The World Cup and a Grandmother’s Blessing

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

The World Cup has been a heavily anticipated sporting event for many countries since the 1930s, representing one of those phenomenon that invite communities to abandon divisive tension in favor of coming together to cheer on the team representing their country. From Mexico to Iran and Morocco, and now even to the United States (whose team failed to qualify for this year’s tournament), families come together, huddled intimately around their television sets while someone else peers up at a large screen in a pub, surrounded only by the dull buzz of strangers also watching, each with a fermented drink of choice.

One sporting fan happened to catch my attention this season, a grandmother in a Mexican household who stood in front of her television before the Germany v. Mexico game kicked off and blessed every member of Mexico’s male soccer team as the camera focused in on each of their faces during the national anthem. She even made sure to bless the goalie twice, you know, just to be absolutely sure! The video, a screenshot of which is featured above, was widely circulated on social media the other day, with many proclaiming that there is nothing more precious or pure than a grandma’s blessing.

I have to wonder, would a scholar of Latin American religion classify this video as an example of “religious devotion” or treat it as a silly anomaly to be excluded from the archive? In my experience, traditionally Catholic devotees often get overrepresented in scholarship while individuals who demonstrate devotion in nontraditional ways, such as this grandmother blessing players on her television, are left out of the record because their actions are not really religious. Yet, I’m not sure where we are demarcating really religious behavior from not really religious behavior, because such scholars hardly ever reveal what they mean by ‘religion’ and, thus, a reader is unable to imagine a spectrum of what qualifies as religious.

It seems that many scholars are quick to ignore devotional behavior that does not fit within their definition of religion, without ever realizing that they do not even have one, which means that examples such as this grandmother become marginalized, inspiring only a chuckle in most viewers, without any explanation as to why.

On the Worlds We Conceive Within Ourselves…

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

I recently saw an advertisement that featured two lungs, one healthy and another almost unrecognizable as a human organ. This reminded me of a similar comparison at a summer camp I once attended where they showed us a cow’s lung that had supposedly been exposed to a great deal of smoke. While both demonstrations had different end goals, the former to combat second hand smoke and the latter to scare young children into never considering a smoke, they required similar ontological assumptions from their audiences. Chiefly, the assumption that seeing how our actions outside our corpus have effects on inner organs, but also the subsequent assumption that seeing these consequences will galvanize us into healthier habits or, at the very least, aversion to particular substances. Continue reading

I am NOT bad at parking

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

Most mornings, I arrive on campus in the wee hours so I can get to my office before the day warms up and I, no doubt, become a sweaty mess. This means when I park in the faculty deck, it is usually devoid of other cars and I easily pull into a spot, pack up my things, pop in my headphones and head off on my merry way. Prior to leaving my lovely 1997 Ford Explorer, I usually try to give its surroundings a quick look to make sure it is parked within the lines. Yet when I return to the parking deck in the late afternoon, and the lot is FULL of other cars, my butter-colored vehicle stands out—and not just because of its shade.

You see, in the morning, when there are no other cars around, it is very easy to convince myself that I have done a fine job at parking. Yet, when my parking job is juxtaposed to 40 other parked cars it becomes painfully obvious that, even though my car is in the lines, it is not parked particularly well. But, despite the fact that my bumper often sticks out or my tires are turned, I still maintain that I am NOT bad at parking.

For if being ‘bad at parking’ means you lack the ability to park a car in an outlined spot, then you’d have to agree that I am a great parker! Yet, if we take being a ‘good parker’ to mean that you are able to situate your car in an aesthetically pleasing manner between various other cars, all of which are themselves in their spots in a variety of creative ways, then maybe I don’t quite qualify as a ‘not-bad’ parker.

All this is to say: my parking may be judged poor, but only in relation to the context that someone else later builds around it.

Marian Apparitions: Religious Ephemera and Politics of Classification

Sierra Lawson, an MA student in the Department of Religious Studies, led our most recent journal group and has some reflections on the reading, Learn more about her work here.

In the Religion in Culture M.A. program, our monthly journal group has created a space in which graduate students can engage with faculty, beyond just their advisor, regarding their individual interests–interests that, ideally, will be reflected in their eventual thesis. While my focus on the Virgin of Guadalupe and her devotees in the rural Southeastern United States has remained constant throughout the course of my studies, my methods in studying her have evolved considerably. While searching for an article for the group to read next, I realized that if I chose it carefully it could potentially showcase a particular lacuna in the field that my work hopes to fill. Continue reading

What’s in a Name?

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

Advertisements have become increasingly common on social media platforms, sometimes with particularly chilling accuracy in regards to the consumer traits we reflect in daily conversations (I’m looking at you, Instagram). One recent advertisement has stood out to me, a product/service named “Brandless” claiming to be “Better Everything. For Everyone.”

What does it mean to have a brand claiming to be ‘brandless’, as demonstrated by their name? Their logo (below), as simple as it may appear, is still a logo attempting to embed itself into the minds of possible consumers and establish a profitable relationship. It seems to me that the creators of this ‘brandless’ brand of products and services are attempting to create an absence yet fail to recognize that the absence of presence is still a presence. In other words, in order to depart from an ideal you must, inevitably, reaffirm the prior existence of this ideal and thereby establish a relationship with it. For if the ideal itself did not previously exist, then how could opposition come about?

So, you don’t have a concept of ‘brandless’ without the concept of a ‘brand’ – and ‘Brandless’ is just another competitor in the evolving marketplace of brands.

The New Triple Threat: Programming Omeka

You may have seen this tweet. As part of the Public Humanities and Religious Studies foundations course in our MA program, I collaborated with Sierra Lawson and Emma Gibson and helped to build AARtifacts. The project was built in Omeka and is meant to represent interesting artifacts gathered from people’s experiences of the annual American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting. So why did we choose to do this project? And how did we make it happen?

We went in knowing two things: the AAR was our case study for the semester and Omeka would be our platform for this particular project. A couple of brainstorming sessions later, we had decided to collect items from the faculty in our own department and create collections based on what we received. Sierra took on the task of trawling YouTube and Vimeo for relevant videos. Emma took the lead on scanning all of the old bulletins of from the academy. I photographed all of the physical items — tote bags and buttons, mainly. Altogether we had more than 100 items to catalogue.

Then came the part that actually involved Omeka. Omeka has a plugin that, ideally, should be able to upload a CSV document and separate your items automatically. This means that instead of entering each of those 100 items by hand, we’d be able to enter them seamlessly from the spreadsheet we had all contributed to. Except it didn’t work.

screen shot of slack conversation

Obviously this was a source of frustration for all of us. We had used the spreadsheet format trusting that it would upload with no or minimal problems. So as Sierra and Emma started entering the items individually (mad props to them for being willing to do that), I went digging. I needed an answer.

The first problem I had to address was that Mike (our professor and the host of the project) would receive a detailed error message and all I got was “Omeka has encountered an error.” After a few clicks and some light googling, I was able to 1) make some files appear in Mike’s file manager that were hidden for the purpose of being more user friendly and 2) fix a line of code that allowed Omeka to read error messages to me. Now I was able to at least find out what the problem was.

After another couple of hours of trying to make the plugin work, failing, digging to find out what the error was, and even more googling — it sounds much more straightforward than it actually was — I found the problem. All I needed to do was enter the right path for the command line in the right line of code of the right file and ta-da it would work. I went back to Mike, let him know, and asked him to find the path I needed to enter. A few days passed (I later found out it was because he was waiting for me to finish my thesis proposal) and he sent me the path. He had already had it for another error he had encountered earlier on in his domain configuration.

I fixed it. I entered the path in the right line of code and it worked! Sierra and Emma had already entered almost 70 of the items and I was able to get the rest in that afternoon. After some tweaking and cleaning up from Mike, we have the project you see now.

So here’s why I bring any of this up in the first place: I had no idea that the one computer science class I took a few years ago as a math major would help me with a project in the humanities in grad school. But it did. I don’t know PHP, but I know the basics of reading code and can identify errors with a little bit of work. Maybe the new triple threat is a student who can not only think critically, but also work collaboratively and fix broken code.

Cross posted on Sarah’s website.

The REL Journal Group: Health or Perceived Health Benefits

The following exchange between Prof. Russell McCutcheon and Sierra Lawson, a graduate student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of REL’s monthly journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Russell: Sierra, in your undergrad here at UA you did a double major in Anthropology and Religious Studies, and I know that you have an interest in medical anthropology. So presumably that helped direct your choice of this article for our journal group (written by our UA colleague, Jason DeCaro, a faculty member here in the Department of Anthropology) and one of their recent doctoral grads, Becky Read-Wahidi)? Continue reading

Barometers in the Field: Another Student Report from the Regional AAR

Sierra Lynn Lawson is an Anthropology and Religious Studies double major and a Spanish minor. She is from a small town in Wyoming and hopes to study the illegality of midwifery in Alabama as it relates to post-civil war identity formation.

I was most pleased with my experience at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) because it provided me with the opportunity to see what is, and what is not, happening in the academic study of religion. As someone completing a B.A. this Spring and entering an M.A. program in the Fall, I believe the connections I made at SECSOR could be foundational to the work I hope to do in the near future.

Outside of attending panels such as ‘Religion and Ecology’, ‘Ethics, Wellbeing and Sexuality’, and another looking at narratives of Utopia and Dystopia, I made a point to be present at less-formal meetings, such as meals for marginalized groups. My method for choosing specific panels, and events, was to seek out individuals exploring critical issues of authorship, identity formation and representation in their work.

The majority of the conference was based around research reflecting Christian theological endeavors. As SECSOR is co-hosted by the Society of Biblical Literature, this was not particularly surprising. While Christian theology is on the opposite end of where I would place my academic interests on of the spectrum of religious scholarship, I found its presence critical to understanding of the current state of the field.

One of my peers, Parker Evans, was presenting his own undergraduate research regarding the influence of nationalism on Heidegger’s thought. Upon mentioning that he was from the University of Alabama before his presentation, the chair for the undergraduate panel replied that Parker was “…probably from the most South out of all of us”. While this was an erroneous comment in terms of literal geography, because many Floridian and Georgian schools were also attending the conference, in my mind it summoned all sorts of interesting discussions about where we draw boundaries for the ‘South’.

Similarly – it seemed academic approaches to religion also negotiate specific margins constituting different means to more or less critical ends. The name-dropping of Russell McCutcheon seemed to serve as a barometer measuring self-alliance with the study of religion as its own category. Academics from Emory to Florida State proudly displayed their loyalty to McCutcheon’s work and specific paradigms, and I chuckled at the serious tone they adopted when speaking of the man whose office I find myself in more often than my own living room. I knew McCutcheon was somewhat of a polarizing figure in the field, but I had never seen a group of people adhere so stringently to another individual as a euphemism for the paradigms they themselves operate from.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were academics who seemed to consider themselves, or their work, to lie outside of phenomena which is ‘fair game’ for data. From personal conversations I was aware of Dr. McCutcheon’s critique of Mircea Eliade, and was utterly dumbfounded by academics who counterintuitively avoided investigating  the obvious connection between their critical inquiries and their own predispositions or desires.

I consider the humanities to be integral to understanding the implicit and explicit intentions, which inform interactions between members of society as well as the phenomena they invest meaning into. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to find other individuals aligning with this mentality as students flock to majors providing a straightforward map for entering the work force.

The funding I received from both the University of Alabama, as well as the Amy Lynn Petersen Endowed Support fund within the Department of Religious Studies, provided me with the opportunity to travel to Raleigh, NC for the regional conference for the American Academy of Religion. At the SECSOR I engaged with fellow aspiring academics, as well as individuals who are well established in academia and known for their scholarship. I am forever indebted to the generous contributions, for without the connections I made at the conference I fear I may have never expanded my horizons to appreciate the field of Religious Studies, as it exists in its contemporary form, as well as the role I might play in it.