September 21 2021

Sarah Levine, Editor, Religious Studies News

Welcome back, y'all

Welcome back to Religious Studies News. Today, the AAR launched a completely redesigned Religious Studies News. While the new look of RSN is the most immediate change that longtime readers will notice, the design of the site is in service of even larger shifts in editorial direction and publication schedule. What you can expect from RSN now is even deeper focus and reflection on the everyday work of (and the issues faced by) scholars and students in religious studies and theology, and you can expect these reflections to be more timely and relevant.

by Kelly J. Baker, Freelance Writer

Trends in Faculty Employment Status, 1975‐2011

I’ve only had contingent positions. I started adjuncting as a graduate student for extra money. While writing my dissertation, I continued adjuncting at both a community college and a university. I was an adjunct (part-time) instructor at multiple institutions in three different states until I received a full-time non-tenure track job as a lecturer in 2011. I’ve taught at community colleges and big state universities, and for a long time, I taught heavy course loads while keeping up my research and applying for tenure track jobs. I quit my lecturer job because I could not handle the strain of contractual work. Now, I’m a freelance writer, work from home mom, and still a religious studies scholar.

I’ll say it again: I have only had contingent positions.

by Gail Hamner, Syracuse University

"Commodity" spelled out in Scrabble

Riddle me this: when is balance unbalanced? Answer: when it is the stated norm of neoliberalism.1 In general, discussions of “work-life balance” assume balance as a necessary value and frame the project of balance around the individual subject. The bibliography on this issue is large and growing, but few contributions offer much (if any) attention to broad sociocultural dynamics, and none attend to the historical development of the problem itself.  Instead, orchestrated along the lines of raising awareness, instituting administrative programs, and offering “tips” to faculty, most arguments remain within a reformist and individualist frame, intoning regretful concern about the harm of stress to workers (and hence to worker productivity) and upbeat attention to self-help solutions that devolve the “problem” directly onto the individual.

by Eugene V. Gallagher, Connecticut College and Benjamin E. Zeller, Lake Forest College

Topics falling within the category of “new religious movements” have become increasingly prominent in religious studies classrooms over the past few decades. Often tracking media coverage, students have particular interest in groups such as Scientologists, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints and their Yearning for Zion Ranch, and various New Age gurus ebbs and flows, but their overall fascination with new and alternative religiosity has remained a common feature in our classrooms. Yet instructors face the question of how to translate student interest in these groups into actual student learning. While such a task falls most obviously on those teaching courses focusing on new or alternative religious movements, instructors teaching on a wide array of topics and multiple subfields may wish to engage students in the critical study of this topic.

by Catherine Wessinger, Loyola University New Orleans

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

I have been researching and writing about new religious movements (NRMs) ever since I unwittingly chose a new religions topic for my dissertation: the lifelong evolving millennial thought of the Englishwoman Annie Besant (1847–1933) who lived in India while serving as the second president of the Theosophical Society and carrying out numerous projects for social, educational, political, and religious uplift and reform. I have been teaching at Loyola University New Orleans for more years than I care to tell my students. There I have taught numerous sections of the course “Religions of the World.” I also teach “Women in World Religions,” “Women in Christianity,” as well as courses on Asian religions, millennialism, and New Orleans religions. I have been integrating what I have learned in new religions studies into these courses.

by Jeremy Rapport, College of Wooster

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

I am assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Wooster, a small, private, liberal arts college in Northeast Ohio. There I teach the course "New Religions and the New Age." The class is a part of our department's regular ; in fact the job description under which I was hired was written partly with this class in mind, and so I teach the class at least once per academic year, usually during the spring semester. The class is expected to enroll twenty students, although in the five times I have taught it at Wooster, it usually has between twenty-two and twenty-five students. It surveys major new and alternative religious groups and issues. As a 200-level class, it is open to nonmajors, and it also fulfills our "religious perspectives" general education requirement. All of this means, in effect, the class is introductory level, and for the most part I teach it as such.

by Marie W. Dallam, University of Oklahoma

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

From my earliest days of teaching, I have been a proponent of students thinking “outside of the box” about the types of sources they use for learning. While I am not typically a fan of popular online forums to which many students gravitate, I do think there can be real value in sources that are not of the strict academic-words-on-paper type. I often create assignments that require the use of both academic and nontraditional sources, such as events and site visits, and I include a component in which students reflect critically on the nature and value of all of their sources of information. This became more challenging for me when I left a major metropolitan area and began teaching in the small college town of Norman, Oklahoma, where the range of such sites is limited, as is student mobility. I had to find new ways to have students embrace unusual combinations of sources. The “mini review essay” discussed herein is one possibility for such an assignment. I designed it for an upper-level honors seminar on new religious movements (NRMs), a class of approximately twenty students, and I have been using it since 2010.

by Lydia Willsky, Fairfield University

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

For many undergraduates, engaging with the undefined and the ambiguous can be uncomfortable. It is far simpler when ideas or people fit into neat categories like “good,” “evil,” “true” or “false.” Yet reality is rarely this neat, particularly in the study of new religious movements (NRMs). This article presents a model of conscious course design focused on revising the narratives surrounding certain controversial NRMs and on creative alternative comparative contexts, both of which help to guide students away from a position of mutual exclusivity and towards the notion that the people involved in NRMs are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but a mixture of both. I employ William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development to illustrate students’ progress from a “fully dualistic” point of view to a more relativistic, or less “mutually exclusive” worldview.1

by Megan Goodwin, Bates College

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

This article situates the teaching of new religious movements (NRMs) within the scope of scholarship on American minority religions. In the course that serves as my primary example, readings and class discussions considered 20th century NRMs in light of American enthusiasms for—and anxieties about—shifting attitudes toward race, gender, class, and sexuality, particularly since the 1940s. Assignments included unconventional approaches to working with primary sources and student creations of hypothetical new religions, contextualized within NRM members’ experiences of support and scorn by mainstream legal, media, and popular culture sources. Students noted key similarities in intolerant rhetoric toward American minority religions, examined challenges specific to radical religious innovation in an American framework, and challenged the primacy of “newness” in the study of marginal American religiosity.

by Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

Australia is a notably secular country. Only around ten percent of the population attends religious services of any kind, yet Christianity has a substantial role in public discourse (due in part to an unusually high number of practicing Christians elected to the three levels of government: local, state, and federal). RLST 2626, "Witchcraft, Paganism, and the New Age," is a second-year unit (taught over a 14-week semester) in the studies in religion major, and the course covers occult and esoteric religion (chiefly Western in origin) from the formation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 to the present day. It is necessary for students to understand that since White settlement in 1788, Christianity has dominated “religion” in Australia; Christian institutions are prominent in public life, and Christian doctrines and practices are the model for normative religion. Other religions are marginalised, whether Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, new religions, Indigenous religions, or esoteric traditions. Therefore, the unit’s content tends to be unfamiliar to students and has the potential to be controversial (as it includes Witchcraft, Paganism, New Age, UFO religions, Western New Religious Movements (NRMs) including Scientology, and esoteric practices such as Tarot and Astrology). One pedagogical strategy to manage the content is the use of legal materials such as government records, legislation, court judgments to demonstrate that “strange” religions and spiritualities can be framed to parallel the mainstream, established religions. Indeed, certain legal materials—the Constitution and case law, for example—refer equally to the Roman Catholic Church and to Jediism.