Studying and Teaching (Mostly Gen Z) about Religion in the Information Age
Author: Brian LePort
Religious Studies Instructor at TMI Episcopal (San Antonio, TX). PhD in Religion and Theology from the University of Bristol (Bristol, UK). Married to Miranda Perez. Human to a Cocker Spaniel named Frida. Fan of the San Francisco 49ers, San Francisco Giants, and Golden State Warriors.
The subtitle to Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000 is key to understanding the aim of the book. It isn’t a generic overview of the history of African American religion but a precise examination of how African American religion intersects with American ideas around colonialism, democracy, and freedom. The reader will encounter figures, events, movements, etc., that you expect, whether that be the Transatlantic slave trade, American slavery, the American Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, or major characters in those stories ranging from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But the directions Johnson goes with those stories, and the stories he tells that may be less familiar, are what make this book an essential addition to your religious studies or American studies library.
Johnson’s history introduced me to pasts with which I had little familiarity, ranging from people like Dona Beatriz and her role within Kongolese Christianity to the rise and role of corporations, to the subversive interpretation of the Bible modeled by Olaudah Equiano, and on and on and one. I found myself encountering a history of which I knew little. Concepts like Black Settler Colonialism in relation to places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, or Marcus Garvey’s “Garveyism” as a philosophy of Black identity and a strategy for engaging White supremacy may be ignored in most American and American religious history textbooks but upon reflection appear to be essential elements to those histories. If you want an excellently written book with dynamic content that will give you a broader understanding of the worlds that shaped our own, then this book is a “can’t miss” read.
Aaron W. Hughes’ Muslim Identities is an introduction to Islam that I would highly recommend. His goal in creating this resource is to “maneuver delicately between an overly critical approach and the apologetic approach” (p. 1). Muslim readers should find a fair representation of their various traditions; non-Muslims should find a sound, scholarly introduction to one of the world’s most prominent religions. Hughes avoids framing a single, “normative” Islam (p. 2), instead introducing readers to the varieties of Islam that exist. This project is framed around the shared, inherited, and created identities to be found among Muslims (hence the title of the book). Hughes understands the varieties of Islam as being a variety of ways that Muslims enter into and shape “communities” that “are socially constructed or imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group” (p. 6). He comments that “identity is something that was and is actively constructed in response to various needs, and these constructions derive their potency from being projected onto the past, where they are thought to exist in pure form.” (pp. 6-7)
This framework of seeing Islamic history, traditions, sectarianism, etc., through the prism of identity formation is what makes this introduction unique. In many ways, it’s similar to the other introductions to Islam that can be found in the type of content it covers but the emphasis on identity formation is far more enlightening than it might seem at first glance. In fact, I would say that since reading this book, almost everything related to religious studies that pass through my brain must now cross a checkpoint that evaluates how these elements relate to the way people shape their personal and group identities. Shia and Sunni aren’t mere opposites or sects, but groups that form their identities in relation to one another. Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Muslims in Iran may shape their forms of Islam with an eye toward how their neighboring country is practicing the religions. When we ask why a religion took this or that shape, aligned with this or that political movement, or thrived in this culture but not that one, we’d do well to inquire how it is that said religion provided people with a sense of identity in a given time and place.
A former student of mine, Farouk Ramzan, is a Staff Writer and Podcaster for Vanderbilt University’s official student newspaper, The Hustler. He hosts a podcast called “Notes From Nash” (as in Nashville) and he invited me on to talk about religion (of course!). Unfortunately, only half of the conversation’s recording was saved. I thought the second half got pretty interesting but the first half is good too. Enjoy!
This semester, I’m teaching my “Religion in the United States” class. In a couple of months, I’ll introduce four branches of Christianity that emerged in the United States in the 19th or very early 20th century: The Latter-day Saints (1830); the Adventists with the Millerite Movement (1840s); the Jehovah Witnesses’ (1870s); and the Pentecostals (1900s). I tend to emphasize the pre- and post-Civil War ethos as a rationale for these movements but that seems incomplete. This past week, the question has lodged in my head and keeps coming back to me: What was it about the United States in the 19th century that made it the place that birthed these expressions of Christianity?
(Side note: I’m aware that the origins of Pentecostalism can’t be limited to Los Angeles alone but I think it’s fair to say that what because global Pentecostalism was greatly influenced by American culture and events.)
Liz Bucar, Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation (Harvard, 2022). (Amazon; Bookshop)
Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion is a humble, open-hearted, scholarly examination of the ethics of appropriating the religion of others. I say that because this is not a book where you will find Bucar demonizing other people nor will you find an apology for why anyone, anywhere should be able to practice whatever element of whatever religion they want. Instead, you will find a sincere attempt to navigate between these two poles, with Bucar using her own pedagogical practices as a case study for one of the chapters, and transparently questioning herself and thinking out loud about taking students to Spain to participate in Camino de Santiago de Compostela, even when they are not Catholic, or even religious at all. Her other case studies—non-Muslims wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women and people practicing yoga divorced from its Indian spiritual roots—are both thought-provoking.
It is fair to say that for Bucar, not all borrowing is the same. Her presentation shows that appropriating religious practices can be far more ethically ambiguous than say appropriating something that has to do with another race. And some religious appropriation, e.g. wearing the hijab, seems to be more problematic than others, e.g. practicing yoga for its health and psychological benefits. The key point is that we should be careful when engaging the religion of others when we do not intend on becoming part of the communities and histories that gave us this or that belief or practice. If this ethical engagement with religions that are not your own is a concern to you, then I highly recommend this book as a thought partner.
I realize the impracticality of moving to hand written assignments for many of my colleagues, especially those (e.g. English Department) who grade greater quantities of writing than I do. Is there a solution for them? I’ve noticed over the years when I create a “quiz” on Google Form that it has an option, if students are using Google Chromebooks managed by the school, to lock students to one tab. They can do their quiz on the Form but if they try to open another tab, it notifies the teacher. It’s called “locked mode”. Is this something that school administrations need to consider?
I don’t know if this solves any problems related to students writing outside of class after school hours (i.e homework) but it could help with in class writing, especially if monitoring each students screen while they type is too much to ask (which it usually is).
Prior to the pandemic, our school began to make a shift toward digitizing assignments. We became “BYOD” (“Bring Your Own Device”). I followed suit by turning almost everything into something from Google Workplace: Docs, Forms, etc. When the pandemic sent us all home, I was ready for the transition to Meets (eventually Zoom) and Classroom. But once we returned to “in person” learning, it was clear something was wrong. The psychological and social impact of the pandemic, combined with what I perceive to be the ongoing influence of zero-attention span social media (e.g. TikTok), made it clear to me that basic skills like close reading, note taking, and writing needed to be retaught. So, this year I removed computers from my class, for the most part. My students receive a guided outline for each lesson. They can take notes on it. Each of my assignments is open note, in order to reword note-takers. And I don’t have my students read articles from their computers anymore, realizing I was going to lose the battles against all of the alluring tabs attracting them to some other part of the Internet. Now, they receive printed versions. It’s almost as if the Internet was never created. Almost.
I’ve continued to do assessments through Google Classroom. My students have to write somewhere between six to ten sentence “Exit Ticket” responses. For some lessons, I had them do something like a quiz that I called a “Multiple Choice Review” that was, again, open note and not really a quiz as much as a chance to have them stop and revisit key concepts, rewarding those who took notes so they could use them. The aforementioned Exit Tickets were completed through a Google Form when I wanted a very brief (six sentence) response and through a Google Doc when I wanted a slightly longer (ten sentence) response with a more formal rubric to follow.
Because of this approach, my students have been using their computers for these assessments. Also, if they miss class, they can turn these writing assignments into homework to do outside of class through Google Classroom. As you may have guessed by now, and as I should have known as a teacher in my seventh year, the temptation to plagiarize has been too strong. Now, I don’t want to make it sound like an epidemic. I’ve graded hundreds of assignments this semester but only had six or seven cases of plagiarism. That being said, several cases of plagiarism is alarming.
The alarm is going to be screaming even louder now. For those who haven’t been paying attention to education and technology news, a OpenAI, ChatGPT, has been made available to the public that’s a game-changer. It can take a prompt and write a response that’s better than most of my student’s writing. Usually, this is how I catch plagiarism. Suddenly, a fourteen year old with a perfectly fine vocabulary for their age writes something that I know they wouldn’t say. If I’m using a plagiarism checker, it’s caught, but even just copying-and-pasting into Google is sufficient most of the time. ChatGPT changes this. You can know that it’s unlikely that your students wrote what they submitted but plagiarism checkers and Google searches won’t suffice because the AI is writing fresh content.
To see why this is freaking out educators, I recommend an article and a podcast:
As an educator, I don’t like saying what I’m about to say because I know it increases my workload as part of a profession known for being notoriously overworked and underpaid, but also I’m an ideologue when it comes to the value of a liberal education and skills that may not be valued by the Cult of STEM, like the reading, note-taking, and writing I discussed above, which I find indispensable to a healthy society and a functioning democracy. My plan is to fight the Internet’s self-deconstruction with a further return to pre-Internet pedagogy. My Exit Tickets will be hand written in class (unless an accommodation is needed) during class time with the only materials available being the physical papers notes and articles that students have been given.
The perk of doing this in the Internet age is that I can have my students submit both the physical paper itself but also take a picture of it that can be submitted as an attachment in Google Classroom as a form of safeguarding against the old annoyance of losing a student’s work or having a student falsely claim to have submitted something they didn’t submit without the benefit of having Google Classroom to check that claim.
I’m aware that grading handwritten assignments will be difficult. I’m including in the rubric the necessity for the writing to be legible and I’m keeping the length requirement short enough to prevent too much hand-writing fatigue. In a sense, I feel like I’m doubling down on the necessity of reading and writing skills in a digital age that is trying to marginalize those skills as secondary or irrelevant (say compared to coding). But I believe—and I recognize my biases here—that if the Cult of STEM dominated education, we’re in for a world of pain in the not-so-distant future.
La Carmina, The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom (Ulysses Press, 2022). (Amazon; Bookshop)
La Carmina “is an award-winning alternative travel/culture/fashion blogger, author of four books, journalist and TV host.” She reached out to me a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing her new book, The Little Book of Satanism. Of course, I was happy to review it. (And I wasn’t told how I should review it, so everything I say here is my opinion.) On this blog, I’ve reviewed biblical studies scholarship on the development of Satan in the Jewish and Christian Bibles and modern religious studies scholarship on contemporary Satanism. In my “Religion in the United States” class, I teach a lesson on American Satanism. It’s always my goal to represent religious movements as fairly as possible, so reading La Carmina’s book provides me with a resource that explains Satanism from a perspective that practicing Satanists would recognize. If you want to understand Satanism, its history, and what draws people to it, I highly recommend this book.
First of all, it’s short at a little over 130 pages of content. It’s very readable; very accessible to all audiences. You don’t need to know anything about Satanism to jump into it.
After the Forward by Lucien Greaves, one of the co-founders of the Satanic Temple, La Carmina provides a brief history of the development of the figure of Satan, going back to predecessors in, for example, Zoroastrianism and the Hebrew Bible and Satan’s emergence in Judaism and Christianity. La Carmina explores the various names given to the Devil; artistic depictions; and symbols associated with Satan.
Part 2 summarizes how the figure of Satan evolved from the Middle Ages to the present, highlighting the influence of Dante’s Inferno, the concept of exorcisms, and European and North American Witch Hunts. By the end of this section, La Carmina notes on p. 56, “By now, a theme has emerged: it is always ostracized out-groups who are targeted as Satan’s bedfellows.” And this will become part of the motivation of modern Satanists. On p. 61, we read that some of the events in the past (e.g. “the Affair of the Poisons”) have led to many Satanists, “striving to defend reproductive rights and disempowered minorities.” Part 2 continues with a look at John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and its influence, as well as other writers who are classified as “Romantic Satanism,” viewing Satan as a rebel against tyranny.
This last part is key. Satan’s “meaning” changes. Rarely Satan is seen through the lens that most Christians see this figure through. It could be argued that while the same word/name is used, as Wittgenstein would show us, the “language-game” isn’t the same. This isn’t to deny the intentionality of the use of the word/name “Satan” but to say “Satan” doesn’t mean to everyone else what it might mean to you!
Part 2 wraps up with a hoax (“the Taxil Hoax”), a couple of groups, and a major figure, Aleister Crawley, who influenced what Satanism would become. Part 3 continues the history of Satanism but with a focus on modernity. We meet groups like the Process Church of the Final Judgement and the Church of Satan (CoS), the latter led by Anton LaVey out of San Francisco, and the group that marks the birth of modern Satanism as we know it. It would seem to me that when most people think of “Satanism” they think of the CoS and “LaVeyan” Satanism, specifically. La Carmina’s exploration will help clear away cartoonish ideas that people may have about LaVey and his movement. Satan’s place in pop culture (e.g. Rosemary’s Baby), association with serial killers in the 1960s, and the Satanic panic round out this era and Part 3.
Part 4 focuses on Satanism in the 21st century. The Satanic Temple (TST), founded in 2013, dominates this section. La Carmina discusses their origin, ideologies, and activism, as well as what makes them a modern religion (e.g. rituals and holidays). For those interested in the trajectory of modern Satanism, this will be the most important chapter. (No offense to the CoS but TST is the most prominent representative of Satanism today!)
The Conclusion glimpses Satanism in a global context, looking at other “dark” figures (e.g. Santa Muerte; Yama) who have received similar veneration, both metaphysical and symbolic, and La Carmina predicts that this new religious movement will continue to spread.
Again, if you’re interested in a fair presentation of modern Satanism, and if you want to know what this movement is about without all the posturing that can occur when Satanism is discussed, this is a great place to begin.
This past week I attended to Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Denver, CO. While the sentiment wasn’t universal, I’ve seen several of my friends say something to the extent that this was the best conference in a long time. I think this is because many more attended in person this year. While there was an “in person” element last year in San Antonio, it felt sparse, and half the conference was still on Zoom. I appreciate the online option for accessibility reasons, and I support future efforts to have an online version of these conferences, but just like many of us recognized with online learning, there’s something missing for many of us when everything takes place over a screen. This is likely because conferences, like classrooms, are only partially about the exchange of information. It’s the relational, face-to-face interactions that students missed during the pandemic and I think this is what many of us were missing last year.
This was my first year on the Educational Resources and Review Committee. I know this may sound nerdy but our meeting was one of my favorite parts of the conference. I’m excited about what we’re going to do as a committee, especially the emphasis that’s being placed on carving out a space for secondary/high school and middle school teachers, including those who may not teach religious studies but instead say English language or history classes.
I heard a handful of great papers, including some by friends of mine, but the best overall session I attended was last Saturday’s “Bible In America” which featured several excellent presentations—one on “the character of Dinah and on her subsequent reception in American history as a symbol of Black womanhood” (Nauff M. Zakaria); one on the non-use of Numbers 5:11-31 among pro-choice religious group (Kirk R. MacGregor); one on a specific “hologram” Bible known as the “monarchist” Bible and how it relates to Tr*mp (Rebekah Carere); one about the Bible as a celebrity (John W. Fadden); and one the invention of public school Bible courses in Colorado (Mark Chancey).
My goal for next year is to see a session on pedagogy for high and middle school teachers. It may be combined with community college teaching. We’ll see!
I didn’t get many books because six or seven that I wanted were display copy-only or sold out, but I’m excited about the three I did purchase!
For those who are looking for another podcast, “Biblical Time Machine” features Prof. Helen Bond (Edinburgh University) & journalist David Roos. So far, they’ve discussed the “historical” Jesus; authorship of the New Testament; and Jesus’ female disciples.