Guest Post: Professor Emeritus William E. Paden

By William E. Paden

Thanks to Kevin Trainor for calling my attention to the fine departmental blog and inviting me to contribute. I enjoyed reading about what everyone is doing these days.

I retired from UVM and the Religion Department in 2009—after 44 years! When I started in 1965 Burlington was scarcely the vibrant town it is today; and as for the department, there were just three of us religion professors trying to more or less cover the whole field.

9781474252119I certainly miss the students at 481 Main St. and my colleagues, but academic writing goes on as though it were an extended sabbatical. Blog readers might be interested in my new book, which came out last month, New Patterns for Comparative Religion: Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective (Bloomsbury Academic), and I’ve linked here to the front matter and complete Introduction as that gives the best overview.

Essentially the book is an intellectual autobiography in three parts: reformulating some of the basic concepts (‘world’, ‘sacred’) and figures (Durkheim, Eliade ) in comparative religion; reconstructing the concept of comparison and the idea of universal human-level behaviors; and suggesting linkages between comparative religion and what I call ‘evolutionary perspective’. The 13 chapters had been published in various places over the last 20 years, but brought together here because they show the steps on my path toward the overarching theme of the book. I have added the Introduction and Epilogue.

**Editor’s note: Prof. Paden’s work on New Patterns for Comparative Religion earned the recognition of a University of Vermont Retired Scholars Award for the 2015-2016 academic year.


Religion@UVM: the Class of 2016

Our most recent alumni graduated on May 22, 2016, and–while we say this annually–we couldn’t be prouder of this accomplished set of students.

They’ve presented (and even organized) at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in various leadership positions in our undergraduate Religious Studies Club, served organizations across the University, held jobs, did community service, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class was our second to complete the new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. These research projects included work on defining religion China, religion and state politics in Tibet, colonial categorization of religion in Jamaica, religion and/in the transatlantic slave trade, the politics of Nazi art seizures, conversion of German Jews in the modern era, vodou in the media, and state-funded, faith-based work with refugees. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Trainor, who hosted a potluck for our cohort at his home.

Class of '16 potluck at Prof. Trainor's house

Class of ’16 potluck at Prof. Trainor’s house

Prof. Trainor may have been this cohort’s formal usher from student to alumni, but the whole department has, in the course of four years, watched them wrestle with ideas about, around, and beyond the study of religion. We will miss them in our home at 481 Main Street, and hope they remain in touch as their post-UVM futures become realities.

As is our ritual, the Department of Religion hosted a reception for our graduating students (majors and minors) and their families at the Waterman Manor after Commencement. Here are a few scenes of that party, with hopes we get to gather together again soon. Congratulations, Class of 2016!

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CAS Honors Awards 2016 Event

CAS Honors Awards 2016 Event


Senior Spotlight: Stephen Franze

Stephen Franze in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Stephen Franze is this year’s recipient of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 

Why did you major in Religion?

Stephen Franze '16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

Stephen Franze ’16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

My undergraduate career brought me all over the College of Arts and Sciences including Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology. Up until a year ago I was actually on a BS track for Psychology. However, the Religion Department was finally the place I felt at home. I decided to switch to double major once I realized that Religion is the crossroads between all the disciplines I had been studying. What really won me over was the emphasis on critical theory and the fact that, for once, the professors were actually interested in what I thought about the material we were reading. Instead of regurgitating the information I was supposed to know, a major in Religion challenged me to express what I had learned.


Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Well, for one thing, I’m hoping to be debt free! Besides that fantasy, I see myself having finished at least a Master’s program in religious studies with an emphasis on Religion and Media. I think American culture has tried so hard to label itself as secular that religion has become a taboo at worst and “That thing my grandparents still adhere to” at best. Media has done a disservice to religious scholars and adherents across the country by not engaging the public with religion generally and not just in regards to terrorism or controversial social justice issues.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

Without hesitation I can say the one class people should not miss out on is REL 100 with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. This was the class that made me say “I must be a Religion Major.” I cannot think of another class in any department where you can engage such a wide variety of theoretical topics and issues while being constantly invited to share the things with which you agree and disagree. It was the first time I actually felt like I was a scholar participating in the contemporary discourse.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

If I could write one book, it would be a satirical novella reflecting the current role and function of religion in contemporary US society. I want to find a way to get readers engaged so they can start to see and explore the ways religion impacts and constructs their lives regardless of whether they explicitly adhere to a particular religion.

Congratulations on receiving the 2016 Outstanding Senior in Religion Award! In addition to your actual award, you’ve also won the opportunity to answer an additional question:

How to you think what you’ve learned in Religion might helping you navigate challenges in your future?

The fact is we never stop learning, so I guess you could say Religion taught me how to learn. Some say we are living in the Information Age and thus we are constantly being bombarded with supposed facts and claims, with the worlds wealth of information sitting right at our fingertips in the form of the Internet. In a time of so much noise and so many voices, it is invaluable to learn the skills necessary to weed out the superfluous details and invalid arguments in order to find those kernels of truth that can so often get lost in all the noise. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Religion taught me how to critically approach anything that I want to learn and to identify the guise of misinformation which leads people to fully accept claims such as “A Glass of Red Wine a Day is the Equivalent to an Hour at the Gym.” (Yes, this is an actual article being shared by major news outlets!)

Senior Spotlight: Cristina MacKinnon

Cristina MacKinnon in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Cristina MacKinnon '16

Cristina MacKinnon ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

I decided to switch into a Religion major pretty late in my college career (Spring of Junior year?) because I realized how much I enjoyed the critical thinking and engagement we do that intersects with a variety of disciplines. Religion is never simply just religion, but something that is constantly interacting with history, politics, lived experiences, authority, and power – just to name some of my favorites. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members that I have worked with to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests and goals, which makes me feel truly validated as someone who aspires to be a scholar.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Either pursuing a graduate degree in Religion (ancient/early Christianity, in particular) or happily teaching. Probably a dog-mom!

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would recommend Anne Clark’s “Religion and Ways of Knowing” because it stimulated conversation around a topic at the heart of the study of religion throughout the semester by using a variety of different traditions. It also introduced me to the book, the Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Sullivan which I think provides an insightful and impactful look into how religions are understood and its practitioners treated in an American context.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

NOT Religion-related but — I am a huge music nerd and engaging in local (and even online) music scenes has had a huge influence on who I am today. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about how gender and race/ethnicity show up in localized music communities. I would love to explore these ideas more critically and write about it!

Senior Spotlight: Lily Fedorko

Lily Fedorko in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Lily Fedorko ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

When considering a major at the University of Vermont, I was stuck because my interests derived from history, politics, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology. I found that I could pursue all of those subjects in the religion department.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I hope to be living abroad and pursuing a career in the direction/administration of a Museum.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would have to ask which subject she’s most interested in. I love religious history and if she is likeminded – she cannot miss Anne Clark’s Christianity course. But if she wants to engage with a text through a more conversational course, she shouldn’t miss studying with Sugarman.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

It would be on post-Holocaust art resistution and its effects on Jewish identity recreation. It is also the subject of my colloquium paper (on a much smaller scale). I have fallen in love with the topic and want (and hope) to pursue it past this one paper.

The Religion of Prince

The Religion of Prince by Todne Thomas
“Dearly Beloved,
We are gathered here today
to get through this thing
called life.” – “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince
On April 21, 2016, music icon Prince Rogers Nelson died at the age of 57. A creative genius, disciplined musician, charismatic performer, and prolific songwriter who fused rock, R&B, soul, and funk, Prince engineered a career that spanned four decades. Prince is widely lauded for his considerable musical talent. Prince is also notorious for his public performance of an overtly sensual sexuality that defined gender conventions. Prince’s concerts and music were vital contemplative spaces that illustrated the socially constructed character of gender and sexuality as well as the myriad embodied and performative hybridities that gender and sexuality can entail. For Prince to debut an overtly gender-transgressing sexuality in the 1980s as an African American man was incredibly significant. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of Neoconservatism and the Christian Right that attributed black poverty in the United States to black cultural deficiencies and a pathologized rather than institutional racism. Family values, and more specifically a corrective heteropatriarchy, were proposed as a way to end what was a perceived to be an onslaught of black welfare queens, absentee dads, and broken families. Prince’s performance of an embodied black sexuality that did not conform to a hypermasculinized black masculinity or a respectable black patriarchy was a defiant rejection of the intersectional hegemonies that sought to discipline black sexuality. Even amidst the controversial perspectives voiced by Prince after he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2011 that have been associated with anti-gay and anti-bisexual rhetoric (which in their own right merit analysis), the transgressive legacy of Prince’s career remains. His music and performance contained not only a confident pulse and an arrogant swagger but also a soulful rebuke of the constriction of sexuality—a counter-church if you will with “Purple Rain” as a hymn that airs the ambivalences, contradictions, and challenges that shape the affective and material contexts of black intimacies.
In addition to the ways in which Prince’s music located itself against the grain of conservative religio-political formation that constituted and demoralized blackness as nonheteronormative, is the aesthetics of Prince’s music and its religious and spiritual implications. In Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering by Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Harding writes of the broad registers of an indigenous black folk religion.
The meaning of religion for Black folks, they insist, is in the heart of our history, our trauma and our hope. It is what makes us indigenous to this place, to modernity. As [Charles] Long puts it, Black religion is the way have oriented ourselves—over the centuries in these Americas and extending back before our arrival on these shores—to “mash out a meaning” of life in the midst of tremendous suffering and pain. Religion, in this sense, is not simply a doctrine of faith or the methods and practices of church; rather, it is all the ways we remind ourselves of who we really are, in spite of who the temporal powers may say we are….Black religion then, is not only in the music, the drama, the communion, and the interpretation of text within the walls of the physical church; it is also in the orientation of Black people to so-called secular culture. Black religion is Otis Redding and D’Angelo as much as Mahalia Jackson and Mary Mary; it is hip-hop as holy dance; and root work as much as the laying on of hands. [Harding 2015, 118].
Black religion then constitutes an interpretive grid by which black people make sense of their place in the world, construct meaningful, hopeful, and even sensuous identities for themselves against hegemonic colonial narratives that confine blackness to abjection or the underside of morality and power. Whether in the moan of a woman rocked by the Holy Spirit or the ecstasy of a sexual moan sung by Prince followed by a pronouncement in “D.M.S.R.,” “Girl it ain’t no sin to strip down to your underwear,” both embodied performances aid a “beloved” in “get[ting] through this thing called life.” The throaty screams of Prince’s singing catapulted in tenor tones somewhere into a universe of the future is call for a radical immanence. In a time in which #BlackLivesMatter activists invoke black matter, bodies, and immediacy, in a way that I argue unseats a hegemonic Christian emphasis of ascetic suppression of the body and emphasis of a future messianic salvation, Prince is a priest of a black religion of here and now, of a this-lifeness that beckons us to contemplate how we love, inhabit, and move our flesh.

Senior Spotlight: Linda Biafore

Linda Biafore in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Linda Biafore ’16

Why did you major in Religion?

After transferring from art school, I decided on Religion and Classics majors because I was interested in world mythology. It was during my first Intro Comparative Religion class with Professor Morgenstein-Fuerst that made me decide to focus on Religion. In short, it blew my mind, and I was very excited and eager to learn more.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

My plans change pretty constantly. I hope to get a job at a college or university, as staff, in financial aid, admissions or advising–something that helps students with the hard parts of college and post-college life. (Bonus: this job within a college or university will help pay for a graduate degree.)

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would highly recommend REL196: Race and Religion in America with Professor Chipumuro. The class was engaging, intense, and introspective. You learn about the world that is right in front of you; aspects of our daily lives that we overlook every day. Every class discussion was relevant to current events, because we were learning about how religion motivates movements, traditions, and our own worldviews in our society.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

To be honest, I would write a book in the style of “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Mitchell Miner. I love turning the lens around on our own society and analyzing the way we talk about cultures that aren’t our own.

Notes from our Classrooms

Pedagogy is a major facet of any faculty job, and it is a source of conversation–and pride–at 481 Main Street. Religion faculty have been nominated for and won teaching awards, regularly attend pedagogical workshops, run innovative programming linking research and teaching as well as classrooms and internships. We often exchange notes on best practices, ideas that worked (and flopped!), and our students’ best work. We thought we’d kick off a series in which we shared these Notes from our Classrooms.

Last semester, Prof. Vicki Brennan taught student-favorite REL103: Sacred Sounds. While many enroll thinking it is a class about sacred music, Prof. Brennan dissuades them of that on day one–this is a course committed to thinking through theories of sound, how sound becomes labeled “religious,” and how those religious sounds enter and shape public and private spaces.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 9.07.21 AMProf. Brennan asked her Sacred Sound students to craft the Burlington Soundscape Project. This digital humanities project is an impressive collection of student work that physically and aurally mapped the sounds of Burlington. Students collected sounds (listen here) and then analyzed those sounds in the theoretical and practical terms of sound (e.g., “noise” and legal noise ordinances), the study of religion, and concepts of mapping.

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

In REL195: Islam & Modernity, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst had students research specific geographic areas (Iran, South Asia, and Turkey) alongside concepts of modernity. Instead of producing research papers, students were asked to distill their theoretically-driven and detail-heavy work into short blog posts, meant for public readership. Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst has used blogging before in other courses, and in light of overwhelmingly positive student responses to it, repeated the assignment in this brand-new course. Students wrote about trends in modernity and Islam with respect to gender, imperialism, power, secularism, and what it’s like to learn and unlearn, among other topics. See the full blog here.




As the Spring 2016 hits its stride, we’ll have more Notes from our Classrooms to share! 

“None” is the New Faith: Gender, Religion, and Season 3 of Orange is the New Black

From the Lionsgate website for Orange is the New Black.

From the Lionsgate website for Orange is the New Black.

I recently returned from a conference titled “Gender, Media, and Religion” in Boulder, Colorado hosted by the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture at the University of Colorado. Their biennial conferences each address a particular theme within the study of media and religion, and this year’s theme of gender seemed particularly relevant to the Neflix hit show, Orange is the New Black, a show I’m currently writing a chapter about for a textbook. It turned out that at least four other people thought so, too, so I found myself on a panel with three papers addressing that show, each from a different perspective (both of the other papers were co-presented by two scholars). In this blog post, I’ll give a summary of the ideas I presented, and then reflect on the conference as a whole, and the state of the study of religion, media, and gender that it reflects.

In my class introducing the comparative study of religion, I spend some time on the concept of “ontology” and how that fits in with the idea that religions are partly made up of ideas. We focus on the ontological nature of humans in different religious perspectives: do we have souls (Christianity, Islam) or not (Buddhism)? What makes us different from animals? And most relevantly: is a “male” human ontologically different from a “female” human? To me, the show, Orange is the New Black represents in popular culture a change in the answer to this last question. Until recently, most Americans would probably have assumed that yes, men and women are different, ontologically speaking. Sex was presumed to equal gender: if you were born with male genitalia and chromosomes, you were male and the same for female. Television shows notoriously reinforced this gender binary, in shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Honeymooners. As times changed, however, so did Americans’ concepts of gender. Growing up in the ‘70s with transmedia phenomena like Free to Be You and Me meant learning that things we thought were “boy things” or “girl things” didn’t have to be that – they had no ontological or natural connection to gender – and that being a “boy” or “girl” didn’t have to always mean the same thing to everyone.

Fast forward to 2015, and our popular culture now seems divided between those who take for granted that there is no “male” and “female” inherent in a person’s identity, only “human;” and those who see this assumption of a gender spectrum as a threateningly destabilizing force promoted by minority populations bent on undermining society. In internet-speak they are referred to as SJWs (“social justice warriors”). Television shows reflect this division: in the first camp, Orange is the New Black positively portrays a wide variety of gender expressions and sexuality; in the second, other television shows seem to “double down” on “traditional” gender roles. An example of this was convincingly put forward by Rachel Wagner in her paper at the conference. She argued that The Walking Dead draws on regressive New Testament concepts of gender (taken from the later pseudo-Pauline books) that have surfaced largely as a reaction to the perceived social chaos represented by growing empowerment of people of color, women, LGBT, and non-gender binary identified people. It promotes a vision of safety embodied by clearly defined gender roles, associating men with protection and brutality, and women with nurturing and care-taking. When these roles are compromised, the community cannot survive. (An interesting perspective, but this scholar would like to argue that there are more possible ways of reading that show, including as a critique of hypermasculinity.)

In other words, Orange is the New Black celebrates the idea that a person’s gender is not a determinative part of her identity – being a woman or a man is a state of mind, a series of choices and performances, and something that you can change about yourself if you need to.

Promo materials from Season 3.

Promo materials from Season 3.

Yes, you may say to yourself, but what does this have to do with religion? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about religion?

What interested me about this topic, applied to this show, is that the flexible and indeterminate way that gender is incorporated into the show’s narrative is paralleled by the flexible and indeterminate nature of religion on the show. Where television in the past has used religious identity to help create expectations about particular characters (and sometimes subvert those expectations, but usually not), Orange is the New Black allows religion to be a vehicle for telling stories about how people change, not just socially, morally, or in other “coming of age” ways typical of television narratives, but spiritually and in terms of their identity. Religion is a process, or a toolbox for finding ways to cope, or a way to explore new relationships with yourself and others. It is not a way of categorizing “the Jewish character” or “the Catholic character” as it has been traditionally used in television.

For those familiar with the show, especially the third season, the most obvious example of this is the story of Black Cindy. Curious as to how and why a new transfer to the prison is getting better food (broccoli!) in the prison cafeteria, she discovers that the new inmate is using an old trick: claim to be kosher. (Several people of my acquaintance have brought up the question, why kosher, not halal? To which I can only speculate: not enough precedent for humorous situations – no Muslim Woody Allen to riff on?) Soon, a sizable number of inmates from across the racially organized cliques are claiming adherence to Jewish laws of kashrut, and gloating about their broccoli. At first, prison management is hesitant to call the inmates on their fraud, but eventually they do bring in a rabbi to quiz them about their commitment to the Jewish faith. As expected, most of the inmates are as religiously illiterate as a random sampling of Americans can be. (See the Pew Research Center on Religion in Public Life’s 2010 Religious Knowledge Survey, for example.) Cindy, however, decides to push ahead with her identification as Jewish, and learn as much as she can, which she does first by checking out Jewish films from the library, like Yentl and Annie Hall, but then by finding actual Jewish inmates who can coach her on their knowledge of Judaism in practice and doctrine.

Finally, Black Cindy requests another meeting with the Rabbi. She formally asks, in the presence of two other Jews and the Rabbi, to become a Jew. He refuses, and she at first takes this as the standard ritualized refusal that converts are faced with in order to determine that they are committed to the path of Judaism, and not just dabbling. But the Rabbi is unconvinced. Black Cindy is, as her nickname indicates, African American, and as one of the Jewish inmates says, this makes it hard to understand why she would choose to go from being a “hated minority to being a double hated minority.” But she explains that the Christianity she grew up with never made sense to her, and left her feeling judged and alienated for wanting to ask questions. In her new knowledge about Judaism, she feels empowered to search for answers, to struggle with her mistakes and try to fix them, and to approach God as an action or a process. She says, “As far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions, and to keep learning, and keep arguing! It’s like a verb, it’s like, you DO God. And it’s a lot of work.” (You can watch her impassioned conversion on YouTube if you don’t have Netflix.)

But Black Cindy is not the only inmate whose story revolves around religion in the third season of Orange is the New Black. Another important plotline exposes the religious pasts of two inmates who in some ways represent polar opposites, spiritually speaking: Leanne and Norma. Norma is a mute woman probably in her sixties, whose flash-back shows that she joined a new religious movement in her teens, at the height of the “flower power” countercultural movement. Her “guru” is presented by the show as the epitome of the “cult leader:” spouting meaningless “new age” spiritual mumbo jumbo, and surrounding himself with nubile young things so that he can “marry” as many girls as he likes and exploit them sexually, financially, and emotionally. When Norma appears, innocent and wide-eyed, and suffering a debilitating stutter, he tells her that she never has to speak again, which she seems to find empathetic and liberating, but which the audience, I suspect, finds a little creepy. She sticks with him until the bitter end, the only follower left, presumably into the twenty-first century. Ultimately, as one can surmise because after all she is in prison, things do not end well. However, in prison she continues to maintain her silence, which gives her a kind of power and mystery, attracting a group of followers who find in her presence and touch a peace they can’t otherwise experience in the dehumanizing context of the prison.

The amazing thing about this plotline is that it leads to a situation where characters in this dramedy explicitly argue about what religion is, and what it is for, usually a topic only found alluring by students of religion such as myself and my peers. One day, Norma and her followers are meeting in the chapel and another, explicitly Christian, group comes in to claim the space. When the chaplain tells them to leave because they don’t count as a religion, Leanne stands up to explain that they do have “a belief system.” The chaplain has dismissively explained that yes, Christianity was new once, too, but “after hundreds of years of private worship, several great schisms, and thousands of people martyring themselves, it became a focused belief system. With a name.” Leanne responds that they, too, have a faith, but when she explains it, the chaplain reiterates that it is a meditation club, not a religion.

This scene is a lead-in to a series of flashbacks explaining how Leanne ended up in prison. (Previously, Leanne has been a minor, somewhat comic character, largely a foil for the more forceful personality of “Pennsatucky” another meth-head prisoner who provided an evangelical figure for the first two seasons’ plotlines.) Now, we find out that Leanne comes from an Old Order Amish community, and fell into using meth during her experimental time with “the English” and then repented and was accepted back into her family. Unfortunately she had left evidence of her drug dealing, and was persuaded by the police to set up her former drug using friends, which backfired and led to her incarceration as well. Although the depiction of the Amish may not be accurate, it serves to establish at least a symbolic context for Leanne’s relationship to religion. Her background in this religious community shapes her response to Norma, and explains her urge to use her leadership role in the group to define rules and doctrines for them to follow. At the same time, Leanne’s desire to find the sacred in the material world, like the image of Norma in a piece of toast,

or the healing sensation of the touch of Norma’s finger on her forehead, speaks perhaps to a longing for a more “mystical” (even Catholic) form of spirituality than is available in the word-centered doctrine and worship of the Amish. So, in one narrative arc, Orange is the New Black gives us 1970s counterculture, Amish Americans, and a New Religion in prison, all of which – as stereotypically as they may be presented — are shown as sincere responses of good people searching for meaning and belonging in spite of their marginal position in American society.

Just as different sexual orientations or gender identifications are sources of tension, comedy, and comfort in the context of the show, religion is also shown as something that can act in ways that are destructive and constructive, creating divisions and connections, and reflecting how Americans, in the words of sociologist Robert Wuthnow, have shifted their religious attention from “dwelling” to “seeking” – looking for new combinations and new homes in religious settings that we are transforming as we adopt them.

If you watch the third season of Orange is the New Black, you will also notice an almost constant stream of religious improvisation, from the first episode, where Pennsatucky creates a memorial to all her many aborted “babies,” to the funeral held by two characters for all the books that must be burned due to a bedbug infestation.

Pennsatucky and Boo from the episode: "Mother's Day"

Pennsatucky and Boo from the episode: “Mother’s Day”

The final, celebratory scene of the season also takes on a spiritual ethos, as the show’s writers and producers use all the tools of lighting, music, slow motion, camera angles, and close-ups to evoke a moment outside of time and space, where reconciliation, joy, rebirth, and even liberation may be possible to these inmates, if only for a few, stolen moments.

Finally, my very brief thoughts on the conference in Boulder. The papers I heard there, and the many informal conversations, were inspiring and thought provoking. It seemed clear in many instances that a fourth variable was implied or necessary in this matrix of religion, gender, and media, and that was race. As a scholar, however, it is a challenge to handle the intersectionality of these cultural categories, after being trained so long and intensively in just one or two. The field of religious studies has long understood itself to be interdisciplinary on the one hand and distinctively located on the other, struggling with the need to learn the methods and theories of other disciplines while maintaining a distinctive niche of our own. This conference was one of those spaces where “experts” from across the disciplines actually did come face to face and exchange ideas, inspiration, and perspectives, and I am convinced that the field is stronger for it.

Monks, Nuns and Sons

a monk and his nephew

            a monk and his nephew

In Bangkok, there are lots of monks with sons.

This statement would seem to be provocative, something meant to begin a discussion about how troubled the Sangha is (in a period when the Kingdom is itself troubled), and how it desperately needs reform. The kind of statement that begins a discussion about monks flying in private jets, or corruption over monetary issues.

Instead, it’s an innocent observation about a situation that I had never thought of. Monks can have sons. And this leads to a wider, completely obvious, observation: monks, nuns and novices, they all have families.

In 2014, I was interviewing Thai monks about their views on their own status as citizens. This was a time of protests which ended up in a coup, and while it was a time of heightened political sensitivity (which has continued), and my questions were often directly about politics, our conversations often veered into non-political areas. I wanted to know how old monks were, how long they had been monks what kind of educational background they had. This was how I learned about the sons of monks. One day in March, while walking through Lumpini Park, I encountered a monk who was in a booth collecting money for rice farmers. Lumpini is a large green space near one of the key shopping/business centers of Bangkok, and when the protests were consolidated after the failed elections of February, they ended up in Lumpini (taking away one of the few exercise areas for many residents of the City of Angels). This was not the first monk that I encountered in Lumpini, but unlike those monks, this monk was happy to speak with me about his views on politics. He admitted to me that he was not the most knowledgeable monk around, and that I should really be talking with one of the protest leaders, Luang Pho Buddha Issara, but he was happy to chat. Perhaps it was because he also wanted to test his English; this was a monk who had lived in Texas for a few years while in the military (probably as some sort of liaison between the US and Thai militaries). He told me he and his wife divorced while he was there, and that his son had remained with his ex-wife when he came back to Thailand. We kept talking for a few minutes, and then it hit me. “You have a son?” “Of course.” I asked the monk if his relationship with his son had changed, and he told me of course it had, but it also seemed that he had not seen his son since he had ordained five years prior.

This was a revelation to me – monks with sons! And it has a perfectly straightforward explanation, not at all associated with monks fathering children. Among the 120,000 or so monks in the Thai Sangha there are many who ordain after they retire, when their spouses have either died or they have gotten a divorce. This is a normal practice within Thailand and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia, though these monks tend not to have a very high status. This is because they have become monks after they have been members of society, usually though not always with spouses, children, jobs and so forth. They have been tainted, as it were, by the world; they have not spent much time in robes, and their knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha, some of these men would tell me, is not very great.  (And of course they are in good company – the Buddha had a son, Rahula, before he became the Buddha.)

Over the next few weeks, it seemed, every time I went to a new wat, I encountered another old monk who was also a father. And I started asking these men about their children. Some were like the monk in Lumpini Park, telling me that their relationship with their children had changed a great deal. Others were far less willing to abandon the nature of their familial relationships. “Of course, it’s the same,” said one monk. “A father is a father; this doesn’t change when you become a monk.” He told me that he would see his son and his granddaughter regularly; there were no problems with this – the son would come and pay his respects to his father, making merit with him a couple of times a month. I suspect that their relationship did change – I know my children don’t regularly make merit to me – but perhaps less than one might expect.

The most interesting conversation wasn’t with a monk at all, but rather with the nun Bhikkhuni Dhammananda. Venerable Dhammananda has been at the center of efforts in Thailand to reestablish an order of nuns, part of wider efforts to reestablish this order throughout the Theravada world). Ven. Dhammananda was formerly a successful academic, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh who decided a number of years ago to take the higher ordination. She resides with a handful of nuns a couple of hours to the west of Bangkok at a wat that was founded by her mother. While her efforts have received some support from individual monks within Thailand, the Sangha hierarchy as a whole has said that her ordination is not legitimate, which puts her in something of an ambiguous state within Thailand. When I interviewed her in February 2014 (again about questions of citizenship), I also asked her if she had children, and how they had responded to her decision to ordain. She told me that her sons were adults, and that they supported her efforts, but also that her relationship with them had changed in radical ways. They too regularly made merit at her temple, but she could not be in a room alone with them anymore because of a need to maintain a very high standard of propriety (cue the comment about plenty of space for mediocre men in an institution, but none for mediocre women). She also said though that she and the other nuns at the wat loved to see her granddaughter. As proof of this, there was a picture of the granddaughter on the side of the wat’s refrigerator.

When I conducted research on Theravada, minority monks of Southwest China in 2001-2002, I was accompanied by my wife and our now 15 year old son who was one at the time. He fascinated the monks and the novices of the wat. They would play with him every day after I taught English to the novices – they even threw his first birthday party, making him cry when they sang Happy Birthday (see the picture). When I have returned to the region, even after a decade, the monks ask how he was doing and if he remembered them.

Jasper first birthday party.wat pajie

One day in spring 2002, when the abbot and I were chatting and watching the novices play with my son, he sighed and said, “Children, they are lovely…but they are dukkha,” using the term that is part of the “first truth” of Buddhism, that suffering or dis-ease is an inevitability in existence. This seemed a curious thing to say at the time, because the abbot was as likely to play with my son as the novices were (if not quite as boisterously). I don’t know why he mentioned this, but I do know that for many years, the abbot (a figure who has “left home”) supported his younger sister and her children after they had come to Southwest China from the Shan States in Myanmar. While not a father, perhaps he was feeling a little too clearly the difficulties that familial attachments inevitably cause.

The abbot’s comment is one that we have come to expect from the monastics of Buddhism. After all, it conforms with the ideal that we find in a number of Pali texts such as the Khuddaka Nikaya which talks of monks “wander[ing] alone like a rhinoceros,” or the Dhammapada: “Better it is to live alone; there is no fellowship with a fool. Live alone and do no evil; be carefree like an elephant in the forest.” (trans. By Acharya Bodhirakkhita, 1985; accessed at This also fits nicely into Weber’s influential framing of Buddhism as “other-worldly asceticism.” It is also, if not wrong, at least too limited a way of looking at Buddhist religious specialists, confusing an ideal within Buddhism with the ideal.

Why does this matter (beyond the fact that I have a bit better sense of the experience of Thai Buddhists)? There are two points here. First scholarly work in English on monastics and families has been insufficient. Gregory Schopen twenty years ago drew our collective attention to how inscriptions showed monastics dedicating merit to their parents. More recently Shayne Clarke’s (2014) Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms reading of disciplinary commentaries tells us that family relations inside and outside the monastery were of significant concern, and there is a special issue of the Journal of Global Buddhism (released a few weeks ago) which is dedicated to the “Family in Modern Buddhism.” While this work is welcome, it is really focused on pre 20th century Buddhisms, or on Japanese forms which have a long history of clerical marriage. Indeed, with the exception of a chapter on monastic recruitment in Jeffrey Samuels’ important book on emotion in Sri Lankan monastic culture, Attracting the Heart, there has been no attention to the position of Theravada monks in the contemporary world as members of families (let alone as fathers).

This insufficient scholarship points to a problem with the way we have framed our interests in monks and nuns as actors, no doubt. But I suspect that there is a broad reluctance within the Thai world (and indeed perhaps the Theravada world more broadly) to talk about the ways that monks remain imbricated within family relations, and certainly with the ways that they could be fathers. The status of monks as sons is clear and obvious since the merit of ordination is often dedicated to one’s parents. And Thais are certainly aware that monks can be sexual beings, and were before they ordained, but that sexuality is a problem to be resolved or repressed once one has taken on robes. Moreover, structurally, monks have left the family, even if they still communicate with their family members regularly. Most of the monks I have talked to in Thailand (and indeed in China as well) are willing to answer questions about their families, but they rarely bring them up in the course of a conversation. In other words, while these “monks with sons” are nothing out of the ordinary, they are a subject about which Thai Buddhists are generally silent.

So let me modify my opening statement. There are monks with sons in Bangkok, but I don’t know if there are a lot of them, or if this is a significant phenomenon or not. However, because of scholarly inattention and internal silences, no one else does either.