Readers often have reported that they view The Immanent Frame as a teaching tool, insofar as it has introduced them to new scholarship or served as a source for essays that they have assigned to both undergraduates and graduate students. As contributors and readers are thinking about courses and assignments for the next academic term, we have asked several scholars to share some of their teaching ideas and approaches with TIF.
In addition to inviting contributors to briefly introduce their upcoming courses and pedagogical approaches, we asked: What readings or resources (e.g., online databases, image collections, etc.) are you looking forward to having your students engage with next term?
The contributors are:
Susan Andrews | Assistant Professor of East Asian Religions, Mount Allison University
Rebecca Bartel | Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, San Diego State University
Shahzad Bashir | Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University
Fadeke Castor | Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies, Texas A&M University
Nathaniel Mathews | Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, SUNY – Binghamton
Anthony Petro | Assistant Professor of Religion and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Boston University
Devin Zuber | Associate Professor of American Studies, Religion, and Literature, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley
What is a good death? How and why do answers to this question vary according to time and place? What sources do scholars of Asian religions use to investigate this topic? Reconstructing ancient Chinese tombs like the one you see pictured here is one way my students and I pursue answers to these questions in our Death and the Afterlife in Asian Religions course. Messy, cooperative, loud, and captivating, this project sees the first-year class recreate one of two tombs introduced in Patricia Buckley Ebrey’s highly accessible A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization.
Together with photographs and descriptions of Fuhao’s 婦好 Shang period (ca. 1600-1050 BCE) tomb and that of the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) Marquis of Yi 曾侯乙, the website also presents novice learners with maps, a timeline of Chinese history, discussion questions, and other resources helpful for unpacking the significance of these archaeological finds. Paired with selections from Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy’s The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom’s Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume 1, or even Mario Poceski’s Introducing Chinese Religions, the website offers students a straightforward introduction to one type of primary source used for reconstructing Chinese religious life.
Following this learning unit, the successful student will be able to explain what particular details from the archaeological sites reveal and conceal about practices and beliefs related to death in ancient China. The student will also be able to generate and defend hypotheses about the relationship between these beliefs and practices and the social, economic, and political contexts of their propagation. Engaging the individuals with whom I work as co-producers of knowledge who decide for themselves what these materials can and cannot teach us about death practices in Asia promotes deep learning. At the same time, this type of hands-on project generates considerable student interest.
“Why is God on our money?” I ask in the course description for a graduate seminar entitled In God We Trust. “Whose God is it?” The premise of the course is that there is a yet-to-be analyzed relationship between the categories of religion and economy. The course further highlights how religious studies scholarship can illuminate understandings of our current neoliberal crisis as well as historiographical interventions in the longue durée of capitalist economic formations. Beyond a tired (and only partly accurate) Weberian trope of “Protestant modernity begets capitalist accumulation,” the seminar follows historical, anthropological, decolonial and post-colonial, gendered, and racialized relations between religiosity, economic practice and thought, and the very blurry horizon of “modernity.”
The seminar is partitioned into three sections: The Scaffolding, the Mechanics, and the Wiring. I begin the seminar with David Harvey’s very helpful primer and without much ado, situate the class in a present moment of economic and political upheaval. The following classes consider Economy and then Religion as social formations, with readings from Kathryn Lofton, Arjun Appadurai, Clifford Geertz, and Talal Asad. After sufficiently muddling the broad categories, the class begins thinking through specific elements of the economic, considering “finance,” “credit/debt,” “sub-prime prosperity,” “modernity,” and “the market.” The final section, The Wiring, considers much more deeply the theoretical entanglements between the religious and the economic. Here we consider Walter Benjamin’s “Capitalism as Religion,” Michel Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics, and Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, among others.
Every student is required to present the readings at least once throughout the semester. Along with presenting the authors’ theoretical arguments and engaging with their contribution to the field, the student is required to provide a contemporary example of the religion-economy intersection. This has perhaps been the most productive, and most enjoyable, component of the class. Students begin to recognize traces of religion on economic issues, and vice-versa, becoming increasingly aware of the entanglements.
How do you teach an introductory course on a phenomenon like Islam? One must anticipate the meanings the term will carry in the audience and also convey the ideological and phenomenological multiplicity one knows as a specialist.
Next semester I teach a new course, The Imaginary Lives of Muslims (a title I owe to Nancy Khalek), that presumes incoherence and irreducibility rather than trying to prove diversity. The methodological anchor may seem unlikely: Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land. Ghosh intertwines his experience as an Indian anthropologist in Egypt with the fragmentary evidence about an Indian slave of a medieval Jewish merchant, connecting India to Europe via Egypt and Yemen. This book forefronts the fact that stories we tell about the past require imagining lives based on sparse evidence made meaningful through our own sociointellectual coordinates. We read about Muslims imagining themselves a part of their various worlds, while also reflecting on what this reading is doing for our own imaginations.
The course consists of other juxtapositions that cross temporal, regional, and topical boundaries. Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali’s cosmology (The Niche of Lights) is read in conjunction with modern Muslim rationalizations of the Big Bang and relativity. Lebanese legal debates on effects of IVF technologies (Morgan Clarke, Islam and New Kinship) are correlated to the use of prophylactic objects in Mali (Geert Mommersteeg, In the City of the Marabouts). Travel is thematized via tales of the Hundred and One Nights, Muhammad’s ascent to the heavens, and recent travelogues. Affective concerns are engaged through lives and works of Turkish musicians (Denise Gill, Melancholic Modalities) and an Indonesian painter (Kenneth George, Picturing Islam). Intricacies of love are brought up using Farid al-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds and an ethnography of young Afghan poets living as refugees in Iran (Zuzanna Olszewska, The Pearl of Dari).
The ultimate point of the course is to introduce students to “Islamic” material and intellectual worlds while showing (rather than claiming) that questions such as “what is Islam?” are mired in a framework that needs a complete conceptual makeover.
Next spring, I teach Afro-Atlantic Religions: Candomblé, Vodoun, Santería and Trinidad Orisha/Ifá. Using four ethnographies covering Brazil to Brooklyn, the course introduces students to transnational networks of religions that worship the West African pantheon of Orisha or Vodou/Loas.
I am particularly excited to teach a new work, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions by Elizabeth Pérez. She explores knowledge production, identity, and community formation in Santería/Lucumi through the lived and embodied experiences of practitioner’s interactions with labor, ritual knowledge, and the preparation of sacred food. Pérez’s text will make a rich addition to other works that include Karen McCarthy Brown’s now classic Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn and Beatriz Góis Dantas’s Nagô Grandma and White Papa. The final ethnography is my just-released book, Spiritual Citizenship: Transnational Pathways from Black Power to Ifá in Trinidad, which shows how the Ifá/Orisha religion shapes local, national, and transnational belonging in African diasporic communities through political engagements with black liberation movements, citizenship, and community-building.
Each ethnography offers a different lens on these very complex and dynamic religions, from explorations of historical memory and the immigrant experience in Mama Lola to the intertwining of black power and religion in Spiritual Citizenship. I also use a number of films in class to demonstrate the religions’ rich performance and material culture, including Sacred Journeys: Osun-Osogbo, The King Does Not Lie, Yemanjá: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil, and Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen.
Finally, two additional texts provide background and context: Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit and Nathaniel Murrell’s Afro-Caribbean Religions. All together these texts, written and visual, make for an immersive semester-long exploration of African diasporic religions in their ritual, social, political, and cultural aspects.
I incorporate a collection of sources from Chicago’s Newberry Library called “Abolition and European Imperialism in East Africa, 1845-1893,” which I compiled and authored for their Digital Collections for the Classroom platform, into my Introduction to Africana Studies course. The course is taught as a combination of modern African and African diaspora history in which we constantly analyze the global and transnational dimensions of the slave trade, African decolonization, and the civil rights movement.
I use the DCC resource to teach how European countries used the abolition of slavery as a pretext for colonial intervention, as part of a week on the Scramble for Africa. We go directly into the Scramble from a week discussing the abolition of first the slave trade and then slavery in the Western Hemisphere. From the mid-1700s, a religious movement first of Quakers, then of some evangelical Protestants and Catholics, rose up to protest the slave trade and slavery. They used a variety of arguments about the nature of evil, personhood, civilization, and progress.
Understanding these arguments allows students to wrestle with the paradox of how the moral logic of the abolitionist movement, buoyed by both evangelical grassroots activism and Catholic social justice teachings, could ally itself to industrialists and nationalists intent on territorial acquisition. I hope students go beyond a binary of “good” and “bad” Europeans to understand how a wide variety of Western actors on the ground in nineteenth-century Africa shared an assumption about the unquestioned moral superiority of European civilization. This essentially racial assumption of superiority helped justify increasingly martial efforts to end the slave trade, unabashedly trafficking in alarmist racial stereotypes of Arab and Muslim malfeasance and African inferiority.
As we progress through the course, I want students to bring these questions to bear when we analyze more modern issues, such as slavery in Libya or Darfur. In both these cases, calls for Western intervention and Western framing often traffic in the same language and assumptions of civilizational superiority and the desirability of humanitarian intervention as the abolitionists.
I had the good fortune to run into David Kyuman Kim at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Boston, where we had a wonderful conversation about teaching Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Our chat reminded me just how challenging and rewarding Angels in America is to teach. I assign it in two classes: a lecture course on religion and politics in the United States since the 1960s and a seminar on religion and sexuality. Kushner’s play ranges across many topics, from Mormonism, American Judaism, and secularism, to neoliberalism, racism, sexuality, the end times, and the very idea of the United States itself. It is a play about the AIDS crisis in NYC in the 1980s as well as an exercise in surrealist imagination, messianic hope, and aesthetic possibility.
The pedagogical problem Angels poses is how to get students to see these latter themes to be as much about “religion” as the more conventional demographic markers—the rabbis, the Mormons, the postlapsarian vision of heaven. One might show Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, which Walter Benjamin imagines as the angel of history caught in the storm of change in Theses on the Philosophy of History. Kushner repurposes this angel for the postmodern era, making her female, multiple, intersex, orgasmic. To capture the Hollywood-quality awe she inspires, the character Prior remarks, “Very Steven Spielberg” when she first manifests. This protagonist, who is also a prophet, plays on the Jewish Marxist eschatology undergirding Kushner’s fantasia, glimpsed in his campy cognomen: Prior Walter.
My students usually love seeing these connections. In a more advanced class, we might also read David Savran’s intimate, if blistering, critique of the play’s commitment to multicultural American liberalism. It is harder to get students to use Angels to theorize religion. They are not quite sure what to do with Kushner’s campy excess, his religious play, or his political fantasia—or all the sex. I ask what this play helps us understand about the historical and ongoing theodical crisis that is the AIDS epidemic, about the ethics of literature, and about the religious practices of theatre-going. These questions usually get things going, but if all else fails, you can always ask what they think of Meryl.
As part of a new track in “religion and literature,” I am co-teaching a doctoral seminar titled Conversion and Literature. It covers both the literal ways that religious conversion catalyzes various literary representations (spiritual autobiographies ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Malcolm X), but also more metaphorically how literary aesthetics convert theology into other kinds of rhetorical forms. The seminar is really just an excuse for me to rope together some of my perennial favorites—William James, who we will read in tandem with his brother Henry James’s “late phase” fiction—alongside more contemporary authors who continue to toy with the figure of conversion, such as Marilynne Robinson (Lila) and the poet Susan Howe (Debths). Some of the contemporary writing will hopefully help the students situate a certain strand in American literature that continues to convert religion into the (post)secular public sphere: Why Robinson, a novelist with no formal training in theology, for example, has been called “America’s public theologian,” and has placed herself in the midst of some recent debates foisted by the New Atheists.
All of that sounds quite heavily weighted toward a Protestantized kind of interiorizing, so thank goodness my co-teacher is my dear friend and colleague Naomi Seidman, who specializes in translation theory and Jewish Studies. (I am reading her classic Faithful Renderings to get up to speed.) I am looking forward to getting a better handle on how to conceptualize the dilemmas of conversion and its entanglement with translation, both linguistic and cultural—especially when such literature is produced out of disruption and diaspora. (Another indispensable read here for me right now is Gauri Viswanathan’s Outside the Fold.)