May 30 2024

Interview with Sam Gill

Sam Gill joins Kristian Petersen to discuss his award-winning 2021 book, The Proper Study of Religion: Building on Jonathan Z. Smith (OUP, 2020). Through the book, Gill invites the reader to build on Smith’s work by considering the significance of Smith’s tendency towards jest and play, the centrality of incongruity to Smith’s theories of religion, and how to academically evaluate the category of “experience.”

Gill's book won AAR's 2021 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the analytical-descriptive studies category. He is a professor emeritus of religion studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Molly Bassett, Georgia State University

students with notebooks open on laps

The essays in this issue of Spotlight on Teaching highlight faculty perspectives on equity-focused pedagogies from a variety of institutional and career perspectives. Our intention is to contribute to ongoing conversations about how faculty address issues of equity and create more equitable classrooms in ways that readers will find provocative, productive, and adaptable in their own contexts. The idea for collecting essays around equity-focused pedagogies came from my own encounter with Asao Inoue’s scholarship in a Writing Across the Curriculum workshop at my home institution. You’ll find Inoue’s work alongside many other recommended readings linked in this issue.

Interview with Yuhang Li

Yuhang Li joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning book, Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China (Columbia University Press, 2021). Li's book provides anglophone readers with an unparalleled and badly needed authoritative study on one of the most important figures in Chinese myth and religious practice, particularly with respect to women's experience in late imperial China. 

Interview with Maria E. Doerfler

Kristian Peterson interviews Maria E. Doerfler, AAR Book Award winner

Maria E. Doerfler joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning book, Jephthah’s Daughter, Sarah’s Son: The Death of Children in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2020). Through the book, Doerfler plumbs the fragmentary historical record for evidence of how members of Christian communities in Late Antiquity responded to the deaths of children.

Interview with Isabel Laack

Isabel Laack joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning 2020 book, Aztec Religion and Art of Writing: Investigating Embodied Meaning, Indigenous Semiotics, and the Nahua Sense of Reality (Brill, 2019). Through the book, Laack investigates the religion and art of writing of the pre-Hispanic Aztecs of Mexico. Inspired by postcolonial approaches, she reveals Eurocentric biases in academic representations of Aztec cosmovision, ontology, epistemology, ritual, aesthetics, and the writing system to provide a powerful interpretation of the Nahua sense of reality.

Laack's book won AAR's 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the historical studies category. She is Professor for the Study of Religion at Tubingen University. 

Interview with Kathryn Tanner

Kathryn Tanner joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning 2020 book, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism (Yale University Press, 2019). Through the book, Tanner suggests Christianity can challenge the culture of finance capitalism that permeates our lives by guiding us to reflect on social inequalities and identity-building—concepts which she argues are at the core of Christian faith and practice. In the interview, she discusses how "Christianity and specific forms of it could gum up the works of capitalism."

Tanner's book won AAR's 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the constructive-reflective studies category. She is Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School.


American Academy of Religion · Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism with Kathryn Tanner

Evan Berry, Arizona State University

Headshot of Miguel De La Torre with text next to it that says "Miguel De La Torre 2021 Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion"

Each year since 1996, the American Academy of Religion has presented the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion to an individual whose work has helped advance the public understanding of religion. To date, twenty-five persons have received this award, and their work reflects a broad spectrum of how and why religion expertise matters. Awardees include theologians, sociologists, documentary filmmakers, philosophers, and poets, all of whom demonstrably advanced the public understanding of religion.

Asma Afsaruddin, Indiana University, Bloomington

still from Rambo III. Sylvester Stallone in a black tank top leads a group of Afghan soldiers through a dusty landscape

Jihad is more often than not translated as “holy war” in the Western media. This translation immediately conveys the impression that jihad by definition is war waged for religious reasons, particularly to forcefully replace all other religions with Islam. The term also conveys the impression that it is a fundamental religious duty imposed on all Muslims till the end of time, or at least until they have brought about the conversion of all non-Muslims—whichever comes first! A few news outlets and journalists exercise greater responsibility: they take care to translate jihad as “struggle” or “effort” and occasionally mention the different ways in which this human struggle is carried out during one’s earthly existence.

One should be aware of the specific political and historical circumstances that determine whether the military jihad receives a favorable spin in the Western media or not. Between 1979 and 1989 under a program known as Operation Cyclone, the United States government actively supported the group known as the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan who were fighting against the Soviet occupation forces there. “Those who carry out jihad” (this is what Mujahedeen means in Arabic) were portrayed favorably in the American and European press at that time because they were assumed to be fighting on the right side—that is to say, against the dark forces of Communism and thus serving the interests of Western nations. One may recall a notable James Bond movie titled The Living Daylights that celebrated the heroic exploits of the Mujahedeen, led by an Oxford-educated swashbuckling Afghan, who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with British allies against the Communist invaders. The movie Rambo III similarly portrayed the Mujahedeen in a highly favorable light. “Jihad” carried out at the instigation of Western governments at that time was, therefore, considered to be a noble activity. The Western media (and the movie industry) accordingly played along.

Kin Cheung

All first year students at Moravian University take an online personality assessment during the summer and then meet with their career development strategist. This software, TypeFocus, uses the problematic Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment. Yet even more alarming is how it represents a cultural bias against the value of the humanities and religious studies.

Welcome page of TypeFocus program
Image note: Moravian transitioned from a College to a University in the summer of 2021, but the software has yet to reflect that change.

The software is also used by Briar Cliff University, Tennessee Tech University, University of Detroit Mercy, York Technical College, Eastern Kentucky University, Washtenaw Community College, and more. The first of three sections of the TypeFocus assessment is a modified version of the MBTI assessment, and asks students to respond to 62 prompts by selecting one of two choices. (Example items: Pick the option that best describes you: 1) tender or 2) objective?; Which option do you find more appealing: 1) by yourself or 2) with others?). The questions offer no context and limit respondents to dichotomous answer choices, meaning that there is no option for expressing that “it depends.”

Interview with Jolyon Baraka Thomas

Despite the Japanese constitution guaranteeing religious freedom since 1889, after World War II, the United States-occupiers deemed that guarantee flawed. In this conversation with, Jolyon Thomas, author of Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan shares how the US imposed a new framework of religious freedom onto the Japanese, one that favored some traditions more than others.

Thomas's "Faking Liberties" was co-winner of the AAR's 2020 Analytical-Descriptive Studies Award for the Excellence in the Study of Religion. He is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.