… All Across Culture

About ten years ago the Department came up with a motto: Studying Religion in Culture. The “in” was italicized to stress the point that, unlike the common “religion and culture” construction that we see all across the field, at the University of Alabama we did not conceive of these two as separate domains that, like billiard balls, sometimes bump into each other (and thus the task of the scholar is to tract the collisions). Instead, the domain we know as religion is but one part of wider historical, cultural practices and institutions (in fact, calling some part “religion” may itself be a local cultural practice!); thus, unlike a previous generation of religious studies scholars, who thought they needed special interpretive methods to study their special data, our object of study is open to examination by means of any of the tools scholars routinely use to study any other cultural practice. (Learn more about the motto here.) Continue reading “… All Across Culture”

Deep Impact

I remember a speaker who would hold the vowels in the first syllable of the word “meaning”–saying “meeee-ning”–signalling to the audience, I guess, that he really, really meant it, much like those who don’t just mean something, like when they extend either their good wishes or deep sympathies, but, instead add that they “sincerely mean” this or that. When it comes to the word “meaning,” I’ve noticed that lots of people do this in my academic field (the study of religion); often associating a hand gesture with this linguistic affectation: some sort of reaching out, maybe the hand slightly opened upward, as if loosely cupping and then displaying a precious object–somehow trying to signal, I gather, the extra mile that they are going to convey the significance of their words. But, despite the highlighting that they behaviorally give to their words, they are, after all, just words–sounds produced by the body and decoded (or encoded?) by ears and brains. Yet somehow, as listeners, we tend to think that they are actually meaningful, sounds and characters on a page or a computer screen that somehow carry this thing we call meaning (for example, did you notice my choice of “convey” two sentences ago? Much as when we “speak from the heart”…). As I’ve often told my students, you can’t hear or read your own language and not “hear” and “see” it as language, as having a meaning. Continue reading “Deep Impact”