January 23 2018

photo of Thomas A. Tweed

2015 president of the AAR, Thomas A. Tweed, talks to RSN about the value of scholarly work, the moral impetus to study religion, and the quiet moments of joy in teaching.

RSN: At what point did you decide you wanted to become a scholar of religion?

TT: I began my first semester as a pre-med student in cell biology thinking about how the smallest organic units worked. Gradually my questions changed—and expanded—until I was asking: Why is there something instead of nothing? How do we explain moral evil? How should I act? The moral questions prompted me to conclude I should do something that reduced suffering, so after a summer internship as a social worker I decided that was how I’d spend my life. I’d take on those big questions in my free time and save the world nine-to-five. Well, it’s obvious both from the state of the world and my current profession I didn’t follow that plan. I got hooked on the big questions, which I pursued first at Harvard Divinity School and then by teaching world religions and ethics to high school students. I again thought I’d found my calling.

I was happy teaching—and coaching basketball—but another summer experience prompted another turn. I was studying Buddhism with Professor Robert Thurman, and he arranged a guest lecture by a Japanese-American Buddhist scholar who told a story that set me on my career path and has haunted me ever since. While his parents were interned at Manzanar and he was in Japan studying during World War II, the nineteen-year-old was riding on a train. In the distance, suddenly he and his fellow passengers eyed a mushroom cloud on the horizon, the billowing traces of the atomic bomb. That scholar recalled hearing a Christian missionary say that the bomb was God’s just condemnation of the “heathen.” I was stunned by that heartbreaking story, my eyes filling with tears. That was the moment I decided to go on for a PhD in religion. I wasn’t exactly sure what I could do, but I felt called to change things. No more arrogance. No more bombs.

 

Kyle Harper talks to Religious Studies News about his book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013), which won the American Academy of Religion’s 2014 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in Historical Studies.

by Juliane Hammer, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

photo of women sitting in a large circle at the Women's Mosque of America

Just two months shy of the tenth anniversary of a woman-led, mixed-gender congregation Friday prayer in New York City (March 18, 2005), a group of American Muslim women announced that they were planning to hold women-only Friday prayers once a month in a multi-faith synagogue in downtown Los Angeles. The initiative, called The Women’s Mosque of America, describes its goal as follows:

The Women's Mosque of America seeks to uplift the Muslim community by empowering women and girls through more direct access to Islamic scholarship and leadership opportunities. The Women's Mosque of America will provide a safe space for women to feel welcome, respected, and actively engaged within the Muslim Ummah. It will complement existing mosques, offering opportunities for women to grow, learn, and gain inspiration to spread throughout their respective communities.

The first Friday prayer, including a woman calling the congregants to prayer (adhan), a woman offering the Friday sermon (khutbah), and a woman leading the all-female congregation in Friday prayer, took place on January 30, 2015. Approximately one hundred women and children (including boys under twelve) were in attendance. A second prayer was performed on February 20, 2015. The organizers, Sana Muttalib and Hasna Maznavi, claim that it is the only women-only mosque in the United States. Los Angeles is the geographical home of the new initiative, whose name—the Women’s Mosque of America, creates a spatial as well as institutional claim that indicates a program rather than a physical reality. While most would primarily associate the term mosque with physical structure created for the purpose of accommodating Muslim worship practices, the claim to the title for this organization/institution/movement points to fascinating shifts in the way religious institutions and organizations in the United States are created and function within as well as beyond physical form.

by Isobel Johnston, MA-Phd candidate, Arizona State University, Tempe

Venus's Bathing (Margate) A woman swimming in the sea; in the background people are looking out to sea from cliffs and a beach. The lettering says; Side Way or any Way. Etching by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1800

I spent my first semester of graduate school in survival mode maintaining my studies and TA obligations through the shock and vicious morning sickness of a surprise pregnancy. My second semester was consumed with grief and physical recovery over a miscarriage at seventeen-weeks, six days before my first class. With my reserves for stress management depleted and my sense of direction shifted for the third time in less than six months, I succumbed to the existential self-questioning inherent in any major loss. Compounding this disorienting time was the bewildering timing of these events at the very outset of my midlife transition from professional at-home motherhood, returning to school and upgrading my role in the professional world.

by Thomas J. Whitley and Sam Houston, Florida State University

Still image from video released by ISIS depicting the use of a jackhammer to destroy the Negral Gate.

ISIS (or ISIL or, in Arabic, Daesh) has been busy not just killing Jordanian pilots and Coptic Christians but also destroying antiquities and burning rare books in Mosul. The almost uniform response has been one of disgust, at least among the online academic community. A friend who worked in the Yale Art Gallery as a graduate student and got to work with some of the antiquities that found their way to Yale from Mosul in the 1850s wrote about why we should care about archaeological destruction. As scholars of religion we realize the already seemingly insurmountable limits to the work that we do. We are some of the first to “care” about this destruction. 

Persian alphabet and vocabulary blocks

John Nemec, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, assumed the editorship of the AAR-OUP Religion in Translation book series at the beginning of 2015 and will serve as its editor for five years. In this e-mail interview, Nemec talks to RSN about his plans for the book series and the role of translated works in the field of religion.

Anna Sun talks to Religious Studies News about her book Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities (Princeton University Press), which won the American Academy of Religion’s 2014 Best First Book in the History of Religions award.

 

We get a kick out of how the AAR's logo has changed to reflect the times; the 1979 logo has a very Dark Side of the Moon feel to it, no? (Okay, okay, we were a few years late!)

 

Current AAR logo

Present

AAR logo, 1995–2009

1995–2009

AAR logo, 1983–1994

by Monique Moultrie, Georgia State University

African American outdoor family portrait, c.1899

I specifically asked to discuss family relationships in this column because I thought it important to expand our conversation on gender and work-life balance beyond the two-body discussion. Thus, I have titled these remarks “Three Bodies: One Problem, Many Solutions” to reflect the numerous relationships I value in addition to my academic life. While I will respond most closely with comments on my relationship with my elderly mother and grandmother, I also plan to attend to how I negotiate these relationships with my partner of ten years and my academic institution.

by Christopher D. Cantwell, University of Missouri, Kansas City

For twenty-five years now Religious Studies News has provided a crucial service. Its articles, features, interviews, and Spotlights have helped weave together one of the most diverse professional associations in the world into a network of colleagues and friends. I have no doubt that the newsletter’s new, born-digital format will provide even more opportunities to build upon this already stellar record. As a longtime reader of Religious Studies News, I am honored to be able to congratulate the editors and everyone else who had a role in the newsletter’s ambitious redesign.

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