September 30 2023

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.

by W. Michael Ashcraft, Truman State University

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

In the fall of 1979, I was an MDiv student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and enrolled in a course taught by Dr. Bill Leonard entitled The Church and American Utopianism. One of the course requirements was a field trip on a Saturday morning to Pleasant Hill, a restored Shaker village near Lexington, Kentucky. I knew very little about the Shakers, and don’t remember being too enthused about the field trip, but once I was there I was overwhelmed by the reality of Shaker social life. The residential buildings had separate stairs for men and women. The dining room had tables for lots of people, and the kitchen was as institutional as antebellum culinary technology could get.

And then it hit me, hard: they lived this alternative lifestyle in the midst of an America that was heavily influenced by Protestant Evangelicalism, which did not approve of the Shaker way of life. How was it that these people could see such a countercultural arrangement as “normal?”

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

“Forum: Religion and the Biographical Turn.” 2014. Religion an American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 24 (1): 1–35.

American Academy of Religion. 2008. “The Religion Major and Liberal Education — A White Paper.”

Ambros, Barbara R. 2015. Women in Japanese Religions. Women in Religions series. New York: New York University Press.

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2001. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. 1980. “Outside the Mainstream: Women’s Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-century America.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 48 (June 1980): 207–31.

Barbara A. McGraw, Saint Mary’s College, California

Cover of Wendy Doniger's book, "The Hindus: An Alternative History"

“Banned!” read headlines last February when, after litigation under India’s blasphemy law, the publisher of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History acquiesced to settlement demands to cease publication of the book. That decision set off a firestorm of words in India, where the politics of all things Hindu are fraught to say the least. The rhetoric here in the United States was just as disturbing—not lacking in accusations back and forth, as all sides took what was for them the high ground. Even when there is near unanimous agreement that blasphemy laws create more trouble than peace—and nearly all have difficulty understanding why India, the world’s largest democracy, still has blasphemy laws—our conversations in the United States in this arena were troublingly dissonant and uninformed.

Sally Smith Holt, Belmont University
Regional Coordinator, AAR Southeast Region

Editor's note: The God's Books conference, held on November 3, 2013, at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, was organized with funding provided by an AAR 2013–2014 Regional Development Grant. To learn more about regional grants and to read successful proposals from prior years, visit

W. Anne Joh, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Ask doctoral students from underrepresented communities of color how well they are being prepared for becoming theological educators in a rapidly changing climate and most will say “not well at all.” My reflections here revolve around a few questions that seem to emerge quite frequently in doctoral studies, especially from students of racial/ethnic minority communities and what institutional racism does to them during the process of going through a doctoral program. How are the needs of these students met or not met within the predominantly white institutions and programs whose curricula often reflect absence and foreclosure of the historical legacy of systemic racism? How can institutions committed to cultivating institutional diversity transform so that all students might thrive during their studies, become well prepared to enter their profession as educators, and be equipped to integrate into their teaching the quotidian issues that our societies face?

by Jonathan H. X. Lee, San Francisco State University

A white truck in a middle of a parade carries a yellow sign in its bed that reads "Sikh Society of Madison WI." Two American flags are on each side of the sign. A Sikh man wearing a dastar (turban) walks next to the truck and waves to the crowd

According to the 2012 (revised and updated in 2013) Pew Research Center report, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” Asian Americans are the “fastest-growing racial group in the United States."* Asian American religions and religiosities can be taught as stand-alone courses or as a part of other courses such as World Religions, Transnational Religions, or American Religious History, among others. Religious studies and Asian American studies are both inherently interdisciplinary and multi-methodological disciplines. Both disciplines pay careful consideration to emic and etic boundaries, and while Asian American studies explicitly promotes and condones experimentation with personal experience in research and teaching, religious studies can also do so, though that is not usually the norm.