“Backstory” is a series that asks the REL Faculty to tell us a little bit about themselves, to explore how they became interested in the academic study of religion and their own specialty, elaborating on their current work both within and outside the University.
Where are you from?
I’m from Alabama, now! Let’s have a story, too. I’ve had two stints living in the middle of nowhere Canada (just a few hundred miles north of the middle of nowhere, Montana): once on a farm near Vanscoy with my parents and off-the-grid as a young adult. Friends came to my place on New Year’s Eve 1999, because we could survive the zombie apocalypse there if the millennium bug did trigger the downfall of the world as we know it.
Could you tell us a little about what your undergraduate degree was in?
My time at the University of Winnipeg started in anthropology and ended with religious studies. There were several religious studies professors at U of W that made an impression on me. I had something of a crisis in the first semester when I threw myself into a course on Islam and earned C+. But that same term I had a course with the late Dr. Carl Ridd, “the Crisis of Modernity.” The course was quite literally a critical introduction to the political theory of individualism. Our inquiry – Dr. Ridd galvanized the entire class into the first person plural – into “religion” was a journey across literature, economics, politics and social theory. Before the end of the term I had switched to a religious studies major. (The anthropology courses were amazing, too!)
Do you recall how you first heard about the study of religion? Any memories from early classes stand out as helping to hook you on it?
I was explicitly warned by my Sunday School teacher not to study religion or theology. The same teacher showed us a video about how Satan communicates through heavy metal. In general, it seems ill-advised to bluntly tell a teenager not to do something without a really good explanation. To say the least, I left Saskatchewan in a raunchy 1968 Camaro, wearing ripped jeans and a black t-shirt, planning to take some university classes on religion. I soon sold the Camaro but kept up the other proclivities (driving a big-block on a college budget hurts, even when gas is 30 cents a gallon…).
Other than being a professor, any other interesting jobs you’ve had, for summer or longer?
Here is my contribution to the “first seven jobs” meme: tree farming, kids camping, mail delivering, recycling sorting, church ministering, residential and commercial electrical-ing, outdoor adventure camping and a salting of metal bassist playing throughout it all. There must be something interesting in there…
How’d you first get interested in your own specialty? What intrigued you about it?
“It happened” while I was studying part-time in the evenings and working daytimes as an electrician. There was a seminar on theories of embodiment with the late Dr. Marta Frascati at the University of Saskatchewan. Our readings were difficult, amazing and completely new to me. Dr. Frascati walked us through these thinkers, such as Cixous, Foucault, Vattimo, Merleau-Ponty, Irigaray and Derrida. Two factors were instrumental: Firstly, note the first person plural in the previous sentence. Outside class time, Marta cultivated community with art films, amazing Italian wines and vibrant discussions at her home. It was like attending the salons I read about in my women’s studies courses at U of W. Secondly, Marta herself broached the issue of my further studies. Did I want to continue my career in construction or attempt a PhD?
Are you serving on any interesting committees currently, either for the wider professoriate or here at the University?
An exciting project for me is my work on the executive of the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion seminar. The state of the art in the philosophy of religion is, by my lights, moribund. The ultimate objective of the seminar is to help broaden the scope of the field beyond what it is today: philosophical theology. I am glad to discuss the various reasons why and how the methods and modalities for the philosophy of religion is ready for change. With the scholarship produced in the seminars, we hope to create a foundation for writing a global-critical introduction to the philosophy of religion.
What are you currently working on in your own research and writing?
The current project is to publish a manuscript on my reading of Jacques Derrida’s work relative to the topic of “evil” among philosophers of religion. After last summer’s trip to the Derrida archives at U.C. Irvine and the biennial “Derrida Today” conference, I have the basis of an article that will propose a revisiting of the claim that Derrida had a ‘turn to religion’ in his later works. Firstly, my reading of Derrida rejects biographical claims about an author’s intentions. And secondly, I think a compelling alternative framework better situates some of his work relative to persistent issues in modern European thought on “religion.”
There’s always another book to read or essay to write, but are there other things apart from academia that you enjoy doing?
Despite a recent bout with pneumonia, I absolutely cannot wait to ride the amazing trails of Alabama. My good friend SID has been wondering where I went…
SID, pictured above, traversing one of Alabama’s many trails.