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.

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We Can’t Leave Tesla Alone

Montenegrin monument to Nikola Tesla

Madeleine Lewis graduated from UA in 2017 with degrees Religious Studies and Applied Mathematics. She is now teaching English and Computer Science in Montenegro with the Fulbright Program.

This past September, Elon Musk tweeted, “Finally, we will do Nikola Tesla proud by having his cars in his countries of origin!” This claim about beginnings, coupled with the fact that I have lived in what some people assert to be Tesla’s singular country of origin for over a year, sparked my curiosity as a scholar of religion.

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Always Look at Who’s Talking

A textbook chart that unironically presents how "Arabs/Muslims," 'Asians," "Blacks," "Jews," "Hispanics," and "Native Americans" respond to pain. It is titled "Focus on Diversity and Culture: Cultural Differences in Response to Pain"

Textbook chart from Nursing: A Concept Based Approach to Learning, published (then withdrawn) by Pearson

As the AAR presents its newly drafted Religious Literacy Guidelines, Sierra Lawson (BA ’17, MA ’19) and Prof. Steven Ramey return to their research on the implications of classification to raise important questions about the politics and consequences of such a framing.

Religious literacy, which typically refers to knowledge about religions, differences between religions, and diversity within each religion, can reinforce problematic claims about social groups (as evident in the chart reproduced above). Useful knowledge can easily become harmful, especially when it tends towards selective generalizations and ignores the issue of who is doing the talking.

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How Not to Reinvent Yourself

Sierra Lawson is a BA and MA graduate of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama who is now pursuing her Ph.D. in the study of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In this post she reflects on how, as a TA, she’s using a model of the field we’ve come to call the examples approach.

As someone who describes their research interests as investigating claims about Marian devotion in modern Latin America, you can imagine my surprise upon being assigned a teaching assistantship in Hebrew Bible this semester. Continue reading

Chris Hurt Returns for Grad Tales

Last night REL welcomed back 2008 grad Chris Hurt, who had a thing or two to say about the continuing relevance of his liberal arts degree at UA. Interviewed by Justin Nelson (himself an REL grad from 2007), Chris talked about how he ended up at UA from Mississippi, his experiences in our classes, as well as how he found his way to Los Angeles after graduation — where he now lives, working at Wag while also pursuing a career in music. Continue reading

On Paying Attention to Politicians Signing Bibles

Geoff Davidson graduated from the University of Alabama Religious Studies Department in 2009 before earning his M.Div. at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He is now a minister, writer, and library information specialist at Baylor.

Late last week President Trump was seen autographing Bibles while surveying the effects of a devastating tornado in eastern Alabama, leading to skirmishing in both news media and religious communities. There were those who dismissed this incident immediately, and why shouldn’t they? Why should a signed Bible merit discussion in the face of any other pressing political or religious topic de jour?

For the scholar of religion, such easy dismissiveness is a good way to miss important data. Christians, not a monolithic lot by any stretch, have been hotly divided on the topic with some leveling serious religious charges against both the president and those who asked that their Bibles be signed. This disagreement warrants accurate reflection in its own right, but it also points to critical underlying issues: how Christians see their holy texts and how this affects their actions. Continue reading

How One Grad’s Tale Begins: from REL to Myanmar to REL to India and then on to Indiana University…

wooden table with a pocket sized world map with coffee mug

Photo by Keyur Hardas on Unsplash

Shelbie Francescon graduated from UA in the Fall of 2018 with a minor in REL and will begin working on her Master’s of Public Affairs at Indiana University in Fall 2019.

I went to Bloomington, Indiana last weekend. If you asked me last August if I knew where I would be this February, the only answer I could give would be “India.” As a graduating senior at UA in the Fall of 2018, I was stressed. I had applied for a Fulbright. I had thought about maybe being a fellow with VIA (Volunteers in Asia) or an English teacher with the Crane House back in my hometown. I had considered applying to law school or graduate school. I had no real clue where I would end up come August of 2019. Continue reading

Pssst! Check this Out: School’s in for Summer!

a street in Bologna Italy

Parker Evans graduated from REL with a BA, in the Spring of 2018, and is currently working on his MA in Gender and Race Studies, here at UA

Coming up on a year ago, shortly after the Department’s Honors Research Symposium, I applied for a couple of summer programs in Europe at the suggestion of Dr. Loewen. He and I had a short conversation in which I told him I was planning on taking a tour of Europe following my graduation. He told me about his experience at UCSIA to let me in on a secret: programs called “summer school” take place all around the world for a concentrated study of specific topics. Several take place in Europe (Hint: in New Zealand and Australia, they are called winter school; e.g. the Center for Humanities Research). Continue reading

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