March 03 2024

Ann Taves, University of California, Santa Barbara
Graham Ward, University of Oxford

Headshots of Ann Taves and Graham Ward

Academic fields are constituted by their debates, and the relation between theological and religious studies approaches has been one of the most enduring but least productive debates in the study of religion. This dialogue between Graham Ward, a distinguished theologian, and Ann Taves, a distinguished religious studies scholar, attempts to refine that conversation. It is the product of months of exchanges as they read each other’s work (Taves 2016; Ward 2014) and tried to discern where they concurred and where they diverged as they prepared for a plenary session, “Normativity in the Academic Study of Religion,” at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. That conference session, and this published version of their scripted dialogue, strives to reframe the conversation about theology and religious studies.

I organized the session because I thought it might help to talk more precisely about what unites and divides scholars as we imagine the nature and scope of the academic study of religion—a topic I also addressed in my 2015 AAR presidential address (Tweed 2016). I was concerned, on the one hand, that some theologians seemed surprisingly disinterested in religious studies scholarship, including historical or social scientific studies and analyses of their own tradition, even though every theologian I know engages scholarship in some other discipline. Some theologians even seem a bit defensive, complaining that the academy doesn’t respect their discipline, yet they don’t engage the research of those they want to persuade. On the other hand, I was concerned that some religious studies scholars not only didn’t engage those doing constructive religious reflection, or arrogantly dismissed them, but they also claimed that the AAR’s “big tent” had grown too large and that those who enact values and make normative judgments have no place in it.

by James Logan, Earlham College

I arrived at Earlham College in the fall semester of 2004 as an assistant professor of religion and African & African American studies. Upon arrival I quickly learned that requests to serve my institution beyond the routine requirements of a tenure-track professor—teaching, publishing, academic advising, and committee work—would be a staple of my vocational life. Like most Black professors employed at predominately White liberal arts institutions, I was predestined by the circumstances of history to routinely make decisions concerning the degrees to which I should, and would, serve Black students (at my own institution and others) as all-‘round life coach, cultural advisor, counselor, family friend, and intercessory oracle. And all this while navigating within an institution developed, from its inception, for the intellectual and spiritual advancement, and social-cultural comfort, of European American peoples.

by Donna Yarri, Alvernia University

"Resting" by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, Lyons 1824–1898 Paris) ca. 1867-1870

The concept of a sabbatical has its roots in the Western religious traditions, in particular in the Bible. The Ten Commandments, ostensibly given to Moses, includes not only a negative series of commands—“thou shalt nots”—but also includes two positive commandments—“Honor thy mother and father,” and “Keep holy the Sabbath day.” Of all of the commandments, keeping holy the Sabbath day was probably the easiest one to obey! Who is going to argue with taking a day off, even if the express purpose is to focus on God? Of course, remembrance and worship of the God who created all and made all things possible was the primary intent. But there were practical implications as well—everyone/everything was able to rest, including humans, animals, and the land.

In our modern world, this directive has been somewhat watered down, especially with so many Blue laws no longer in effect. Yet many religious believers the world over take this opportunity to attend their house of worship to focus on God. The directive to take a break in the seventh year was a further extension of the Sabbath day. While most biblical scholars will be familiar with the religious component of the sabbatical, almost all faculty, regardless of area of study, know the secular idea of the sabbatical used in the modern college and university. This is what specifically informs the ministerial and academic practices of the sabbatical—the idea that one could take a full year off to focus on things other than one’s usual routine, with the ability to apply and hopefully receive the opportunity to be released from one’s regular duties. It is not so much to focus on God (although that is not necessarily precluded), as to focus on “something else.”  

by Isobel Johnston, Arizona State University

Painting, attributed to Spanish school of the 17th century, of a kitchen maidservant working

This past year a man colleague told me his key to time management in graduate school: “The first thing you need to do is marry a woman.”

Having someone else to ensure basic daily needs is a distinguishing factor between many professional men and women. Yet the domestic demands of cooking, laundry, cleaning, and shopping are absent in Guide for the Guild's call for a list of tasks demanding professional women’s time. This absence reflects at least two issues:

by Dena S. Davis, Lehigh University

Concrete and stone sign for Wheaton College on campus. It reads "Wheaton College" and "For Christ and His Kingdom"

Editor's note (3/5/2016): Since publication of this essay, Larycia Hawkins has accepted a position at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture as the Abd el-Kader Visiting Faculty Fellow.

Interview with Kristian Petersen

Author Anya Bernstein with Kristian Petersen talks about her award-winning book, "Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism," an ethnography that examines how Buryat Buddhists have negotiated their cultural, political, and religious identities in response to socialism, nationalism, territory, and Tibetan traditions.

Bernstein's book won the AAR's 2014 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Analytical-Descriptive Studies category.

by Jeffrey H. Mahan, Iliff School of Theology

Cover image of the Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture

Review of "The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture," Edited by John C. Lyden and Eric Michael Mazur
Routledge: New York, 2015, $240.00

The Routledge Companion series provide an overview to the study of a wide range of fields, approaches, topics, and figures. The Companion volumes typically provide an introduction  to the subject matter which puts the current discussion in a historical context, offer a structure for organizing the discussion of the topic, and essays by authors from a variety of perspectives within their organizing structure. Though typically too expensive to use as textbooks, the volumes have developed a reputation as rich and trustworthy introductions of a topic that bring together diverse voices in the field and serve as helpful research sources.

The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture illustrates the breadth of attention scholars who study religion are giving to popular culture and provides an opportunity to reflect on the range and development of this discourse. It should quickly become a standard source book for those interested in the topic and belongs in the libraries of colleges, seminaries, and universities where the subject is being taught or researched. The editors are respected figures in the study of religion and popular culture: Lyden is known particularly for his contributions to the study of religion and film and Mazur as the editor of one of the standard textbooks on religion and popular culture.   

In Part I, Lyden and Mazur offer introductory essays discussing the development of interest in religion and popular culture, speculate about the reasons for attention to the topic, and consider its growing acceptance as a scholarly topic over the last twenty-five years. These are useful essays that put the rest of the volume in context.

I do, however, raise a couple of cautions about the editors’ portrayal of the discussion of religion and popular culture today. First, the editors give attention to the longstanding complaint that the study of popular culture has not been respected in the academy. There was clearly a time when religious studies resisted attention to popular culture, but it is hard to sustain the argument today. Presentations related to popular culture appear in many AAR/SBL groups, and journals and many books on the topic give evidence to its place in academic discourse. Indeed it is the popularity of the topic with both scholars and students that demonstrates the need for this volume. It seems more accurate to note that popular culture studies are a part of a broader trend that focuses on religion in everyday life.

Secondly, as is increasingly common, the editors discuss the attention to religion and popular culture as though it marked the emergence of a new field. But, this area of study has no distinctive methodologies. It draws, as the volume demonstrates, on religious, literary, media, and cultural studies. Would it not be more accurate to think of the interface of religion and popular culture as an important location for the interdisciplinary study of religion rather than as a field?

by Cassie Hillman Trentaz

I’ve been trying to write this one drat sentence, in fits and starts, for the past twenty minutes—probably because it’s lunch time and I’m home today on a snow day (very rare where we live). But, with little ones at home, a “snow-nus” (as I used to refer to them) is no longer a bonus for getting work done. It’s a structure-disrupter.

by Sandor Goodhart, Purdue University

I first met René Girard in a lecture I attended in 1969 as a graduate student in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He had recently arrived from Johns Hopkins University, fresh on the heels of the 1966 conference on “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” that he had helped to organize and that would play such a decisive role in American critical thinking. He spoke of desire, sacrifice, Greek tragedy, primitive ritual, and violence in human culture in a way that, even at that early moment, I felt had the potential to change the way we think about those ideas.

Leela Prasad interview by Kristian Petersen

Gandhi seated, surrounded by people, writing a prayer message, January 18, 1948

Leela Prasad, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, was awarded an American Academy of Religion’s 2014 Individual Research Grant. She talks to Religious Studies News about her project Moved by Gandhi – A Documentary Film. Learn more at