“It started with a kiss” A playlist for my introductory methods course

The Fall 2020 semester has not, to put it mildly, been the high point of my academic career. Having elected to teach remotely (thanks to my employer’s decision to give faculty autonomy to do so) I struggled with two new course preps, one of which is our Religious Studies major methods course. The class also draws a fair number of non-majors, students who are curious about how to study religion, and some who mistook the course for a similar course (Intro to World Religions—yes, I know it’s a problematic holdover but I can only do so much).

I took a thematic approach to the course, grouping the theories of religion by academic discipline but with a central question tying the ideas together. Students pondered whether religion was about ritual, community, mystical experiences, or morals, among other topics. Because my real area of expertise is the history of religions in America, I included a healthy amount of Americans—Rosemary Radford Reuther, for example—and American topics.

During one of those weeks, students had read part of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. As we were discussing Paine’s savage attack on revealed texts, which he calls no better than “hearsay,” my brain suddenly shifted to the Killers’ song “Somebody Told Me.” I mentioned the lyrics to the class (“somebody told me/that you had a boyfriend/who looked like a girlfriend/I had in February of last year”). It’s a bit old for students who graduated from high school between 2017 and 2020, but they knew it and humored me.

Later, I began to wonder if you could tie other Killers’ songs to other theories of religion. I struck out there, but I did start compiling a playlist on Spotify, entitled “Theories of Religion.” A few of my Twitter friends expressed an interest in it, so I’m writing it up here to share it widely.

The Killers, “Somebody Told Me”
Thomas Paine (anti-revelation)

The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
William James (mysticism)

Sister Sledge “We Are Family”
Emile Durkheim (community)

Taylor Swift “We Are Never Getting Back Together”
“Nones” (the move away from organized religion)

Public Enemy “Don’t Believe the Hype”
Christopher Hitchens and atheists

Twenty One Pilots “The Hype”
Christopher Hitchens and atheists

The Cars “Drive”

Sigmund Freud (wish fulfillment)

Tracy Chapman
“Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” Karl Marx (religion suppresses the masses’ impulses to revolt)

The Police “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”
Max Weber (routinization continues the prophet’s message)

Barry White “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”
Paul Tillich (god as the ground of all being)

Prince “I Would Die 4 U”
Ninian Smart (empathetic imagination)

R.E.M. “Stand”
Rudolf Otto (religion is non-rational experience, this is a non-rational song)

Woody Guthrie “This Land is Your Land”
Robert Bellah (civil religion, original article)

Childish Gambino “This is America”
Robert Bellah (civil religion more recently)

Bob Dylan “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”
Mircea Eliade (the sacred and the profane)

DJ Casper, Hardino “Cha Cha Slide”
Victor Turner (ritual)

Lizzo “Truth Hurts”
(Rosemary Radford Reuther’s challenge to religious patriarchies)

John Lennon “Imagine”
(Are morals dependent on religion?)

Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus”
(Wilfred Cantwell Smith (individual faith is central)

R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”

Clifford Geertz (religion provides meaning in an apparently meaningless world)

When every day is a teachable moment

The pundits have declared students as “special snowflakes” once again, after an unruly group protested a speaker at Middlebury. Commentators from conservative to liberal have decried the students’ actions and yet again laid the blame for such incidents squarely on the shoulders of professors, instructors who “coddle” the students and only make them hear that with which they agree.  But I’d like to take exception to these pronouncements and issue a standing invitation to commentators to come visit my classroom sometime. What would they see? A wide range of students, from diverse backgrounds, with differing opinions, engaging in civil conversations about the course material and the world at large. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? No “moral dry rot” as Thomas Sowell would have it. No “swarm” or “illiberalism,” as Frank Bruni sees it.

Instead, students in my classes–and in countless other classes across the country–know that their opinions are respected, both by their classmates and by their instructor. And they feel the freedom to make connections between the class materials and present-day events. This is why the Middlebury incident stands out–for its rarity.

Continue reading “When every day is a teachable moment”

Teaching the nones and the millennials

For the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering how the changes in the religious make-up of the United States have influenced the worldviews of my students. According to the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life’s 2015 report, Americans are heading down two radically different paths. The number of people who do not affiliate with a religion, or the “nones” as they are known in academic shorthand (and not to be confused with nuns–homophones are so confusing in spoken English), are increasing. But at the same time, those Americans who do affiliate with a religious body are maintaining their religious practices with no real decline. The Pew study was done with sound research methods, much better than the anecdotal trends I can report from my experience teaching American and European religious history. But that won’t stop me from describing my own observations and engaging, I hope, in a conversation with others who have recently written on this topic.

The generalizations

Overall, students in my classes have been intensely curious about religion, religious practice, religious beliefs, and religious adherents. In ways that mirror the Pew study, those students tend toward one of two backgrounds: 1) the students who grew up without religion and who want to learn about why people are religious, and 2) the students who grew up with religion and who want to learn about other religions, often with varying reasons.

In the first group, the students look very much like the Pew study’s respondents. They have never attended church, except to appease a grandparent or to attend a funeral, and many, like Erin Bartram’s students, want to know why anyone would still believe something the millennials think merely justifies oppression, racism, violence, and war. These students, as Jolyon Baraka Thomas notes, have a set of notions that the religious studies classroom seeks to disrupt. I’ve banned what I call the “c-word” (crazy) from our classroom discussions, and I stress in each course that if you want to stop what you see is oppression, you need to understand its origins to better dismantle it. Thus, if you really think that religion is merely a tool for violence, you’d better be ready to explain the nuts and bolts of that view and not just toss around insults about the Crusades or the Inquisition. At the root of these students’ concerns about religious beliefs’ negative impacts is usually a facile or deterministic understanding of why someone believes. I try to work to ensure that they first understand the beliefs and then see how believers act upon those tenets.

In the second group, however, there are distinct challenges as well. While some believers come to class with an ecumenical outlook and enjoy the exchange of ideas, others expect that I will teach their “true” doctrine to the rest of the class and are sorely disappointed when I fail to comply. Indeed, one student approached me after class and said, “Professor Mathews, I feel like God is using you to test me.” As my institution’s student body has become more diverse, these “true believers” come from increasingly different backgrounds as well, such that, in addition to Christian “true believers,” I have some Muslims (certainly not all) in class who get frustrated when I don’t sound like their local imam. A few years ago, I taught a course on the European Reformations in which a group of Roman Catholic students and a group of evangelical Protestants waged rhetorical wars on each other every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 to 5 p.m.  I’ve also had a few students who are “true believers” who have taken religion courses or even become religion majors so that they can understand the secular beast and use its tools to destroy it from within.

In the “true believers” group, millennials’ passion for ideas and social justice especially shine. While some of my colleagues might see the millennials reflected more in the nones, I see them in the religious enthusiasm of the “true believers.” In religion, some millennials see the answers to a world that appears to be abrogating its promises to them. Religion rights wrongs, religion promotes dignity, religion embraces community. This is not to say that religious fervor is solely a millennial phenomenon, but to suggest that the millennials embrace it in a way consistent with their peers’ hopes and aspirations for a better world.

The take-aways (or as it’s called in my class, the “so-what?”)

So how do we teach the millennials, full of passion and curiosity, and sometimes short on religious literacy? Here are some suggestions, and I welcome more.

  1. Start the semester off with a “back to basics” class or two, in which you gauge the enrolled students’ religious knowledge. Anonymous index cards with quick responses to questions like “how many gospels are there in the Christian New Testament?” “how comfortable do you feel studying a different religious tradition?” or “what would you like to learn about this semester” can break the ice, both for the class and for the instructor. I’m considering using Bluepulse this upcoming semester to ensure anonymity.
  2. Create clear directions in your syllabus about how to talk about different points of view, and remind the students that civility is necessary. I’ve used this boilerplate in my syllabi recently to signal my interest in a fair exchange of views: A word about diversity in religion: this class will examine **fill in the blank** religions in their own context and in the context of their encounters with other religious traditions. We will not, however, engage in subjective judgments about any religion we discuss. In the classroom, as in any academic environment, we must engage in open and impartial consideration of the subject.
  3. Use readings and visual presentations that challenge your students and disrupt their preconceptions, and keep at these challenges even if the students push back. It’s important for students in a course on early American religious history to understand that science and religion interacted with each other in ways that are very different than in today’s culture. That’s part of our job to get our classes to think historically and recognize change over time. It’s also important to include materials that show both the good and bad sides of religious belief. R. Marie Griffith‘s American Religions: A Documentary History (Oxford, 2008) has selections of both. In her excerpt of George Armstrong’s The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, students encounter the white Southern theological justification for human bondage, while a few pages later, they can read Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel. You may have to push your students to read more critically, and you may have to do some contextualization for them, as I have found when teaching Robert Warrior’s “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation.” Don’t give up if the students in one iteration of the course don’t understand the objective of an assignment; keep pushing the envelope, but also look for new ways to locate the material with them. As the feature image shows, I’ve used Venn diagrams to explain the varieties of Christianity. And I resort to “salvation equations” to explain the difference between Catholic and Protestant views of salvation. My “Flat Luther” makes a fun companion/prop when I teach the Protestant Reformation.”

    Luther monitors my class prep
    Luther monitors my class prep

    Or you can write on the desk: chalk

    I’d be interested to hear from colleagues at other institutions if they see the same trends I do. I don’t think it’s a regional issue, but I could be wrong. Do your students struggle with religion in history, and if so, what have you done to address that difficulty?


Who’s this syllabus for anyway?

As the winter break draws to a close, I’m revising and editing my syllabi for the upcoming semester. Actually, I’ve already finished them, but as I was working on them this week, I pondered what this exercise means in the 21st century. With “outcomes goals” and various other statements added to syllabi, the question I’m considering is for whom am I writing these? The answer should be for my students. But increasingly, I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks that.

I’m old school–I remember a time when the only copy of the syllabus you got was the one the professor handed you on day one of the course. Lose it, and you had to depend on the kindness of your classmates to figure out what you had to do and when. In those days–which I’m certainly not calling the “good old days”–syllabi were lean, rarely stretching beyond two pages. The top of the syllabus had the course number, title, professor’s name and office hours, and this information was followed by a list of books and dates for assignments. Rounding it all out was the date for the final exam and the professor’s weighting of the grades.

I largely adhere to that format, but I, like most of my colleagues, have expanded on the basics. I include a statement about what the course will cover in general. I add information about what should be in a research or reaction paper. I clearly state my policy on extensions (rarely granted) and my loyalty to the institution’s Honor Code.

And I’ve gladly added some information at the behest of various administrative offices, most notably the information pertaining to accommodations for students who require them. Our Office of Disability Resources helpfully supplies faculty with a draft paragraph, and I’ve edited it to reflect my style.

But now that we’ve entered the age of assessment, I find that school, state, and regional accreditation bodies require me to add sections to my syllabus to describe how my course will satisfy a set of goals determined by a committee overseeing the type of course I’m offering. For example, my RELG 278 course, Religion in America After the Civil War, is designated as a Writing Intensive course, a General Education Course (in the Human Experience and Society category), and, oh right, a Religion course. Each of these designations means that I must add a paragraph (even just a brief one) explaining how my course will satisfy each designation. Then I must save my course in a pdf with a particular citation style and send a copy to our office manager, who then compiles all of the department’s offerings and sends them off to the dean and the assistant provost for institutional effectiveness and assessment.

So writing paragraphs isn’t the most onerous task I have ever faced as an academic, but the inclusion of this material in a document I primarily view as a road map for my students makes me begin to understand why there’s now a cottage industry of memes devoted to lamenting how students don’t read the syllabus.

Batman has a syllabus?

Or is it because you’ve had too many beers?

Morpheus schools Neo

Yes, Ryan Gosling, you can see my syllabus. But please don’t refer to me as a “girl.”

I try to find better ways to make sure my students read the syllabus, including making it the home page of the course’s Canvas site. But as I inserted the assessment paragraphs this time around, I realized that at least a part of the problem is that if I put the “course outcomes” on the first page, the stuff the students care about–where do I find the reading? when is the next paper due?–gets pushed back, further and further into the document. I’m not saying that students need to be able to read the entire document–oh wait, I am–but it doesn’t make sense to bury the critical information for the primary consumers of that information.

So with the last syllabus I drafted for the semester, I engaged in just a tiny bit of subversion. I moved the outcomes statement to the end. For my RELG 250 class, African American Religions–an Honors course, a General Education course, and, oh right, a Religion course–the statement follows the schedule, the grading policy, the information on research paper options, and the contact information for the Office of Disability Resources.

So now two things remain to be seen. One, does it help the students? And two, will the administration notice and/or care? I’m betting the answers are 1) yes and 2) no.