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RELG 391: Theory and Method in the Study of Religion (COLL 400)

Fall 2021, Prof. Annie Blazer

The religious studies major provides in-depth study of religious traditions, spiritualities, and lived experiences in a variety of historical, cultural, and experiential contexts. Through studying religions, we gain insight into important aspects of social life: gender and sexuality, race, power, art, literature, and media, to name a few.  Religious Studies is a uniquely interdisciplinary field, employing theories and methods of disciplines from history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and literary studies. 

The COLL 400 capstone experience requires students to take initiative in synthesis and critical analysis, to solve problems in an applied and/or academic setting, to create original material or original scholarship, and to communicate effectively with a diversity of audiences. As the capstone of the religious studies major, students in this course had the freedom to apply theories and methods to aspects of the study of religion that most interested them. They created original scholarship that demonstrated critical analysis of an aspect of religion, religious tradition, or the study of religion. 

 Student Abstracts
I'm Already Here: Queer Sex as Christian Worship 

Abby Comey

Newly married, radically Christian, and visibly queer, Maggie and Devin are looking for a church. At first, they opt for one with a vaulted ceiling and booming organ, silver-haired ushers and a white guy at the pulpit. But when progressive Protestant acceptance falls short of spiritual nourishment, they decide to piece together their own kind of worship. Along with three other queer Christians, they trade pews for lawn chairs and communion wafers for chicken pot pie. Free from the surveillance of church authorities, they discover the power of performative, erotic, activist worship, all while bathed in the glow of string lights and with garden weeds tickling their ankles. While their home church pushes the boundaries of what it means to be Christian, the group also expands its definition of queerness by grappling with racism, agism, and xenophobia. Eventually, however, Devin longs for the stability and institutional power of a mainstream congregation, even though that congregation hurt them. Devin’s sense of attachment to the Protestant church clashes with Maggie’s trauma-motivated rejection of its structure, and the two must decide whether to fix something broken or forge something new. Based on a combination of ethnographic research and queer theory, this novella imagines the next phase in Christianity’s progress toward queer liberation—celebration of queer sex as a valid form of Christian worship.

Texas Forever: The Alamo Crucifixion, Country Music Canticles, and the Religiosity of Texas Exceptionalism in Politics

Abby Matusek

Texceptionalism - the cheeky moniker for “Texas Exceptionalism” - describes a unique cultural zeitgeist. Texans have long believed in and espoused a distinct specialness and superiority over other states, boasted by an excess of state flags, a prideful state anthem, and of course, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” The well-known ideological phenomenon of Texceptionalism is subject of political and historical scholarship, yet few have interpreted Texas Exceptionalism in a religious context. Employing prior scholarship of American Exceptionalism as well as the study of sacralization of politics, this paper contends that religious rhetoric and the perpetuation of myth feature prominently in the political agendas of Texas policymakers as a means of identity building. The examination of campaign promotional material and speeches from state elections in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century elucidates the sanctified history of early Texas and the enduring elements of ritual, doctrine, and ethical codes of Texceptional culture. Political candidates glorifying of the Battle of the Alamo and founding fathers of the state provide the creation myth for a particular sense of electness and alluding to cultural practices of Texas-centered education, sport in football and rodeo, and patriotic country music serve as the ritual devotion thereto. Religious Texceptional allegory serves as a rhetorical appeal to primarily Anglo-Texan voters, combining familiar Judeo-Christian influence with regional culture, and politicians aim not only to solidify a common entity but also to promote a divine obligation of individual service to the sacred whole. Understanding the rhetoric of Texas Exceptionalism in a religious context explains how sacralized politics continue to function as an effective appeal and unifying agent in modern Texas politics. 

Fundamental Differences: The Variety, Complexity, and Perception of Plural Marriage in the Mormon Context

North-American, Mormon-context polygamy is a much-maligned and often sensationalized cultural practice, but those outside the Mormon fundamentalist context, particularly those in power legislatively and culturally, fail to see past stereotypes and rarely  attempt to understand the cultural implications and effects of plural marriage. Furthermore, anthropological research on polygamy, such as Janet Bennion’s Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism reveals a multitude of complexities within the practice of plural marriage which complicate the understanding of polygamy as universally oppressive and agency-negative to the women living within it. 

This paper will explore the ways in which the legal and cultural spheres interact with polygamy and the larger concept of Mormon Fundamentalism in North America, and how the perception and portrayal of these by outsiders affects the structure and function of plural marriage via the use of sociocultural and anthropological analysis. It will utilize a variety of scholarly sources as well as examples of Government’s interaction with Fundamentalism such as The Primer: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement and Human Services Agencies who offer Assistance to Fundamentalist Mormon Families and illustrations of polygamy in popular culture. Plural marriage in particular is often perceived and described  as morally insupportable and definitionally Other to the American cultural mainstream, but it is not productive or reasonable to generalize such a varied context so broadly and absolutely. 

Ultimately this research will show that those controlling the narrative about plural marriage and Mormon Fundamentalism know less about the practice and its cultural character than those within the context, and that polygamy is far more complex and varied than it is sensational and universal. This will prove critical to constructing an understanding of Mormon-context polygamy in which the Protestant American bias does not play a key role, and which reflects the intricacies of the practice. (Alayna Barrios)

Heartfulness and Liberation, Through the Life and Teachings of Sharon Salzberg

Avery WillnerThis paper functions to devote attention and analysis towards a topic which requires meaningful consideration for its value at the individual, interpersonal, and collective levels: lovingkindness and compassion. Accordingly, this paper explores lovingkindness and related qualities through the lived experiences and teachings of modern Theravadan Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg. Through examining Salzberg’s life and teachings, this paper closely attends to the relationships between suffering, open-heartedness, and liberation. Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, as well as various interviews, podcasts, and other discourses serve as the primary resources for analyzing her teachings. Further, this project considers primary and secondary accounts of the biographical, historical, cultural, and spiritual contexts from which Salzberg’s teachings emerge. In doing so, this paper provides additional context regarding the Theravadan Buddhist tradition which Salzberg trained in. Scholarly works delivering additional nuance to Salzberg’s teachings and practices related to lovingkindness also inform this research. By examining these select teachings, this paper highlights insights about the values, themes, and processes related to lovingkindness and the transformation of suffering in Salzberg’s works. Catherine Bell’s theory of ritual and belief contributes insights towards this paper’s framework for analyzing the processes through which spiritual practice facilitate transformation.

I Arise Today: Saint Patrick and Celtic Religion

Claire MorseThe early inhabitants of Ireland left few written records behind, having had no established custom of recording history until the introduction of Christianity in the 5th century by Saint Patrick. Despite this, ancient Celtic cultural and religious traditions were passed down orally and remained an integral part of Ireland’s identity throughout the ages. After the introduction of Christianity, many of the Celtic traditions remained and were assimilated into local Christian practice and symbolism, for example, genres of prayer that were formerly pagan incantations and had been adapted to suit Christian use—such as the Lorica of Saint Patrick. The undeniable cultural impact of ancient Ireland is illustrated by the survival of its customs in the Christian society well into the Early Modern era; the beliefs and traditions being passed down orally render many of the stories’ origins challenging to trace back to their inception. In this paper, I will analyze primary religious sources and materials from pre-modern Ireland and secondary sources on ancient Celtic and pre-modern Irish culture and religion and will investigate the Celtic heritage of Irish religious practices as well as the aspects of ancient Celtic culture that persisted after the region’s conversion to Christianity.

Suffering, Self-Transcendence, and the Spirituality of Long-Distance Running

David Lefkowtiz

Human beings have been running since the dawn of our species.  It is a feature quite literally built into our evolution and has contributed heavily to our survival.  The practice can serve a higher purpose, however, than simple survival.  Across cultures, continents, and traditions, distance running has served as a deep spiritual practice for many, from legendary Tibetan monks to certain Indigenous nations of the Americas to high schoolers around the world.  

More than any other sport, distance running has a unique and complex relationship with pain, not simply accepting suffering as a necessity but intentionally seeking it out.  Though experiences of this pain vary from high schoolers putting all they have into a half-mile to participants in a 3100-mile race around a single block in Queens, but these athletes must gain something from these voluntary experiences of pain.  This project will analyze distance running’s relationship to suffering through the lens of religious asceticism, especially its implications as to the nature of the connection between suffering and spirituality.

The Development of Pure Land Buddhism Against the Japanese Kenmitsu Institution  

Eric Brewer

 Starting in the 11th century, medieval Japanese society experienced so much instability that the Buddhist community referred to it as mappō, the time of the final dharma. Kamakura era monks figured that there was essentially no chance for lay Buddhists to achieve enlightenment on their own. Thus, a new wave of Pure Land Buddhism emerged. Revolutionary figures like Hōnen and Shinran posited that the only thing necessary for awakening was complete unwavering faith in Amida Buddha, coupled with recitation of the nembutsu. Amidism rejected the old religious hierarchy and replaced it with a belief system that revolved around the individual practitioner, regardless of their caste. Many scholars have already commented on the social changes that Amidism brought about, in particular the empowerment of women and laymen previously excluded from religious practice. However, there remains a significant lack of academic research on the direct relationship between Amidism and Japanese society. In particular, it is unclear whether Amidism actually succeeded in facilitating long-lasting social changes or if it only appears that way. Using historical articles, letters sent between monasteries, and primary sources from Kamakura monks, this research paper will analyze the grave threat that Pure Land Buddhism posed to Kenmitsu Buddhism, while evaluating the limitations to its success in sparking social change as a result of later historical developments. 

The Uproar Over Religious Sneakers

The American sneaker industry uses religious symbols and images to be creative and at times, to tell a story. This design creativity sparks controversy between Christians that feel their values and beliefs are threatened by sacrilegious sneakers and people that are not concerned about honoring religious imagery.  MSCHF, an American Art Collective, created a sneaker called Jesus Shoes in 2019.  Kanye West, a fashion designer and music producer, designed his own Jesus Shoes with Nike in 2019. Rapper Lil Nas X designed Satan Shoes in 2021; MSCHF manufactured them.   In 2021, Nike, politicians, religious leaders, and athletes responded with outrage to Satan Shoes.  The shoes were controversial because they contained a drop of human blood and had multiple symbols of satanic imagery.   Jesus Shoes did not create the controversy that Satan Shoes did.  Lil Nas X’s Satan Shoes fueled religious controversy while MSCHF and Kanye West’s Jesus Shoes only fueled pricing controversy.    In the 1980s and 1990s, Satanic Panic was the fear and suspicion of anyone that looked like they were associated with Satan or the occult.  Panic was fueled by the media and public opinion that Satanism was associated with sexual abuse and deviance.   The negative reactions to Lil Nas X’s Satan Shoes showed that fear and distaste towards Satanism exists today.  This video explores the controversy about Satan Shoes and the reason for the difference in public opinion of Jesus Shoes versus Satan Shoes, which is, American Christians believe Christianity is a positive influence and Satanism is not. (Greg Cuffey)

The Ramayana Controversy and the Threat of Hindu Nationalism in India

South Asia has long been populated by a Hindu majority, but it is also a region full of diversity, and most Indian religious groups have lived in relative harmony for centuries. However, in recent decades, India’s relative ethnic and religious diversity has sparked conflicts between minority groups and the religious mainstream. Renditions of the story of the Ramayana reflect Indian religious diversity, with hundreds of interpretations ranging from puppet shows, to oral tellings, to comic books. Modern Hindu nationalists believe that only one interpretation of the Ramayana is accurate. They have attempted to erase other versions of the story from history and unite all Hindus into a cohesive community of like-minded believers. Historically speaking, that desire for cohesion is not a staple of Hinduism or South Asian religion; it instead represents a new ideology, inspired by colonialism and Western religious thought, that has gained a great deal of support in the past one hundred years. I will explore the historical development of Hindu nationalism and juxtapose its ideals with the long history of religious diversity in India, best represented by renditions of the Ramayana. I will first present three different interpretations of the Ramayana from varying regions and traditions, which will convey the story’s history of diversity. I will then explore the Hindu nationalist desire to erase that diversity, as well as the origins of the Hindutva belief system in the era of colonialism. I will demonstrate that Hindu nationalism began both as a product of colonialism as well as a reaction to it. Renditions of the Ramayana will illustrate the beautiful diversity of Hinduism as well as the threat posed by nationalistic ideals, and analyzing productions of the myth can shed light on the lingering effects of colonialism and nationalist rhetoric that drive the Hindu nationalist movement. (Jack Otero)

Fluid Yoga & Modern Interpretations

Lauren CasellaThroughout the past one hundred years, yoga has grown in popularity in the United States, shifting from having a counter-cultural and elite reputation to a common, mainstream practice. Because of the relationship between yoga and modern American pop-culture, many interpretations have erupted, creating a vast distinction between the premodern and modern practices of yoga. Despite this distinction, many who regularly practice and engage with yoga often have misunderstandings of its history because of the lack of awareness and education that yoga schools and mainstream yoga culture provide. Because of these misconceptions, they romanticize the Orient, further creating misunderstandings and generalizations toward Eastern cultures. In this podcast, I will examine three distinct interpretations of yoga. First, I will discuss the blurry lines of secularization within yoga as it still has spiritual or religious connotations, yet public universities, schools, and different religious groups have begun eliminating and changing the perceived spiritual elements of yoga to secularize and use it for their own purpose. Next, I discuss modern postural yoga as a form of modern spirituality by analyzing the role of ritual as well as my time as a student of Shanti Garudasana Yoga School; I conduct three interviews with my former classmates where they detail their approach to yoga and how they view it as very important to their individual spiritual practice. By analyzing my time in Shanti, their interviews, and research, we can notice the roles of individualism and consumer capitalism. Lastly, I look at yoga through the lens of social justice and activism by using Gloria Anzaldua’s theory surrounding hybrid consciousness, trauma, and suffering; individuals such as Susanna Barkatki have started intersecting yoga with social justice, believing that yoga cannot exist without performing the duty of justice, and therefore, without advocating for representation and social change. Through analyzing these modern interpretations of yoga, we see this fluidity as yoga lacks a clear definition and practice. However, due to this fluidity, we need to question whether better parameters and education need to occur to mitigate disrespectful interpretations of the practice. 

Not for Pleasure Alone: Religiosity Embodied in Ballet

Mariana KornreichInscribed with gilded letters on the proscenium arch framing the Royal Danish Ballet’s stage is the phrase EI BLOT TIL LYST, or in English, NOT FOR PLEASURE ALONE. This warning may sound admonishing, but it reflects that for many dancers, ballet is more than a fun hobby or profession. When dancers perform, they emote not with words, but with bodily action. In doing so, they create a bridge between mental and physical experiences. This correlates with embodiment, a phenomenon through which abstract ideas are tangibly realized in the human body. In ballet works wherein choreographers have expressed religious concepts, embodiment allows these elements to be passed down from one dancer’s body to the next in a lineage of teachers and students. Evidence of this can be seen in ballet reviews by 21st century dance critics. These reveal that spirituality and religiosity are evident in performances, even long after the deaths of the original choreographers. Following a survey of religious and spiritual themes in ballets from 1830 to 1976 and embodiment theories in dance scholarship, this paper utilizes the example of August Bournonville’s 1842 ballet Napoli to demonstrate how religion can be passed down . Analysis of the excerpts from Bournonville’s memoir My Theatre Life reveal Bournonville’s devotion to Christianity and his belief that true artistry requires faith in God. His impressions from an 1841 trip to Italy, his inspiration for Napoli, indicate a fascination with Catholicism, especially Marian adoration. The libretto for Napoli itself reflects this, with the narrative dependent on the characters’ faith in the Madonna. 21st century critical reception and interviews indicate that Bournonville’s religious ideals have remained in his ballet works. All of this shows that physical movement and religiosity do not exist in separate vacuums but have the capacity to interact and affect each other.

Communism and the Politics of Cultural Labeling: The Maintanence of Patriotism and Piety in American Life 

Mark SmithThis paper examines the anticommunist American climate of the Red Scares (1920s–1960s) and its relationship to Marxism in order to show the efforts of governmental and cultural forces to define, castigate, and eliminate the perceived enemy of Marxism. Examining how anti-Marxist language wore the moral clothing of patriotism and piety in the United States government and in the liberal Protestant social class unveils a concerted effort on multiple fronts to translate Marxism into a tangibly evil public opponent.1 Pastors, politicians, and other influential figures have long relied on an amalgamated definition of Marxism, communism, and socialism that resulted in the presentation of a monolithic enemy to American identity. Slogans such as “In God We Trust,” which emerged from the anti-communist agenda within the government, demonstrate political tactics engaged in support of this effort. Messages from American pulpits and theologies also acted as a catalyst for public religious resistance to Marxism. For example, figures such as Billy Graham, who characterized himself as pedaling a theology far outside the realm of politics, became intensely involved in the fight against communism by defining it as “Satan’s religion” and calling for its eradication. Thus, anti-communism resulted in simplifying and maligning Marxism using ideals abhorred by the American social and political hegemony. Exploring these avenues of public influence highlights the interconnected effort of the nominally discrete structures of church and state in maintaining a simultaneously Christian and American identity in and throughout liberal Protestantism.

The Metaphysics of Suffering: A Dialogue Between Schopenhauer and Vasubandhu

Arthur Schopenhauer and Vasubandhu (a 4th-5th century Buddhist philosopher) offer striking metaphysical positions that ingrain suffering as foundational to the existence of all conscious beings. Schopenhauer was a continental European philosopher from the 1800’s who stands apart from his contemporaries in his being influenced by the Upaniṣads, a text considered to be the philosophical soil of the Vedic traditions as well as a provider of historical context for Buddhism’s emergence. Interestingly, Schopenhauer follows along this line of thought to agree with what appears to be a Buddhist conclusion: that piercing insight into the nature of reality faces us with the revelation that all beings experience unmitigable suffering. In order to critically explore and evaluate this parallel, I will examine each thinkers’ understanding of what entails piercing insight into reality and how they derive the ultimacy of suffering from this insight. This paper will analyze Schopenhauer’s most iconic work, The World as Will and Representation, in conjunction with Vasubhandu’s The Twenty Verses (and its commentary), The Thirty Verses, and the Treatise on the Three Nature to this end. It will then observe that Schopenhauer’s affirmation of the will as the most supremely real thing is the basis of his understanding of suffering while Vasubandhu holds that suffering is born predominantly from ignorance as to the non-duality of the perceived world. Examining the paths each thinker takes within (and beyond) their traditions creates a unique space for reflection about the assumptions of different cultures as well as—when taken seriously on each thinker’s own terms—about reality itself and the human condition within it. (Matthew Grayson)

 A Modern Answer to the Ageless Call to Universal Holiness: Sanctification Through Ordinary Work

Nicole Van NimanIn a modern society where religion and individual devotion are oftentimes pushed to the side due to the business of one’s profession and day-to-day life, it can feel laborious for one to devote time each day for prayer. The Catholic Church calls each one of its members to holiness through the theological concept of one’s universal call to holiness. The consideration of a universal call to holiness is one that evolved significantly over the course of history within the Catholic Church, beginning with only religious clergy attaining holiness to the inclusion of the laity. St. Francis De Sales, and St. Josemaria Escriva both respond to this Church teaching of a Catholic’s universal call to holiness, but in ways that reflect the period in which they ministered. For a modern 21st century Catholic, St. Josemaria offers a more practical, yet equally valid approach to attaining this universal call to holiness: sanctifying of one’s work. Through biblical interpretation and unpacking of the Catholic virtues associated with the act of sanctification, St. Josemaria’s teachings prove to be the modern answer to the ageless call to universal holiness.

Legislating Morality: The Influence of the Religious Right on U.S. Abortion Law

Paige MaxaSince the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113 (1973) that legalized abortion before 25 weeks in the United States, abortion has been the center of a contentious moral debate. Conservative Protestants and Catholics formed a uniquely political alliance over their anti-abortion stances also known as the Religious Right. This paper contends that Conservative Protestant and Catholic anti-abortion positions and Christian nationalist motivations directly impact abortion legislation and law in the United States. The Religious Right base their strong anti-abortion stances on their shared values of the traditional family and sexual purity. These values commonly infiltrate legislation and law in the U.S., evidenced by court cases that promote abstinence and denounce abortion including Bowen v. Kendrick (487 U.S. 589 (1988)) and laws that heavily restrict access to abortion such as the 2021 Texas sponsored Senate Bill 8 (SB 8). Religion, sociology, and political science scholars have explored the level to which the Religious Right influences the American legal sphere. This paper will draw on their research to show that ultimately, the incorporation of these specific conservative religious ideals and organizations into the decision making of Congress and the Supreme Court poses a threat to the Constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state. Focusing on how Conservative Protestant and Catholic moral values motivate anti-abortion legislation helps to illuminate the role of religion in policy and law in the U.S.

Embracing the Absurd: What Monty Python Teaches Us About Religion Dogmatism

Thomas HumphriesFilm analysis has always offered us revealing insights about the nature and history of the myth formation that occurs within religious traditions. The story telling abilities of cinema are uniquely similar to those of the world’s religions because they can invoke profoundly visceral feelings of engagement and empowerment in much the same way as religious myths. Further, films can be very useful tools for the probing and scrutinizing of virtually any topic or idea. Historically, however, filmmakers have shied away from using their abilities to satirize and parody the religious myths that remain deeply important to much of the world’s population. An obvious exception to this rule is Monty Python, the comedic group that became renowned, and immensely controversial, for their satirical criticisms of religion. It is my contention that Monty Python has managed to distinguish itself as a singularly unique and influential powerhouse of comedy, whose religious satire in particular has proven to be especially revealing of the current state of religious discourse, and whose courage and willingness to trek into religious territory long ago cemented their well-deserved legacy as the original masters of contemporary religious satire. Through the films Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python breaks down the near-universal taboo of criticizing religion and illustrates just how silly religious fervor can oftentimes be. These films ultimately teach us that no idea should go without scrutiny, and that humor offers a great antidote for bringing the overly zealous faithful back down to Earth.