“Yes, and I’ve Met His Dog”: A Student Report from the Regional AAR

Parker Evans is junior studying English and Religious Studies. He spends most of his time drinking coffee and making reading lists when he should be reading.

The regional AAR, or SECSOR, was a fantastic chance for a professionalizing experience. Sierra Lawson, another REL major, and I arrived late in the afternoon, and between checking into the hotel and presenting my paper, I had just enough time to change clothes from my flight and eat dinner. I was the first presenter on the first undergraduate panel, but this was actually a relief. Once I gave my paper, I was free to sit back and explore the conference. The presentation itself was painless and even a little gratifying. I don’t consider myself afraid of public speaking, but I was a little anxious about how it would go over. Since there were other panels going on simultaneously, the nine or ten audience members who had chosen to come to the undergraduate panel were almost exclusively undergrads themselves. Our panel was loosely organized around our paper topics covering a range of subjects from my own paper on Heidegger to Orientalist travelogues to the effect of psychedelics on “spiritual” experiences to a close reading of a passage in the New Testament book of Hebrews. The audience members were very receptive to our papers, and we each received a couple of questions.

Just from the range of undergraduate paper topics, it was clear that this conference was not just gathered under the banner of Religious Studies. After my panel, Sierra, Dr. Finnegan and I attended the pre-reception event, which consisted of two short papers, one from a member of the American Academy of Religion and one from a member of the Society of Biblical Literature. For a field built on the colonial Christian enterprise of cataloging “religious” traditions, it was clear that the associations of the AAR still skew towards its roots. Both presenters were engaging, and they had an interesting conversation after their talks, but it was apparent that a Christian hermeneutic tradition still pulls at the academic study of religion. Along with the speaker from the SBL, several papers given at panels I attended were direct hermeneutic approaches to Christian scripture (although I understand that several papers were given on Islamic theology as well). By virtue of sharing a conference with the SBL, the AAR maintains a serious imbalance between its relationship with Christian academics and academic groups representing any other religious tradition, without even getting into the question of whether such a relationship should exist.

With that said, I had many interesting conversations with professors and students. On Sunday I had breakfast (out of coincidence) with a professor whose panel on ethics I attended on Saturday. Her paper focused on a study she did with her students in which she had them practice techniques analogous to Buddhist mindfulness practices. I found it extremely interesting that she had the students define religion before and after engaging in these techniques, and after engaging in them, the percentage of students who included practice (as opposed to, or in conjunction with belief) in their definition of religion doubled. We had an excellent chat about methodology and how to approach teaching the study of religion.

In addition to the ethics panel, I went to a panel on the philosophy of religion as well as another undergraduate panel. The papers on the undergraduate panel ranged from the relationship between “religiosity” and the sex lives of young Latinas in a community outside Raleigh to the long-lasting effects of the British colonial classification of a group of devotees as prostitutes. All the members of the panel did extensive research within the communities they discussed, and the resulting papers were impressive.

I was told before going to SECSOR that, as a student from the University of Alabama, I was marked by my association with Dr. McCutcheon. It was amusing how quickly I found this to be true. Several times, other students would say something along the lines of “Oh, you know Dr. McCutcheon?” to which I usually responded, “Yes, and I’ve met his dog.” Some professors took digs at a McCutcheon-y figure when discussing the direction of the field, while others would name-drop him to represent a vague counterpoint to which they were responding. (I am currently theorizing the phenomenon of the straw-McCutcheon argument.) But on the whole, our department received high praise whenever I mentioned it, and I was able to get a sense of where we reside in the larger field. The conference has given me a much better understanding of where my interests can expand within the field and how I can situate them within existing bodies of research. I’m already looking forward to Atlanta next March.

Thinking About Democracy After Citizenfour

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Matthew McCullough is a Junior from Huntsville, AL majoring in Religious Studies and Political Science. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities

In a time when technology is more integral to our communication than ever, it is interesting how often people overlook the fact that as we become more immersed in technology, our private life inherently becomes more embedded in it as well. Sure, we may use a pin number to unlock a cell phone or a password to access an email, but in reality many people take a great deal for granted when it comes to their private information that now resides in the electronic world. In just under two hours, Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour not only forces Americans to evaluate their cyber security, but also confront the uncomfortable notion that the entity posing the greatest threat to it is not some band of hackers, but our own government.

To bring this to light, the film uses the information exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed a secret NSA system of mass-surveillance that has been spying on every American and millions of other people around the world since the September 11th terrorist attack in New York fifteen years ago. The fear and tensions that naturally followed this incident allowed the passage of the Patriot Act, which has since served as the legal justification for the construction of this system housed within the NSA. Despite this legislative foundation, much of the controversy in the film arises from the fact that the surveillance has evolved to include illegal and invasive measures against all citizens, and that the government has lied multiple times in attempts to cover it up, even in congressional hearings.

While the government has not denied conducting surveillance, they have consistently attempted to deceive the American public about the nature or extent of the data collection. The government initially claimed it was only collecting what is called metadata, which essentially amounts to who is communicating, where they are, what they’re purchasing electronically, etc., a process that is invasive in itself, as collection of this type without probable cause or court approval seems to be in violation of a basic right to privacy and protection against unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the 4th Amendment. However, the documents released by Snowden with the help of Poitras and another journalist, Glenn Greenwald, revealed that the government, in addition to collecting metadata, also has access to the content of every communication as well. This means that not only does the government have access to virtually every type of electronic call, message, social media post, or any other electronic communication, but that service providers such as AT&T, Google, Yahoo, and countless others are betraying the trust of their customers by secretly providing (most likely selling) this information to the government.

A system of this magnitude has serious implications for our status as a democracy. This essential elimination of privacy is the first step in the process of the government being able to control belief. Freedom of thought is essential to democracy, but a surveillance system such as this allows the government to detect and potentially deter any idea that conflicts with its interests. In a democracy, the government’s interests are theoretically ours, those of the people it represents, but as individual voters in a massive political machine representing more than 300 million people, citizens are often left feeling completely disconnected from the government and its agenda. For these people to be fairly represented, they must be able to voice opinions of opposition and protest when they feel compelled to do so. While surveillance itself does not prevent this kind of action, it puts a mechanism in place that, were policy protecting dissent and/or protest changed, could be used to rapidly identify and control those with beliefs conflicting with government agenda. This change is not outside the realm of possibility, and even before it occurs, the mere existence of a system for controlling belief accomplishes a large part of the government’s goal. When people know they are being monitored, they begin to police themselves, effectively defending against anti-government ideas before they even become conversations, much less the type of mass movement it takes to truly effect change.

Even if you do not feel compelled to use it currently, every citizen should be extremely interested in the protection of the right to meaningfully protest or at the very least disagree with the government. If it becomes the case that they are no longer able to, the ability to accurately describe the United States as a democracy is critically threatened. While the internet has vastly expanded the scale and methods through which belief can be shared, it has also allowed these expressions to be monitored more easily than ever before. This oversight is just one of many arms of government power, and now that the mechanism is in place, it could easily be flexed to control any type of belief, whether political, religious, or otherwise. This scandal does not necessarily mean that the government is out to control citizens in this way, but the extent of the system, its questionable legality, and the government’s efforts to keep it secret can certainly be seen as cause for concern. This information is something Snowden felt was worth risking his life to expose, and Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour made a dramatic impact in educating the public on an issue that could potentially have disastrous consequences for American democracy in the future.

Exposing the Truth: Citizen Four and the Importance of Authorship

Jeff Blanchard is a Senior at the University of Alabama and is set to graduate in May. He is a Blount Scholar majoring in History and minoring in Religious Studies. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities

The National Security Agency (NSA) was founded in 1952 for collecting, processing, and protecting information for the United State government. In 2013 Edward Snowden, an employee of an NSA contractor, flew to Hong Kong and meet with journalists to start the process of revealing information about the organization’s collection of metadata on US citizens. The metadata included phone calls, text messages, and words/phrases that people entered into search engines.

The documentary Citizen Four captures Snowden’s days in Hong Kong and his conversations with the journalists involved. It is actual footage that Snowden recorded that was edited and used to produce a quality presentation of the events as they unfolded.

The most popular thing to write about after watching Citizen Four would have to be the government’s infringement upon privacy. In choosing to write about this a person would enter an ongoing debate about privacy, and would have to paint Edward Snowden as either a friend or a foe. Ultimately the person’s writing would do nothing except contribute to the noise. I will quickly contribute my two cents to the noise and then move on to something from the movie that I believe creates more fruitful academic discussion.

Last year I was asked by a friend to be used as person that could verify his residence for a co-op interview with the NSA. I agreed, but was never contacted, however other individuals that my friend listed were contacted. It seems strange to me that the NSA would need to verify my friend’s residency if they have metadata collected on him that would verify all the information that they need. At the same time, it is strange that my name was given and I was never contacted. My friend has since started his co-op and claims that there are laws in place that prevents the NSA from spying on Americans. My personal belief is that metadata is being collected but not actively viewed by the NSA.

Now, on to a more academic topic. The subject matter that I find to be interesting from the movie is that Snowden did not want himself to get in the way of what he had to say. He wanted to eliminate his own bias from the presentation of the material. This would prevent people from not paying attention to the important stuff and instead keep their focus on the rogue NSA employee. Snowden knew that as soon as his identity went public he would become the central story in place of the matter he was exposing. This is an interesting case to look at in terms of authorship. In this case Snowden thought that authorship mattered. He believed journalists were free to deliver his message without their authorship getting in the way. He knew that if he expressed his ideas then people would focus more on where the voice was coming from than the words being said. The message would have stayed the same, but the delivery was what really mattered. This shows how much credibility and institution matter in the reception of news media. When it comes to our news, context matters more than substance in that who is talking makes the story and not the words they are saying. It has been ingrained in Americans to trust the media for accurate news over other people, just like it has been ingrained in Americans to believe that the NSA is working to protect them from terrorism. Both are true statements, but neither one considers ulterior motives. Context is more important than substance, because context molds and shapes the substance into what people receive. Citizen Four reminds us that nothing is inherited, and that we must remember that everything comes to us through a certain context.

Honors Thesis Defense: Emily Vork on Gone With the Wind and Greek Life in the South

Emily Vork, who is graduating this semester, will be defending her Honors thesis this Friday, December 6, at 12:30 pm in Manly Hall 210. Her thesis is titled “‘Cavaliers and Cotton Fields’: the ‘Old South,’ Performativity, and Gone With the Wind in Southern Greek Life.” Her thesis project was supervised by Prof. Mike Altman. The thesis defense is open to faculty and undergraduate students in the department. Come hear Emily speak about her research project and celebrate the hard work she put into it this semester!

 

Finders Keepers

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Tianna Usher is a senior earning a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Biology. After graduation she plans to enroll at The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to pursue a Master’s of Nursing. This post was written as part of Prof. Ramey’s REL 322: Tales from Asia course.

“Finders keepers, losers weepers.” While the jingle may have given us the upper hand in elementary school playground disputes over trading cards and action figures, matters get a bit more complicated in the adult world of cultural expression and exchange. Criticisms over the film Sita Sings the Blues, published in 2008 by Nina Paley, continue to raise questions about cultural appropriation in an increasingly globalized world.

Sita Sings the Blues is Nina Paley’s creative interpretation of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana. However, controversy over the film was immediately sparked as certain Hindu groups accused the European-American woman of appropriating Indian culture. In a revised publication statement, Nina Paley explained her motives behind the film and allowed free access to it by the public, adding, “Like all culture, it belongs to you already… From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.” Her critics essentially argued that culture is, in fact, not shared, and that just because Paley found inspiration in another culture’s traditions, that didn’t give her any right to use that culture to create something of her own. Additionally, some critics argued that Paley’s representation of Rama and Sita diminished and mocked Indian culture.

Given the history of European colonialism in countries like India, as well as contemporary sociocultural Caucasian dominance, it is understandable that minority groups are defensive of their traditions and heritage. Yet at the same time, expanding globalization connects societies and allows for the observation and exchange of cultural ideas, making it increasingly difficult for any group of people to claim any product, tradition, or idea as exclusively theirs.

With that said, what place should cultural appropriation have in the world today? How far is too far, when it comes to taking pieces of other cultures and meshing them into one’s own? When minorities protest because Hollywood films based on their particular ethnic group’s heritage and traditions are cast entirely with European-American actors, it may seem obvious to some that the minority culture is being manipulated and controlled by the dominant culture’s representation of it. Yet matters may become a bit more complex when the issue at hand is a seemingly innocent Polynesian Disney costume or a “native” clothing line. In an American consumer culture, where it is normal to capitalize upon virtually any commodity—including those with ties to minority traditions—it can be easy to either miss the cultural implications altogether or to land at the opposite extreme and accuse every vendor of maliciously demeaning a group’s heritage. We must ask ourselves: where is the line between appreciating shared culture and addressing controversies over cultural appropriation in Hollywood films and popular culture? Is cultural appropriation theft or appreciation? Misuse or creative application?

For now, the appropriation of minority cultures by the dominant group is still viewed negatively, yet it can’t be ignored that cultural appropriation has paved the way for some remarkably creative works. Many minority groups find that capitalistic society is often driven by “finder’s keeper’s” principles. As traditions become consumer goods, these groups perceive that they often become the losers. But perhaps, in regard to culture, what we need is a new approach to the idea of cultural exchange in general. After all, worldwide globalization is fast approaching. Perhaps, even in 2008, Nina Paley was onto something with her “shared culture” after all?

When Religion and Artistic License Clash

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Jackson Nock is a senior from Denver, Colorado. He is a double major in International Studies and Religious Studies with a minor in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies.This post was written as part of Prof. Ramey’s REL 322: Tales from Asia course.

When we think of art, we think of a world in which creativity and expression know no bounds. However, when certain stories are labeled as “religious” or “sacred” as opposed to “non-religious,” we seem to look at art differently.

In my REL 322 class we have been focusing on the Indian epic the Ramayana. What I have found most interesting about this story is the number of tellings and depictions that exist. Recently, we watched the film Sita Sings the Blues, an animated film based on the Ramayana produced by American artist Nina Paley. Paley’s telling of the Ramayana received criticism for its portrayal of certain characters in a negative light and a number of Hindus found the film offensive.

Similarly, the comic book series The 99 written by Naif Al-Mutawa has faced criticism in its portrayal of characters. The 99 is about a team of superheroes each based on one of the 99 attributes of Allah found in Islamic traditions and is generally directed toward a younger Muslim demographic. The comic is banned by the Saudi government and ISIS members have even called for the killing of Al-Mutawa.

These two instances raise questions over how far artistic license extends. Are there certain topics, themes, or stories that should be left off limits? Should “religious” or “sacred” stories be told only in a certain way in order to prevent possible cultural appropriation? The problem with these questions is that it looks at stories such as the Ramayana or the 99 attributes of Allah through these “religious” or “sacred” labels.

As Dr. Ramey notes in his blog post “What if Harry Potter is Sacred,” “When we label something as ‘sacred,’ that designation often changes how we engage it.” But why do we use these labels to describe certain texts or stories in the first place? In his book Capitalizing Religion, scholar Craig Martin argues “when there is a chafing relationship between [a] state’s practices and the practices of a particular civil institution, the latter may cry foul on the grounds of ‘freedom of religion'” (Martin, 44). Thus, religious groups, Martin argues, use “religious” or “sacred” labels in order to reduce the reach or scope of “secular” institutions in their private lives (Martin, 44). Could it be possible to extend this argument into the realm of artistic license?

In both the cases of Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues and Al-Mutawa’s The 99, we see religious groups protesting the content of artwork they see as degrading to things they hold as “religious” or “sacred.” If we are to use Martin’s line of logic, the use of these labels to describe the Ramayana or the 99 attributes of Allah is a way of limiting the scope of artistic license on them. But is this healthy? Should artists refrain from creating their work out of fear of backlash?

Despite where you stand on this issue, the important thing to realize is that using the terms “religious or “secular” to describe certain stories has an impact on the way people think about them. This, in effect, has discouraged artistic license in regards to them. Therefore, it is important to examine how these types of labels may be affecting the telling or retelling of a story when you examine it.

Legitimacy of Classification at Standing Rock

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Anastasiya Titarenko is a junior majoring in Religious Studies. She has spent the fall semester interning for a non-profit in Wellington, New Zealand.

Classification matters. In North Dakota, it arguably permits the violation of one’s First Amendment rights.

The First Amendment states that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Seemingly explicit, the Amendment actually leaves room for interpretation.

To start, who gets to decide what “peaceably assemble” means? Continue reading

But First a Word From Our Students…

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Madeleine Lewis is a senior studying mathematics and religion at the University of Alabama. They spend their time researching conspiracy theories, making tacos in a tiny kitchen, and inciting resistance in their peers, among other things.

We’re asking some current REL students to finish a few sentences for us….

The first REL course I took at UA was: Religion and Literature: Authority, Authorship, and Canon with Dr. Simmons.

One of the most curious things I’ve learned so far in one of my REL courses is: the context leading up to Jim Jones’s mass murder at Jonestown and the group dynamics of The Peoples’ Temple.

A practical skill I’ve learned in REL is: how to form lasting and friendly relationships with my professors.

The coolest thing about the second floor of Manly Hall is: the little metal trough that McCutcheon fills with peanuts and uses to feed squirrels on the balcony. I call it Basil’s buffet.

One thing not a lot of people know about REL is: how aptly theories of religion apply to popular culture and politics.

Make your own slogan: How did Donald Trump win the 2016 election? Study religion and find out.

But First a Word From Our Students….

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Keeley McMurray is a junior double majoring in English and Religious Studies. When she isn’t writing papers or contemplating the meaning of life, Keeley loves to travel, listen to Jeff Buckley and make art.

We’re asking some current REL students to finish some sentences for us….

The first REL course I took at UA was: Honor’s Intro to Religious Studies with Dr. Rollens.

One of the most curious things I’ve learned so far in one of my REL courses is: the existence of terrorist groups comprised of Buddhist monks. Goes to show how every religion can spawn a myriad of interpretations and practices.

A practical skill I’ve learned in REL is: the wonderful ability to step out of my own life and look at things from an aerial perspective. Every individual functions under a different cultural script that shapes their unique perspective. Realizing this has made me a more peaceful, loving, and respectful person.

The coolest thing about the second floor of Manly is: the small troughs of nuts left out for the visiting squirrels. It always makes my day to see them stuffing their faces with the treats left out for them.

One thing not a lot of people know about REL is: that it applies to virtually every part of the human experience.  And it makes you fun at parties — this is a topic that seems to engage everyone. People flock to you when you are able to understand and respect their perspectives…and an endless supply of REL fun facts doesn’t hurt, either.

Make your own slogan: Did Tom Cruise evolve from a clam? Study religion and find out!

 

To God Be The Glory Brake Bands and Clutch

Signs Blog Post

Anastasiya Titarenko is a rising Junior pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies and minoring in Educational Studies. She is currently living in Accra, Ghana, and will be spending the next six months traveling to Ukraine, Italy, and New Zealand.

On my first day in Ghana, I passed by In Jesus Name Amen Look Good Shop. I could not hold back a little laugh, because this seemed to be such a strange name for a business. Even more peculiar was that signs like this – signs with a (what I initially perceived as) religious element of advertising – stood on every street. To give you a taste, here are some of my favorites:

His Grace Fast Food

God Bless Me Store

Anointing Finger of God Fashion Decoration

Jesus is Alive Motors

Your God is Mightier Taxi Service

Jesus Cares Enterprises

With God All Things Are Possible Eating Joint

God’s Favor Store

Abundant Blessings Electrical Store

God Is Able Beauty Salon

The Overflowing Grace Pharmacy

Ask and It Will Be Given Bookshop

I saw signs like this in many cities throughout various regions of Ghana, and they never failed to “stick out” to me. Whenever I asked my Ghanaian friends about the signs, they almost always responded with pause and a bit of confusion: “What do you mean? That’s just how the signs are.” It was almost as if they didn’t notice the “religious” aspect of them until I asked about it.

It was after a few of these awkward conversations that I realized the interesting thing going on was not the signs themselves, but my reaction to them.

Why did I find these signs so odd? And why did the locals find them so not odd? Perhaps it is because these signs did not align with my dominant way of thinking — my way of classifying the world around me.

I thought these signs were weird because I immediately and unthinkingly separated the world into specific categories such as “religion” and “business.” In my mind, these categories tend to be mutually exclusive. This mutual exclusivity is not the only way of doing things, and it is not the “right” way of doing things. A clear picture of what is “normal” (and what is not) had been manufactured for me, and it was through that lens of constructed normalcy that I comprehended these signs. I was looking through that metaphorical lens when I laughed at Clap For Jesus Barber Shop, and I didn’t even realize it.

This is a perfect example of two things: that systems of classification strongly impact how we process the world, and that we rarely notice systems of classification until they stop working. Sometimes the consequences of this are harmless, like my grin while driving past God is Good Aluminum Company. Consequences do, however, have the potential to be much greater, in the study of religion and other fields.

Take, for example, the classification of gender in the United States. The system of binary gender (male/female) has been dominant for a long time. This system, previously considered normal and irrefutable (and still considered this way by many), is being called into question because it does not work for everyone. Laws are changing, language is changing, television show characters are changing…the list goes on.

Culture is changing as a result of constant actions and reactions that either reinforce or act against existing systems of classification. If we allow ourselves to be more critical of why we think the way we do – if we become more aware of the lenses of constructed normalcy through which we view the world – we can grow stronger as scholars and agents of culture.