Visiting the “Jeweled Isle” Exhibition of Sri Lankan Art at LACMA

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to visit “The Jeweled Isle,” a major exhibition of Sri Lankan art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Exhibitions of Sri Lankan art in the U.S. are few and far between; to my knowledge, this is only the third exhibition devoted exclusively to the art of Sri Lanka. The first, in 1992-93 at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, focused exclusively on Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, while the second, the 2003 “Guardian of the Flame” exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, was limited to Buddhist artifacts. The LACMA exhibition, which opened last December and closed in early July (2019), presents a much broader focus, highlighting the interactions of the diverse communities, ethnicities, and religious identities that have taken root on the island over the past three millennia. This globalized perspective is effectively evoked by the first image that appears at the entrance to the exhibit: the island’s silhouette superimposed at the center of a web-like pattern that simultaneously evokes a network of global connections, and the facets of a jewel, one of the island’s natural resources that has captured the attention of traders and colonizers.

Sign at exhibit entrance.
(All photographs are mine, unless otherwise indicated; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2019)
Display of 21 precious gems from Sri Lanka.

The power of “jewels” is one of the key organizing themes that run throughout the exhibit, linking the human attraction to precious gemstones with two foundational forms of Buddhist practice: taking refuge in the “triple gem” of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and activities centered on the Buddha’s bodily relics, which have long been symbolically and physically linked with precious stones. Buddha relics are typically enclosed in two different kinds of containers, both of which appear throughout the exhibit: in the massive relic monuments (stupas) that spatially and ritually define important Sri Lankan Buddhist devotional sites (displayed here on palm-leaf manuscript covers and as captured by 19th-century colonial photographers), and in stupa-shaped reliquaries, which are either permanently enshrined in stupas or serve as moveable relic containers for devotional purposes. Several examples of reliquaries, labeled “votive stupas,” appear throughout the exhibit, dating from the 2nd-3rd century to the 19th century.

Rock crystal reliquary, 2nd-3rd cent.
Ivory reliquary, 17th-18th cent. Ebony reliquary, 19th cent.
Two illustrated palm-leaf manuscript covers (inside surface); the top pair (18th-19th cent.) are wood overlaid with inscribed silver; the bottom pair (19th cent.) are painted wood. Both include depictions of the 16 great pilgrimage sites associated with the tradition of Gotama Buddha’s three visits to the island; the upper set also depicts the bodhisattva’s encounter with 24 previous Buddhas prior to his final rebirth as Siddhartha, and the first seven weeks after his enlightenment. Together they illustrate the extended life of the Buddha, beginning with his first aspiration to Buddhahood countless ages ago, his three visits to the island during his lifetime, and his post-death connection to sixteen places across the island where his physical relics continue to mediate his presence in the world.
Detail, showing (above) the bodhisattva’s encounter with previous Buddhas and (below) the first seven weeks following his enlightenment at Bodhgaya.
Detail from gallery card.

These containers for precious materials evoke another key theme threading throughout the exhibition: the island itself as a physical container, bounded by water, and defined by the comings and goings of different groups of people throughout its long history. As the gallery card provided for the gemstone exhibit notes, in the early centuries of the Common Era the island was known as “Ratnadvipa” (Island of Gems), and legends developed that the gems found there originated from the tears of the Buddha, or of Adam and Eve. Medieval Christian and Islamic texts preserve a tradition that it was the site of Paradise. The island, with its strategic location for global trade and valuable natural resources and commodities (e.g., spices, gems, rubber, coffee, tea), has exerted a powerful centripetal force, attracting diverse groups of outsiders defined by a multiplicity of identity markers (including racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences). Sinhalas, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, trace their origins to North India, and the traditional account of their migration to the island is closely linked to the life of the Buddha: Vijaya, their legendary progenitor, is said to have set foot on the island on the day of Gotama Buddha’s parinibbāna (final passing away). Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu, constitute the second largest ethnic group, and they trace their origins to groups of settlers from South India. Other ethnic groups include the Väddas, an indigenous group whose ancestors are regarded as predating the arrival of the Sinhalas; Moors, descended from Arab-speaking traders, who are predominantly Muslim; and Malays, also predominantly Muslim, whose ancestors came from the Malay Archipelago. Sri Lanka was also populated by three successive groups of European colonizers, beginning with the Portuguese in the early 16th century, followed be the Dutch in the 17th century, and finally the British who gained complete control of the island, then called Ceylon, in 1815 and ruled it as a British crown colony until its independence in 1948. The Burghers, a Eurasian community defined by links to a paternal ancestor of European descent, constitute an additional group.

All of these communities, with the exception of the Malays, are represented through the objects on display, most of which belong to the LACMA collection, supplemented by objects borrowed from a number of other museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Without attempting to provide a detailed account of the impact of European colonial rule, or of the long history of inter-ethnic conflicts on island, the objects on display effectively evoke the complex interactions of diverse groups, pointing to moments of shared interest and appreciation, as well as contestation and social othering. This is accomplished through the curators’ choice of objects for display, the exhibition’s integrated spatial layout and unified aesthetic plan (designed by a prominent Los Angeles architecture firm), and the strategically placed signage, which provides essential historical and cultural information. I was particularly impressed by the use of 19th-century photographs strategically placed throughout the exhibit to highlight the impact of British colonial points of view, including their fascination with Buddhist archaeological sites, aspects of the natural environment, and “native” Sri Lankans represented by shots of humble villagers, as well as members of the Kandyan aristocracy, a group that lost power with the British conquest of Kandy in 1815. These photographic displays culminate near the end of the exhibition with a series of 20 photographs by Reg van Cuylenburg (1926-1988), a Sri Lankan photographer of Kandyan Sinhalese, English, and Dutch descent who toured the island from 1949-58, documenting people and places in the newly independent nation. It is revealing, I think, to compare the very formal and static character of the 19th-century photos with the vibrant and dynamic force of van Cuylenburg’s “Village Girls Bathing” (see below). A final sign at the end of the exhibit, titled “Buddhist Legacies and Island Memories,” makes a poignant contrast between the optimism that informed van Cuylenburg’s work, and the more recent history of ethnic conflict, concluding: “Among the greatest tragedies in Sri Lanka’s recent history is the civil war (1983-2009) that pitted Sinhalese Buddhists against Tamil Hindus, two groups that had coexisted and comingled for much of Sri Lanka’s history. It is unlikely that such a prolonged conflict could have been foreseen when Sri Lanka won its independence from Britain in 1948. Young Sri Lankans of that time, including the photographer Reg van Cuylenburg, reveled in optimism for the future of their island nation, which had been strewn for two millennia with the jewels of diverse communities, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.”

19th-cent. colonial photographs: “Villager Selling Plaintains, c. 1890. Photo from exhibition catalogue: Robert Brown, et al., The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka (Los Angeles: LACMA, 2018).
“Kandyan Chief,” Scowen & Co., c. 1880-90.
Photographs displayed on wall near entrance to the exhibition, with introductory label.
Reg van Cuylenburg, “Village Girls Bathing,” c. 1950-58.

Much could be said about the ways that the exhibit portrays the deep integration of “Buddhist” and “Hindu” religious practices in the lives of Sri Lankans, providing a visual counter-narrative to one of the enduring legacies of British rule in South Asia—a taxonomy of knowledge that represented “world religions” such as Buddhism and Hinduism as tightly organized and exclusive systems of belief that closely aligned with other exclusivist racial/ethnic and linguistic categories (e.g., Buddhist/Sinhala and Hindu/Tamil). This integrative approach is apparent in the prominent display of a series of 17th-18th-century painted wood panels from the LACMA collection, which most likely served as window or door panels in a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple (their original provenance is unknown; they came to the museum as a donation from the actor James Coburn). These depict major gods associated with Indian Brahmanical religion and planetary deities, as well as devotees and powerful local spirits. As the gallery card notes: “Sri Lankan Buddhist practices often involve honoring various deities who were originally assimilated from popular, folk, and Indian traditions in order to undergird Buddhism’s relevance to the everyday lives and goals of worshippers … [who] seek protection and benefits in their present lives, and the gods found throughout Buddhist temple complexes in Sri Lanka aid their efforts.” The two panels depicted below show the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha, and probably Shakra (Indra), who figures prominently in Theravada accounts of the Buddha’s life; a demonic spirit (commonly depicted as fierce guardians in Buddhist temples) and a female devotee are depicted in the lower registers of each panel.

Panel depicting Ganesha and a demonic spirit.
Probably Shakra, king of the gods; in the background can be seen a large carved wooden mask (20th-century) of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, chief of the demonic spirits (yakshas), who are engaged in yaktovil healing rituals. UVM’s Fleming Museum has several Sri Lankan yaktovil masks, including a very rare 19th-century mask of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, now prominently displayed in the Fleming’s new gallery of Asian art; see my discussion of the mask here.

The final object in the exhibition might at first strike the viewer as incongruous, as it was created by Lewis deSoto, a contemporary artist of Cahuilla Native American ancestry. Titled “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” it is a 26-foot inflatable image of the reclining Buddha with the artist’s own face. Like the inflatable lawn ornaments that appear during the holidays in the front yards of many American homes, it relies upon an electric fan to keep it inflated. As the nearby label notes, the sculpture’s inflation in the morning and its deflation at the close of the day calls to mind the rising and falling of “spiritual breath” (prana) in yogic practice, as well as the cycle of birth and death (samsara). It’s connection to Sri Lanka? It is inspired by the massive 12th-century reclining Buddha image at Gal Vihara, part of the Polonnaruwa temple complex in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly fitting that the last object in the exhibit simultaneously looks backward toward an ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist monument, and forward toward new globalized forms of Asian religious practice (yoga, as well as Buddhism in its multiple North American hybridized forms). And, once again, the curators have juxtaposed a final example of a British colonial gaze in the form of a 19th-century photograph of the Gal Vihara sculpture.

Joseph Lawton, photograph, “Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, 1870-71
Lewis deSoto, painted vinyl infused with cloth, “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” 2015

I feel very fortunate to have been able to undertake this academic pilgrimage to Los Angeles to view this remarkable exhibition, which has given me much to reflect upon. I also want to express my gratitude to Dr. Tushara Bindu Gude, co-curator, who very graciously walked me through the exhibition and gave me a better understanding of its genesis.

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.

Spring 2019 Courses: African Gods/Western Museums

NEW COURSE!!

Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new course that will bring Rel@UVM students into conversation with the curators at the UVM Fleming Museum! With the museum scheduled to renovate its Africa and Ancient Egypt Gallery over the next two years, students in this seminar will have an opportunity to help research some of the objects in the museum’s collection and to provide input into how the museum might organize the display of objects in the gallery.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar will examine African indigenous religions from the perspective of material culture in order to understand how the colonial encounter between Africans and Europeans impacted the creation, use, interpretation, and display of religious objects. At the same time, we will investigate how African religious objects have been displayed and interpreted in Euro-American museums. In doing so we will explore how African religious objects were transformed into “art” as well as the ways in which the value and authenticity of such objects are determined by different participants, including practitioners, scholars, museum professionals, and museum visitors. We will draw on a variety of media—including hands-on workshops with objects from the Fleming Museum’s collection—in order to consider the impact and interpretive work that the display of African religious objects has on the viewer in the Western museum.

Spring 2019 Courses: Religious Literacy

NEW COURSE!!

We are excited to offer this new course on Religious Literacy, taught by Professor Trainor.  Whether you want to better understand the role of religion in current events, or you want to dive deeper into debates such as the relationships between religion and science or religion and law that are central to how we understand life today, this is the course for you.  You will also be asked to consider how the study of religion might help shape your life after college–how it fits in with a variety of careers, such as politics, medicine, law, counseling, journalism, or the arts, and also how it provides preparation for living in an increasingly globalized world.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: Religious literacy entails a basic understanding of the history and contemporary manifestations of religion, including central texts (where applicable), beliefs, and practices as they are shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts, as well as the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place. While all Religion courses speak to issues of religious literacy, this course takes religious literacy as its primary site of investigation. This course is designed, therefore, to introduce students to key topics in the study and application of religious literacy, such as theories and histories of the term itself, public expressions of religion, and profession-specific engagements with religion. For example, during the middle unit of the course, students will undertake a case study of “mindfulness” in North America, exploring its development as a “secular” phenomenon, its uses in medical, educational, and entrepreneurial settings, and its ties (historic and contemporary) to religious practices, texts, and beliefs. This intermediate-level course asks questions about religion in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories in this field and prepares students to apply what they learn to a variety of possible professional settings.

Spring 2019 Courses: Islam & Race

NEW COURSE!

Islam & Race is a new course in Religion
and counts toward University D1 requirements.
Why this course? Why now?
Hate crimes are on the rise against every minority. We have seen calls to ban refugees, ban immigrants, and ban Muslims. We talk about countries as “Muslim states.” When we hear “Muslim” we think “terrorist.” Many Sikh Americans who wear turbans are victims of anti-Muslim crimes.
All of these grim facts reflect a racialization of religion—a process that collapses many identities, ethnicities, languages, nationalities into one overarching race. We can’t understand things like an uptick in hate crimes, how Sikhs are prominent victims of anti-Muslim violence, how whole countries can be seen as the same as each other because of religion, how very different communities are seen as the same, and how “Islamophobia” became real without understanding how Islam and race are conflated, constructed, and operate.

COURSE DESCRIPTION

Islam is not a race—religions are not races—but Islam and religions can and are racialized. In this course, we examine how Islam and Muslims (those who practice Islam) come to be seen as a cogent race. The racialization of Islam and Muslims is global, and in this course we will reference transnational and historical patterns of race, religion, and Islam, but we focus on North America to keep our scope maintainable. The course takes theoretical ideas (definitions of race and religion and the racialization of religion) and explores them in case studies related to Muslims—and those imagined to be Muslims—in North America. We explore notions of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” as they play out for Muslims as well as Islamophobia, surveillance, and the category of “Muslim” itself.  This intermediate-level course asks questions about Islam and race in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories of the study of religion and the study of race, preparing students to apply what they learn to other religion courses, other religious traditions, and in daily experiences of a world marked by religious and racial identifiers.

COURSE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Examination of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” through primary and secondary materials as well as a lot from films, TV, Twitter, and music!
  • Guest lecturers via Skype and (fingers crossed) in person
  • Skills-focused assignments: writing for multiple audiences; assessment of sources; creative and independent project

COURSE OBJECTIVES

  • Students will develop an awareness of “race” as it relates to North America and Islam/Muslims, which includes historical and contemporary issues .
  • Students will develop an appreciation for their own assumptions of race, religion, and Islam.
  • Students will come to understand the intersection of race, religion, and Islam, including how these ideas come to affect people’s lives, community structures and practices, and institutions.
  • Students will develop critical thinking skills that will empower them to discern diverse viewpoints analytically, thoughtfully, and rigorously.
  • Students will work on transferrable skills, such as critical reading and writing, in order to interpret and evaluate course materials, popular culture, as well as books, articles, media, and more.

Spring 2019 Courses: Comparing Religions

This course uses three “case study” religions to explore the questions of “What is religion?” and how can we begin to compare religions? We’ll look at stories, rituals, beliefs, and social roles from Buddhism, Islam, and Navajo religion, using the theories of scholars of religion. We’ll explore how religion can be intensely personal, involving visions and experiences that change a person, and change the course of history. We’ll grapple with the ways religions shape our understanding of what it means to be good or evil, and what it means to be a human, or a god, or an animal, and what happens to us after we die. We will work together to explore the diversity we find within religious traditions, reflecting complicated relationships between religion and culture, demonstrating that religion, far from being a fixed object that we can pin down, is fluid over time and across the globe.

Spring 2019 Courses: Introducing Islam

Islam is, in our post-9/11 world, a feature of the daily news; nearly 2 billion people worldwide identify as Muslims; and Muslims have been a part of the American religious landscape since the slave trade moved Muslim Africans to our shores. No doubt, this is an historic and yet timely topic, very much worthy of our attention. But how much do you really know about Muslims or Islam? This course examines the history of Islam, focusing especially on its variation over time and location. By examining practices and writings of Muslims in multiple locations, we will complicate the idea that Islam is a discrete, universal set of ideas, practices, or beliefs.

Spring 2019 Courses: Religion, Health, & Healing

NEW COURSE!

Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new intro-level course on “Religion, Health, and Healing” this spring. Given Professor Brennan’s areas of expertise, the course will emphasize religious cultures found on the African continent. However, the case studies considered center on the role of religion in ideas about health and healing, as well as how disease and illness are interpreted and acted on through religious means.

COURSE DESCRIPTION:

This course is a comparative and cross-cultural exploration of the relationships between religion, health, and healing. Through a consideration of case studies from the US, South Africa, Niger, Ethiopia, and Egypt (among others), we will examine how religion shapes people’s understanding of health and well-being and provides them with a means of interpreting and responding to illness, suffering, and death. Drawing upon interdisciplinary approaches that include religious studies, anthropology, history, music, and ethnic and gender studies, we will consider the diversity of ways in which religion both reflects and shapes ideas about health, well-begin, illness and disease. We will consider topics such as: spirit possession and altered states of consciousness, the importance of sound and music to healing processes, issues of race, gender, and sexuality in relation to religious worldviews and healing systems, and the possibilities and potentials for integrating indigenous healing practices with Western bio-medicine.

COURSE OBJECTIVES

• Students will develop an awareness of the diversity of attitudes towards religion, health, and healing in both Euro-American and non-European cultural contexts.

• Students will develop an appreciation for the assumptions upon which their own ideas about religion, health, and healing are based.

• Students will come to understand the intersection between religion and healing in a variety of contexts, including how such ideas came to be, how ideas about religion and healing are articulated in a variety of forms including ritual, biography, and political action, and how they are represented in a variety of media including scholarly writing, popular media, and films.

• Students will develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to analyze information and evaluate arguments from diverse viewpoints and multiple perspectives.

• Students will develop critical reading and writing skills that will allow them to interpret and apply the knowledge acquired in this class.

Recent & Upcoming Faculty Speaking Events

Our faculty are on the move, offering public lectures on their varied fields of expertise around the country. See below for details!

In February, Prof. Erica Andrus talked about science fiction, Battlestar Galactica, and religion at The Ohio State University’s Symposium on Religion, Narrative, and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In early March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be part of a panel at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later that same week, Prof. Kevin Trainor will be in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He will be a guest speaker in a major event on relics and reliquaries titled Sacred Access.

 

 

 

 

 

And, at the end of March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be at Duke University as a keynote speaker. Her talk is titled After the Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad in South Asia.

The Reading List: Schatz and Stahl’s Rad Women

When Prof. Brennan issued a call-for-posts about what we were reading, I assumed I’d write about something serious and scholarly: what I’m reading for class (currently: Durkheim in REL100) or for my research (currently: Meer’s edited volume on racialization, religion, antisemitism, and Islamophobia) or as part of attempting to keep up with the field (next on my list: Aydin’s brand-new book on “the Muslim world”). Yet as I sat to write my post, I kept coming back to what I was reading that was serious, but perhaps not as scholarly: two books, Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, have been in constant rotation as part of my regular reading routine with my nearly-4-year-old daughter. The truth is, these books are rather serious, rooted in scholarship, and speak to what I’ve been thinking about broadly in and outside my classroom and as part of my research.

This won’t be the first time I use our academic, departmental blog to talk about what is ostensibly children’s literature. It also won’t be the first time I try to convince my reading audience that children’s literature isn’t only for children, doesn’t only communicate childish ideas or ideals, and needn’t be compartmentalized to my parenting. In fact, I’ve found that both of these volumes have driven home simple–but not basic–ideas about representative parity in my research and pedagogy, the importance of the study of religion (and its regular absence as we talk about radical activisms), and how the act of reading is itself political.

I will forever claim parenting victory for my then-2-year-old asking to be Patti for Halloween.

We bought Rad American Women A-Z for my daughter a couple of years ago. She loved it. Big, bright, graphic illustrations helped; the alphabet as a central motif didn’t hurt; I assume my excitement about each and every featured woman¹ didn’t hurt, either. She really loved this book. (As in, my 2.5-year-old daughter insisted that she be “P is for Patti Smith, the punker” for Halloween.) The book itself features American women that represent a wide swath of historical periods, racial and ethnic identities, as well as expressions of gender and sexuality. The women represent diverse fields and aims, too, ranging from athletes to education activists, doctors to musicians, architects to strike leaders. Poignantly, “X” is reserved for the “the women whose names we don’t know,” a purposeful acknowledgment of the erasure of women in historical memory and contemporary settings alike. I’ll confess to weeping nearly every time I read this page.

Table of Contents for Rad American Women A-Z

Opening pages, with contents listed via map, Rad Women Worldwide

When Rad American Women’s sequel came out last year, we added it to our rotation. Rad Women Worldwide takes an even larger historical scope, starting in “ancient Mesopotamia” and including contemporary, notable women like Malala Yousafzai. These women, too, represent multiple regions, eras, races, ethnicities, mother tongues, and areas of excellence. They include LGBTQ+ activists like Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera,
anti-authoritarian women’s organizations likeMadres de la Plaza de Mayo, athletes like Junko Tabei, and anti-colonial, anti-imperial native activists like the Quintreman Sisters. Like the original volume, Rad Women Worldwide includes a poignant entry that jolts the reader into seeing the silenced; here, it is titled “the Stateless,” and focuses on the disproportionate number of refugees who identify as women. Like “X” in Rad American Women, “the Stateless” is a hard page to read without choking up.

Reading these two books with my kiddo has meant admitting to her and myself how few women–American or not–I had ever learned about. I have considered myself both a feminist and an activist for my whole life. I’ve done my gender courses. Heck, I’ve even taught them. And yet, it is a shocking realization to have only heard of many of the featured Americans and not recognize even a third of the “global” women. (And, yes, of course, my own identity is at play here: a cis-hetero-white-Jewish-lady may have heard of Emma Goldman [of course!] but not of Filipino doctor Fe Del Mundo [I had not].)

Reading these books regularly–often just a few full entries at a time–also underscores the lack of gender parity in my syllabi and bibliographies for published work. Following the lead of many other scholars, most of whom identify as women, I have tried to make a point to have women not only represented in my syllabi–sadly, a feat in and of itself at times–but to have women represented in a way that reflects women’s participation in the academic production of knowledge. Which is to say, #noallmalesyllabi and #noallmalebibliographies. Schatz and Stahl go to great lengths to remind their readers that for every woman they’ve included, dozens and dozens have been excluded by their authorial choice, or as “X” and “the Stateless” remind us, by systemic and intersectional oppressions.

So these books remind me, in their simple composition, to ask: who am I leaving out? Which systems of purposeful omission am I participating in when my citational practices are heavily white, heavily male? How can I fix that–or, more to the point–how can I fix that so I do not preserve and reproduce sexist, racist trends in the writing of history and production of knowledge? After all, I think: my daughter is listening to me read, watching me model how to make sense of these rad women.

These books also remind me that when we talk about activism, we often ignore religious foundations for that activism. While Schatz and Stahl do a genuinely incredible job of showcasing women in their complexities, the presence of religion is largely absent–even in activists and historical personas for whom religion was a primary motivator. For example, the Grimké sisters, abolitionists who are oft-read in American religious history courses for their use of Biblical literature, are described as Quakers but their activism is not described in terms of their religion. As a scholar of religion, it seems an obvious omission and beyond begging the obvious question (where is religion?) such omissions beg questions about our conceptualizations of secularism, activism, and (perhaps assumed) progressivism.

I’m reading a number of books simultaneously like a good professor ought. In fairness, I also read a ton of silly books made for kids with my daughter that I slog through and attempt to sound excited about. These two books, though, ostensibly aimed at a younger reader (though, admittedly, perhaps not a not-quite-4-year-old), aren’t just for kids. These two are well on their way to becoming dog-eared and well-worn parts of our family library. As I read them aloud, I am often thinking not only of how radical it is to simply be reading to my daughter about powerful women whose lives represent an imperfect fullness of human identity and expression. I am also thinking about how much more they underscore the ways I need to continue to strive for representative parity in my research and pedagogical bibliographies, the ways in which religion is somehow omnipresent and absent when we think about radical activisms and activists, and how the act of reading–aloud or otherwise–is always already a political act. The books that center this kind of reading, both with and for my kiddo, will be on my reading list for the foreseeable future.

  1. *”Woman” and “women” in these works indicate those who identify as women. We can infer this based upon Schatz and Stahl’s inclusion of trans* and GNC women.