On the Spot with Richard Newton

“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.

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

This is a fun question for me as a scholar and an advisor. Usually I tell people that I study “the anthropology of scriptures.” And as I tell students of religion preparing for job interviews, the response to the original question isn’t designed to satisfy so much as it is to peak the asker’s curiosity. I like to turn a point of information into a point of interest by pairing something presumably familiar (e.g. scriptures) with something presumably strange (e.g. anthropology). And in so doing, I hope to have provided an answer that is interesting enough that I’m granted the chance to elaborate.

If I’m successful at this, then I get to say how I’m interested in how and why some of the cultural texts people read also appear to read them back. We know people and social interests are at work in creating these media, yet we are also aware of instances where people relate to texts in and of themselves. What’s up with that? Quite a lot actually…. Continue reading “On the Spot with Richard Newton”

On Jewish Studies and the Study of Islam


The following excerpt is from Sarah Imhoff’s contribution to the newly released volume Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: Current Dilemmas in the Study of Religionswith Culture on the Edge Books Series (Equinox Publishing).

The field of Jewish studies is full of Jews. This is obvious. It is also surprising, for two reasons. First, the diversity of Jewish studies scholars compares unfavourably with other religion-related fields. Islamic studies currently has a sufficient mix of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars to create a heated debate about epistemology, apology and the study of Islam. Jewish studies still has relatively few non-Jewish scholars of Judaism, although the number is growing. … While Islamic studies in American traces much of its history through Orientalism — non-Muslims studying Muslims and Islamic civilizations–the dominant narrative of Jewish studies begins with Jews studying Judaism. Although Jewish studies is my primary field, I have found that reflecting on Islamic studies has made me think more clearly about Jewish studies. I hope the reverse also proves true — that reflecting on Jewish studies will offer fruitful parallels with, as well as distinctions from, many of the larger issues at play in Islamic studies (121-122).

– Sarah Imhoff, “Jews, Jewish Studies and the Study of Islam”

Teaching “Just the Facts”

In the course I’m TAing for (a Masters level American Religious History course), I was given the opportunity to give a class lecture. The professor wanted me to bring my own work and knowledge, given that the lecture material was related to my own area of study (Catholic immigration and nationalism in the US). While I have had the opportunity to lecture in the past (and design my own portion of the syllabus to then teach), this was the first time I taught material chosen by someone else.  Continue reading “Teaching “Just the Facts””

“Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation

When I was a kid, “Guess Who?” was a very popular game with me and my friends at my after school program. It was always a pretty quick game, which had friends gathered around while waiting for their chance to play the winner. Perhaps you recall the game — two players, each choose a yellow card, which had the picture of one of the faces on the board, and take turns guessing which card the other person has. While each of the pictures has a name on it, players can only ask yes or no questions about physical appearance: hair color, hair style, age, etc. Continue reading ““Guess Who?”: A Game of Differentiation”

Tidying Up Books and other Cultural Essentialisms

During last year’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life revival on Netflix, I kept hearing viewers basking in acknowledgment of a reference lost on me. In the scene, a wealthy and recently-widowed WASP declutters her mansion while wearing uncharacteristically casual clothes. The woman is in crisis and ready to make a change. She marshals some hired help to move large objects in her mansion while she scrutinizes the smaller items.

At one point she says, “If it brings you joy, you keep it. If it doesn’t, out it goes.”

A gif of Emily Gilmore saying, "If it brings you joy, you keep it. If it doesn't, out it goes.", while she declutters her mansion. This is a clip from the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls.

Now I finally get it… Continue reading “Tidying Up Books and other Cultural Essentialisms”

Trick or Treat Doctors of Philosophy

Recently on Twitter, I was reflecting about the everyday encounters where the study of religion (and really “religion” as identity formation) becomes a topic of conversation.

In case it’s TL;DR, the long and short is that I’m convinced that there’s plenty of opportunity for scholars to contribute to public discourse if we hold vigilant in our commitment to observation and intelligibility. To me, the minute that we insist upon our expertise at the expense of our willingness to explain our point is when we’ve shifted a potential exchange with someone into an effort to change the other.

A really long essay explaining that "TL;DR" means "too long, didn't read," and advocating readers to "be precise."
A long explanation of what “TL;DR” or “too long; didn’t read,” means. Wikipedia, October 15, 2018.

And while I prefer to see change as a social fact rather than an intrinsically bad thing, there is something disturbing about clearly veiled efforts at affecting change.  They are all well and good when they go unnoticed, like the way I hand my kids a sealed salt shaker when they want to add more seasoning to their food. But when we know how this works, we label these acts differently–manipulation, lying, bait-and-switch, etc.

It’s the trick-or-treat conundrum. Continue reading “Trick or Treat Doctors of Philosophy”

Subtitles

I’ve long found it curious when producers decide a subtitle is needed; those of us in North America addicted to streaming Scandinavian detective dramas might be more than accustomed to reading the bottom of the screen these days (so yes, we now all know what “tack” means), but what about when you’re watching a Travel Channel host talk to someone speaking English in contemporary Scotland…?

Do we really need subtitles, just because it’s an accent that might be a little off our own English register? Continue reading “Subtitles”

A Man, A Tan, “God’s Plan”

Drake with his right hand up beside his face. An image from his music video "Hotline Bling"

Earlier this month Aubrey “Drake” Graham revealed that the knotting of his purse strings to his heartstrings are all a part of “God’s Plan,” the title of his latest music video.

The billboard hit features him giving out the video’s $999,631.90 production budget to the people of Miami. Gifts ranged from surprise shopping sprees to impromptu educational grants to unexpected spa treatments. The emotional reception shown in the video matched the public’s initial positive reactions.

However, the Canadian rapper’s philanthropy—like the Bible—has since been subject to varied interpretations. You’re likely familiar with the more skeptical takes. Continue reading “A Man, A Tan, “God’s Plan””

On Kings and Trump Cards

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

During the Super Bowl, RAM Trucks debuted a controversial truck commercial splicing images of Americana with a sermon excerpt from slain Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After outrage gave way to discourse, cultural critics were quick to point to the irony of Dodge’s signification. In the originating sermon, “The Drum Major’s Instinct,” King critiques self-interested pursuits that hinder people’s ability to see the value in others. He literally calls out Americans who ride in expensive “Chrysler” vehicles for the ego trip. NB: FiatChrysler Automobiles is the parent company of RAM.

To make the point,  the left-leaning magazine Current Affairs re-edited the commercial with an audio excerpt from the same sermon that they believe to be more indicative of King’s message. Continue reading “On Kings and Trump Cards”