About Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

Assistant Professor of Religion

Religious Literacy Month: Liz Kineke

On October 28, we hosted our fourth event in our Religious Literacy Month slate of events! Liz Kineke, a producer, journalist, and director on the “God Beat” joined us to talk about how, as a journalist, she sees religion as always in the room!

At her talk, Ms Kineke walked students through how being able to read religion in the room–a religious literacy issue–came later on in her career as a journalist. She said, “while 4 years ago I would have said religion is a white noise hum, today it is a blaring siren,” and warned students that religion and freedom of the press are tied up, literally, in the first amendment. In her view, freedom to think and write are the bedrocks of democracy; she quipped that if students wanted to become journalists, they need a first amendment scholar on speed dial, but if students wanted to write about religion they need two.

Ms. Kineke also–perhaps obviously–showed the audience clips of documentaries. She highlighted Faith on the Frontlines, a piece about the prominent role of clergy in the Charlottesville, VA anti-racism, anti-fascism demonstration that left one dead. She also spoke about Religion & Identity in Young America, a documentary that follows three young people from minoritized religions and attends to them not as victims but as protagonists dealing with increased religious-racial scrutiny.

The talk was attended by about 100 students, faculty, staff and community members and wrapped up with a panel discussion featuring Ms. Kineke, Dr. Vicki Brennan, and Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst.

Religious Literacy Month: Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt

On October 22, we hosted our third event of Religious Literacy Month! Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, a sociologist of religion and scholar of systemic racism and Catholicism, joined us for a talk titled “Catholic Young Adults & Pro-Life Teachings: a Bellwether for the US Catholic Church.”

In her talk, Dr. Pratt talked about how “pro-life” has come to only mean “abortion,” despite Church documents, leaders, and theological orientations having a far more expansive understanding of what “pro-life” includes. She talked about how for young Catholics, this collapsing of issues is a problem–for them and for the Church. As a sociologist, Dr. Pratt approaches these issues institutionally: how have institutions made choices? how do those choices impact the members of those institutions? what is lost or gained in such translations?

Dr. Pratt pointed out in her talk that moving into public-facing scholarship–that is, research and writing aimed at a mass audience, rather than a paywalled, University-library audience–is a new feature of her research, and perhaps even part of her ongoing thinking about religious literacy. Here are some examples of this work:

You can find Dr. Pratt’s reflections on writing about Black Catholicisms here.

And as Dr. Vicki Brennan pointed out in her introduction, a really moving piece reflecting on Toni Morrison after her death here.

Dr. Vicki Brennan (right) introduces Dr. Tia Pratt

Religious Literacy Month: Abenaki Spirituality and Religion

As but one session of a day-long event celebrating, honoring, and reflecting upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our second Religious Literacy Month event was “Abenaki Spirituality and Religion.” Dr. Vicki Brennan presided and moderated a panel led by Nulhagen Abenaki Tribe Chief Don Stevens and Dr. Frederick Wiseman, Director, Wôbanakik Heritage Center.

Dr. Vicki Brennan organized the event in conjunction with the larger, UVM-wide Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration.

Unlike our other Religious Literacy Month events, this panel featured practitioners–on purpose. Part of Religious Literacy, as well as the study of religion, is coming to understand how some voices have historically been marginalized, ignored, oppressed, and–importantly–seen as incapable of being experts on their own traditions. 

from left to right: Chief Don Stevens, Dr. Frederick Wiseman, & Dr. Vicki Brennan

In this event, we sought to center practitioners, as a way to prioritize Abenaki voices when, far too often, non-Native scholarly (or governmental) voices have dominated the discourse around Native/Indigenous histories, religions, practices, and, yes, spiritualities. Similarly, we sought to center practitioners as a way to round out our work on religion, religious literacy, and reading these lectures.

The event saw over 100 people–and had even more breaking fire code and sitting in the aisles. Event photos thanks to Dr. Tom Borchert.

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Packed house in John Dewey Lounge

Religious Literacy Month: Simran Jeet Singh, Ph.D.

Join us on Thursday, September 26 for our kickoff event of Religious Literacy Month!

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of South Asian Religions, Islamophobia, race/racialization and religion, and Sikh traditions. He is also a noted activist, applying scholarship to social justice issues around race, racial profiling, anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh hatred and violence.

He has taught at Trinity University, Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and New York University. Dr. Singh’s public writings on religion, race, Sikhi, and Islamophobia have appeared in major news outlets (including the Washington Post, CNN, Huffington Post, and Religion News Service, where he is a regular columnist); he has appeared on television and documentary programs; and he serves the Interfaith Advisory Board Committee of New York State. In 2014, was invited to address President Obama and other members of government about Sikhs; in 2015, he similarly was invited to address the Pentagon.

His list of awards for this work is impressive:

In 2018, Dr. Singh won the Harvard Divinity School Alumni/Alumnae Council selected him as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes Memorial honoree, an award which “recognizes distinguished HDS alumni whose excellence in life, work, and service pays homage to the mission and values of Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 and Harvard Divinity School.”

In 2018, he was named a “faith leader to watch” by the Center for American Progress; in 2017, he was named Educator of the Year by the Dialogue Institute for the Southwest.

In 2016, he won the  Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award from Auburn Seminary, which “recognizes courageous individuals who dedicate their lives to advocating for justice and peace in our world.”

Dr. Singh’s scholarship and activism demonstrate how and why religious literacy is necessary. We’re so honored to have him help kick off our month of events!

Religious Literacy Month

Starting Thursday, September 26, the Religion Department is hosting a (long) month of events centered on religious literacy! We’re marking the launch of the Certificate in Religious Literacy for Professions, the first undergraduate certificate of its kind in the U.S., with an all-star lineup of guest speakers, panels, and faculty forums.

Follow us on Facebook for event information. Check into the hashtag #RelLitUVM on Twitter and Instagram for live-tweets, related content, and photos. Or–better yet!–come to any or all events in person: they’re free and open to the public.

Senior Spotlight 2019: Juliet Duncan

481 always has such a calming, supportive, and knowledgeable atmosphere and it has never ceased to inspire me as both a student and a critical thinker. The passion for knowledge and care for students is always palpable within the religion department building and I have always really appreciated that. 

juliet duncan ’19

Why did you major in Religion?

I decided to major in religion after taking a course on Religion in Film and Television taught by Professor Andrus. I loved both sides of the course so much and it reminded me of the interest I had always hard towards those topics. I decided to continue taking film and religion courses afterwards and when it came time to choose a major I committed to both!

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I see myself working in television production in some form, utilizing the skills I gained as a religion major to adopt and critique different perspectives and be more thoughtful in the ways we both create and consume different narratives. 

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 say that a first- year student should make sure not to miss one of Professor Andrus’ Religion in Film and TV/Pop Culture classes because it relates more to your everyday life and allows you to see religious inspiration and thought in the secular world. It is a great introduction to religious studies for those that are not particularly religious or do not think they would be interested in it because it teaches you about the religious perspective while applying it to mundane/everyday actions/behaviors that you either don’t put much thought into or feel a strong connection to. It also demonstrates the power of storytelling across different medium and how those powers are mirrored in (or arguably stem from) religious tradition. 

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

If I were to write a book it would most likely be related to the social roles and influences of television in our everyday lives. Specifically, I would analyze the life expectations TV shows create for us as well as what we seek out in allowing a storytelling medium to become so intimately enmeshed in our lives. 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

My fondest memories at 481 Main all revolve around the professors there and the religion department in general. 481 always has such a calming, supportive, and knowledgeable atmosphere and it has never ceased to inspire me as both a student and a critical thinker. The passion for knowledge and care for students is always palpable within the religion department building and I have always really appreciated that. 

Senior Spotlight 2019: Quinn Cosentino

a series about our graduating seniors

On a campus consisting of massive, towering, and overwhelming structures with floor to ceiling windows and hyper-modern architecture, the Religion House has acted as a sanctum for me, precisely because it is just that, a house- a home.

quinn cosentino ’19

Why did you major in Religion?

My reasoning for choosing the major is a bit embarrassing, to be honest. When I was in high school, I was somewhat obsessed with the History Channel(or Pseudo-History Channel) show, Ancient Aliens.The show stoked a fascination in me for learning about diverse religious traditions and the cultural contexts that accompanied them. The show always lost me, though, at “it was aliens!” It was this fascination (minus the radical theory) that brought me to the Religion department my first semester, freshman year. What the Religion program offered me, however, was far more thought provoking than “fascination” and that is the reason I remained a Religion major. Passions I never knew I had, such as investigating gender and race theory, were fostered through this program and it has made me the complex thinker I am today.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years, I picture myself as a museum curator, working on projects that relate to gender theory and racialization. More specifically, I hope that I will hold a position that relates to colonialism and sainthood and saints in America. This has been the focus of the major research project I conducted in the Religion Department and it will undoubtedly follow me into my graduate program, and (with any luck) into my career. On a more personal note, I will be able to afford a dog and a mortgage.

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

Prior to Fall Semester, 2018, I would have said the most valuable class for me was “REL 224: Seeing the Sacred” which is about the role of visuality and visionary experience in the Christian tradition prior to the Early Modern period. That class was the most valuable for me, personally, and I want to plug it here because it is incredibly engaging (and Anne Clark is, of course, amazing). In the Fall of 2018, however, I entered into Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst’s “REL 297: Religion and Empire.” This class explored in incredible depth how gender, race, religion and science (to name a few) functioned to advance Empire from early colonialist efforts to today. I firmly believe this class changed the way I engage with the world on a professional and personal level. I believe every human being (let alone every religion student) should be required to take this course.

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

I would definitely write a book about colonial saints and the role of sainthood in America as I mentioned earlier. I’ve also been very interested in the gender relations and expectations of Medieval and Early Modern Christianity. More specifically, I would write a book about medieval witch trials. I’ve had an informal goal for the past few years to write creatively and I’d like to write a book that’s less academic. 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

I don’t have any specific memories of 481 Main, but the building has played a significant role in my collegiate life. On a campus consisting of massive, towering, and overwhelming structures with floor to ceiling windows and hyper-modern architecture, the Religion House has acted as a sanctum for me, precisely because it is just that, a house- a home. I love it because, like me, it exists on the margins of the status quo (as does the religion major itself on a science-oriented campus). When I look back and reflect on my time as an undergraduate, I don’t think I’ll remember UVM; I’ll remember 481 Main Street and the countless amazing experiences I had there.

Senior Spotlight 2019: Abra Clawson

a series about our graduating seniors


I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: declaring a religion major was the best thing I did at UVM.

-ABRA CLAWSON ’19



Why did you major in Religion?

It began as a quest for redemption. 

I signed up for a religion class my first semester at UVM, hoping to get an introduction to something I had never studied in high school, and about which I knew nothing. The class frustrated me endlessly (why was the answer to every question “yes… and no”!?), but it was also my favorite of the semester. A year later, I decided to give religion another shot and took a second class, determined to do better than I had in my first semester. I realized that my religion professors were the ones I found the most compelling, and who pushed me the hardest but also made it clear that they believed in me. The classes were interesting, but the people were really what drew me in. By the end of sophomore year, I declared a minor (after finding out that I would get a super cool mug if I did). 

Junior year came around, and I felt dissatisfied with some of my classes in other departments because I thought I was not being pushed to be critical of what I was studying. I was also in awe of the older religion students in my classes, because they said things that seemed so smart and important and different from my other classes. I wanted to take more classes with these people. I ended up transferring into “Religion and Secular Culture” the second week of the fall semester, declaring religion as my second major at the same time. From there, things just got better; I loved how the major built on and complicated what I learned elsewhere. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: declaring a religion major was the best thing I did at UVM.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I could see myself going in a few directions over the next few years, so look for me: 1) working at a regional theatre in artistic management or sound design, or 2) living in another country doing research and creating multimedia projects.

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

The senior seminars (“Religion and Secular Culture,” “Religion and Empire”) were my favorites! I would tell younger students not to be scared by a course number; the intro classes were the hardest anyway. My seminar papers are the assignments I’m most proud of at UVM, and both Professor Borchert and Professor Morgenstein Fuerst made them feel manageable. Those are also the classes where I got to know the other students the most, and where the department began to feel like a family. But really, just take at least one class in something you’ve never studied before, something out of your comfort zone. Also, don’t wait until senior year to take Religion 100.

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

I’ve been obsessed with Shakespeare since 6thgrade, and I think it would be cool to work on a project about religion and Shakespeare which goes into the historical context of a few plays and their characters, and then takes a look at the way they have been produced over the years. 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

The ability to feel comfortable just stopping by anyprofessor’s office to ask a question or just to say hello. Running into people in the hallways and having conversations that spilled out of the classroom. The early mornings sitting on the couches before class.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Abra Clawson is the 2019 winner of the

Outstanding Major Award.


UVM Student Research Conference 2019

As in years past, the 2019 Student Research Conference has quite a showing of Religion majors and minors! Students will give traditional conference papers, poster presentations, and a creative presentation that utilizes sound. Topics engage notions of idigeniety, imperialism, nationalism, sustainability, gender, race/racialization, sound, capitalism and tourism.

The Student Research Conference has a 12 year history at UVM and continues to grow in its scope, format, and impact. It is an all day event on Wednesday April 17 in the Davis center. We are really proud of our seven scheduled presenters. Join us if you can!

Authors & their projects (alphabetically):

Katie Arms, “Vermont’s Empire of Identity: Tracking Ideological Processes to ‘Sustainable’ Agriculture” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/70/

ABSTRACT: I was born in Vermont but I’m not a “Vermonter”. What is this statement based upon? and why do we have it? and what work is it doing knowingly or not? I attempt to trace the ideological process behind this identity claim—one that carries significant capital in terms of marketing and brand building but is also reflective of an American rural ideal that is racially and ethnically crafted and inherently gendered and nationalistic. I question why this identity is so celebrated and powerful in an effort to think about how imperialism and empire operate ideologically and economically. While Vermont appears to be a thriving “sustainable” agricultural state, it is structured to take for granted the patterns of marginalization and power that were inherent in the shaping of the identity. If we take for granted these markers of identity without critically assessing them, we will continue reiterating the hegemonic colonial metanarratives that are not “sustainable”, but are, as we know, harmful socially, environmentally, and economically.

Margaret Bennett, Alnôbak Agency in a Colonized Landscape” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/84/

ABSTRACT: The question of historical agency and sovereignty is one that cannot be easily answered, as history is dictated by agents of imperialism rather than their subjects; such is the case of the Abenaki, or Alnôbak. The Abenaki, as explained by Frederick Matthew Wiseman, are “the descendants of people who lived in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Western Maine ‘since time immemorial,’ as they said in 1766” (9). Despite their long history, spanning thousands of years in Northern America, Wiseman says that many White-Anglo settlers throughout Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire assumed until the early twentieth century that the Abenaki had left, essentially exiled from—and Othered in—their own land. He specifically notes that “Anglo historians seem to lack research interest or tools to discover much about the Alnôbak of this time, so their lore is lacking” (118). This lack of interest in the native inhabitants of a since colonized land is not surprising, as acknowledging the original and sustained presence of a sovereign Native people could prove problematic for modern American government and legislation. Through this project, I will elucidate how the distinct yet deeply intertwined influences of race, religion, and science affected the Alnôbak and their interactions with Anglo-settlers, with an aim to understand how the Alnôbak express their agency in a colonized space.

Katherine Brennan, “Tout a Changé! The Spectre of Islam in a (Secular) Catholic France” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/379/

ABSTRACT: Beyond simply a category of explanation, religion is a category of contestation. Despite the instability of the category of religion, governments worldwide participate in signifying what does and does not count in their laws and legal systems. The systems of law in France provide no exception. French laws reflect a desire to differentiate church and state, or laïcité. However, beneath the surface, particular institutions remain privileged. France is a country that claims secularity, yet within that secularity lies an institutional understanding of what religions are and what that means for the law. Legal systems in France are saturated with Catholic undertones, and laws regarding religion disproportionately affect minority religious communities under the masquerade of neutrality. Thus reflecting anxieties emerging from the encroaching “other” which are obscured by labels such as ‘Islamophobia.’ In this project, I examine legal efforts to differentiate religion and non-religion with a focus on recent court cases around school lunches and the rights of religious minorities.

Abra Clawson, “Sounds from a Dream Place: Politics, Religion, and Tourism in Kagbeni, Nepal” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/352/

ABSTRACT: Kagbeni, Nepal is a town which sits at a series of overlapping crossroads. With the restricted region of Upper Mustang to the north, and a popular pilgrimage site to the east, the town is constantly being shaped by globalization, religious and cultural identities, and tourism. I explore each of these forces in turn, centering my analysis around the mode of sound. This project combines anthropological methods of participant observation with theories from sound and religious studies in order to present a new way of understanding the forces shaping Kagbeni. How does sound claim space, and how does it reshape the communities who live in Kagbeni? In order to better answer these questions, I have curated a series of sound compositions to accompany this project. Each composition focuses on a theme: politics, religion, and tourism. Taken as a series, along with a written analysis of daily life in Kagbeni, these sound compositions draw attention to the ways that outsiders perceive the Loba community who lives there, and how these perceptions impact the lives of the Loba in turn.

Quinn Cosentino, “Native Saints: Hagiography and Racialization in Colonial New France” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/254/

ABSTRACT: In October, 2012, the Catholic Church canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, an Iroquois convert to Christianity who lived in the 17th Century in modern day New York and Quebec. The actual story of Kateri, colonial sainthood, and the missions of the French Jesuits, however, is one that illuminates a discursive warfare whereby Jesuit missionaries used sainthood to assert gender roles that they relegated to distinct racial groups. These gender roles perpetuated a traditional medieval discourse that justified imperial invasion. The martyrdom hagiographies and Jesuit Travelogues I investigated expose this discursive operation. Martyrs were portrayed as physically effeminate to highlight the brutality of the Iroquois as well as spiritually heroic and masculine to justify their control of the North American landscape (which was a feminine force that needed male protection). Other hagiographies operated to endow the Jesuits with a sense of collective identity with Old World Catholicism. This set them apart from and above their native neighbors who, in hagiographies, were often treated as objects to accentuate the white saint’s holiness, either as villains to overcome or as lost souls to convert.

Through motifs of martyrdom, Catholic collective identity and gendered landscape, the Jesuits created a mythic narrative that enforced a racialized state, glorifying white Christian identity and vilifying native identity. While this rhetoric created a nearly infallible conception of race (then and now), the Jesuits were challenged by the category of native saint. Native saints abandoned their indigeneity, but were still not considered to be on the same tier of perfection as European saints because of their inherent racial otherness. My project locates the discursive machinations behind the creation and maintenance of that racial otherness and, through investigating native sainthood, exposes the ultimate fallacy of race as an absolute, heterogeneous category.

Juliet Castleman Duncan, “Male Representations of Female Sanctity: Thomas of Cantimpré and Lutgard of Aywières”https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/213/

ABSTRACT: Medieval manuscripts concerning the daily lives and miraculous experiences of living saints contain a great deal of information on how devout Catholics interpreted and understood religious practice and bodily suffering. These manuscripts were written by either the saints themselves, or a scribe and confessor of the saint. In this presentation I examine one such manuscript, Thomas of Cantimpré’s vita of Lutgard of Aywières, in order to understand how medieval fasting practices and conceptions of the body contributed to ideals of female piety in medieval England. In particular, I utilize feminist theories on medieval texts to explore how male scribes writing about female saints contributed to these ideals and thus reinforced gender norms within the catholic church. Based on the emphasis in these texts on Lutgard and other female saints taking on the role of Christ’s virgin bride, I argue that the emphasis placed on female bodily suffering depicted in these texts reflect a societal desire for a more passive female subject. My investigation of this case sheds light on how religious texts attempt to structure religious and social behavioral norms within a society as a whole.

Eliana Fox, “Colonialism in Israel/Palestine: Bedouin Indigeneity & Racialized Religious Definitions” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/249/

ABSTRACT: The area that is now deemed as the state of Israel has a complex colonial history. From the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire, this region has always been occupied by a form of colonial power. Indigenous Bedouin people inhabited this region before and alongside these empires, and since Ottoman times have been treated as an internal colony of each empire. With this massively influential history, it should come as no surprise that Israel itself has now become a colonial state. In an exertion of its colonial might, Israel has maintained the internal colony status of indigenous Bedouin people through the decimation and claiming of their spaces.Through processes of imposing racialized, religious categories on Bedouins, the Israeli government defines them as people who are outside of the “normal” body politic, stripping them of rights and humanity. This dehumanization allows Israel to justify its claim to Bedouin spaces. In claiming Israeli authority over these spaces, the government subsequently redefines them as Jewish. The Israeli government imposes a strict definition of white Jewishness to place, completely undermining Bedouin cultures and lifestyles that are deeply tied to land they have inhabited for thousands of years.

Faculty News!

It’s been a while since we posted, in large part because we have been busy. Here’s a snippet of some of what the Religion faculty have been up to! And, as always, be sure to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook for some real-time updates.

In January, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst was a speaker at an international workshop on Authority in Islam held in New Delhi, India. It brought American, European, and Indian scholars together and will be published as a book, soon.

As you likely heard, Prof. Vicki Brennan won the 2018-2019 Dean’s Lecture Award, an acknowledgement of her significant research and pedagogical contributions to the field and UVM. The Award is described as:

The series was established in 1991 as a way to recognize and honor colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences who have consistently demonstrated the ability to translate their professional knowledge and skill into exciting classroom experiences for their students — faculty who meet the challenge of being both excellent teachers and highly respected professionals in their own discipline. The Award is a celebration of the unusually high quality of our faculty and has become an important and treasured event each semester.

https://www.uvm.edu/cas/deans_and_full_professor_lecture_series_news_and_updates

In January, Prof. Vicki Brennan gave the Dean’s Lecture. Her talk was titled “Exhibiting the Sacred: An Ethnography of Spirited Things.”

Breaking news includes that Prof. Vicki Brennan has just been named an inaugural fellow for the Luce Foundation-sponsored project Sacred Writes! This project aims to connect scholars of religion to various publics beyond their classrooms; Prof. Brennan will join an impressive cohort of leaders in the field of religion for a week-long intensive training session on public scholarship.

And, departmentally, we are excited to say that our newest initiative was recently passed by the Board of Trustees! We are launching an Undergraduate Certificate in Religious Literacy, the first of its kind in the nation. It is a program developed to address student demand for Religion courses beyond a major or minor; the Certificate has a related brand-new course “Religious Literacy,” currently in its first iteration. Stay tuned for more!