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.

1. 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”

Forcing Tradition

Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.

As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:

Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.

Despite this, the captain insists on moving forward with the investigation: “We’re not giving up. … There has got to be a way to stop him.” Continue reading “Forcing Tradition”

Expected Meanings

164281467_0fa7216091_zThe meaning of words, even entire texts, reflect our expectations of them and our assumptions of their context. This point is apparent in the Argentine soccer ad that uses quotes from Donald Trump to hype the national team’s trip to the United States. If you missed this brilliant appropriation, take a look below.

Continue reading “Expected Meanings”

“In Their Own Terms”

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This past semester in my upper level seminar we were discussing anachronistic uses of categories, among which “religion,” in describing and therefore understanding the past and most specifically ancient Greece, reading among other things Brent Nongbri’s book Before Religion. For those not familiar with the book, Nongbri is offering a historical study of the category religion tracing its origins not in the ancient world but in modern Europe; when used to describe ancient practices Nongbri suggests that the term is anachronistically projected backwards in time, urging his readers to be self-aware when they use that word to talk about the past. Continue reading ““In Their Own Terms””

Making Meaning

6d61b38dff59187fb1a03b5c4cdccc0fThis semester I’m teaching a course on the uses of anachronism in the study of the ancient Greek world, one such anachronism being the concept of religion itself (for it is hardly a local term in the ancient Greek world). Last week, just before class, I happened to stumble across an article that made the rounds on Facebook entitled “Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May be Evidence of ‘Sacred’ Rituals.” The title of the article was enough to catch my attention: “mysterious” along with “sacred rituals”? Definitely this was something that I could share with my students. Continue reading “Making Meaning”

At the Painting’s Edge

uacampusOur campus has a new painting, hanging in the lobby of our main library, depicting the University of Alabama prior to the Civil War — near the end of which most of the campus was burned down by northern troops passing through the city. But here, in this roughly 6 by 14 foot vibrant painting, we see the Rotunda brought back to life, as well as several other now missing buildings (only the remains exist today, such as a pile of debris that was once Franklin Hall that has come to be known as “the Mound“). Continue reading “At the Painting’s Edge”

Changing Narratives, Changing Facts

Picture 5John Douglas, a former FBI agent, is now a well-known criminal profiler, and he was among the people involved in the effort to free three men who were convicted when they were teenagers, in Arkansas in the mid-1990s, of the brutal murder of three young boys. In the recent documentary on the case, “West of Memphis” (2012), he’s also among the people interviewed, to help shed light on an old case whose outcome was changed by new DNA testing methods. Continue reading “Changing Narratives, Changing Facts”

What Does God Mean?

boy george

Boy George, the lead singer for Culture Club, a British pop group in the 80’s with hits like “Karma Chameleon,” recently released a new album that includes the song “My God”. (As you can see in the video below, he looks different now, though he continues to maintain a unique style.) “My God” contrasts two mirrored narratives. In the first, a person hands Boy George a religious tract and tells him, “Jesus loves you, don’t you know.” In the second, Boy George is in the opposite position, telling another person, “Jesus loves you, don’t you know.” In both cases, the recipient’s response is to shake his head. Continue reading “What Does God Mean?”

Them That Believe

W. R. TinkerI see that snake-handling Pentecostal churches in the U.S.’s Appalachian region have been in the media again, now that the National Geographic Channel has a reality show on the topic: Snake Salvation. Continue reading “Them That Believe”

Hearing is Believing?

edgenyA recent story on the sounds of New York in the 1920s brings up a curious thing — whether the past is more real when listening to it (or seeing it, in old movies or photos, for example) rather than just reading about it (whether in so-called primary or secondary sources).

Is the past somehow closer to us in one case than another? Continue reading “Hearing is Believing?”