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

Agency, Structure, and the Myth of the Immaculate Perception

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National Public Radio on the weekend played a story (an interview with Neal Gabler, the author of an Atlantic article on the same topic) about how hard many in the US have it economically. Continue reading

Our Highest Ideals

Picture 6I recall a close friend, almost 30 years ago, to whom I asked the following often-heard question, when they’d just had their first child:

Is he a good baby?

His reply?

We don’t believe in making moral judgments about our child.

I admit that the answer came as a bit of a surprise, since I was simply interested in knowing if the baby was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok; but, sure, after I thought about it for a moment, it was pretty evident that the old “good baby” trope wraps up an awful lot of unstated things and I had asked it pretty unthinkingly. After all, I could have just inquired if he was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok.

I thought of that exchange yesterday when I first read through the American Academy of Religion’s draft statement on responsible research, posted online for member commentary. (Click the graphic to read it.) Continue reading

The Eternal Return All Over Again

Picture 8I wrote a post recently in which I critiqued a new book by Brent Plate, saying it (along with other developments in the field, such as the turn toward so-called embodied or lived religion) was evidence that the work of Eliade was still representative of the field, no matter how much distance some may claim separates us today from when he first wrote many of his now famous studies in the history of religions (that is, back in the 1950s). I was lucky enough to have Brent comment on the post and a brief back-and-forth resulted, during which he posted the following comment:

I may be an unwitting Eliadean. So be it.

Continue reading

Classifying Classification in the Study of Religion

dandelionsclassificationSo ends the late Charles J. Adams‘s classic entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica on the topic of “Classification of Religions.” Or consider the Encyclopedia of Religion‘s own entry on the same topic (not updated in the second edition), this time written by the late Harry B. Partin — which concludes as follows: Continue reading

“Well I Guess the Biggest Question Would Be Why…”

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“It is the fact that we have been preoccupied for a long time with finding in this seamless web of human activities the capacity to break one out and say ‘When they’re doing that one they’re doing religion’…”

Watch the video here:

This interview with Prof. Smith was conducted by Prof. Alfred F. Benney, of Fairfield University, while attending the annual AAR/SBL in Boston, MA, on November 21, 1999.

The Difficult Art

Picture 4“What we labor at together in college is the production of individuals who know not only that the world is far more complex than it first appears, but also that, therefore, interpretative decisions must be made, decisions of judgment which entail real consequences for which one must take responsibility, from which one may not flee by the dodge of disclaiming expertise. This ultimately political quest for paradigms, for the acquisition of the powers and skills of informed judgment, for the dual capacities of appreciation and criticism, might well stand as the explicit goal of every level of the college curriculum. The difficult art of making interpretative decisions and facing up to their full consequences ought to inform each and every course, each and every object of study. This is the work of education, it is also the work of the world and of life. Let students and the public and, above all, the faculty be told this clearly. This is the only sort of work for which college trains. It is more than enough.”

– from Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Puzzlement” (1986), republished in On Teaching Religion (2013: 127; edited by Christopher Lehrich)

 

No Chili Peppers

shotsfiredThere’s a bit of a controversy brewing in social media over a new review essay published in the our field’s main peer review periodical, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, on the book, On Teaching Religion, edited by Chris Lehrich and containing some of the writings on pedagogy by Jonathan Z. Smith.

The reviewer, a onetime student of Smith’s, reflects on her own experience in his classes, as an undergrad at the University of Chicago in the late-1990s, in order to identify the gaps (i.e., inconsistencies or maybe even contradictions) she now finds, looking back, between the teacher and the writer. Continue reading

The Messy Ephemera of Day-to-Day Life

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By Melanie Williams
Melanie printed her diploma on sheepskin using an HP OfficeJet 6500, the beast of home printers. The diploma states that she graduated in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies. Since then she has been a cook, server, deckhand, goat milker, office assistant, and general itinerant laborer. Tomorrow she will mend the fence (it makes the neighbors better.)

I don’t know what it’s like to be a college freshman today but I still like to pretend I can empathize – I walked into my first class unsure that I could stand the gaff, but hoping to glean some particle of cerebral sublimation just by breathing in the atmosphere of all that erudition, like a contact high.  I could wax nostalgic now about my subsequent years and the candles I extinguished with my mind, the epiphanous power of staring at a diagram of Crow kinship structure, or the life-altering effects of the countless times I heard some permutation of this: Continue reading