On September 24, 2015, Dr. Jolyon Thomas gave the third annual Day Lecture with his talk “The Buddhist Virtues of Raging Lust and Crass Materialism.” The Day Lecture was generously established by friends and family of the late Zach Day, a graduate of our Department, to honor his memory, and is now an annual event thanks to the memorial fund named in his honor.
If you missed out on the lecture, the video of the event is now here!
The latest episode in our A Good Book series has just been uploaded to Vimeo! This video features Prof. Steve Jacobs and his discussion of a particular Torah scroll that was recovered from Nazi collections and has now been brought to Tuscaloosa’s Temple Emanu-El. You can read more about the story in this Tuscaloosa News article.
After a lovely dinner at a restaurant the other night, with my mom and husband, we came home, checked our cell phones, and were consumed by the unfolding story about the attacks in Paris. In the flurry of articles trying to make sense of the situation, “Crimes Jihadists Will Sentence You to Death For,” caught my attention. Its argument mirrored many of the discussions that were happening on people’s Facebook walls – there’s something so distinct, so different about ISIS, its religion, political aims, use of violence, that renders it beyond comprehension.
In our class on Tuesday, students in REL 370: Islam and Modernity read J.Z. Smith’s “Differential Equations: On Constructing the Other.” In this article, Smith is concerned with the ways in which we theorize difference. In particular, he explores three models of the ‘other,’ heavily critiquing the third. This third model, which he says is the only one to be elevated to the level of theory, is the most incorrect, for in this model, the ‘other’ is assumed to be intellectually or linguistically unintelligible.
This is exactly what Jeffery Goldberg does in his piece. By compiling a list of 32 acts during which people have been killed by ISIS members or their sympathizers, Jeffery Goldberg argues that militant Islamist must be credited “with possession of a well-developed supremacist theology of global expansionism, and with a desire to resuscitate medieval values.” According to Goldberg, the other, ISIS, is medieval and opposed to modernity, so much so, that “militant Islam’s war on pluralism and modernity has a thousand fronts.” Its members will therefore condemn people to death for activities like vacationing, shopping, working, banking, using public transportation, going to school, living or working in the wrong country, practicing a different religion, being a member of the military, or partying at a nightclub. The list of activities goes on and on, painting a picture of a group of people who are wholly unintelligible to us.
This type of analysis is found in more than just Goldberg’s short piece. For example, in response to the Paris attacks, people on social media have begun recirculating Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants.” Wood argues that ISIS is unique, because these are not jihadists who “are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing [a] medieval religious disguise.” Instead, “much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment.” Again, ISIS is rendered intellectually unintelligible – not just to modern society but other terrorist groups as well.
But labeling ISIS as unintelligible obscures more than it explains. For one, it distracts from questions of motive. The group’s ideology is instead presented as always existing (or at least existing since medieval times) and as permanently linked to something called the Islamic tradition. Yet in “Differential Equations,” Smith argues that we should study and theorize difference along a continuum of overlaps and gaps, because this language of the ‘other’ implies some kind of absolute, unchanging difference and, as such, it’s incapable of understanding that, to pick but one example, there is a history to ISIS and thus a need to understand the various geopolitical conflicts and, even, the role of the United States and other European powers in creating the conditions (e.g., political instability in the region) that have contributed to the creation of ISIS. Moreover, understanding the wide variety of Islams we see today, there is also nothing essentially Islamic about ISIS. In fact such claims rest on problematic assumptions about the timeless uniformity of tradition, but repeating over and over that they are looking to restore Islam, based upon Islamic sources (as if these two are each unquestionably self-evident and uniform), make it seem as if it is.
Presenting ISIS as the undiscernable ‘other,’ makes it easy to overlook the possible reasons why three out of the four identified Paris attackers were French citizens (the fourth one, presumed Syrian because of a passport found at the scene)—something that needs to be analyzed more closely if we’re serious about understanding the causes of these actions. Failing to do this, there is no need to look into, say, ways multicultural policies in a variety of liberal democracies may be contributing to the creation of ‘homegrown’ extremists. Moreover, foreign policy is influenced by these problematic assumptions, which justify increased military action or lead to Alabama’s governor refusing to take Syrian refugees without consideration of the potential political fallout and increased radicalization that may result. Failing to see these attacks as perpetrated by people with motives (regardless how strongly we may disagree with them) it becomes unnecessary to analyze the ways in which ISIS uses highly visible attacks to project an image of power that may not reflect reality. Presenting ISIS as unintelligibly ‘other’ also obscures the ways in which ISIS depends on and is shaped by modern ideas about god, politics, nature, nation states , citizens , and violence.
I hope that my students, confronted with such horrific events, will not dismiss the attackers but, instead, begin to see the ways in which our studies from class can help them to navigate the unfolding analysis needed to make sense of this and do something about it. For as Smith argues, “the real urgency of theories of the ‘other’ emerges, called forth not so much by a requirement to place difference, but rather by an effort to situate ourselves.”
Many of the faculty in REL are soon hitting the road, heading east to Atlanta, to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) — our main professional association here in the US. While our southeast region also meets in Atlanta (in the Spring), this is the national meeting, which takes place each November, and attracts thousands of scholars from around the world.REL
A lot of things happen at these meetings — some of the faculty are presenting their research while others are running workshops, serving on committees, and meeting with colleagues and publishers concerning projects they’re either working on hatching.
What connects red lipstick, racecars, and health care? The study of religion, of course! (Well, sort of.) Khara Cole, a 2013 graduate with a double major in Religious Studies and Public Relations, has found the skills that she developed in Religious Studies particularly important, as she designs products and their implementation for a health insurance company. She returned to campus last week to talk about her experiences working in the corporate world. The tasks of writing persuasive business proposals and accessible marketing texts clearly draw on her skills that she developed in our classes that emphasized various writing assignments. Solving problems, looking at both the little details and the broader picture as well as the ways different people might respond to the issues, employs the analytical and critical thinking skills that she, like many of our majors, considers a highlight of their work in Religious Studies.
In terms of lipstick and race cars, Khara provided this concrete example of the value of her religious studies major. When Khara began working on her current team implementing new products for her company, she noticed two previous marketing posters, one with a tube of red lipstick dominating the poster and the other with a racecar. Thinking of her first course in the department (Women and Religion with Prof. Simmons), she recognized the gender stereotypes implicit within these posters geared to different audiences and began developing more effective marketing efforts that avoided such gendered stereotypes that would alienate portions of the target audiences. Her story illustrates clearly the relevance of the questions that we often ask in our classes about the ways dominant symbols develop and the groups that those symbols exclude. Looking at those posters with a critical gaze enabled her to consider the ways a range of people might view them rather than accepting the symbolism of dominant stereotypes. In her experience, her skills in critical analysis, therefore, facilitate better marketing and communication strategies. As other graduates have told us, a major in Religious Studies helps students develop skills that provide vital contributions to a range of careers, including business and marketing.
It’s an informal group and this year I’ve been invited to lead a discussion on contingent faculty. But I hope that in our brief time we can also discuss shared interests and, even better, ways to systematize future meetings. For we’ve all got to have certain challenges in common, let alone an interest to hear the novel ways that others may have tackled them.
See you there.
By Ashley Crawford
Ashley Crawford is from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She is a junior majoring in
Marketing with a minor in Psychology.
Have you ever played the game telephone when you were younger? Someone starts out whispering a sentence in someone’s ear and they whisper it in someone else’s until it gets to the last person and by then it is completely different from the original sentence. This game was fun because it was always interesting to hear how different everyone heard the original sentence. Maybe this was because people changed the original sentence to something they thought they wanted to hear instead. We still do this today. Have you ever told a story to someone but left out the parts that made you look bad? Or ever ignored all the bad characteristics of someone you loved? It is like they say, there are always two sides to a story.
In my religion 419 class we are studying one of the most famous works in Indian literature, the epic poem of the Ramayana. There are many different versions of the Ramayana, and not one form is considered the original. We read the “300 Ramayanas” which showed us many different versions of the Ramayana. A reason behind this is that over the years, people manipulated the story to get what they wanted out of it. The parts of the story that did not agree with their beliefs, they left out. Other parts of the story where Rama did something that was not particularly all good, they either ignored it or justified it. People do this so that the story of the Ramayana will be the story they want to hear or can relate to the best.
I thought it was interesting that one of the most popular stories in India could have so many different versions. There are many different versions of religions, but somehow we create versions that best suit us. I think the reason behind this is that we make excuses or exceptions to rules so that we feel better than we actually are, similar to what readers do for the Ramayana.
So what is the “real” story? Whether it is the Ramayana or just a story a friend is telling you about what happened to them, there is no “real” story. The story will always have different sides to it. Just like the game telephone we played as kids, we will turn something we heard into something else we wanted to hear without even realizing it. We are constantly changing things and stories so that they will fit in best with what we want. In conclusion, there is no “real” version but instead a version that is best for you.
In this fourth and final installment of REL 360‘s semester-long movie screenings, we’ll be following American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi as he enacts a social experiment in the hopes of revealing the irrationality of blind faith. Impersonating an Indian guru, he travels through Arizona gathering followers from all walks of life. Though designed to exhibit the absurdity of blind faith, his experiment may reveal greater spiritual truths than he had set out to unearth. In order to learn what he discovers about human nature, you’ll have to stop by and find out for yourself!
Anyone can come!
(You don’t have to be in the class to enjoy a good film!)
- WHAT? REL 360 is the new, one-credit course designed to show four films throughout the semester that will provoke discussion about what exactly takes place when the humanities and popular culture collide.
- WHEN? November 11th @6pm.
- WHERE? Manly 207
- WHY? It’s fun, and a great learning experience! Plus it’s free! Take a night off, kick back, and enjoy a good movie! You deserve it!
- WHAT ELSE? Anyone can attend! Class membership isn’t required, but this will give you a stellar opportunity to find out if this course is right for you. If it is, feel free to email Professor Bagger (email@example.com) about taking the course next semester!
Hope to see you there!
The conclusion to our interview with Dr. Jolyon Thomas, our third Day Lecturer, is now ready! Don’t miss this final installment, where he discusses his current projects and gives insight on where he feels the field of religious studies in pop. culture is going.
If you missed the first part of the interview, you can catch it here.
Stay tuned for Dr. Thomas’ Day Lecture, coming soon!