A Return to the Nacirema

Ryland Hunstad, a student in Prof. Simmons’s REL 100 this past semester, is a sophomore from Denver, Colorado majoring in finance & management information systems, with interests in politics, philosophy, & religion.

In the following post he offers some further reflections on a group of people who were originally studied, in the mid-1950s, by the anthropologist, Horace Miner.

Since the last expedition to the land of the Nacirema, anthropologists have had several more opportunities to visit these people and observe their customs and social practices, in an attempt to decode the seemingly cryptic meaning behind their traditions and religious practices as it relates to their society. Those outsiders studying the Nacirema, by learning the language and acquainting themselves in general with the members of the Nacirema tribe, have begun to understand these customs in more depth, especially as they relate to the class system present among the Nacirema. Our hope in this piece is to relay their findings so that these social practices may be studied and analyzed in greater detail. Continue reading

A Visit to Montgomery Museums

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL commemorates all documented cases of lynching in America. Each metal pillar is engraved with the victims’ names and the county where the crime took place.

Several weeks ago, along with Prof. Ramey, Caity Bell, Savanah Finver, and Keely McMurray (all first-year MA students in the study of religion) took the two hour drive to Montgomery, AL, to explore a variety of historical representations in museums and memorials. They began their tour at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice before visiting the Legacy Museum and finishing at the Alabama State Archives Museum. Continue reading

The Book Event – As Told in Pictures

Last Thursday, the Religious Studies Department hosted its second annual book event at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in downtown Tuscaloosa. The refreshments and cozy ambiance created the perfect atmosphere for any book lover to mingle and browse the store. Professors, students, and even Tuscaloosa locals joined us to discuss Prof. Ramey‘s and Prof. Loewen‘s recently published books.

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Adventures in Archives, Classification, and Eldridge Cleaver

Dan Wells is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. He is currently finishing a dissertation entitled, “Better Dead Than Red: A History of the Christian Crusade Aesthetic.”

Growing up I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I wanted to see some adventure. Long before my awareness of the almost innumerable issues that plagued the series, I thought melting Nazi faces off with ancient artifacts while wearing a cool hat and neglecting professional responsibilities in service to the preservation of history (it belongs in a museum!) sounded rather great (can we pause to recognize how terrible it must have been to be Prof. Jones’ graduate assistant?). With those childhood dreams in the rearview (mostly in the rearview, that is), my adventure usually leads me to a dusty library archive where my only hopes to melt Nazi faces comes during my lunch break when I might encounter a Nazi on Twitter. In a recent adventure to the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley, I was in search of the “holy grail” archival find that might take my current research project to the next level. Combing through files on former Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, I stumbled upon an article that caught my eye. While not the “holy grail” I was looking for, the find serves as an example of what one might stumble upon in the archives and more importantly, how acts of classification have real life, tangible consequences. Continue reading

The World Cup and a Grandmother’s Blessing

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

The World Cup has been a heavily anticipated sporting event for many countries since the 1930s, representing one of those phenomenon that invite communities to abandon divisive tension in favor of coming together to cheer on the team representing their country. From Mexico to Iran and Morocco, and now even to the United States (whose team failed to qualify for this year’s tournament), families come together, huddled intimately around their television sets while someone else peers up at a large screen in a pub, surrounded only by the dull buzz of strangers also watching, each with a fermented drink of choice.

One sporting fan happened to catch my attention this season, a grandmother in a Mexican household who stood in front of her television before the Germany v. Mexico game kicked off and blessed every member of Mexico’s male soccer team as the camera focused in on each of their faces during the national anthem. She even made sure to bless the goalie twice, you know, just to be absolutely sure! The video, a screenshot of which is featured above, was widely circulated on social media the other day, with many proclaiming that there is nothing more precious or pure than a grandma’s blessing.

I have to wonder, would a scholar of Latin American religion classify this video as an example of “religious devotion” or treat it as a silly anomaly to be excluded from the archive? In my experience, traditionally Catholic devotees often get overrepresented in scholarship while individuals who demonstrate devotion in nontraditional ways, such as this grandmother blessing players on her television, are left out of the record because their actions are not really religious. Yet, I’m not sure where we are demarcating really religious behavior from not really religious behavior, because such scholars hardly ever reveal what they mean by ‘religion’ and, thus, a reader is unable to imagine a spectrum of what qualifies as religious.

It seems that many scholars are quick to ignore devotional behavior that does not fit within their definition of religion, without ever realizing that they do not even have one, which means that examples such as this grandmother become marginalized, inspiring only a chuckle in most viewers, without any explanation as to why.

“A confidential informant is not a spy…”

The title of this post is a quotation from US Senator Lindsey Graham, during a recent radio interview — find more details here, in a recent Washington Post report, along with a transcript of that portion of his interview. It concerns the President characterizing someone who is now much in the news as being a “spy” planted in his campaign by the FBI. That others understand this person as an informant — someone who, of their own volition, apparently decided authorities needed to know something he himself knew — is one among many current examples in US politics where it ought to be profoundly obvious that, yes, classification matters. Continue reading

On the Worlds We Conceive Within Ourselves…

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

I recently saw an advertisement that featured two lungs, one healthy and another almost unrecognizable as a human organ. This reminded me of a similar comparison at a summer camp I once attended where they showed us a cow’s lung that had supposedly been exposed to a great deal of smoke. While both demonstrations had different end goals, the former to combat second hand smoke and the latter to scare young children into never considering a smoke, they required similar ontological assumptions from their audiences. Chiefly, the assumption that seeing how our actions outside our corpus have effects on inner organs, but also the subsequent assumption that seeing these consequences will galvanize us into healthier habits or, at the very least, aversion to particular substances. Continue reading

An Experimental Case Study

There’s a timely project — happening now, right before our eyes — that someone in the study of religion could (should?) tackle, concerning the strategic use of origins tales in the present — not just that, but the self-beneficial way in which groups choose to use and sanction them (or simply ignore them). Continue reading

Marian Apparitions: Religious Ephemera and Politics of Classification

Sierra Lawson, an MA student in the Department of Religious Studies, led our most recent journal group and has some reflections on the reading, Learn more about her work here.

In the Religion in Culture M.A. program, our monthly journal group has created a space in which graduate students can engage with faculty, beyond just their advisor, regarding their individual interests–interests that, ideally, will be reflected in their eventual thesis. While my focus on the Virgin of Guadalupe and her devotees in the rural Southeastern United States has remained constant throughout the course of my studies, my methods in studying her have evolved considerably. While searching for an article for the group to read next, I realized that if I chose it carefully it could potentially showcase a particular lacuna in the field that my work hopes to fill. Continue reading

In Other Words…

Like some of you, I woke today to an email soliciting submissions for a special issue of the open access online journal Open Theology. The email opened as follows:

A person who reads texts from other religious traditions sometimes encounters what the reader understands to be a transcendent encounter with ultimacy.  Encounters with the ultimate – not only with texts but also with practices and persons – need to be taken into account theologically….

Now, I’m not going to harp on why a scholar of religion received this email but, instead, say that theologians of course have every right to pursue such lines of inquiry. That many who identify as scholars of religion yet use that old Tillichian nugget “ultimacy” is indeed a problem, I’d argue, but even that’s not what occurred to me as I first read that message. Instead, two other things dawned on me: (1) how nicely the call makes evident the second order work going on when people study other people — or the things those people produce or leave behind, such as texts, and (2) how quickly we often forget that our analysis is not simply innocent description of so-called facts on the ground. Continue reading