July 19 2024

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 http://movedbygandhi.com/.

by Mary O’Shan Overton, PhD Graduate, Boston College

As a single woman well over forty, I’ve entered the final stretch of an interdisciplinary doctoral degree after several years of hard labor. Due to familial and financial obligations, I’ve had to work nearly full time throughout my program. This combination of work and intense study has been costly on many levels—personal, physical, social, and, most of all, spiritual. This is ironic since my degree is in theology and education.

At some point, I noticed that the passions fueling my midlife leap had been depleted. Never-ending professional demands left me ragged. I regretted a lost relationship, my lack of children, the geographical distance from friends and family, and the end of a modest but stable lifestyle as a college instructor. To make matters worse, I was an alien in my own program and new city—a Protestant at a Catholic school; a feminist woman in a field dominated by men; a warm, magnolia-loving Southerner in the frigid land of snow and Puritans. In classes or out running errands, I often felt like I was hearing a strange language. It might have been English, but the dialect was unfamiliar. There was much I didn’t understand. Yanked from my roots, I didn’t know who I was or what I believed in anymore. Even worse, I didn’t know what to say or how to say it, a dire situation for a veteran talker and writer. 

What caught me as I spiraled downward into silence was a big, lovely net knitted together by words, sentences, paragraphs, pages.  The language that I had lost helped me reclaim myself and my spiritual sensibility—in short, I was saved by writing. I kept a daily blog of long-form essays, linking it to my Facebook page where I had at least minimal contact with like-minded folks. They read and commented—not too many of them at first, but just enough to remind me that I was not alone. After my life and studies became too complicated, I abandoned the meaty extracurricular prose and turned my keyboard toward pithy little posts. During the horrendous year of comprehensive exams, these became meditations on flowers, as I forced myself to take daily walk breaks from my studies, during which I photographed whatever was leafing and blooming along the city sidewalks. My growing readership loved the photographs and the vignettes I wrote to accompany them, and I received friendly complaints when I stopped posting them this past year.

by Barbara A. McGraw, Saint Mary's College of California

photo taken at a Washington, DC protest during the Supreme Court's hearing of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014). A protestor holds a sign, "Your morality doesn't write my prescription."

Progress over the past two decades in the United States toward greater acceptance of the rights of minority religion adherents has been profound, stemming in part from changes in attitudes, but also due to laws passed by Congress: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Most recently, these developments were reflected in the unanimous Holt v. Hobbes (2015) decision, where the Supreme Court, applying RLUIPA, upheld the right of a Muslim inmate to wear a beard. These developments were also reflected in the Army’s decision, applying RFRA, to change its policy to allow a Sikh soldier to wear a turban modification of the Army’s uniform headwear.

Interview with Gregory Price Grieve, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

a group of Second Life avatars sit together meditating

Among the newest program units to be inducted into the AAR Annual Meeting program is the Video Gaming and Religion Seminar. In this interview, which has been transcribed and edited, seminar cochair Gregory Price Grieve talks about the origins of digital media, the field's legitimacy in the study of religion, and the complicated questions that our digital selves and networks pose to traditional definitions of identity, religion, ritual, and play. The seminar's Annual Meeting session, "Crafting the Study of Religion and Video Games: A Roundtable Discussion of Key Perspectives" will be on Monday, November 23, 9:00–11:30 am in the Hilton, room 206.

Sarah Levine: One of the points made in introductory texts about video gaming and religion is that religious studies tends not to take video game play seriously. In the introduction to Playing with Religion in Digital Games, you and coeditor Heidi Campbell cite some attitudes that contribute to the field’s neglect: games aren’t considered serious; they aren’t real forms of expression or art; tech and digital media is widely seen as secular; and virtual worlds aren’t real.

Gregory Grieve: The study of religion and video games is really really recent. Realistically, it probably starts in 2007 at AAR [editor’s note: See 2007 Annual Meetings Program Book, session A17-121, “Born Digital and Born Again Digital: Religions in Virtual Gaming Worlds”]. The question of legitimacy was an important early one, but I think we're past that now. We've at least proven it to ourselves, and we've gotten enough people involved that we have our own mini-subfield. Interestingly, this was about the same time that the Supreme Court decided that video games were protected by the freedom of speech in 2011.

When people talk about video games being real or not real, what are they talking about? I think a better word than real is probably “authentic.” Authentic seems to mean three things: It is a good copy of something taking place in the actual world, and there's face-to-face nonmediated human communication going on. The third notion of authentic, which for me is the most interesting because it is tied the closest to religion, is the existential notion of it—is playing video games somehow helping you as a human being to find out the deeper questions in life? All three of those are entangled with the notion of the real.

Mark Rowe with Kristian Petersen

Rev. Ikuko Hibino, the female chief priest of the Kayadera Temple, leading parishioners at the temple in Kuramae, Tokyo.

Mark Rowe, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University, was awarded an American Academy of Religion 2014 Individual Research Grant. He talks to Religious Studies News about his project Female Priests in Japanese Temple Buddhism.

Music is Dexter Britain, “Fresh Monday” (www.dexterbritain.co.uk)

Image: Rev. Ikuko Hibino, the female chief priest of the Kayadera Temple, leading parishioners at the temple in Kuramae, Tokyo.