Narrative Constructs Culture

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Micah Davis is a graduate of the University of Alabama who majored in Religious Studies and Philosophy. He is interested in ethics and social theory. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities. REL 360 is the Department’s one-credit hour course that shows four films focusing on religion in pop culture throughout the semester.

What do the Jewish Bible, the stories of Jesus, and movies have in common? They are all story-driven. The stories found in these different sources (yes, even pop culture stories) construct the culture in which we live. Different stories contribute to different aspects of culture, e.g the construction of the timelessness of the “Judeo-Christian” foundational values through the printing of “In God We Trust” on paper and coin currency.

If we take this e.g. of the printing of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency, we see that the construction of the United States as a Christian country rests partially on this narrative, and upon many others which are projected onto the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as well as stories based on the Founding Fathers. However, America is not the only country whose culture has been influenced by narrative.

Confucianism is widely popular in China and has become so influential as to help shape the way in which China governs its people. The philosophy, principles, and social understandings of Confucius have constructed the culture which we know as “China” today (we could even say that my conception of China’s culture being influenced by Confucianism in this way is shaped by my subscription to the narrative that China is influenced in this way). These narratives have shaped not only one culture, but even the perceptions which one culture has about another.

Back in America, we see smaller subcultures created by pop culture. All of these subcultures are created and unified by the stories to which they subscribe. The “Hunger Games” fans subscribe to the trilogy of popular YA books while the “Captain America: Civil War” fans subscribe to the acclaimed movie as the basis for their culture. These different groups can even overlap, one person claiming both stories as good narratives and usually discussing these with friends who share these same experiences with these stories. Not only do stories construct the culture in a principle or philosophical sense, but they also literally construct the group through bringing together people with similar interests.

So, what does this all mean? Stories are important to cultures because stories create the culture. Telling a story creates something under which a group can be unified and motivated. The motivation of the current conservative movement which is attempting to move Christianity into the American government is driven by the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” which were both added to the culture long after the creation of the nation. However, the inclusion of other narratives which place a timelessness to these words help to motivate and create the movement.

Stories construct culture. Cultures create movements. Movements choose stories to present as evidence to validate and authorize their groups.

Tales from the Secondary Classroom: Discovering Normative Vocabulary

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By Kim Davis
Kim earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and French from
the University of Alabama in 2003. She went on to earn her
Masters in French Linguistics and Literature in 2007 and
a Masters in Secondary Language Pedagogy in 2010,
both from UA. Kim now teaches French and Mythology
at Tuscaloosa County High School.

A while back, I wrote about how an early morning Culture on the Edge Facebook post and subsequent conversation with one of its members helped me to think deeper about one of my classroom lessons. Well, that same post inspired me to create a new lesson for my unit on Asian mythology in which I would ask my students to think about the ways normative language would influence the way they construct knowledge of things they are learning for the first time.

I often complain that students in secondary classrooms are not challenged unless they are taking an AP class. My mythology class is composed of a wide range of grade levels, 9-12, with students who are taking a full course of advanced and AP classes to regular classes. While many teachers might argue that the lesson I provided is college-level ideas and therefore not cognitively appropriate for students in regular classes, I have never subscribed to that belief. My students proved me correct.

I started the class by showing them an article from the BBC on the history of Tibet and pointed out how the words used to describe Tibet were very positive and the words used to describe the Chinese government were negative. Then, we read the Culture on the Edge post by Craig Martin and defined the term normative vocabulary. After that, each group read a different NPR article about Buddhism and folk religion in China. I asked each group to highlight words when they felt they were being used normatively and sort them into positive and negative columns. Finally, I asked them to answer the following questions:

  1. How is this article presenting the religion described?
  2. Who benefits from the way the religion is being described?
  3. If this article was the only time you have ever read anything about this religion, what would you think about it? Would you accept this article as fact without questioning the description or the agenda behind the words being used?

My students did a fantastic job of picking out the normative vocabulary and identifying the ways in which it created a positive and negative view of religion in China, the Chinese government, and their relationship. They also did an outstanding job of predicting who benefitted from the articles’ descriptions. Some of the best responses to question three are as follows:

Beijing Finds Common Cause with Chinese Buddhists

“I would think that Buddhists are greedy and money-hungry.”

“I would think that this group of people [Buddhist monks] were a bunch of savages who learned [to fix] their wrong ways with the help of the Chinese government.”

In age-old Buddhist scripture, help for modern woes

“That it is a happy and peaceful religion.”

China’s Leaders Harness Folk Religion for Their Aims

“I would think of the religion as beautiful and joyful because of the words chosen…But the author made the Chinese government seem greedy and only interested in making proceeds off of the local’s religion.”

So, what have I concluded from this two day activity? That secondary students of all levels are completely capable of performing the type of critical analysis that is typically reserved for undergraduate students. I have to send many thanks to Craig Martin for the initial article that gave me two ideas, to Russell McCutcheon for helping me network with the group, and to Steven Ramey for helping me locate the articles and answering questions about the ideas I was exploring. I look forward to incorporating more of the content and ideas from the Culture on the Edge group into my mythology curriculum.

Photo credit: Tibet-5573 by Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Probing the Problematic Polls

Picture 6A few days ago I posted on Facebook and asked when someone was going to tackle a dissertation on the Pew Charitable Trust or its research wing, and the way in which their seemingly objective polling is actually constituting a very particular sort of social world into which it is trying to fit the entire population of the globe.

And voila, here’s a piece of data for that hypothetical dissertation: an article from the New York Review of Books on how the survey gets it wrong when it comes to the role of religion in China. Continue reading

Hannah Goes to India, Part 1

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By Hannah Etchison

Hannah Etchison, a graduating senior majoring in Religious Studies with a minor in Asian Studies, is spending six weeks of this fall in India, staying primarily at a monastery where she will learn from the women and help them with their English. This is her first post about that experience.

I became enraptured with the study of Buddhism through a variety of experiences during my time in the Religious Studies department of the University of Alabama, but there was a specific experience that I have begun to revisit that truly captures what I find interesting about this ‘religion’. Continue reading