When Bread Is Not Bread

Subway bread rolls in oven

What exactly is “bread,” and who gets to decide? Seems like a rather silly question, right? But the Irish Supreme Court has ruled that the US sandwich food chain Subway does not make their sandwiches with bread — which might be rather strange for many of us to hear. And if they don’t make their sandwiches with bread, what are they made with, and are they even sandwiches? Continue reading “When Bread Is Not Bread”

On the Spot with Vaia Touna

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

Vaia Touna1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

It all depends on, of course, to whom I’m talking. I admit that in the early years I was feeling quite frustrated explaining that what I was doing is not theology, that I’m not searching whether god exists or not, whether there is paradise, and that finishing my studies I would not become a priest or a nun. Yes, these were/are some of the standards questions I will get and I assume many of my colleagues do. Now, knowing full well that this is the reality and that people in general are likely not to have any knowledge of the Religious Studies discipline, I get less disappointed and in fact sometimes I wonder why should they even know. I certainly don’t know a lot about many disciplines and in fact even though I guard myself against my own misconceptions, it is likely that my own experiences or what ever knowledge I have of a particular discipline inform how I understand them or even misjudge them, so I welcome those misconceptions people have of my own discipline as a challenge. So back to the question, although I don’t have a standard answer that I give to everyone, in general in my reply I would explain that Religious Studies is a discipline within the human sciences and therefore interested in people and their behaviors, with a focus on how people use, talk, define, and understand religion and the consequences those usages, definitions, etc. have for them and the world around them. Then I would go into the more specifics, that is, how my data (the things I’m studying) relate to ancient and modern Greece and that in my research I’m interested in the way both scholars and people define religion (that is, how they understand religion) and how those definitions inform understandings of both the ancient and modern world (I might even give an example or two). If I see interest then I would explain that definitions whether of religion or any other term are one among many acts by which people come to identify themselves and understand, even construct, the world around them. Hashtag REL100. Continue reading “On the Spot with Vaia Touna”

“…, built walls out of chain-link fences.”

An image of Trevor Noah on The Daily Show

Anyone following US news over the past weeks surely knows about the effects (intended or not) of the Trump administration’s recently instituted zero tolerance policy on unauthorized border crossings — now, even those claiming asylum status, if not entering at an authorized point of entry, risk having accompanying minors taken away form them, inasmuch as the adults are now being charged with a crime and, once in the criminal justice system, are disallowed from carrying out normal parenting duties.

That these now unaccompanied children are being held in various locales around the US (including tent cities and in what certainly seems to be hastily created facilities in what were once so-called big box stores), with no indication when they will (or even if they will) be reunited with their parents, has caused outrage in the past days among some while, for others, has prompted strong defenses of the policy (which has been described by supporters of the administration as not being a policy at all but, instead, the sad effect forced on them by what they term “a broken immigration system”). Continue reading ““…, built walls out of chain-link fences.””

Now You Have Taken It Too Far

A statue of HerodotusThis semester I’m teaching an introductory course on the Study of Religion, that is, looking at scholarly definitions and scholarly approaches to the study of religion. We’re exploring among other things, together with my students, questions like what is the study of religion? What is at stake in naming/defining/classifying things in this or that way? Although this early in the semester one question that prevails is: Continue reading “Now You Have Taken It Too Far”

What’s Your Definition of Religion?

Russell Mccutcheont's tweet about defining religionI had the good fortune the other week to do a virtual class visit, via Skype, with Brad Stoddard’s students at McDaniel College. To get things going, one of his students asked me a question; given that they’d read a little of an intro book I wrote, that’s concerned with issues surrounding defining religion, it concerned how I define religion. Continue reading “What’s Your Definition of Religion?”

“The problem is that we have that distinction…”

A man showing off his paintings

Have you heard of the movie “Tim’s Vermeer” (2013) — it caused a bit of a stir for it suggests that a great artist wasn’t quite the artist we think him to be but, instead, a technologist who might have used lenses and mirrors to produce surprisingly life-like oil paintings. Continue reading ““The problem is that we have that distinction…””

An Agonistic Affair

A cartoon of a man and woman having pizzasIf identification is an agonistic affair — in which social actors continually define and redefine Self and Other while wrestling over competing interests, ranks, and domains — then negotiating what counts as a legitimate place for a date (especially when one party forgot it was Valentines Day and failed to make a reservation somewhere nice) might be as good a place as any other to try to see what’s going on when we try to ascribe an identity.

Prescriptive Descriptions

a black and white photo of a child running into a mans armsI recently wrote a post, scheduled for a week or so from now, in which I used the term “white flight” — which names the process whereby many U.S. inner cities have, since about the 1960s, lost a large portion of their white population by people moving out to the suburbs — and so I was thinking about linking the term in that post to a definition online, for those who were not already familiar with it.

So, wondering what it said, I first tried the Urban Dictionary (see the full entry here). The first definition listed on the page reads as follows: Continue reading “Prescriptive Descriptions”

“It’s Not a Religion”

Picture 9The latest installment of the “religion” wars (i.e., over what gets to count as, and receive the social perks of, religion) comes to us from right in the middle of Tennessee. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, whose construction began in the summer of 2010 after heated disputes over whether it should even be allowed to be built, is in the news again, with its hopes to add a cemetery to its property. Predictably, perhaps, local opponents are trying to stop it in court. Continue reading ““It’s Not a Religion””