On March 31, Dr. William Lee McCorkle presented his research as part of the Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution (ALLELE) series, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences. His lecture, titled “Religion, a Cultural Virus,” offered a crash-course on the academic study of religion and focused on the advantages of an evolutionary theory of religion, as well as highlighting his work at LEVYNA, the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, which he helped to establish. Continue reading
Micah Davis is a graduate of the University of Alabama who majored in Religious Studies and Philosophy. He is interested in ethics and social theory. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities. REL 360 is the Department’s one-credit hour course that shows four films focusing on religion in pop culture throughout the semester.
What do the Jewish Bible, the stories of Jesus, and movies have in common? They are all story-driven. The stories found in these different sources (yes, even pop culture stories) construct the culture in which we live. Different stories contribute to different aspects of culture, e.g the construction of the timelessness of the “Judeo-Christian” foundational values through the printing of “In God We Trust” on paper and coin currency.
If we take this e.g. of the printing of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency, we see that the construction of the United States as a Christian country rests partially on this narrative, and upon many others which are projected onto the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as well as stories based on the Founding Fathers. However, America is not the only country whose culture has been influenced by narrative.
Confucianism is widely popular in China and has become so influential as to help shape the way in which China governs its people. The philosophy, principles, and social understandings of Confucius have constructed the culture which we know as “China” today (we could even say that my conception of China’s culture being influenced by Confucianism in this way is shaped by my subscription to the narrative that China is influenced in this way). These narratives have shaped not only one culture, but even the perceptions which one culture has about another.
Back in America, we see smaller subcultures created by pop culture. All of these subcultures are created and unified by the stories to which they subscribe. The “Hunger Games” fans subscribe to the trilogy of popular YA books while the “Captain America: Civil War” fans subscribe to the acclaimed movie as the basis for their culture. These different groups can even overlap, one person claiming both stories as good narratives and usually discussing these with friends who share these same experiences with these stories. Not only do stories construct the culture in a principle or philosophical sense, but they also literally construct the group through bringing together people with similar interests.
So, what does this all mean? Stories are important to cultures because stories create the culture. Telling a story creates something under which a group can be unified and motivated. The motivation of the current conservative movement which is attempting to move Christianity into the American government is driven by the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” which were both added to the culture long after the creation of the nation. However, the inclusion of other narratives which place a timelessness to these words help to motivate and create the movement.
Stories construct culture. Cultures create movements. Movements choose stories to present as evidence to validate and authorize their groups.
Back in March, Dr. Eddie Glaude, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University (and incoming President of the American Academy of Religion [AAR]), presented his lecture, titled “Democracy in Black: The Value Gap,” as the Religious Studies Department’s 14th annual Aronov Lecture. (Learn more about this annual lecture series.)
Did you miss it?
Not to worry! You can follow the link below or watch it here.
Our thanks to Caity Walker and Jared Powell for filming and posting the lecture.
By Kim Davis
Kim earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and French from
the University of Alabama in 2003. She went on to earn her
Masters in French Linguistics and Literature in 2007 and
a Masters in Secondary Language Pedagogy in 2010,
both from UA. Kim now teaches French and Mythology
at Tuscaloosa County High School.
A while back, I wrote about how an early morning Culture on the Edge Facebook post and subsequent conversation with one of its members helped me to think deeper about one of my classroom lessons. Well, that same post inspired me to create a new lesson for my unit on Asian mythology in which I would ask my students to think about the ways normative language would influence the way they construct knowledge of things they are learning for the first time.
I often complain that students in secondary classrooms are not challenged unless they are taking an AP class. My mythology class is composed of a wide range of grade levels, 9-12, with students who are taking a full course of advanced and AP classes to regular classes. While many teachers might argue that the lesson I provided is college-level ideas and therefore not cognitively appropriate for students in regular classes, I have never subscribed to that belief. My students proved me correct.
I started the class by showing them an article from the BBC on the history of Tibet and pointed out how the words used to describe Tibet were very positive and the words used to describe the Chinese government were negative. Then, we read the Culture on the Edge post by Craig Martin and defined the term normative vocabulary. After that, each group read a different NPR article about Buddhism and folk religion in China. I asked each group to highlight words when they felt they were being used normatively and sort them into positive and negative columns. Finally, I asked them to answer the following questions:
- How is this article presenting the religion described?
- Who benefits from the way the religion is being described?
- If this article was the only time you have ever read anything about this religion, what would you think about it? Would you accept this article as fact without questioning the description or the agenda behind the words being used?
My students did a fantastic job of picking out the normative vocabulary and identifying the ways in which it created a positive and negative view of religion in China, the Chinese government, and their relationship. They also did an outstanding job of predicting who benefitted from the articles’ descriptions. Some of the best responses to question three are as follows:
“I would think that Buddhists are greedy and money-hungry.”
“I would think that this group of people [Buddhist monks] were a bunch of savages who learned [to fix] their wrong ways with the help of the Chinese government.”
“That it is a happy and peaceful religion.”
“I would think of the religion as beautiful and joyful because of the words chosen…But the author made the Chinese government seem greedy and only interested in making proceeds off of the local’s religion.”
So, what have I concluded from this two day activity? That secondary students of all levels are completely capable of performing the type of critical analysis that is typically reserved for undergraduate students. I have to send many thanks to Craig Martin for the initial article that gave me two ideas, to Russell McCutcheon for helping me network with the group, and to Steven Ramey for helping me locate the articles and answering questions about the ideas I was exploring. I look forward to incorporating more of the content and ideas from the Culture on the Edge group into my mythology curriculum.
Photo credit: Tibet-5573 by Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr
Lately I’ve been getting emails about a summer school on the topic of public religion — specifically, on “how different forms of religion and religiosity meander through social realities today.”
Like the problematic notion of material religion (critiqued here), the idea that religions can be either private and public is a troublesome one that we seem not to be able to get beyond. It’s a notion given significant steam about 20 years ago with the publication of the book pictured above; as described on the publisher’s site: Continue reading
Bethany Scott is a freshman at the University of Alabama with a major in Human Performance Exercise Science, with a focus on Nutrition on a Pre- PA track. She graduated High School in Augusta, Georgia, but as a military kid she was able to travel and live in many different countries. This post was written as part of REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.
Everyone knows that as your age increases imagination decreases, but one question that comes to mind is, does your imagination affect your morals? An eye-opening event took place at the University of Alabama, on March 24th, in Lloyd Hall. In front of a large crowd, Dr. Eddie Glaude a professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, delivered the 2016 Aronov Lecture and argued that “the Negro problem” and what he calls “the value gap” results from a failure of moral imagination. Imagination puts us into the lives of those whom we tend to see as different from us, and we are then able to take on their concerns or aspirations. Imagination allows us to understand and relate. Glaude believes that the world lacks imagination which says something about our characters. Glaude sees “the Negro problem” and the value gap as matters of character.
To further explain “The Negro problem” it is the idea that many Black Americans like to prematurely claim that the problems with the Black race are solved and the fight for complete equality is over. This assumption that the fight for complete racial equality is over then leads to even more issues. With this assumption there will continue to be discrimination. The amount of educational and job opportunities will not increase for the minority groups, and there will be a continuous struggle to achieve complete equality. In 1903 W.E.B Du Bois predicted correctly that “the color line” separating the darker and lighter races would be the problem of the 20th century. With this persistent color gap, the problem of the value gap then surfaces. ‘The value gap’ is Glaude’s term that refers to the way the White body is valued more than any other race. Not only that, but each body is then given different meaning. For example the Black body in American society is usually interpreted as being a criminal or violent. This idea plagues the efforts of those who continue to have demands for racial equality. Labeling the Black body as violent and a criminal directly correlates with the issue of White fear. Glaude explained White fear as a response to the belief that Black people will impact the country negatively. This fear leads to an automatic judgment as well as assumptions about one’s character. The assumption then troubles people of color to go out of their way in order to seem less threatening. If one does not wish to smile, then there should be no obligation to smile because of someone else’s fear. Unless we stop dancing around racial issues, Glaude argues, the habits of character that perpetuate the Negro problem and the value gap will never be uprooted.
The minority race cannot kill the idea of whiteness. That is something those with racial privilege must do. For their part, Glaude claims, Black Americans must reclaim the power of imagination. Imagination greatly influenced the slaves of the South. Their imagination allowed the slaves to see beyond slavery. With imagination, not only are you able to see beyond the current condition, it also involves empathetic projection. Glaude’s lecture was an educational experience. Throughout the entire lecture I was on the edge of my seat. Individually I learned that, as a society we of all races must attend to our characters if we wish to alter our narcissistic tendencies and selfishness and become open to new ideas.
Dr. Kevin Schilbrack (pictured above, right) is a professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University. He was recently at the University of Alabama for the inaugural workshop for public university Religious Studies department chairs and offers the following report.
Like many other department chairs, I suspect, I became chair after years of teaching, writing, and generally being collegial – but I received little or no training on how to be a chair. And the work as chair of a department of Religious Studies in a public university comes with its own particular set of issues. What does the study of religions include when it is in a state-supported setting? Where can we profitably collaborate with other disciplines? And perhaps, above all, how can we recruit new students to the academic study of religions? To create a forum where department chairs could meet and work on questions like these, we came together for what we hope is the first annual workshop for chairs of departments of Religious Studies. Continue reading
The semester is complete, and our seniors have walked across that stage. All semester I have had the privilege of working with the Capstone Senior Seminar, applying questions and ideas from our work to a broad range of topics and presenting them through various social media, from Twitter to Tumblr. Their final Digital Projects are now published, so you should take a look at the range of their creative approaches to expressing the significance of critical questions to many topics, from war to food to Yik Yak. Continue reading
Russell McCutcheon wrote a post on this blog recently in which he talked about the history and development of our filmmaking ventures here at REL, and as a student worker heavily involved in producing the films, I felt the need to respond to his post. For about two years now I’ve been planning, directing, filming, and editing our department’s videos, with some help from Andie of course, and the process came with a bit of a learning curve. So now, as I pass my knowledge on to the next REL filmmaker, Caity Walker, I’ve assembled a “top 10” list of tips that I’ve learned over the years. Continue reading