An Introduction to Studying the Bible in Culture


Students reading the Bible and eating pizza in a seminar room.

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 on the blog over the next few days.

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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.

A Religious Studies Guide to WrestleMania

On the first page of Imagining Religion, historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes:

For the self-conscious student of religion, no datum possess intrinsic interest. It is of value only insofar as it can serve as exempli gratis of some fundamental issue in the imagination of religion.

For Smith, and I agree with him, scholars should choose particular examples as data that suit particular questions that they want to answer. In this way, the scholar of religion is not bound by “the boundaries of canon nor of community” in their pursuits. Thus, the data for religious studies is not limited to things that seem “religious” in the common use of the term. Furthermore, it is not the “religious” data that directs our research, but the larger theoretical questions that we seek to answer through the data we select.

This brings me to WrestleMania. Today WWE will put on their 35th annual WrestleMania show and I think there are three aspects of the show that could be of interest to a scholar of religion in the Smithian vein. To be clear, I don’t think a religious studies approach to WrestleMania should go find the things that seem obviously religious happening at the event, nor am I arguing that pro wrestling is also a religion. Rather, I am pointing out a few places where a scholar asking certain questions might find some data to theorize with.

So, I present a Religious Studies Guide WrestleMania 35.

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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

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

There’s No Such Thing as “Cultural Memory”

baldwin1

Matthew C. Baldwin is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, where he teaches ancient history, Biblical literature and classical Biblical languages, and method and theory for religious studies. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
Read his earlier post on cultural memory here.

Que reste-t-il de nos amours
Que reste-t-il de ces beaux jours
Une photo, vieille photo
De ma jeunesse
Que reste-t-il des billets doux
Des mois d’ avril, des rendez-vous
Un souvenir qui me poursuit
Sans cesse…

However else it may be viewed, Christopher Nolan’s film “Memento” (2000) can be read as a brilliant parable, useful to theorists interested in thinking about memory and culture. Continue reading

On “Cultural Memory”

primitive_magnetic_memory

Matthew C. Baldwin is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, where he teaches ancient history, Biblical literature and classical Biblical languages, and method and theory for religious studies. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Have you noticed the recent explosion of interest the category of “memory” among scholars of history, culture, and “religion”?

A WorldCat search of books published since 2000 in “su:Religion” turns up 522 works with the word “memory” in a title. Looking at peer reviewed journals, a search of ATLA turns up 61 articles published since 2000 in “SU Religion” including the title word “memory.” Continue reading

Narrative Constructs Culture

in god we trust bank note
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.

“Who said names were supposed to be easy to say? What are you, a candy bar?”

Picture 2Students in REL 237 are watching Avalon this week, a 1990 film about the changes that take place within a family of early to mid-20th century Americans who, like so many of our ancestors, came to this continent from somewhere else.

“I came to America in 1914…, by way of Philadelphia. That’s where I got off the boat,” says Sam, one of the film’s protagonists, recollecting an epic past for the grandchildren.

One of the reasons that I like using the film is the chapter on it that Bruce Lincoln contributed to a 1996 collection of essays, Myth & Method. If we watch the movie then we also read the chapter afterward. Continue reading