June 22 2018

Raj Balkaran, University of Toronto, editor

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters

Teaching a religion’s favorite stories is an excellent way of teaching what that religion most values. In understanding a religious tradition’s most cherished stories, we come to intimately understand that tradition even when the stories appear ancillary to the heart of the matter. For example, the story of the king relayed at the outset of this article serves merely a framing device to the acts of the Goddess themselves, a device dismissed outright over the past 150 years of scholarship on the Devī Māhātmya as a flimsy means of latching the Goddess’s glories into the larger mythological fabric of the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa in which the text is couched. However, my research demonstrates the rich utility of taking seriously the frame narrative for grappling with the Goddess’s glories. These findings are forthcoming in a book to be published fall 2018, in Routledge’s Hindu Studies Series and entitled The Goddess and the King in Indian Myth. Suffice is to say that framing stories is crucial for understanding an Indian text, even when that text is received as more philosophical than mythological in nature. An excellent example is to be found in the Upaniṣads.

Steven E. Lindquist, Southern Methodist University

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

Prior to the last couple decades, detailed discussion of Upaniṣadic narrative in scholarship was rare and even looked upon with a degree of suspicion or dismissal; linguistic and philosophical interests dominated the literature. More recently, though, such narratives have started to receive more serious treatment as narratives. Olivelle, Brereton, Black, Grinshpon, and I have analyzed different stories or different themes across those stories. While I can only speak anecdotally, this previous suspicion towards Upaniṣadic narrative has never held for the undergraduate religious studies classroom, though a bias towards the doctrinal or philosophical persists. The Upaniṣads, like the Bhagavad Gītā, are texts that must be approached in Hindu studies’ classes, even if cursorily (generally with more consideration than the Vedas if less than the Epics or later literature). Given the fundamental place of the Upaniṣads in Hindu religious history—as our first discussions of karma and liberation as well as taken as the "culmination of the Vedas" by many within the tradition—Upaniṣadic narratives are commonly utilized in the classroom. But unlike the Gītā and the Epics more broadly, the norm for including Upaniṣadic narratives seems to be primarily as side examples meant to ease students into some of the difficulties of grappling with Upaniṣadic ideas. This is, at least to some degree, reasonable: the narratives can be enjoyable, even humorous, and the expository passages of the Upaniṣads are difficult to grapple with even for a specialist, let alone an undergraduate student. Moreover, the narratives in the Upaniṣads easily lend themselves to the role of examples (and they have done so often enough in the Hindu tradition itself) since the majority of the Upaniṣads' contents are explicitly portrayed as difficult to understand.

Hillary Rodrigues, The University of Lethbridge

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

I wish to discuss three strategies that I have implemented utilizing narrative to enhance the textbook experience in the study of Hinduism. I have been teaching an introductory semester-long course in the Hindu tradition for about twenty-five years. By the end of each year of my first decade of teaching, my students and I were roundly disappointed with the various textbooks we had used in the course that year. Although well written and bursting with promise, the books were not well received by my students. They were often too chock-full of information, discussing dozens of minor Hindu sects and with needless references to scholars and their conflicting theories. Closer scrutiny revealed why they had initially appealed to me: they were partly written for the author’s peers, namely, the professor who chooses the course texts, and not for the novice students who must slog their way through those poor choices. It is only when I accepted the offer to write a textbook of my own, Hinduism – The eBook, that I fully appreciated the reason why so many textbooks fail: when crafting the text, it took sustained effort to keep my intended student audience constantly front and center, because I was perennially concerned about how my peers would evaluate my competence. Such fears are healthy if they enhance the quality of one’s work. However, they undoubtedly and unfortunately lead authors to include materials—such as the names of fellow academics and their cutting-edge debates, or erudite references to innumerable sectarian variations—which are largely irrelevant in the initial stages of the study of any religious tradition.

Jeffrey M. Brackett, Ball State University

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

Teaching an introductory course on Hinduism presents a number of pedagogical challenges, not least of which is the selection of the course readings. This situation is not unique to instructors of Hindu traditions, as faculty across disciplinary subfields will attest. Of course, readings ought also to align with course goals and learning outcomes, and they should effectively integrate assignments appropriately scaffolded to facilitate said goals. Beyond these issues, one need also to consider one’s institutional location: department, college, university, and community goals, mission, and expectations. On top of that, pedagogical choices ought also to negotiate the social locations of the students and their educational backgrounds (i.e., Is this their only course in religious studies? What is their major? How far along are they in their college experience?). Far from being an exhaustive list, these issues are intended simply to indicate the complexities facing instructors of introductory courses. I tend also to include two other elements: (1) Narratives, such as ethnographic accounts or novels; and (2) At least one assignment that is “self-referential” (more on that below), or, as many students say, “relatable.” The first element tends to de-exoticize the course content, in part, by challenging Orientalism, essentialism, and sweeping metanarratives that call for historical—and other—contextualizing details.

Elizabeth M. Rohlman, University of Calgary

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

A few years ago, there was a panel at the Annual Meeting of the AAR entitled “Teaching Eastern Religions in Western Classrooms.” The panelists included individuals whom I respect tremendously as scholars and gifted teachers, and whom I count as friends. But the commonality of the panelists was that they taught at undergraduate institutions in small “college towns” to student bodies that were, for the most part, racially and ethnically homogenous. I struggled to relate to the framing of this panel. In Calgary, my undergraduate classes are populated by roughly sixty-to-seventy percent South Asian students. These students range from fifth- or sixth-generation Canadians, descended from the Sikh labourers who built the Canada Pacific Railway in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to students who are, like me, “New Canadians,” the rather endearing term the Canadian government uses for immigrants. I wondered, while at this panel, should the students in my classes be considered “Western” or “Eastern”? Even more precisely, I wondered whether the Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam my students practice in their Canadian homes should be considered “Eastern” or “Western” religions. Ultimately, I wondered: how should we define this distinction? The teaching reflections that follow represent the evolution of my own teaching since arriving in Calgary a decade ago; but more broadly, they represent an attempt to reframe our pedagogical assumptions so that we might move away from the highly racialized and unnecessarily exoticized assumption that professors of Hindu studies are necessarily teaching a homogenous group of white, largely Christian, students about the non-white, mysterious “other.”

Shana Sippy, Centre College and Carleton College

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

When we introduce students to sacred texts, we often begin with what scholars and historians consider the canonized version of classics. While this approach has many virtues, especially when augmented by other tellings, it commonly fails to convey how people actually receive and engage with texts in lived religious contexts.

Growing up, children are rarely first introduced to religious narratives through the “official” versions of sacred text but, rather, they imbibe them through bedtime stories, comic books, and videos. Stories are recounted during pujas (worship services) and festival celebrations, encountered in visual representations, devotional songs, visits to temples, and as part of religious instruction. In all of these cases, the ways that narratives are transmitted involve tremendous amounts of distillation. Not only do retellings reflect regional, devotional, and other cultural differences, but they also reveal religious, moral, and ethical expectations, modes of subject formation, and processes of interpolation (as sacred narratives are seen to manifest within and/or help people to interpret their lives).

Caleb Simmons, University of Arizona

When I arrived at the University of Arizona as a new assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, I was tasked with building the curriculum on South Asian religions. In fact, the only course that was on-the-books and related to my area of expertise—Hinduism—was an older holdover from the university’s “Department of Oriental Studies.” This course was titled “Hindu Mythology.” While the title seemed a bit outdated (and I worried if the title was “sexy” enough to draw in students), I was thrilled that I would be able to teach this course because it gave me a perfect opportunity to teach through narratives, and the old-fashioned title would serve to set the tone of the course in which we could problematize both the categories of “Hinduism” and “myth.” Indeed, structuring a course entirely around Hindu narratives proved to engage students and introduce them to the variety of traditions under the rubric of Hinduism, and it also helped them understand its history as it is embedded within the texts that we encounter. While the course proved to be successful with high enrollments—I guess the title was sexier than I thought—and I could see students engaging with the narratives in a way that they often don’t with textbooks, in many ways I felt like I was doing the tradition a disservice because, intentional or not, I was reifying a model of studying and teaching religion (largely based on Protestant Christian theology) that privileged textual sources over other sources of religious knowledge.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Chicago Theological Seminary

protestors stand together outdoors with signs

James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

This is exactly the case in theological education today. There is a crisis that many schools are refusing to face, and in so doing they are closing the door to real possibilities to bring about positive change. This needs to be fixed.

The hidden crisis I want to invite us to face is the fact that increasing numbers of faculty are part-time and contingent. They often live at or near the poverty level, have no benefits or job security. Schools have often made the choice to reduce full-time faculty positions with benefits and replace them with part-time and contingent faculty to “balance the budget” and try to keep their endowment draws around the recommended six percent.

I believe, however, that in using this practice of increasing part-time and contingent faculty to close a financial deficit, these schools are now running what I have come to call an “Ethical Deficit.”

Rev. James H. Cone, author of Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, and The Cross and the Lynching Tree; known as the founder of Black liberation theology; a central figure in racial and social justice movements; and dismantler of white supremacist assumptions in ministry and seminary education, died on April 28, 2018.

Obituaries celebrating the life and work of Cone appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on the websites of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and of Union Theological Seminary, where Cone was the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology. Union has also posted the livestream of his funeral, which took place on May 7 at Riverside Church in New York City.

Cone was a longtime member of the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was awarded AAR’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.

Below, four AAR presidents (Emilie M. Townes, Peter J. Paris, David P. Gushee, and Eddie S. Glaude Jr.) reflect on the legacy of Cone’s work in their scholarship, faith, and teaching.

by Miguel A. De La Torre, Iliff School of Theology

an image of an American flag sumperimposed on top of crecked, dried bed of clay

Christianity did not perish with the election of Donald Trump; it was stillborn upon first arriving to these shores. America was originally made great when Christian Pilgrims embraced their divine right to steal the winter provisions of indigenous people, thanking God for his merciful bounty. Only by stealing the land of others—justifying genocide as fulfilling God’s call to rid the Promised Land of modern-day Canaanites—could America ever have become great. Only by stealing the labor of others by capturing Black bodies—justifying slavery as God’s call to bring civilization and Christianity to lost primitive peoples whose only hope is to be servants to whites in this world and the next—could America ever have become great.