June 02 2020

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.

Interview with Torang Asadi, PhD candidate, Duke University

Close up shot of woman in prayer

Torang Asadi is pursuing a PhD in religion and modernity at Duke University, writing her dissertation on religion in the Iranian diaspora. Asadi's research is firmly based on the close relationships she develops with the communities she studies and documents. She began developing her skills as an ethnographic researcher and filmmaker as a master's student and continues to champion the medium as a legitimate and productive method of research. In this interview, which was conducted via e-mail and has been lightly edited, Asadi discusses objectivity, methodology, ethics, and legitimacy in ethnographic film.

Sarah Levine: How did you first become interested in studying religion? When and why did you begin using film as a medium to study religion?

Torang Asadi: I graduated with a double major in pure mathematics and interior design. I discovered religion only in the very last semester of college, when I took a course on new religions with Becky Moore. It was during a field project for that class that I realized I needed to pursue this field. I grew up in Iran, where my mother attended underground classes in New Age philosophy and meditation, so my own experience with religion was quite bizarre. I was too intrigued to be content with a PhD in mathematics or a career in design, so I strayed and have never looked back. 

I became interested in film as a medium during that same semester. I spent most of my time watching audio and video footage from Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and the Manson Family. There was an aspect of the human experience that could not be conveyed through text as secondary source, and an authenticity to the footage as evidence. During my master’s program, I began to take courses in the film department to develop filming and editing skills, and I worked with anthropology professors to both train as an ethnographer and think through theories of film as ethnography.

Do you think it’s important for scholars of religion to take film seriously as a research method?

Absolutely. Evidently, when we talk about ethnographic films, we are talking about work on contemporary lived religion. But there is not much engagement with film, even in that subfield. Anthropology has made a lot of progress in that direction, but religious studies remains far behind in modern methods of research. Why wouldn’t you use film, especially in the study of religion?

The subject of our study is the unique experience that can only be explained through an understanding of the community in which it is conditioned. And the religious space is unique in that it is not readily accessible. So if we have the privilege of being present and conducting research in that unique space, why not engage a medium that can more honestly communicate that experience?

It’s such a great teaching tool, too. In religious studies, we have already moved past the written text as the primary subject of study to lived religion and materiality. So why can’t we do that with our research methodology as well?

Do you use your films in your classroom teaching? As a producer of ethnographic films, do you have any insight for teachers who might want to use your film or others like it in the classroom? 

To my surprise, I’ve learned that students don’t like to watch too many films in class. I’ve also learned that they don’t like the traditional documentary format and get bored very quickly. The moment I realized I wanted to do away with commentary in my own work was also the one in which I realized that my students were unusually engaged with Peter Adair’s Holy Ghost People, a 1967 film about snake handlers. When the professor I was TAing for assigned the film, I thought the students would hate it. The footage is very rough, in black and white, and the audio quality isn’t great. But they loved it! The experience of that community felt authentic to them. It was very obvious from the final exams that the film was memorable for every one of the students. And they were all very aware of themes like leadership, personal engagement with the divine, and physical reaction to salvation. They had also picked up on one the most important moments: the fall of the prophet. So we were also able to have a very lively discussion about it. The traditional documentary acts as a textbook for them, but the ethnographic film feels more like a field trip.

I’ve also experimented with having students watch films at home, but engage in a discussion about it in class while the footage plays on mute. It’s been very useful to have the visual present during conversation.

In short, I think the best film for the classroom is one that shows the student a specific human phenomenon, and even maybe hints at certain themes and conveys an analysis; not the one that tells them what they need to know about something. The former is the kind of film that provides an opportunity for an essay question on an exam; the latter gives you a fill-in-the-blank at best.

by Fred Glennon, Le Moyne College

Guanyin, pictured in this statue in Dali, China, is a key heavenly bodhisattva who embodies the virtues of compassion and mercy important in Mahayana Buddhism.

Most Americans accept the notion that we should learn more about religious traditions other than our own (Wuthnow 2007). In our post-9/11 world, we recognize how difficult it is to comprehend fully the actions of religious people without understanding the impact their religious traditions have had on their motivations and behavior. One result of this new interest is that the comparative study of religion and religious ethics has become a critical part of today’s liberal arts education. A quick review of the Syllabus Project, a joint effort between the AAR and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning, reveals a plethora of courses dedicated to this task.

by Rosemary B. Kellison, University of West Georgia



by Irene Oh, The George Washington University



On a Tuesday morning, about two-thirds of the way into the semester of our Ethics and World Religions undergraduate course, I begin our class discussion on the topic of marriage by asking, “Does your family have certain expectations about whom you may marry?” Students laugh. They often share their parents and grandparents’ desires for them to marry a person who meets very stringent, seemingly impossible criteria.

One woman states: “My grandmother wants me to marry not just someone Jewish, but a Russian Ashkenazi Jew who speaks Russian fluently and belongs to a Conservative congregation. And, of course, English, because my parents don’t speak Russian. My parents want me to marry someone with a graduate degree. And, oh yeah, it should be a guy.”

I inquire further: “What would happen if you brought home someone who was not of your religious background?” 

by Nahed Artoul Zehr, Western Kentucky University