Knowing Your Roots

Last week I sat down to chat with Dr. Richard Newton, a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies who recently joined us from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Originally from Texas, Professor Newton lived on each coast before making his way to The University of Alabama. This semester, he’s teaching a course on Islam, advising the Religious Studies Student Association (RSSA), and, next semester, will be teaching a graduate course on this history of the field along with an intro to the New Testament.

Dr. Newton’s work is interested in evaluating how cultural texts or scriptures, can inform a sense of individual and group identity. Currently, he is working on his first book, Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures, and hopes it will be available for purchase within the next year. Continue reading

Faculty Reading Group: Transitions

On page 117, in the essay entitled “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination,” we read the following:

But if my hypothesis is correct, there can be no such thing as a non-relativistic representation of historical reality, inasmuch as every account of the past is mediated by the language-mode in which the historian casts his original description of the historical field prior to any analysis, explanation, or interpretation he may offer of it.

We read this classic Hayden White piece (originally published in History and Theory, Vol. 14/4 Beiheft 14: Essays on Historicism [1975]: 48-67) in a faculty reading group in our Department last Friday, that met for the first time, during lunch. I’ve not read the essay for years; yes, I first went looking for what I’d previously underlined in my copy of the book but the above sentence jumped out at me for the first time (to be honest, it was only when a colleague quoted it during our discussion, which made me flip through some pages looking for it). For, as I later elaborated, in agreement with another colleague who detected some curious ambiguity in White’s essay, this sentence nicely captures his place as a transitional figure.

For at least with some of us who have been influenced by his work, reading that sentence now seems to be just a little unsatisfactory since it reads as oddly conservative, and thus not nearly as radical as it likely read forty years ago. Continue reading

The Myth of Charismatic Visionaries

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Let’s play a game

Which one of these quotes is from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, writing just the other day, and which is from William James, the American psychologist of religion, writing well over 100 years ago? Continue reading

Putting the “Religion” in “American Religion”

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Craig Prentiss is a professor of religious studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of, Staging Faith: Religion and African American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II (NYU 2014).

 

On Thursday, June 4, I took a flight from Kansas City, Missouri to Indianapolis to attend the Fourth Biennial Conference on Religion American Culture hosted by the the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture at IUPUI. Though it was the fourth incarnation of the conference, it was the first time I had attended. Historians and sociologists made up the majority of participants (some of them situated in religious studies departments), mixed in with a few anthropologists, a couple of theologians, and even a political scientist! Sandwiched between two receptions, the conference took place over two days and consisted of eight sessions—attended by all conference participants—lasting an hour and a half each. Three panelists per session were asked to present short narratives on their assigned topics before opening questions and discussion to the audience. The format succeeded in helping to generate spirited and valuable conversation.

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How Not to Be a Senior Scholar

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I remember almost two years ago when American historian Edmund Morgan died. I had read Morgan’s Visible Saints as part of my doctoral exams but, not being a historian by training or researching the colonial period, I hadn’t read much else of his work. But after his death I read a lot about Morgan. I read stories from his graduate students, from his colleagues, and from scholars who had come into contact with the man one way or another. It seemed like every historian of a certain generation had some story about him.

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Meet the Press

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Our own Dr. Merinda Simmons recently published a book, titled Changing the Subject: Writing Women Across the African Diaspora. In this post, she sat down for an interview to discuss the book, her work, and its relations to the academic study of religion.

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“How Old is That?”

fossilAmong the assorted knick-knacks that line my office’s shelves—ranging from such relics as photos of friends and family or gifts I’ve accumulated over the years to a selection of tattered romance novels shelved long ago among my books by mischievous students—is a nicely matted and framed “fossil” of Knightia, a long extinct genus of small boney North American freshwater fish, dating to more than 35 million years ago (or what scientists know as the Eocene epoch), and which was recovered from the well-known (to fossil hunters, at least) Green River Formation in southwestern Wyoming.

I bought it one summer, heavy wooden frame and all, about ten years ago in a gift shop in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, at the same time that I purchased for my Department’s library a number of other so-called artifacts, such as the stereotypical dancing Shiva statue and the Thai-styled bust of Buddha, complete with its intricately carved curls. (What a disappointment when people learn I got these in Iowa City!) I never anticipated writing about my framed piece of sedimentary rock that, for whatever reason, has found a home among the Cs in my shelving taxonomy (yes, I shelve books by author’s surname, so?), though I have often used it in classes to illustrate a point or two about discourses on origins; I now realize that this rock might have some uses outside of the classroom. Continue reading

Working Miracles

black-jesus-sacredDid you catch Bart Ehrman’s interview about his new book on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” the other day?

No? Then have a listen.

While there’s lots here to consider if we want to entertain what a truly critical, historical study of religion might look like, what a critical approach to how we talk about the past would look like — one that avoids anachronism, as if we can read back present day identities into the dim past — and even what it means for a scholar to “go public” with his or her research, consider just this one response to Terry Gross‘s question, beginning at 3:41 of the interview; Ehrman replies:

Well, what I argue in the book is that during his lifetime, Jesus himself didn’t call himself God and didn’t consider himself God…

So, at least judging by book sales, we have here one of the most famous current scholars of the New Testament telling us what a textual figure about whom we know nothing other than what we learn in a small number of ancient writings by a variety of subsequent authors who, of course, all had their own agendas in creating their narratives, writings that are themselves copies of copies of copies, and so on, and so on, that, yes, are the results of subsequent editors and copyists with agendas of their own, and so on, and so on…, telling listeners what he thinks this figure actually thought and actually said about himself.

“Jesus saw himself as…”? Really?

Is this what the work of a historically nuanced, critical, i.e., non-theological, scholar of religion looks like? (Better question: Is this what it inevitably looks like when writing for a mass audience?) For although Ehrman aims to be a rigorous historian — something he stresses in the interview, such as when he tells Gross, a little later

… there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer.

— telling us what you think a character we only know from texts actually said and really thought sounds an awful lot to me like something other than doing history. For, as I understand writing history, to do so requires a time traveling, mind-reading miracle — but he repeatedly rules miracles as out of bounds for an historian.

So, if it wasn’t a miracle, then just how did we move so quickly from what is nothing more or less than a discourse on the character (the Jesus sign, as Bill Arnal phrased it in what I take to be a far more rigorously histrorical work on the same topic) to an actual historical actor whose thoughts we can somehow know? How did we transcend time and space to get to answers to the old “What did Shakespeare mean…?” question so easily, in only the first minutes of an interview that’s over half and hour long? For I’d hate to speculate on what my grandfather really thought about this or that, let alone what my 21 year old self might have thought, much less a character diversely portrayed in a collection of ancient texts who, though profoundly important to many today, is — at least for the critical student of religion — still just a character in a collection of texts.

(By the way, was that the “right” picture of Jesus for this post?
Perhaps you see my point…?)