Teaching the Bible in Culture: Identifying Room for Questions Unanswered

Students doing group work.

Prof. Newton reflects on his approach to teaching the Bible in a public university. Study religion and find out about the Bible in Culture here, part 1, and in future posts.

One of my aims in my Introduction to New Testament course is to lead students in thinking carefully about the actors and drama represented in the text. As Adele Reinhartz notes, when our explanations employ terms like “Pharisee,” “Jews,” “Samaritans,” or “Romans” too assuredly, we probably have more questions to ask about what’s at play. Just as a quick point of comparison, we wouldn’t be so cavalier using terms like “the Blacks,” “the liberals,” or “the South,” especially in mixed company, right? So what is to be gained by taking these ancient typecasts at face value and without qualification?

We spend a lot of time time complicating the idea of identity. In fact, using the comparison above, students seem to have little trouble recognizing the notion of sacrosanct identity as a politically-loaded packaging of what Jean Francois Bayart termed, “operational acts of identification.” But this takes practice. Part of thinking about the “applications and traditions” associated with New Testament texts is considering the work these terms do in various first century Mediterranean scenarios.

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Always Look at Who’s Talking

A textbook chart that unironically presents how "Arabs/Muslims," 'Asians," "Blacks," "Jews," "Hispanics," and "Native Americans" respond to pain. It is titled "Focus on Diversity and Culture: Cultural Differences in Response to Pain"

Textbook chart from Nursing: A Concept Based Approach to Learning, published (then withdrawn) by Pearson

As the AAR presents its newly drafted Religious Literacy Guidelines, Sierra Lawson (BA ’17, MA ’19) and Prof. Steven Ramey return to their research on the implications of classification to raise important questions about the politics and consequences of such a framing.

Religious literacy, which typically refers to knowledge about religions, differences between religions, and diversity within each religion, can reinforce problematic claims about social groups (as evident in the chart reproduced above). Useful knowledge can easily become harmful, especially when it tends towards selective generalizations and ignores the issue of who is doing the talking.

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How Not to Reinvent Yourself

Sierra Lawson is a BA and MA graduate of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama who is now pursuing her Ph.D. in the study of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In this post she reflects on how, as a TA, she’s using a model of the field we’ve come to call the examples approach.

As someone who describes their research interests as investigating claims about Marian devotion in modern Latin America, you can imagine my surprise upon being assigned a teaching assistantship in Hebrew Bible this semester. 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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Publication News

We just got word that a paper co-written by Sierra Lawson (entering the second year of her M.A. in our Department) and Prof. Steven Ramey has been accepted to be published in the coming year in UK peer review journal Culture & Religion.

What’s it on?

Sourcing Stereotypes: Constructing and Challenging Simplified Knowledge

Abstract

The social media uproar in Fall 2017 over a nursing textbook chart that presented generalized characterizations of minority groups generated an assumption that medical training needs more Religious Studies expertise. Analyzing the sources that the chart cited, we trace the authors’ assertions to studies of varying quality and identify several specific processes involved in simplifying knowledge for dissemination, as the authors disregarded the limits of each specific study and ignored counter-evidence or otherwise evaded critical scrutiny. Comparing this example to examples from world religions discourse illustrates both differences and similarities in the process of constructing simplified presentations. While both presumably developed out of good intentions, they generate significant problems in their effort to shape material to support larger arguments. Thus, scholars across disciplines should critique and complicate their own processes for generating simplified knowledge.

 

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