The Science of Religion–A Work in Progress

Students working on a whiteboard, diagramming the parts of an essay.

Prof. Richard Newton reports on a discussion topic from his graduate seminar on the history of religious studies. His students have been talking about the backstory of debates on definition as it pertains to religious studies. This week, students read a little bit from the nineteenth century Dutch scholars, Cornelis P. Tiele.

In my History of the Study of Religion seminar, our Religion in Culture graduate students have been discussing the very enterprise in which we are engaged. The course is built around the following question:

What does it mean to discuss the academic study of religion as a history, a field, and a discipline?

There are many places to start with such an endeavor. And if interest warrants, I’ll share how we’ve done this in a future post. For now I’ll go in media res and just share an interesting passage that we came across in our study. Continue reading

The Domino’s Effect–From Trash to Cash

Domino's Pizza restaurant with a delivery bike in front of the store.

“Domino’s Pizza in the Nieuw-Vennep, The Netherlands,” photo by Amin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

It’s 1:00am, and I can’t sleep. I went to sleep early to be ready for the first day of the new semester. And for the past hour, I’ve been thinking about one thing and one thing only…

Domino’s Pizza!

Continue reading

The Bible in Culture: Reading and Writing with Zines

Six zine covers created by students.

Prof. Newton discusses the origin of a creative student research project that he used to end his Introduction to New Testament course. Learn more about studying the Bible in Culture in the first, second, and third entries in this series.

Continue reading

Studying The Bible in Culture: Is it Syncretism or Redaction?

A Picture of Will Watson holding James S. Bielo's book, The Social Life of Scriptures.

In our series on studying the Bible in Culture. Religion major Will Watson ’21 shares how he studied the Bible in Culture as part of an independent study with Prof. Newton. Be sure to also check out the first and second installments of this series. 

During the course of my independent study with Dr. Newton, we covered a wide range of topics that ultimately coalesced in an essay that outlined the process for understanding religion in culture that we had extrapolated throughout our semester of meetings. Initially interested in how different communities conceptualize the Bible and subsequently apply it doctrinally, we moved on to synthesize this idea of Biblicism with my fascination with the use of entheogens in a ritual setting.

Continue reading

Teaching the Bible in Culture: Identifying Room for Questions Unanswered

Students doing group work.

Prof. Newton reflects on his approach to teaching the Bible in a public university. Study religion and find out about the Bible in Culture here, part 1, and in future posts.

One of my aims in my Introduction to New Testament course is to lead students in thinking carefully about the actors and drama represented in the text. As Adele Reinhartz notes, when our explanations employ terms like “Pharisee,” “Jews,” “Samaritans,” or “Romans” too assuredly, we probably have more questions to ask about what’s at play. Just as a quick point of comparison, we wouldn’t be so cavalier using terms like “the Blacks,” “the liberals,” or “the South,” especially in mixed company, right? So what is to be gained by taking these ancient typecasts at face value and without qualification?

We spend a lot of time time complicating the idea of identity. In fact, using the comparison above, students seem to have little trouble recognizing the notion of sacrosanct identity as a politically-loaded packaging of what Jean Francois Bayart termed, “operational acts of identification.” But this takes practice. Part of thinking about the “applications and traditions” associated with New Testament texts is considering the work these terms do in various first century Mediterranean scenarios.

Continue reading

An Introduction to Studying the Bible in Culture


Students reading the Bible and eating pizza in a seminar room.

Prof. Newton reflects on his approach to teaching the Bible in a public university. Study religion and find out about the Bible in Culture here on the blog over the next few days.

Continue reading

Bringing REL to San Diego–#aarsbl19 #naasr2019

San Diego Convention Center, Palm trees are in the front of it.

November is in full swing, and that means it is annual meeting season for scholars of religion. The North American Association for the Study of Religion, the American Academy of Religion, and the Society of Biblical Literature will all conference in San Diego, November 23-26. Many of our REL faculty and graduate students will be on the program. Learn a bit more about what they’ll be up to and where you can find them.

Continue reading

Dr. Roshan Abraham: Not-So-Secret Scholarly Identities

Roshan Abraham
As someone familiar with the work of our Department. Dr. Roshan Abraham knows that we appreciate the complexities of identification. Join Prof. Newton as he gets to know a bit about our 2019 Day Lecturer in the interview below. See part 1 here.

Continue reading

Dr. Roshan Abraham: A Day Lecturer’s Origin Story

A picture of Roshan Abraham at a microphone speaking.

Dr. Roshan Abraham is our 2019 Day Lecturer. Prof. Newton was able to chat with him to learn a little bit more about his training and his scholarship.

We’ve heard you’ll be talking about the Bible and comics. Comics often involve origin stories. What’s your scholarly origin story?

I don’t really have a simple story about my academic training; I got to the study of religion through a very circuitous route. I’ll try to keep it brief.

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas, majoring in English and Classical Languages. When I went on to my PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania, I became interested in the ethnography of India in Greek Literature, which lead my to Apollonius of Tyana, the first century Neopythagorean sage who journeyed to India to study with the Brahmans. At the same time, I developed an interest in ancient magic, and, as luck would have it, a central part of Apollonius’ biography was the accusation of being a magos (a “magician”). At this point, all of my training was as a classicist, but, having grown up as a PK (preacher’s kid), it was hard for me not to notice similarities between Apollonius’ biography and the synoptic gospels.

 

You can learn more about Prof. Abraham’s work on the many lives of
Apollonius on the podcast, Hold That Thought.

The year I started my dissertation was the same year Annette Reed joined the religious studies department at Penn, which was on the other end of the hall from Classical Studies. Annette introduced me to the study of religion and, over the course of writing my dissertation, gave me all of my initial training in religious studies. I’d audit her courses, she’d give me reading lists, and, despite the fact that she wasn’t on my dissertation committee, she would spend countless hours discussing second temple Judaism, early Christianity, and religious studies theory and methodology. I got hooked quickly, but, since all of my religious studies training was essentially “off the books,” the likelihood of being able to continue in the field was very slim.

I was lucky, however, to have been hired at Washington University in St. Louis, jointly appointed in the Department of Classics and the Program in Religious Studies. During my time at WashU, I had so many opportunities to engage with Religious Studies, through teaching, advising, curriculum development, and professional service, and I found my disciplinary home in the academic study of religion.

Honestly, one of the many honors of having been invited to give the Day Lecture is knowing that Annette Reed is going to be your Aronov lecture in the same academic year.
I left WashU in 2016, due to a family decision to move to the DC area, and have since been following a non-traditional route in the academy. After three years of adjuncting at Georgetown, George Mason, and American University, I was hired as an advisor/instructor in American University’s First Year Program. I’m fortunate to have found a full-time position that still grants me opportunities to teach religious studies.

A gif of the A-team discussing how, "I love it when a plan comes together."

And we are fortunate to have you both visiting us here at The University of Alabama. Can you give us a little preview of what you’ll be discussing.
My talk is centered around the question: why does the Noah story have so much saliency right now in comics? The question arose after seeing three different comic book stories adapting or in some way inspired by the Biblical story of the Great Flood: Cullen Bunn and Juan Doe’s Dark Ark, Jason Aaron and r.m. Guera’s The Goddamned, and Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel, and Niko Henrichon’s Noah (the graphic novel on which the Russel Crowe movie is based). These works are not merely adaptations, however, since the visual language of comics makes these works into acts of translation. I draw on Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation as an act of creation, belonging to the after-life of a text. I’ll be looking at how the visual language of comics reveal how new layers of meaning and interpretation are added on to the text and how these layers of meaning connect with political and theological agendas. This is equally found in confessional adaptations of the bible, such as in The Action Bible and The Kingstone Bible, works that are explicitly designed for theological education and proselytization.

We look forward to hearing more!

Mark your calendars for the 2019 Day Lecture with Dr. Roshan Abraham. Tuesday, October 15, 2019 at 7:00pm in ten Hoor 30. And tune in Friday to the Study Religion blog to find out more about Dr. Abraham, his research, and his teaching. To keep up on social media, follow along at #Day2019.

 

Family Resemblance and the Social Risks of Guess Who

Years ago, before I had kids, I was chitchatting with an acquaintance. I cannot recall what we were actually talking about. The memory is remarkable to me because these days I am rarely alone enough to enjoy a leisurely adult conversation. I can’t believe now how much I took such moments for granted back then.

Anyway, in the midst of the conversation, the acquaintance’s young daughter came out of a building to meet her mother. They can’t have been apart for more than a few hours, but their reunion would make you think it had been days or weeks. The scene was heartwarming even from the position of the third-wheel.

As I watched them embrace, I felt a second-hand joy. And maybe out of some weird sense of guilt or obligation, I felt the need to say something the way people do when they find a silence awkward. I had never seen the young girl before, and I said something about how I thought she resembled her mother.

I don’t think the little girl heard or cared to listen to what I said. However, the mother took the comment in, looked at me, and said that they the daughter was adopted.

In hindsight, maybe I should have endured the silence! 😉

I don’t even know if this acquaintance would remember the incident. But my confusion about the moment left an impression enough for me to write about it years later.

You see, I did not intend for my remark to be a commentary on the genetic legitimacy of parentage. All I meant was that, in my observation, the child and the adult had similar appearances. But if you think about a game like Guess Who–the object of which is to deduce the identity of a select person by asking the selector questions about the person’s appearance, then you can see just how derivative such observations can be. If anything, I meant to point out something about the emotional closeness of the parent and daughter. I happened to riff on a physical relationship to do so. My acquaintance did not grant the authority of my metaphor.

 

Lest you think I’m trying to defend my actions, you should know that as a Black father of bi-racial children whose facial features are often the subject of exoticizing conversations, one of my nightmares is that at the wrong place and the wrong time, someone seeing a difference in our physical features will lead to a well-meaning but prejudicial concern about our emotional distance and result in our separation. So if anything, I was happy to be schooled in the aforementioned moment.

Maybe I should have paid better attention to Durkheim and thought about the social function of my comment. The incident has got me thinking more about the limits of a “family resemblance” approach to religion. Because while there’s no problem with simply remarking that something is a religion or like a religion, it leaves unclear what that resemblance  means explicitly. As Timothy Fitzgerald says, “There is a human drama being played out here and we may want to know the story” (231).

Guess Who: The Classic Mystery Face Game. People are trying to guess identities based upon cartoon facial features.

But to essentialize a relationship is to grow comfortable with more ambiguity, not less. Besides that not being a great game, what are the consequences of that complacency?

Your guess is as good as mine.