“They Shall Take Up Car Keys…”

There’s a new book out about Pentecostal snake handlers in the US.

As described on the publisher’s site (click the image above to go there), the book is concerned with addressing the following question:

Despite scores of deaths from snakebite and the closure of numerous churches in recent decades, there remains a small contingent of serpent handlers devoted to keeping the practice alive…. What motivates them to continue their potentially lethal practices through the generations?

I’ve discussed these groups in classes over the years, and sometimes in my writings, since they can’t help but fascinate us. But all along it’s seemed clear to me that the interesting thing is why they interest us. Continue reading

Coming Attractions: REL 490 Capstone Senior Seminar

REL 490 is the Department’s senior seminar, that’s offered each Spring. Required of all majors, its topic regularly changes as does the professor who offers it. The goal of the course is to offer some sort of test case or example that can provide an opportunity for students with wide interests to mull over the skills that were gained throughout the degree.

This Spring it’s Prof. McCutcheon who is teaching the course and the topic is the work of Jonathan Z. Smith.

But is it…? Continue reading

How to Be Curious

Among my courses this Fall semester — starting in a little over a week — is one on theories of religion; in one way or another I’ve taught elements of a course like this many times (in fact, my intro course even touches on some of these topics), but rarely in a seminar devoted to nothing other than attempts to account for why people are religious.

So deciding what to do in the course is always something worth thinking about.
Continue reading

Pagan Rites in Space

Yes, cosmonauts apparently all pee on the back right tire of the bus that carries them to the launch pad, before they take off.

At least the guys do; but the ladies are said to bring a vial of urine to pour on the tire.

It’s a ritual. Continue reading

Making the Strange Familiar

Have you seen The Carbonaro Effect? It’s a TV show where an undercover magician does tricks in settings where people don’t expect to see magic performed, and we get to watch their reaction.

Maybe he’s working at a cash register in a grocery store and finds a live chick in the dozen eggs you’re buying or maybe he’s someone you meet in the break room at work who pulls an incredible amount of food from his little lunch bag, along with cut flowers and a vase — either way, the star of the show is the person with whom he interacts and how they try to make sense of what they’ve just witnessed. Continue reading

Skillz

empty-classroom

For sometime I’ve been concerned that the American Academy of Religion would venture into the waters of learning outcomes and assessment. But now one of its committees isĀ  working on this and its the topic of a leadership workshop, offered by the Academic Religions committee, at the upcoming annual meeting.

Continue reading

Democracy is Risky

Picture 9A couple years ago I gave a talk at Lehigh University (a lecture that became chapter 8 in a book I published not long after). The topic was on my frustration with how scholars of religion — because they define their object of study as a universally present and deeply meaningful human impulse — often assume their research is always relevant. As evidence I drew on a recent national conference where scholars of religion were encouraged to think about how their work on this or that ritual or text could contribute to solving the problem of climate change. I could just as easily have cited the program for that very annual conference (something I wrote on long ago, actually), and how the “religion and…” rubric was infinitely variable (e.g., Religion and Literature, Religion and Film, Religion and Science, Religion and Politics, Religion and Food, etc., etc.); we often presume our object of study always to be relevant because we think that it somehow points outside of, and thus before and beyond, the happenstance of history. So it is assumed to play a role in anything that happens.

The problem, though, is that we also claim to be historians, e.g., historians of religion — but, defining religion in this way, makes us historians who study the transcendental. And that’s very unhistorial if you ask me. Continue reading

Factual Assertion or Persuasive Argumentation?

scholarreadingI finally got around to reading Tom Tweed’s recent Journal of Religion essay the other day, “After the Quotidian Turn: Interpretive Categories and Scholarly Trajectories in the Study of Religion Since the 1960s.” I’ve got a paper of my own in which I argue that we should turn our attention toward studying what I’ll just call the common, so I thought I should see what Tom had to say — those who advocate for studying so-called everyday religion, such as finding a small, simple shrine in a notch on a sidewalk’s wall, or those who go looking for, say, the implicit religion of baseball, are certainly talking about rather different things than I am in my paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing what they’re all up to. Continue reading