Religious studies courses frequently justify their existence with the rhetoric of “value.” While appeasing the socio-economic concerns of college boards, this undermines the work of more critical approaches under the field’s big tent. The following paper responds to this disconcerting trend by casting religious studies as an analytical discipline that takes “evaluation” as its object of study. It details a way of navigating the critical turn using Michel de Certeau’s notion of “scriptural economy” as a pedagogical framework for three lower-level, undergraduate classes: REL-101 Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview, REL-226 Introduction to the New Testament, and REL-293 Introduction to Islam. Students theorize religion as a heuristic for studying how bodies are conscribed, prescribed, described, and inscribed in relation to evaluative systems.
In 1987, the Westar Institute (of Jesus Seminar fame) launched a newsletter designed to communicate religious studies research to a general audience. Titled, The Fourth R, they claimed that “along with ‘Reading,’ ‘Riting’ and ‘Rithmetic,’ Religion is the fourth ‘R’ of basic literacy.” But present market conditions suggest otherwise about the importance of studying religion. Professors teach in a climate where their work must satisfy the cost-benefit analysis of students, competing disciplines, and higher education administrators. Many of us commence “Syllabus Day” with opening bids designed to cement student enrollment (and in the case of contingent and other untenured faculty, our own employment). In 2004, the American Academy of Religion took the entrepreneurial step of launching StudyReligion.Org to help us address those who would ask, “Why Study Religion?” We realize—maybe now more than ever—that we must sell our scholarship. But at what cost?
Whatever altruism may be cited, the activist-bend of the 2014, 2015 and 2016
Today I want to suggest that talk about values also can help with two other pressing challenges: 1) It might help us to clarify the divisive internal debates within theTweed 2016: 290
aar, especially between those who identify with theology and those who identify with religious studies. 2) Value talk also might disclose points of agreement as we refine the arguments we employ to defend the study of religion in the public arena and our own campuses.
The consolation of the “value talk” paradigm is its foundational challenge for all parties to recognize that “value judgments are inevitable” (290). Tweed maintains that we can disagree over whether scholars should shun themselves from the task of evaluative statements (a la scientism) or learn to judge values more discriminately, but there is always a value in laying bear our presuppositions. When we understand each other’s values, then we can begin to make sense of our differences and work toward a corporate synergy.
For my purposes as a teacher-scholar, this sort of public relations attempt overlooks at least one object of humanistic and social scientific study of religion, the notion of value itself. According to a quick perusal of department websites in our field, we study religion as a matter of heritage, learning the values of our local communities. We study religion in embrace of diversity and the range of values in a global society. We study religion optimistically, assessing the values of today and their worth tomorrow. Religious studies has spent the better half of the last century claiming its own importance via value talk. But who or what constitutes value in the marketplace of ideas? What are we to make of our guild’s dependency on “values” as the currency with which we present our discipline? Wiebe’s twenty-three year old concern that we may be selling the soul of our scholarship merits credence.
Values are not simply a part of the stories we study; they are frequently the rationale and justifications for them. Aaron W. Hughes (2017: 2) remarks how critiques like Wiebe’s have been met with a proliferation of attempts at theorizing religion—the “systematic rethinking (i.e., theorization) of an object of study.” Hence we can see all manner of entities under the big tent reading from the same canon of “post-” thinkers, reifying their tribal distinctives. But this is not always done critically—that is, with “attention to category formation and genealogies” (4). There is little risked when ones argument is built upon sacrosanct values.
The brand of religious studies to which I have my students subscribe is one in which the conceptualization and regulation of value must be interrogated and not just redressed. I take the critical turn as demanding value to be read as an object of study rather than a metric. One could study this in accord with all sorts of disciplines, but literary critic Michel de Certeau (1988) makes a strong case for why the study of religion may have yet something to contribute.
De Certeau submits that the erection of the modern West is marked by the industrialization of meaning. The goods (i.e. products) and factories (i.e. modes of production) have become part of “everyday life,” but he would have us remember that their routinization involves the “detatchment and cutting loose” of the artisans whom we once appreciated for manufacturing (cf. Latin, “handcraft”) our world’s fashions (1988: 137). Thus, Russell T. McCutcheon (1997: 4) can take the modern “category of religion,” study how it is “portrayed, understood, and represented—in a word, manufactured—throughout an academic discourse as socio-politically autonomous,” and enumerate “the assumptions or rules that make such a representation possible and normative” and “the ways in which such representations sanction and sustain sociopolitical and material agendas.” Relatedly, de Certeau sees the modern asestheic as “manipulating its exteriority” with a labor-intensive façade that involves overwriting the appearance of effort (1988: 135). For a practical example, I need simply to look over at the sleek design of the iPhone, iPad Air, MacBook Pro, and Apple keyboard on my workspace. The clean, minimalism of the hardware would have me forget the hours logged by workers outside of Shanghai, just as the simple, intuitive software interface distracts me from the long nights put in by Silicon Valley coders (Oster 2016).
DeCerteau says that the same shift is present in the semantic gold standard that is writing, especially in “what was [in Western culture] for centuries considered writing par excellence, the Bible” (1988: 136). Pre-modern writing operated under a mode of orality wherein its value was dependent upon the reception of an audience. Christians ritualize this en masse in recalling the Johannine incarnation of the carpenter as “the word made flesh” (John 1:14) then receiving the sacrament of word and table in the liturgy—“take, eat…” (Kort 1996, 21). What their modern counterparts forget (or relegate to the background) are the endless volumes of writing that make the presence be the body and blood—the hermeneutics, apologetics, liturgies (Gk. leitourgia, “work of the people”) and institutions that appear to “make all things new” (Revelation 21: 5).
De Certeau’s notion of “the scriptural economy” challenges us to not let the new distract from the making. “What is at stake is the relation between the law and the body—a body is itself defined, delimited, and articulated by what writes it” (1988: 139). When we make value (and the work from which it results) an object of study, we can begin “an analysis of this economy, of its historical implantation of its rules and the instruments of its success … that one can best begin to locate the points at which voices slip into the great book of our law” (132). Are we—in religious studies—without a keen interest in how this “para-dox” works (153)? Our scholarship is the “anti-myth” that “takes away the appearance of being (i.e., of content, of meaning) that was the sacred secret of the Bible, transformed by four centuries of bourgeois writing in the power of the letter and the numeral” (153). As a teacher-scholar of religion, I want to help students understand scriptural economies and how humans appreciate (and depreciate) within them.
The following paper details how I employ de Certeau’s notion of scriptural economy as a framework for critically theorizing religion. Out of sensitivity to the market forces in which teacher-scholars find themselves, I have limited my discussion to three lower-level courses that service the general and overall curricular needs of my institution. None of these courses focus explicitly on theory and method in the study of religion (cf. Wiebe) or the role of (the scholar of?) religion in public life (cf. Tweed). Nor can I assume that students have any prior knowledge of or interest in religious studies as an academic discipline. Thus, I must make the aforementioned good sell in REL-101 Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview, REL-226 New Testament, and REL-293 Introduction to Islam. Below I (1) describe each course and its place in the context of my institution while discussing (2) how I introduce the concept of scriptural economies and (3) have students analyze value talk in the world around them. I conclude with some remarks on how I understand this approach playing within the broader expectations of higher education, as both an instructional enterprise and an evaluation-driven industry, with the hope that it will be of use to teacher-scholars in the precarious position of proving their value.
I REL-101 Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview
Upon beginning my career at Elizabethtown College, I developed an introductory religion course titled, Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview. It introduces students to the critical study of religion through a semester-long thought experiment on African enslavement in the United States. The premise is that the West brought Africans into a new world wherein “religion” was loaded with immense value. Surviving and thriving were linked to learning to account for its significance. The course considers what if religious studies were to take this historical moment—rather than the World Religions Paradigm—as its point of departure (Newton 2015).
Each week presents an opportunity to explore how African Americans have confessionally signified “religion” and what this might mean for our critical signification of the phenomenon (McCutcheon 1999). The introductory course pairs scholarly treatments of “religion” with exemplary case studies from African American history and culture. The survey includes orienting questions, metonymical foci, and debated intersections. I have adopted Paul O. Myhre’s (2009) anthology, Introduction to Religious Studies to present expert, elementary discussions of each issue. The textbook, along with students’ study guides, introduces “fundamental issue[s] in the imagination of religion” (Smith 1982: xi). In the first class session of the week, we use cooperative learning activities to examine a chosen “exempli gratia [or e.g.]” of the issue—ranging from a piece of African American cultural production, to a current event, to some local campus issue. Similarly, the entire second class session of the week is devoted to a discussion of a pertinent primary source or trend in African American history (Figure 1).
Ultimately the class assignments equip students to confound the seemingly intrinsic significance of the world around them in light of our discipline. For instance, each student is assigned a week in which they are asked to conclude our study of the issue with a critical blog post on an “e.g.” of their own choosing (even outside of African American history and culture).1 No example is off-limits, but the student must use it to teach the class how humans make sense of their world in light of the week’s issue (e.g. scriptures, truth-claims, ethics). Their thesis must be in conversation with the textbook, the week’s case study, and gleanings from class discussion (Epps 2016). They become the theorist, hypothesizing about “religion” as a human activity.
A Scriptural Economies as Conscription
By week’s end, students may come to draw questions about the textbook contributors’ claims. I am particularly interested in helping REL-101 students consider a central claim the book makes about religion. Paul O. Myhre (2009: 10) contends that although scholars have advanced multiple—even contradictory—definitions of religion, one place to start is by examining religion in terms of “core values,” for “while religion and core values are not the same (an atheist would profess no religion but would still have core values), core values are often linked to foundational truths that stem from religious convictions.” Regardless of whether one grants this premise, it begs the question of why and how humans place value in the issues the textbook contributors choose to study. My class challenges students to advance answers.
To help students develop their own conjectures about why these values, I embolden a basic proposition subtending de Certeau’s observations about scriptural economies: that the world is full of potential signs to be signified by a signifier. Myhre (2009: 10) acknowledges that core values are not only situational (reflective of one’s social location), but also mutable. Thinking about African American history, I would extend this to note that the scholar should never settle for value talk that does not hold the confessional signifier’s conscription of signs in tandem with an expected significant environmental response. Thus, Daniel Chandler (2014), in his recounting of semiotic theory, reiterates “the poststructuralist stance that we cannot step outside our signifying systems.” We cannot so easily abstract values from those for whom they are cargo.
Likewise, in observing the confessional signifier’s evaluation, the scholar also plays a part in signifying those signs. The heuristic of the critical lens, common in many introductory textbooks, has utility in helping students name where they are choosing to look for “religion” being signified (e.g., sociology—insider/outsider dynamics, boundary markers, stratification, etc.; feminism—the role of women as signifiers and signified signs; psychology—behaviors correlative to perceptions of self, others, and the world at-large) (Majeed 2009: 15-26). Students practice executing these approaches in their analysis of the various case studies, explaining what the confessor’s signification suggests to them as critic about how humans make “religion” valuable (Newton 2017b: 37-46). Students excel when they can situate their findings in conversation with the scholars they have studied thus far.
Some may find the idea of an introductory course in religious studies centered on African Americans strange; but that is precisely the point. If we are to “denaturalize” our evaluative assumptions, then we stand to learn from a history so colored by conspicuous designations of “familiar” and “strange” (Chandler 1994).2 Slavery, Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter—Charles H. Long writes: “Probably a new interpretation of American religion would come about if careful attention is given to the religious history of this strange American.” (Long 1971: 66). Critically studying “religion” as confessed by African Americans, one becomes witness to transformations between cosmos and chaos. This is narrated in the persistent appearance of signs like “God” (transformation, power), “Africa” (cosmos, order) and “slavery” (chaos, disorder) (56). This, too, is the story of scriptural economies, and although the specific signs may vary, I want my introductory students to be able to identify the way humans inflate the worth of themselves and others. The conscription of black people into the language game of religion becomes a vehicle for studying this dynamic elsewhere.
B Analyzing Evaluative Practices in the World Around Them
Because so much of the class is devoted to showcasing the type of work scholars of religion do, I use the final exam to place students in the role of the scholar. In preparation, students usually pen 1250-1500 word essays putting the theories that we have covered in conversation with specific entries on the politics of signification and identity from the scholarly collaborative, Culture on the Edge (2012). The group’s own shift from the study of “identity” to “operational acts of identification” provides an illustrative analog to model the way I have students consider value (Bayart 2005: 92). Generally, I have students read the group’s blog posts (Miller 2014; McCutcheon 2013) and book chapters (McCutcheon 2017; Newton 2017a; Touna 2017) to stoke their own theorizing.
I use the in-class exam period as a mini-conference or seminar, depending on the theme. I have had students outline their own perspectives on the study of religion (a la Long) and then Skype with Monica R. Miller about her work on Hip Hop and religion. I have had students deliver poster presentations to their classmates on how the issues studied in class factor into constructions of identity, as well as campus-wide presentations examining how those issues have factored into the valuation of black lives at Elizabethtown College. Students have experimented with social-science techniques including ethnographic video interviews, surveys, and media analysis, presenting results to students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Through these projects, students make the case for themselves that the study of religion as an analytical discipline involves worthwhile conceptual frameworks for engaging the complexities of the human.3
II REL-226 The New Testament
The particular blend of “Biblicism” at my school poses a challenge—and thus, opportunity—for this sort of study of the New Testament (Bielo 2009). Elizabethtown College was founded by the Church of the Brethren in 1899. Today the denominational ties are relegated to administrative legacy and campus ceremony, so the school draws very few Brethren applicants. Students could conceivably graduate knowing nothing of the denomination. Nevertheless the church’s pacifist roots and emphasis on “no creed but the New Testament” manage to resonate with the student body (Church of the Brethren 1979). The Lancaster County regional college tends to recruit students from an area rich with Anabaptist influence (e.g. Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, etc.). And being a private college, many of our enrollees come from Catholic, Anabaptist, and Evangelical private schools. Even the students most suspicious of “the Church” enter my class with a view that the New Testament uniformly and accurately records the movements of a single first-century tradition that consistently vied for peace. My job is to challenge my students to wonder why this collection of first-century Mediterranean notes, between people with varied interests in a burgeoning Jesus movement, is a seemingly invaluable part of our culture.
A Scriptural Economies as Prescription & Description
While I do not make mention of scriptural economies, the implications of DeCerteau’s argument find expression in how we conceive of the New Testament as a social nexus of signification and identification. My take on the historical-critical perspective wrestles with Ricouer’s reading of how we have come to value other’s history as our own. He writes:
For us, the world is the ensemble of references opened up by the texts. Thus we speak about the “world” of Greece, not to designate any more what were the situations for those who lived them, but to designate the non-situational references which outlive the effacement of the first and which henceforth are offered as possible modes of being, as symbolic dimensions of our being-in the-world.Ricouer 1973: 96
I substitute Ricouer’s abstraction with a dialogical meditation on why the college recognizes the New Testament course as meeting the requirements of the “Western Cultural Heritage” component of our “Core Curriculum.”4 On the first day of class, I point out the peculiarities of identity claims made with the New Testament given the bodies in the room. The six talking points below (Figure 2) surface the class’s assumptions about the parties and conditions governing the importance of the New Testament.
In my experience, these six points have been helpful for suspending students’ impulse to value my class as a chance to ponder “progress” or champion their own presumed histories (de Certeau 1988: 135). Instead they prepare to look at their own fundamental assumptions about the New Testament—what it is and how it works.
Once students are asking these questions, they already suspect that a logocentric study of the New Testament will not do for our purposes. At this point I orient students toward conceptualizing the “New Testament” as an artifact (that is an object constructed in relation to other objects), a text (a written record prescriptive and descriptive of realities), and part of a social world (developed and used in contexts) (Moreland, Burkes, and Aubin 2003: 4). This prismatic and diachronic approach challenges them to frame their object of study in terms of discourse—which includes text but involves much more. Studying the New Testament now entails “mapping” how humans have described and prescribed culture in specific territories (Smith 1993). We unpack rightly-debated discursive abbreviations like “Hellenizing,” “Romanizing,” and “Judaizing” to assess the social exchanges happening around the New Testament. Our data includes potshereds, coins, writings, maps, and timelines, but as theorists our chief question is about the changing reasons and evaluative methods for studying them (Newton 2016). What is it that we are hoping to find? What can descriptions of our Western cultural heritage tell us about the Western cultural futures we may be writing for ourselves and others?
B Analyzing Evaluative Practices in the World Around Them
Though the majority of the semester is focused on first-century developments, the crux of the class is the ongoing discussion that the study of the New Testament is about the construction of a Western Cultural Heritage. In situ finds, exegetical elegance, and certainty of sitz im leben are but a few ways in which Westerners have appreciated the New Testament. Throughout the course I introduce them to other ways in which this is done—leaving them to draw their own comparisons. I have had students read newspaper op-eds that use New Testament passages—or the collection in its totality—as an oracle of twenty-first century American life. In 2015, I had Irish historian Michael Geaney do a presentation on the Book of Kells, in which we looked at manuscript illumination as a scriptural strategy. Students are left to draw their own conclusions about the New Testament’s role in the cultural heritage of the West.5
I have also tried to create opportunities to extend their nascent hypotheses. One semester I had students go into the college archives and research the New Testament passages that Brethren have used to protest American wars—from the American Revolution to Vietnam. I then invited local pastors and religion scholars who identify as Brethren to discuss their own understanding of the church’s biblically-informed pacifism. Another time students wrote essays reconstructing historical-critical read of a New Testament passage and juxtaposing it to their observation of that passage being used in a current event. Students compared how people moved bodies of scriptural economy in both situations (de Certeau 1988: 139). I then had them interview biblical scholar Dr. Jennifer Grace Bird to talk about her work in promoting biblical literacy at Huffington Post and the politics of biblical interpretation. Rather than adjudicating right or wrong readings of the New Testament, the class consistently reminds students to ask why the New Testament is able to demand our institution’s attention (Loving 2016).
III REL-293 Introduction to Islam
Although the viability of American religious studies departments may be in jeopardy, “9/11” and subsequent acts of “terrorism” have incentivized undergraduate programs to place a premium on the study of Islam. The addition of my position at Elizabethtown College was incumbent upon my regular offering of an Introduction to Islam. Formally, it would enrich the coursework of students in our religious studies, political science, and peace & conflict studies programs. More broadly, the course would complement the college’s mission to provide a learning experience “used to benefit others and [affirm] the values of peace, non-violence, human dignity, and social justice” (Elizabethtown College 2017). Given the institutional and national interests at stake, the introductory Islam course is in desperate need of critical reflection by the teacher-scholar of religion.
My Islam course is a pedagogical attempt at undermining the notion of a singular Islam. It shifts the focus away from Islamic history—the narration of a singular 1400-year long pursuit of peaceful submission to Allah—toward a history of Muslims—a survey of attempts at pacificatory attempts around Islamic native terms. Rather than “falling back on traditional (and paradoxically European) categories that emphasize the rhetoric of authenticity,” I am “deconstructing such categories with appeals to identity formations including concomitant notions of dissonance, hybridity, and liminality” (Hughes 2012: 315).6 Students analyze Islamic native terms to explore what Muslims stress and what has stressed Muslims. In so doing, we bring into view Muslim’s efforts to overwrite the identity claims and values of others—Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
A Scriptural Economies as Inscription
Introductions to Islam textbooks add to the conception of a proper Islamic identity—rather than Muslim identificatory practices—as inscribed in the definitive titles of popular volumes such as Islam: Faith and History (Ayoub 2004) and Islam: The Straight Path (Esposito 2016). Even Carole Hillenbrand’s Introduction to Islam: Beliefs and Practices in Historical Perspective (2015) adopts a politics of authenticity. She writes, “It is a particular tragedy that the good name of a world religion has been besmirched by the murderous, politically motivated deeds of terrorists who call themselves Muslims while acting in ways that the faith roundly condemns” (22). These politics are not enough to keep me from assigning them, but they must function as yet another site for analyzing discourse around the term, Islam.
Attention to this conceit also reveals how the textbooks use a frame story to privilege the originary, revelatory moment as illustrative of a mainstream or “real” Islam. With little variation (Figure 3), the works sketch a formative history—beginning with the Pre-Islamic Arabia to the time of Muhammad on through the early caliphate and dynastic period. Attention then turns from the glorious origin story to scriptural sources—the Qur’an, the hadith, a catechesis of the Five Pillars of Islam. The ideals of the tradition (Ar. Sunnah) now affixed, readers return to the medieval period to survey Islam’s legal, philosophical, esoteric, and ethical traditions. The quick survey of intellectual history covers roughly a millennium of Islamic developments. The books veer to hot-button issues in the crucible of modernity—political reform movements, the role of women in Islam, and Islamic roots of terrorism. And the trajectory comes full circle with some sort of conclusion that contextualizes contemporary Islamic violence as an aberration in the legacy of the sunnah. In my classroom, this is the first not the final word on our study of Muslims. Students are tasked with investigating the “moods and motivations” guiding this narration (Geertz 1973, 90).
To help students make the critical turn for themselves, I suggest that the schema outlined represents a typifying of Islamic history, inviting us to chart the ways Muslims inscribe “tradition” to achieve their ends. Thus, the textbook is a primary source (Alexander 2016). De Certeau models this intellectual move in his theorizing of the body as book (cf. corpus):
Printing represents this articulation of the text on the body through writing. The order thought (the text conceived) produces itself as a body (books) which repeats it, forming paving stones and paths, networks of rationality through the incoherence of the universe. The process later becomes more widespread and diverse. At this point it is only the metaphor of the more successfully rationalized techniques that later transform living beings themselves into the printed texts of an order.1988: 144
My students need not read The Practice of Everyday Life to get this point. Instead, I point out the emerging genre of confessions in which “real” Muslims malign Islamist terrorists for having “hijacked” the doctrines of the religion (Salem 2014). The attempt to distance the voices of Muslim moderation from more “maximalist” strains are located across media channels, ripe for classroom analysis (Lincoln 2006: 16). In the subtitle to his popular textbook, Islam: The Straight Path, John L. Esposito draws a hardline between the two groups. Its referent is the sixth verse of the opening surah of the Qur’an wherein Muhammad petitions “the master of the universe” to “guide us on the straight path.” Islamic history is charting the process of “forming paving stones and paths, networks of rationality through the incoherence of the universe” while evaluating one or some as better than others (De Certeau 1988: 144). To write a history of Muslims is to pay attention to the ways bodies are defined and transformed in the journey for that final word.
I see my job as showcasing bifurcations on “the straight path,” and confounding similarities between differentiated formations. To do this I generally follow the textbook Islamic narrative while riffing on Esposito’s Qur’anic metaphor. Students compare the performative social expectations of chivalry (i.e., Ar. Muruwah) lauded in the era’s poetry with the surahs of the Qur’an—despite Muslim insistence that their scripture is not poetry (i.e. human) but the divine word as recited by their prophet. I discuss Muhammad’s biography to examine inscriptions of charisma. We then observe how the caliphate’s attempts to bureaucratize that charisma. I disabuse students of the analytical utility of relying on doctrinal enumerations by not only exploring the diverse way the five pillars of Islam (Ar. arkan) are followed, but also wrestling with competing theological outlines (i.e., the Shi’ite Usul al-Din and furu al-din) used by Muslims to follow the straight path. Instead of separating philosophical, legal, ethical and esoteric practices from Islamic politics, I challenge students to historicize these in light of local and global strivings in the name of Islam. We train our eyes on Muslim’s struggles (Ar. jihad) to realize their agendas in Islamic terms.
B Analyzing Evaluative Practices in the World Around Them
Knowing my students’ interest in social justice, I compromise by leaving the last three weeks of class to develop and present a critical intervention in the public study of Islam. This happens in two major forums. The first is adding and revising a digital primer IslamResearchEtown.wordpress.com—designed by the students in my first Islam class. The site is an e-textbook aimed at a general audience. The point of the project is to engage students in reflection on how they determine what is worth posting. So while they are looking into internet and library resources for data, they are also gleaning lessons about the politics of identity, description, explanation, interpretation, and comparison.
The second forum involves community presentations. I am frequently asked by my campus colleagues and local community groups to present on Islam. Each semester I parlay these invitations into chances for my students to teach an introductory class on Islam. I have had students present at our campus’s student research conference, the campus library, and local churches. In addition to choosing what is of value to teach, they must use their theoretical acumen to help move audiences from a study of Islam to that of Muslims.7
De Certeau’s notion of scriptural economy fosters a curiosity about the politics of value. Students can no longer take for granted words, things, ideas, or people as simply important. They are driven to determine the discourses that moved bodies to invest and desire in that which is deemed valuable. In none of the discussed courses do students actually read de Certeau. Yet when I apply his ideas to my pedagogy, I can more aptly encourage students to make the critical turn, theorizing for themselves about the mechanisms employed to regulate our value talk.
While my own disciplinary sensibilities are more in line with those of Wiebe’s, there is something to be said for Tweed’s call for publicly-engaged scholarship. It is after all what institutions of higher education seem to value. And we all belong to publics. This does not, however, necessitate a defense of values in our scholarship. In fact, the final projects executed by my students show critical interventions as a prime opportunity to demonstrate transferable skills and applicable content-knowledge. Religious studies can be an analytical discipline. The question is whether we are willing to question humans’ evaluations—even our own. I hazard to say that this may be the most valuable practice of all.
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This work is done in emulation of the work published on sites such as Religion Bulletin: The Blogging Portal for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Culture on the Edge, Studying Religion in Culture, and Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching.
Here I am thinking of the popular refrain of “making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.” Used to describe critical pedagogical projects including religious studies, Chandler attributes the phrase to the German poet “Novalis (1772-1801, aka Friedrich von Hardenberg)” and his encapsulation of the Romantic period’s zeitgeist.
For images and descriptions of the work discussed here, visit the course page “REL 101 (
This is a designation that was determined by my predecessor. I have maintained it in order to make the points expressed here. Similarly, I successfully convinced the college to recognize the Signifying Religion course on account of the similar critical-historical concerns.
My student Jessica Loving published one such reflection on my student-scholar collaborative blog. See “Advocating for Donald Trump” https://sowingtheseed.org/2016/09/14/advocating-for-donald-trump-falwell-liberty-and-the-bible-in-modern-society/
In regard to my Islam course, many thanks are owed to the work of Aaron W. Hughes, whose work on Islam and Islamic Studies has challenged me to push past the restrictive canonical binding to which many textbooks are tethered. That being said, I have only recently begun review of his 2013 introductory textbook, Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam (New York: Columbia University Press), which codifies the tact I am attempting to take here.
For images and descriptions of the work discussed here, visit the course page “REL 293: Islam” at Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching. https://sowingtheseed.org/2015/07/19/rel-293-islam/.