Symposium Recap

Last week, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at Gorgas Library. Students from Religious Studies courses collaborated with advisors on written projects before presenting their work at the event. The unique topics, challenging question-answer portion, and free coffee made for a refreshing Friday morning. Professors, alumni, MA students, and undergraduates used social media to keep up with the event.

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Alabama-Greece Initiative Lecture Coming Up

On Wednesday, March 6th, the Department of Religious Studies will be hosting Prof. Ioannis Xydopoulos from Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece. His visit is part of the Alabama-Greece Initiative, a program that promotes relationships between American and Greek scholars. Beginning in 2010 and sponsored by the University of Alabama College of Arts and Sciences, the initiative encourages the exchange of students and faculty for study abroad, research, and guest lectures.

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Culture on the Edge: An Origin Story

Last week, Professors Steven Ramey and Vaia Touna sat down to discuss their involvement with the Culture on the Edge research group and blog, along with their two book series. Though the discussion was intended to focus on Prof. Touna’s recent addition to the published series, it naturally led to a conversation on the implications of fabricating origins and identity.

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Prof. Crews — Outside the Classroom

Prof. Emily Crews, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, recently joined us as an instructor in the Department of Religious Studies.  After serving two years as a volunteer in Namibia, she carried out fieldwork in Chicago Pentecostal churches. Currently, she teaches REL 105 Honors Introduction to the Study of Religion and REL 360 Religion in Pop Culture while she finishes her Ph.D. dissertation.

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A Visit to Montgomery Museums

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL commemorates all documented cases of lynching in America. Each metal pillar is engraved with the victims’ names and the county where the crime took place.

Several weeks ago, along with Prof. Ramey, Caity Bell, Savanah Finver, and Keely McMurray (all first-year MA students in the study of religion) took the two hour drive to Montgomery, AL, to explore a variety of historical representations in museums and memorials. They began their tour at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice before visiting the Legacy Museum and finishing at the Alabama State Archives Museum. Continue reading

The Book Event – As Told in Pictures

Last Thursday, the Religious Studies Department hosted its second annual book event at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in downtown Tuscaloosa. The refreshments and cozy ambiance created the perfect atmosphere for any book lover to mingle and browse the store. Professors, students, and even Tuscaloosa locals joined us to discuss Prof. Ramey‘s and Prof. Loewen‘s recently published books.

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Disconnecting Truth from Free Speech

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

Harry Potter, or in human form Daniel Radcliffe, is currently acting in an off-Broadway play titled The Lifespan of a Fact. Timely and satirical, the play posits a contemporary political pastime of major and minor news agencies across the world: fact-checking truth. Perhaps the more important question one might ask today is: is there truth out there to be found by all these fact checkers? For Radcliffe, there are no magic wands, no all-knowing Hermione Grangers and no easy answer to this question as he portrays the dedicated fact checker. Tim Teemen in his review of this play for the Daily Beast explains that the play is about “what counts as fact and the perception of fact in what we read and visually and aurally consume every day.”

On stage, Daniel Radcliffe works to fact-check an article by a well-known journalist about a horrific suicide in 2002 when a sixteen-year-old jumped off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.  This real story and actual journalistic attempt was in the “fact-check” phase for seven years before it was finally killed as a story for Harper’s Magazine due to journalistic disagreements.  The story was finally published in the form of a book seven years after the actual event and then became the subject of this play exploring the discourse of the narrative flow in non-fiction true event’s writing.

The United States is currently at war with itself in terms of what free speech is and whether free speech and truth are the same. The illusion is that free speech, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, is equal to “truth”. Civics teachers have been emphasizing for years that it is our right and that we need to honor each other’s right to speak our truths.  What wasn’t emphasized was that “truth” and “free speech” are not equal.  This is not a new argument either in popular culture or in academic scholarship. Roland Barthes a major French literary theorist wrote about the nature of linguistic meaning and one of his explorations dealt with the multiplicity/plurality of meanings. Barthes is talking about literature and scholarship but the implication is that “meanings” are complex and are affected by time, relationships and authors. Is there such a thing as “truth”? Does the designation of “fact” make the item “true”? Can we trust the fact-checkers in the media when as Pierre Bourdieu stated in his text On Television (1996), “we are getting closer to the point where the social world is primarily described—and in a sense prescribed—by television.”

Journalists work for companies, whether as print journalists or televised journalists, which are owned and sponsored by moneyed operatives or corporations. Television and print medium fans have their own “teams” in terms of what news outlet they support or champion and as long as their “truth” is espoused, they continue to watch or read.  Journalists are writers and writers like to have their work read or seen by a wide audience.  Whether it is fiction or non-fiction there is always tension about what literary license means when presenting truth. With fiction, the author expects the reader to come along for the ride and agree that there is plausibility in the story. With non-fiction, the author still has a desire to present the material in a literary form so that the reader will want to read the article or book, assured that the facts of the story are being presented.

The conundrum is that the reading/watching audience are operating with a set of truths that, as Barthes would argue, are complex and layered and from individual to individual may not, over time, relate to each other except as a demonstration of how complex truth actually is. No matter how hard the fact-checkers work or how long they pursue their goal, what is presented in the end by that news outlet will not be received by everyone as “truth”. The new term “fake news” used today has nothing to do with the veracity of an article or item. It is used to combat journalism that one doesn’t like.

Harry Potter had to deal with “fake news” too, put out by The Daily Prophet. At least he had a magic wand to deal with his “truth” issues. Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact has no magic wand and unfortunately, his character cannot guarantee his outcome as truth either.

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

The Conference: A Response

By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in American Religious Cultures at Emory University. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

The other day I was listening to the recent Dept. of Religious Studies podcast about conferences, more specifically about the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (the national conference for our field’s main professional organization) and SECSOR (the Southeastern regional AAR conference). While listening to this podcast, I related to many of the comments and experiences discussed. But before I get ahead of myself…, for those who haven’t heard it yet, here’s a few spoilers: “The Conference” considers the perspectives of Prof. Laura Levitt, an established scholar who was recently the 15th Aronov Lecturer at UA, and REL major Sierra Lawson (soon to be one of REL’s first MA students) and REL major Parker Evans, both burgeoning academics within Religious Studies. So I thought I’d offer my two cents as a person stuck somewhere in the middle of that spectrum (having just completed my M.A. and about to start my own Ph.D. degree at Emory). While I’m certainly still very early career myself, perhaps this can be a helpful guide to those just starting out. Continue reading

Profs. Simmons and Altman Talk About the New MA Degree

Have you heard about the Religions Studies Project? It’s a great website and podcast based out of the United Kingdom. This week they are featuring a podcast episode with Profs. Mike Altman and Merinda Simmons all about our new Religion in Culture master’s degree program.

Give it a listen and learn about our new program. We’re still accepting applications!