Religion Enters the Academy: The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America
by James Turner
University of Georgia Press , 2011
I lie a lot on airplanes. Not in any way that should upset the TSA or anything like that—just to the question “What do you do?” I don’t like admitting to strangers what it is I do. I’m a Ph.D. student in religious studies.
I always have a book with me when I fly because I’m always supposed to be reading something. These books are usually about religion and American history or culture. They often tip people off. A friend of mine, another religious studies Ph.D. student, tells the story of the time he was reading Isis Unveiled in a local coffee shop. He was approached by a very excited man with an interest in Theosophy and other sorts of New Thought systems who talked his ear off for an hour. My friend is Catholic and was reading the book as a bit of research for some project or another.
Gilpin points out that one of the central tasks of the historian is to track change over time and this requires some sort of chronology. How one builds that chronology, though, will depend on what one sees as the engine driving change.
In no small measure, decisions about periodization depend on the issues that a given author or group of authors have identified as the principal engines of change. Historians who link American religious history to immigration are likely to produce a different chronology from historians focused on the intersection of religion and politics, or the history of religiously motivated movements of social reform. And yet, a moment’s reflection will also suggest that these three sets of concerns display interesting chronological convergences, for example, with changes in U.S. immigration law and movements for civil rights during the 1960s.
The entire post is worth a read, but this point was especially interesting to me. As we think about the narratives we tell about religion in America, what are the engines driving our chronologies? What do they allow us to see? Where do they give us blindspots? For my current work I’d have to say “religious difference” drives the narrative. Gilpin names immigration, politics, and reform. Lately on the blog we’ve been talkinga lotaboutthemarket. Are there other engines we’ve yet to put to use? Where could they take us?
The American Academy of Religion is nearly here! Over at Religion in American History, Kelly Baker has put together a great list of panels on religion in America. Also, Kelly and I will be tweeting our observations, thoughts, and snark throughout the weekend.
Due to the limited travel budget of a Ph.D. candidate (who already spent a weekend at the ASA), I’ll only be in lovely San Francisco for Saturday and Sunday. Here are the panels I plan to check out:
First, a star studded panel on “Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions”
Each participant in this roundtable has written a monograph and/or edited a wide-ranging synthetic collection touching on religious diversity and conflict in North America. In a format emphasizing dialogue with the audience, they will reflect on the priorities, methods, and trade-offs involved in shaping such narratives. What are the optimum structuring themes? Are certain decisions about periodization and/or organization by tradition especially helpful? Do certain emerging themes need special attention? What overall logics, themes, values, or theoretical orientations offer optimum coherence (and/or productive incoherence) and structure (and/or productive lack of structure)? Such questions lead naturally toward wider discussions about the implicit structuring priorities and methods running through our field(s) at large. Overall, the panel seeks to spark a productive discussion of the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, of different underlying narratives and emphases. In this way it hopes to respond to the challenge of clarifying priorities in our field.
Theme: Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions
Thomas Tweed, University of Texas, Austin
Janet R. Jakobsen, Barnard College
R. Marie Griffith, Harvard University
Mark Hulsether, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Second, an interactive session from the Religion and Popular Culture Group:
Transmedia is the intentional distribution of related storylines or experiences all relating back to a core hub of experience, of branding, or of narrative. Transmedia includes the video games, films, books, apparel, publicity events, fan-fiction, promotions, costumes, and toys associated with a given franchise such as Halo or the Harry Potter universe, or brand names like Nike and Coca Cola. Consumers are not passive consumers of transmedia; they explore, discover, create, and transform, in some cases marketing themselves as transmediated entities. In this panel, we offer entrée into the world of transmedia via a series of short presentations describing key issues in the intersection of religion with transmedia, followed by an hour of open debate in which we will be joined via Skype by Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment and a well-known industry producer of transmedia storytelling. This discussion will show how an analysis of transmedia exposes the intimate connections between religious practice and media production, branding, and marketing.
Theme: Finding Meaning in the Space Between: Religion and Transmedia, an Interactive Panel
Mara Einstein, Queens College
J. Sage Elwell, Texas Christian University
Rubina Ramji, Cape Breton University
Ted Friedman, Georgia State University
Third, a panel on religion, sexuality, and bodies:
The construction of the category of Hinduism, in any case a complex and contested issue, is further complicated in the context of North America by the predominance of a Protestant “lens” that shapes all categories relating to religion (including, of course, the category of religion itself) and by the emergence of self-identified practitioners of Hinduism who do not identify themselves as Indian. The papers in this session will explore these issues from a variety of perspectives and with a focus on distinct phenomena related to the category of Hinduism in North America. The first paper will problematize the frequently encountered conflation of the categories of “Hindu” and “Indian” through an examination of the Hindu culture of Indo-Caribbeans in Queens, New York. The second paper will focus on the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign and the various Protestant assumptions from which this ostensibly Hindu project operates. The third paper will investigate events in American cultural history that allowed Protestants to distinguish Hinduism from other traditions, enabling them to “see” it for the first time.
Theme: Constructions of Hindu Selves and Hindu Others in North America
Michele Verma, Rice University
Indo-Caribbeans in the United States: Cracking the Conflation of “Hindu” and “Indian”
Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara
Faith on the Mat: Hindus, Protestants, and the Construction of Yoga
Michael Altman, Emory University
Sightings and Blind Spots: The “Protestant Lens” and the Construction of Hinduism
The 2011 Cliopatria Awards are now open for nominations. These awards are given out for the best bloggers, blogs, and posts in the field of history. But this year there is a new category: Best Twitter Feed. I’m not going lie, I’d love it if you nominated my feed for this award. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.