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.

Getting the Party Started on Syllabus Day

The first day of class can be a bit nerve-racking, even for profs. One might think that profs have it easy at the start of the semester, but we all know the importance of first impressions. And for myself, there can be a lot of anxiety around those initial activities.

  • How much of the syllabus should we read? I don’t want to bore anyone, but I don’t want students starting out lost.
  • Do we dive right into content? The semester can really fly, so there’s no time to delay. I also don’t want to scare students off or have to re-teach material for those who won’t be joining our course until the second or third class session.
  • We could do an icebreaker? I like the sentiment, yet something doesn’t feel right about this either?

There are a lot of different directions one could go on Day One. And last week I approached the start of my REL100 introductory course by working “backwards.”

I thought a bit about some of Ellie Cochran’s reflections about her time as an REL major. One thing that I kept coming back to in her blog posts was how the kinds of questions she came to ask toward the end of her time were not at all that different from the sort that many students have when they first enroll in a course. By degree’s end she had more tools  for conceptualizing and investigating these questions–leading to more and more questions. Hints of that curiosity are there from the beginning.

So how might we take advantage of that kind of curiosity from the jump?

One way to absolutely not do this is to turn the course into a study of trivia and factoids.

Choose Your own Religion Wheel: A Guide to the Savvy Convert

More than a few Religious Studies profs have one of these in their office.

I found it at Spencer Gifts gif from the Office

This is true. I found mine at the mall.

The wheel gives you data like the number of adherents, how the religion frames the afterlife, material culture, pros, cons, and a quick description of beliefs. Although all that information has its place and may be potentially interesting to students, I think they are savvy enough to know that a 15-week course on those things as an end (rather than a means) may be a lemon of an education.

So the question for me became how do I short-circuit any attempt to turn the class into a trip on the Wheel-o-Religion.

Now for whatever reason, when I think about my scholarship, I often come back took a classic Paul Mooney bit remarking on “the N-word.” Commenting on Americans’ simultaneous obsession with and aversion to talking about race, Mooney once remarked,

“Everybody wants to be a “N—–,” but nobody wants to be a N—–.”

Like many jokes, it surfaces the conditions on the way we make meaning. In the joke. In fewer than 15 words, Mooney relays an ethnographic observation to poke at the power dynamics, psychology, and history of race. I’m no comedian, but I’d be thrilled with those kind of results from a 75-minute class.

So instead of the Wheel-o-Religion, I riffed on Mooney’s bit:

“Everybody wants to talk about religion, but nobody wants to talk about religion.”

Then we broke it down, discussing the first question and then the second one.

I was pretty amazed by the depth of questions I got. The conversation was so riveting that I didn’t have time to snap a photo. I ended the class with one final discussion question:

What do we need to discuss this semester so that this course is not a waste of time?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing was how at no point did the questions turn to google-able answers. No trivia. No factoids.

So as the semester gets going. Let’s be a little a nervous. Let’s get a little curious. And let’s see where good questions take us. I hardly think that doing so would be a waste of our time.

Anakin Skywalker saying, "This is where the fun begins."

Are you a Religious Studies prof? Tell us what you did for your first day.

Everybody Loves a Throwback!

A rugby game where the offense is passing the ball backwards.

Summer is here, and it’s time for a little rest, relaxation, and #RELResearch. And while we won’t be posting too much new content here on the blog, be on the look out each Tuesday and Thursday for some blasts from the past. We’ll be featuring some of your favorite throwback posts on social media, so be sure to follow us on Facebook (@RELatUA), Twitter (@StudyReligion), and Instagram (@StudyReligion).

 

The One Game to Rule Them All: The 2019 Manly Cup Recap

Morgan shuffling Uno cards.

In the Department of Religious Studies, we train students in the nuance of comparison and sophisticated understandings of classification. What better test could we offer at the end of the semester than the 11th Annual Manly Cup Competitive UNO Tournament.

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Citing the Misdoers and Bad Behavers?

Steven L. Jacobs, standing on the 2nd floor of Manly Hall at the University of Alabama

Dr. Steven L. Jacobs is Professor and Aaron Aronov Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at The University of Alabama. His primary research foci are in Biblical Studies, translation and interpretation, including the Dead Sea Scrolls; as well as Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

In the December 14, 2018 issue of The Chronicle Review, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago penned a piece entitled “Go Ahead, Cite the Nazi” (B2).* His unnecessarily provocative argument as summarized by his disingenuous solution— “cite work that is relevant regardlessof the author’s [sic] misdeeds—was made even more disturbing by his conclusion, “you should not—under any circumstances—adjust your citation practices to punish scholars for [sic] bad behavior” (emphases added). Even more problematic was his total failure to address any notion of historical contextualization regarding the work of the philosophers he cites, Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)—the former an avowed antisemite and the latter an unrepentant Nazi, both of whom he rather cavalierly dismisses, choosing only to celebrate their “contributions” to philosophy.  In my own field of religious studies, a “softer” but nonetheless equally problematic case would be that of Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), a formerly avowed Christian nationalist and supporter of the Romanian Iron Guard during World War II.

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Well Scientifically… Traditions are an Idiot Thing

A cartoon image of a text message from "Mom" that says, "Your father is insecure about his intelligence."

Matthew McCullough, an MA student in Prof. Ramey’s REL501 course, teases out the stakes of classifying an act as a tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, are traditions really an “idiot thing,” as Rick declares? Not quite. As we’ve seen in the clip above, tradition, appearing in various forms, is a device that’s used when something is at stake. There is no real tradition of science projects being done by fathers and sons. Projects are just as likely to be completed individually, with one’s mother, with a group, etc. What is important to note is that Jerry uses the language of tradition here because something is at stake. Jerry is insecure not only about his intelligence but about his relationship with his son Morty. He feels his father-in-law Rick overshadows him in terms of influence on and respect from his son, and Jerry worries that this science project is just another occasion when he will be subordinated to Rick. Rather than having to state this incredibly uncomfortable reality, Jerry instead uses the language of tradition as a basis to argue for what he wants. This turn shifts the issue from violation of his ego to the violation of a tradition, a longstanding practice that therefore merits repeating. Continue reading

Heineken Beer Dismantles the Traditional Family

A dozen people are smiling and holding Heineken beers. Text at the bottom of the image say, "Tradition doesn't always have to be traditional."

Caity Bell, a student in Prof. Ramey REL501 course, ponders the invention of tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

 

The holiday season is fast upon us and with it a substantial rise in commercials meant to tug upon consumers’ heartstrings, to invoke that special sense of holiday cheer that drives us, no doubt, to purchase more products than we have year-round. If you don’t run from the room the second the commercials start rolling then perhaps you’ve seen Heineken’s most recent holiday-themed ad, wherein those traditional notions of the American nuclear family are torn away.

As you can see in the video above, while the camera pans around the room—with Dean Martin’s classic You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You playing in the background—we’re exposed to what at first appears to be a holiday gathering composed of that classic family schema we’ve come to expect in American media. The father (as designated by small white text which briefly lights the screen) sits in a corner of the room, bottle of beer nearby (this is after all an advert for Heineken), while across from him sits the mother and sister, both pleasantly smiling at the camera as it glides across the large living room. Then, however, the camera shifts to a man cheerily painting, who’s designated to be the mom’s new boyfriend and from here we continue on our tour of the busy household with introductions to the boyfriend’s stepdaughter as well as various members of the dad’s “new” family (and a quirky moment when an apparent stranger is present, introduced as simply “and whoever that guy is”). The commercial ends with the image of this diverse family standing poised together before the fireplace while the words “tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional” flash across the screen.

Yet has tradition ever been traditional? In short, no. Tradition, rather than being some ancient, set in stone way of doing things, is more often than not a more recent invention, a way of authorizing one group’s set of ideals over another’s. A tool for providing a sense of social cohesion within a group, tradition serves as a means of binding present ideals and beliefs to some distant past as a way of validating their continued persistence. The word itself becomes invoked when something is at stake, a way of bringing value or necessity to some practice or ideal as being time-honored and revered when in fact it may not actually be so.

Take, for example, a 2014 Supreme Court case wherein the language of tradition was used by the defendants to win their trial. In the Town of Greece v. Galloway hearing, the town, brought to court on charges of violating First Amendment rights by beginning their council meetings with Christian prayer, was allowed to continue this practice on the grounds that, rather than being religious, the practice was a part of the town’s “tradition”. Thus, by rooting the practice in the town’s history, it was granted a semblance of authority and presented as a seemingly unbiased argument rather than a practice with some utility or underlying motive for an interested party. Have the town’s meetings always, in fact, began in this fashion? Perhaps, perhaps not, yet what is interesting to note, rather than debating the authenticity of this claim, is how the label of tradition comes into play as soon as the practice is contested.

The idea of the American nuclear family as well, with its image of one mother and one father together raising 2.5 kids, is not as traditional as we believe it to be, the idea largely popularized after the emergence and success of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution and only further cemented as the American ideal through popular television shows aired in the 1950s. Throughout our history families have held to many molds which don’t fit this traditional image—as long reaching and ever-present as it may seem. Even our beloved holiday traditions bear roots to a less distant past, as Christmas itself, with its festive trees and jolly ol’ Saint Nic, was banned for a time in the U.S. by Puritans who saw those traditions as having no place in a Christian nation. In fact many of the traditions now prominent in Christmas celebrations were not in practice until the late 19th century when they were merged into popular culture by the immigrants who brought them over.

So then, tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional? Well, it seems that tradition itself has never actually been “traditional.”  Thus the Heineken ad’s final line is absolutely right. Using the language of tradition to describe a family or a practice does not have to reflect some longstanding form; tradition has never been traditional.

 

Image credit: Still from video by HeinekenUSA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G15pfHZfNg

Studying Religion in Culture in Denver–AAR, SBL, and NAASR 2018!

Annual Meetings of the SBL AAR Denver 2018

If Manly Hall is a little quieter in Mid-November, trust that the faculty are keeping busy. Many in our Department will be headed to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

And as you can see, the Department will be well represented on the program.

Prof. Nathan Loewen continues to serve on the executive committee of the International Development and Religion program unit. This group supports interdisciplinary scholarship that informs and critiques the role of religion in humanitarian interests in the global South. He also co-organizes the “Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion Seminar.”

Prof. Emily Crews is presenting a response paper on gender and sexuality during a NAASR session.

Prof. Russell T. McCutcheon is chairing a NAASR panel on Jonathan Z. Smith’s contributions to the field. And for the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion program unit, he will be chairing and responding to a panel discussing religious philanthropy and the endowment of academic chairs.

Prof. Richard Newton is leading a workshop on Teaching and Trauma for the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and presenting his recent paper on race and religion for NAASR. He will also be discussing the public humanities, politics and pedagogy, and teaching theory and method in the study of religion on various panels.

The scholarly working group Culture on the Edge will bring together Prof. McCuthceon, Prof. Newton, Prof. Vaia Touna, and Prof. Ramey and others to discuss future projects and celebrate the recent publications of Strategic Acts of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place (ed. Prof Touna, Equinox 2019).

Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place, edited by Vaia Touna

The faculty will also be connecting with colleagues from other institutions. We look forward to seeing many of our not-so-local readers. And you can keep up with the action via social medi

Michael Scott twirling

I, Robot… I, Ethical

On my morning drive into work, I heard a news report on autonomous and intelligent road vehicles, or self-driving automobiles. The story explained that as these vehicles are optimized for road safety, designers must determine programming imperatives such as whether a vehicle should prioritize the safety of the human “driver” or a pedestrian in a roadway.

If that scenario was not unsettling enough, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is developing a certification of ethics for approved vehicles. But determining the credentialed curriculum has proven tricky because of cultural bias.

As one IEEE representative explained, the radar system in some prototypes has been calibrated to detect darting squirrels, but testing in Australia helped researcher realize that they had not accounted for the hopping of kangaroos. All ethical politics are local politics it seems.

A less quaint shorthand of meaning-making was the admission by IEEE credential architect, John Havens.

All ethics questions, often times, especially in western media, is coming from a Greek background of ethics whereas when we have the entire other side of the planet and the Global South has things called Confucian ethics and Ubuntu ethics. And it is a reframing of the paradigm of how we come to these questions … And so it is when you ask those questions that much more, this is where the words “safety” or “trust” can really be elevated to more global levels and that is what IEEE is about with consensus building globally. That is to say, “We don’t know. We don’t know yet, but we have to ask.”

The lede here reminded me of the 2004 film, I, Robot, in which the robotic infrastructure of the future turns against humanity, and a prejudice, anti-robot police officer (played by Will Smith) must save the day.

But truth be told, I’m less worried about the politics of a CPU than I am of the way some certain ethical interpreters and interpretations will be taken as representative of whole peoples in the service of the global good. One does not have to turn to science fiction to think about how some people will become casualties in that process. That’s just history.