Often in the study of religion you’ll hear people saying things like “I don’t do theory” (yes, there’s often an emphasis on the verb, akin to saying “I don’t do [insert something with which you disagree or dislike]) or maybe you’ll come across a conversation on when to introduce theory to undergraduate students — right from their first course or, fearing that will alienate them from the field, only doing so later, “once they’ve already got the basics,” as some will say.
There’s a real conservatism embedded here that’s tough for some to see, what with the prominence of assuming that, for good or ill, there’s a variety of discrete things in the world that are just naturally called religions, comprising the defining trait of different groups of people who all interact in various ways with each other or their surrounding circumstances. And so, studying those traits, their expression, and those interactions constitutes the study of religion — at least for some. Continue reading →
In his comment on the recent JAAR cover, Jack Llewellyn made reference to the caption (pictured above) that appears on the inside table of contents, in the current issue, which describes the photo in question.
I admit that I had not paid attention to any of this until I read his comment. And so what then caught my attention in that caption was the manner in which the seemingly descriptive voice can be far from merely descriptive. Continue reading →
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 →
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.
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.
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 →
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 is working on this and its the topic of a leadership workshop, offered by the Academic Religions committee, at the upcoming annual meeting.
A 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 →