Why Do They Touch the Phallus? Or, Diverging Theories of Ritual

One night during my fieldwork among Brazilian migrant communities in Japan, I was invited to a dinner at Daniel’s apartment. He and his girlfriend frequented a local Brazilian evangelical church that I was studying. After the dinner, they started talking about the “strange festival” in Komaki, a city one-hour drive away from where they lived. The festival took place the previous week (on March 15 2014) and they came across its footage online. The Hōnen Festival at Tagata Shrine is best known for its 280 kg (620 pound), 2.5 meter (96 inch)-long wooden phallus, which is carried around on the streets during the celebration. The object is supposedly the embodiment of prosperity, bountiful harvest, and fertility. The youtube video above can give you some idea of what Daniel and Sachi saw.

“Nossa (Wow)! These women flock to the phallus and try real hard to touch it! They think they can get pregnant that way!” They exclaimed in a critical tone. Laughing hard at the whole comicalness of this festival, I responded, “Ah, c’mon, it’s just fun, that’s why most people try to touch it! Do you really think these Japanese women believe in it?”

Yes!” They answered.

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And I nominate…

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It’s not news that, over the years, I’ve critiqued our main professional organization on various occasions. I’ve been a member for a while now, and it seems to me that having a stake in the profession, and in an association that one’s membership dues helps to fund, means that one is free to offer commentary where one thinks things could (and should) be otherwise.

Maybe we could even go so far as say it’s an engaged member’s duty. Continue reading

The Problem with the Primacy of Primary Sources

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

Over the past few weeks I have heard repeated talk of primary sources vs. secondary sources, privileging the former over the latter in every case. The argument that was made in these instances is premised on highlighting the legitimacy and groundedness of the primary sources, as if they focus on something “real,” (such as religion on the ground, or “real world” examples). These are then juxtaposed with the secondary sources, which are seen as subsequent discourses on primary sources, mostly concerned with meta-discourses — regarded mainly as “thinking about thinking” or “talking about talking” — which are given that secondary ranking because they aren’t talking about something “real” or answering the reader’s question (in fact, often they leave them with more questions than answers, whereas primary sources are all about answers). In some cases, these secondary sources are dismissed with a “So what?” I say “dismissed” not with a negative connotation, but with a sense of such indirect relation to the “real world religion” that the “meta-discourses” are seen as not worth the same time and engagement as their juxtaposed primary sources.

What strikes me as interesting about this distinction between primary and secondary sources is that the use of that very language largely relies on some essentialized notions of religion, as if it exists authentically, apart from subsequent claims about it. Continue reading

“What happens after the deconstruction?”

deconstructionI recently listened to The Religious Studies Project’s latest interview, with Teemu Taira, on the category religion. The way the interview was framed, by Breann Fallon, was “where do we go from here” (as Taira phrases it) — i.e., having understood that the field’s primary organizing concept can itself be examined as an historical artifact, how do we now carry out our work? Continue reading

Another Good Book with Prof. Michael Altman

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The tenth installment in our A Good Book series is now on vimeo! This episode revisits Prof. Michael Altman as he shares yet another influential book, The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa. Be sure to give it a watch!

Another Good Book with Prof. Altman from UA Religious Studies.

What if Harry Potter is Sacred?

boywholivedcroppedWhen we label something “sacred,” that designation often changes how we engage it. Discussing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a sacred text, the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text illustrates this engagement and the ways readers interpret from their own experiences. Both hosts in this podcast have a particular interest in the category of the sacred. Vanessa Zoltan is a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and Casper ter Kuile is studying to minister to those who identify as non-religious. Continue reading

Messing Up at Starbucks, or the Ritual Order of Choice

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I’m a regular customer at Starbucks. Several times a week, I walk into one, order a drink, wait for it, say thank you, and walk out. I’m sure many of you do the same thing pretty often, if not every day, without even thinking about it.

But I once failed miserably at this banal procedure. It was my first year in the US and I had just arrived from Japan, so many things were still new to me. But Starbucks was definitely not new. I had spent so many hours there studying as an undergraduate student in Japan that it felt like my habitat, even though I was now in Boston. I walked into one store and everything looked familiar – the menu, employees’ uniform, and interior.

“What would you like, ma’am?” It was my turn to order. “Café misto, please?” I answered (or something of the sort). Then the employee – a nice young woman – said something that I had never heard before: “holetoopercetskimhaffanhafforsoy.” Continue reading

Home, Sweet Home

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

When I moved to Boulder, CO for graduate school two years ago, I entered the program with a cohort of students from all over the U.S., so — perhaps unsurprisingly — one of the immediate questions everyone asked was, “Where are you from?” Then came the task, of course, of keeping track of who was from where, and so on. Being in a new place and surrounded by new people, our identities were quickly determined for each other by our former city/state. so I was initially labeled as “the girl from Alabama” — by both my cohort and even some professors.

I’d be lying if I said I was never reluctant to identify myself by my home state of Alabama, but this was the first time in my life where that signifier took somewhat of a new shape. I was “the girl from Alabama” now. Where before leaving the state I may have casually enjoyed watching football games, occasionally said “Roll Tide” as a sign of approval, participated in the daily complaining about how hot it was as if it was somehow unusual, etc., it wasn’t something that I ever considered as part of my identity. In retrospect, it was likely because these were so common-place where I lived that to me — to us, I should perhaps say — it wasn’t seen so much as an identity-marker, but rather just part of the everyday. It was uninteresting — mundane, perhaps, in the sense that everyone in the Southeastern US likes, or is at least familiar with, football and saying “Roll Tide” is just part of the vernacular. In fact, it was something I likely tried to distance myself from, in a sense, to assert my individuality amongst a crowd. To me, these things were just part of my day-to-day life. Continue reading