Dr. Roshan Abraham: Not-So-Secret Scholarly Identities

Roshan Abraham
As someone familiar with the work of our Department. Dr. Roshan Abraham knows that we appreciate the complexities of identification. Join Prof. Newton as he gets to know a bit about our 2019 Day Lecturer in the interview below. See part 1 here.

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Dr. Roshan Abraham: A Day Lecturer’s Origin Story

A picture of Roshan Abraham at a microphone speaking.

Dr. Roshan Abraham is our 2019 Day Lecturer. Prof. Newton was able to chat with him to learn a little bit more about his training and his scholarship.

We’ve heard you’ll be talking about the Bible and comics. Comics often involve origin stories. What’s your scholarly origin story?

I don’t really have a simple story about my academic training; I got to the study of religion through a very circuitous route. I’ll try to keep it brief.

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas, majoring in English and Classical Languages. When I went on to my PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania, I became interested in the ethnography of India in Greek Literature, which lead my to Apollonius of Tyana, the first century Neopythagorean sage who journeyed to India to study with the Brahmans. At the same time, I developed an interest in ancient magic, and, as luck would have it, a central part of Apollonius’ biography was the accusation of being a magos (a “magician”). At this point, all of my training was as a classicist, but, having grown up as a PK (preacher’s kid), it was hard for me not to notice similarities between Apollonius’ biography and the synoptic gospels.

 

You can learn more about Prof. Abraham’s work on the many lives of
Apollonius on the podcast, Hold That Thought.

The year I started my dissertation was the same year Annette Reed joined the religious studies department at Penn, which was on the other end of the hall from Classical Studies. Annette introduced me to the study of religion and, over the course of writing my dissertation, gave me all of my initial training in religious studies. I’d audit her courses, she’d give me reading lists, and, despite the fact that she wasn’t on my dissertation committee, she would spend countless hours discussing second temple Judaism, early Christianity, and religious studies theory and methodology. I got hooked quickly, but, since all of my religious studies training was essentially “off the books,” the likelihood of being able to continue in the field was very slim.

I was lucky, however, to have been hired at Washington University in St. Louis, jointly appointed in the Department of Classics and the Program in Religious Studies. During my time at WashU, I had so many opportunities to engage with Religious Studies, through teaching, advising, curriculum development, and professional service, and I found my disciplinary home in the academic study of religion.

Honestly, one of the many honors of having been invited to give the Day Lecture is knowing that Annette Reed is going to be your Aronov lecture in the same academic year.
I left WashU in 2016, due to a family decision to move to the DC area, and have since been following a non-traditional route in the academy. After three years of adjuncting at Georgetown, George Mason, and American University, I was hired as an advisor/instructor in American University’s First Year Program. I’m fortunate to have found a full-time position that still grants me opportunities to teach religious studies.

A gif of the A-team discussing how, "I love it when a plan comes together."

And we are fortunate to have you both visiting us here at The University of Alabama. Can you give us a little preview of what you’ll be discussing.
My talk is centered around the question: why does the Noah story have so much saliency right now in comics? The question arose after seeing three different comic book stories adapting or in some way inspired by the Biblical story of the Great Flood: Cullen Bunn and Juan Doe’s Dark Ark, Jason Aaron and r.m. Guera’s The Goddamned, and Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel, and Niko Henrichon’s Noah (the graphic novel on which the Russel Crowe movie is based). These works are not merely adaptations, however, since the visual language of comics makes these works into acts of translation. I draw on Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation as an act of creation, belonging to the after-life of a text. I’ll be looking at how the visual language of comics reveal how new layers of meaning and interpretation are added on to the text and how these layers of meaning connect with political and theological agendas. This is equally found in confessional adaptations of the bible, such as in The Action Bible and The Kingstone Bible, works that are explicitly designed for theological education and proselytization.

We look forward to hearing more!

Mark your calendars for the 2019 Day Lecture with Dr. Roshan Abraham. Tuesday, October 15, 2019 at 7:00pm in ten Hoor 30. And tune in Friday to the Study Religion blog to find out more about Dr. Abraham, his research, and his teaching. To keep up on social media, follow along at #Day2019.

 

Getting the Party Started on Syllabus Day

The first day of class can be a bit nerve-racking, even for profs. One might think that profs have it easy at the start of the semester, but we all know the importance of first impressions. And for myself, there can be a lot of anxiety around those initial activities.

  • How much of the syllabus should we read? I don’t want to bore anyone, but I don’t want students starting out lost.
  • Do we dive right into content? The semester can really fly, so there’s no time to delay. I also don’t want to scare students off or have to re-teach material for those who won’t be joining our course until the second or third class session.
  • We could do an icebreaker? I like the sentiment, yet something doesn’t feel right about this either?

There are a lot of different directions one could go on Day One. And last week I approached the start of my REL100 introductory course by working “backwards.”

I thought a bit about some of Ellie Cochran’s reflections about her time as an REL major. One thing that I kept coming back to in her blog posts was how the kinds of questions she came to ask toward the end of her time were not at all that different from the sort that many students have when they first enroll in a course. By degree’s end she had more tools  for conceptualizing and investigating these questions–leading to more and more questions. Hints of that curiosity are there from the beginning.

So how might we take advantage of that kind of curiosity from the jump?

One way to absolutely not do this is to turn the course into a study of trivia and factoids.

Choose Your own Religion Wheel: A Guide to the Savvy Convert

More than a few Religious Studies profs have one of these in their office.

I found it at Spencer Gifts gif from the Office

This is true. I found mine at the mall.

The wheel gives you data like the number of adherents, how the religion frames the afterlife, material culture, pros, cons, and a quick description of beliefs. Although all that information has its place and may be potentially interesting to students, I think they are savvy enough to know that a 15-week course on those things as an end (rather than a means) may be a lemon of an education.

So the question for me became how do I short-circuit any attempt to turn the class into a trip on the Wheel-o-Religion.

Now for whatever reason, when I think about my scholarship, I often come back took a classic Paul Mooney bit remarking on “the N-word.” Commenting on Americans’ simultaneous obsession with and aversion to talking about race, Mooney once remarked,

“Everybody wants to be a “N—–,” but nobody wants to be a N—–.”

Like many jokes, it surfaces the conditions on the way we make meaning. In the joke. In fewer than 15 words, Mooney relays an ethnographic observation to poke at the power dynamics, psychology, and history of race. I’m no comedian, but I’d be thrilled with those kind of results from a 75-minute class.

So instead of the Wheel-o-Religion, I riffed on Mooney’s bit:

“Everybody wants to talk about religion, but nobody wants to talk about religion.”

Then we broke it down, discussing the first question and then the second one.

I was pretty amazed by the depth of questions I got. The conversation was so riveting that I didn’t have time to snap a photo. I ended the class with one final discussion question:

What do we need to discuss this semester so that this course is not a waste of time?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing was how at no point did the questions turn to google-able answers. No trivia. No factoids.

So as the semester gets going. Let’s be a little a nervous. Let’s get a little curious. And let’s see where good questions take us. I hardly think that doing so would be a waste of our time.

Anakin Skywalker saying, "This is where the fun begins."

Are you a Religious Studies prof? Tell us what you did for your first day.

Grad Student Interns with Alabama Heritage Magazine

As part of the MA in Religion in Culture at UA, students attend a monthly colloquium designed to introduce them to community members seeking graduates with strong critical thinking skills. During these meetings, the Department of Religious Studies brings in individuals from within and outside of the University to share their experiences in the job market. Their presentations often focus on the ways that the tools each MA student is cultivating in their humanities courses can be useful outside of traditional academia.

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Argument Analysis: Legion v. American Humanist Association

Monica L. Waller, arguing for respondent in American Legion v. American Humanist Assoc., 2-27-19Jackson Foster is a freshman at UA, majoring in Religious Studies and History and minoring in the Blount Undergraduate Initiative and Randall Research Scholars Program. He is currently studying the intersections between law, politics, and religion in Dr. Altman’s REL130 course. This piece was originally published in High School SCOTUS, a national Supreme Court blog comprised of young students like Jackson.

The Supreme Court heard arguments last month in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a case involving a 40-foot Peace Cross situated in a Maryland public park. Before (and since) the argument, American Legion has received special attention from the constitutional scholar and layman alike. It has been enveloped in media scrutiny (see Nina Totenberg’s Cross Clash Could Change Rules For Separation Of Church And State); it is one of the first Establishment Clause cases in the Kavanaugh era, and it may spell the end of the Lemon test.

While constitutional considerations carry great weight, they miss the heart of this case. American Legion does not so much implicate the Establishment Clause or the Lemon test as it implicates American civil religion. The questions argued in the case, therefore, can be nicely distilled to one: Is the cross civil or sectarian? Continue reading

Apples and Oranges, Similar yet Different

AnnaLaura Campbell is a Junior from Bailey, MS, majoring in Accounting and minoring in Religious Studies. After graduation, she plans to attend law school and study business law or continue her education in Accounting with a master’s degree and CPA license.

We’ve heard the phrase many times in our lives: “That’s like comparing apples and oranges!” But what does it actually mean? Apples and oranges are both fruits, relatively circular, and a healthy snack, but they are distinctly different from each other when it comes to color, taste, and texture. We often use this phrase to reference the comparison of two separate entities that are seemingly similar to each other, but inherently different. We don’t just apply this idea to fruit, though; we compare people in the same way.

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The Implications of Designations

A lot of people in our field now advocate approaches that find religion either in unexpected or overlooked places. What once might have been called the implicit religion movement, at least as once associated with the work of the late Ed Bailey, has now been joined by the more-or-less related lived religion, material religion, religion on the ground, as well as the embodied religion approaches, all of which aim to identify religion in places where scholars, who have long been preoccupied with reading texts (and thereby studying what some of our literate predecessors left behind), have not found it before, often due to some sort of scholarly bias. Continue reading

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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Spotlighting Graduating MA Students

Emma Gibson and Sierra Lawson have spent the last two years developing their skills in research, social theory, and the public and digital humanities among other useful accomplishments. This spring, both students will graduate with a Master’s of Arts in Religion in Culture and plan to put their analytical tools to work as they further their education. Emma will pursue a Master’s of Architecture while Sierra earns a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. Find out what these young women have planned after graduation.

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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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