes passionate, association with the University. To keep that significance as something set apart, the university restricts the use of this trademarked A. Outside companies, and even departments and organizations on campus, must go through an approval process to put the A (or any university symbol) on a t-shirt or mug, for example. For people outside the university, that process requires buying a license to use it, as the local bakery featured in this recent Marketplace story had to do.

That Marketplace story illustrates clearly the process of creating something that is sacred, something that is set apart from the everyday (using a Durkheimian definition). The rules that limit who uses it and in what circumstances help to generate, over time, its significance, thus making it special and sacred. As these rules are constructed within a society, they illustrate Durkheim’s point that the community constructs the significance given to things, their sacredness. The specialness, therefore, is not inherent in the symbol but is generated through the restrictions and actions of the community that develops it.

That sacredness and the restrictions that inform it serve to maintain particular social relationships. As access is restricted, those with access have a privilege that the restrictions maintain, which can translate into power, money, and prestige. Of course, seldom are the efforts to define significance unanimous. As the Marketplace story points out, the effort to protect the use of this A requires judgments about what counts as a protected A, judgments that generate debate.

Similar debates over what counts as something sacred are evident across the news, from debates about what forms of marriage are sacred restrictions that a person should not violate and what end-of-life practices are sacred for people who identify as Jains and thus should not be prohibited. In this way, Durkheim’s idea about the social construction of the sacred helps to explain both contemporary branding and divisions in religious communities. You do not have to accept or reject the existence of the divine to find Durkheim useful for analyzing the ways communities express and contest what symbols, texts, beliefs and practices have a special status.

Applying Skills Outside the Classroom

Picture 10In some of our courses faculty in the department focus on the problem of definition in the study of religion — what counts as a religion (more importantly, for whom) and what are the practical implications of distinguishing a this from a that.

They also often talk about the broad relevance of the skills that students acquire in the Humanities.

So I had all this in mind while listening to a story on National Public Radio this morning, on making sense of a Rutgers University sexual assault survey. It struck me that our students could have been of real help if the designers had conferred with them a bit about the implications of definition prior to designing and administering their survey.

For if you’re trying to lessen the number of such assaults, and increase the likelihood that victims will report them, then the parameters of what counts as a sexual assault are something worth thinking about — and that seems to me to be a pretty good example of how the skills taught in our course have practical impact far outside our classrooms.

Listen to the news story here — the issue of definition becomes more apparent toward its end.