Rethinking Teaching “Exploring Religion”

It feels like the summer only just began and yet while I was trying desperately to finish up the draft of a book I’m writing for EdinburghUP and to finish the first draft of another Laruelle translation (Introduction to Non-Marxism, which is really good!) it appears that half the summer is already gone. In six weeks I’ll be back in the classroom at La Salle and so my courses have begun weighing on my mind. Last year I taught two courses, one was a 200-level course called “Contemporary Religious Thought” focusing on the problem of abstraction (what we do in intellectual work like theology) and suffering. I was unhappy with the first semester version but in the second semester version my lectures improved and I had a more engaged group of student (helped that the class moved from 9am to 11am). Next year my 200-level course changes though and I’ll be teaching Modern Catholicism, which is going to present it’s own challenges and I’m sure I’ll talk about that in another post. But, while I was happy with the way Contemporary Religious Thought went in the end, my four sections of Exploring Religion (an introduction to the study of religion) were all for me ultimately failures and so I have been slowly thinking over how to reorganize the class for next year.

It’s important as a teacher to realize when your classes have failed, as any good teacher or teacher aspiring to better teaching will know. So this is me effectively thinking out loud about what it is that failed, what I want the students to come out of the course having learned or experienced, and what I could change to help make that happen.

So, let’s start with failures. Well, before I turn the critical gaze upon myself, let me say what isn’t working in terms of the students themselves. I certainly was unprepared for the unpreparedness of my students to study a humanities subject at a college level. While our acceptance requirements mean that our students have generally decent to good SAT scores and high school transcripts, it does seem that we tend to attract students mostly into our Business and Nursing programs. Many of my students, I have found, approach their time at university as worker training with added social events. I don’t think this is good, but I can’t fault the individual students for thinking this way in our age of neoliberal precariousness. It is after all the ideology in the air at the moment. I do have to question the business wisdom of attending a private university whose tuition costs are far from negligible, but I realize that this ideology is far from consistent. My usual tactic of telling my students I did not take attendance or assign busy work also did not work with the population at La Salle. While at Nottingham and DePaul I did the same thing, my attendance never fell below 85%, whereas at La Salle I had some classes hovering just below 50%. Obviously this resulted in lower grades overall, but it also suggests that my students here need that illusion of a disciplinary structure, whether I like it or not. Then there is the usual problems many of us are facing after Bush’s disastrous program of No Child Left Behind, which seems to have left an entire generation behind. So they don’t like long readings, writing papers is in general difficult for them and critical thinking is confusing for them in terms of how to evaluate themselves or how I am evaluating them. These student failures are all things I think I can handle next semester. Attendance policy, spaced out writing and quizzes to check on their reading a bit more, and more discussions about what papers are supposed to look like and what critical thinking is. I’m not too worried about that, though the authoritarian thing bothers me I treat teaching as in part donning a persona so I can be their Stalin no problem.

OK, so what did I do wrong? Well, if you look at my syllabus for the class you will see that I used an introductory textbook. That text summarizes a number of individual theorists from Otto to Tillich and Durkheim to Geertz. I liked the idea of introducing the students to a number of different approaches to religion, somewhat like the Intro to Philosophy I taught at DePaul where we covered 16 philosophers in 20 weeks. That philosophy class worked well, I was excited every class, they dug it and I had to weave a thread about love and subject/objects to make it make sense… it was fun. But it didn’t work with the study of religion and I think in part because, while I have that grounding in the history of philosophy and can weave a coherent narrative that makes sense from Plato to Irigaray and Laruelle, I can’t do that with the study of religion. In part this is because my PhD is in philosophical theology, so I didn’t spend a ton of time with social-scientific approaches to the study of religion unless they were philosophically interesting (and Durkheim and company can be, but you gotta work them pretty hard to get that to come out). It’s also hard because the figures that make up the study of religion are all very different, Durkheim and Tillich do not reside in the same disciplinary country. I also had them read Bataille’s Theory of Religion with the hopes that they would read a whole text of a theorist and to expose them to the interesting craziness that can come from such a wildly interdisciplinary approach to the problem. That didn’t work because they just couldn’t parse the book at all (if they even attempted to… one rather lovely student whose twitter I stumbled upon when he emailed me I couldn’t place his face tweeted that “my faggot professor can stick that foreign book up his ass”… lovely on some many levels) and I didn’t dedicate enough time in lectures to unfold the entire thing for them. I also used a novel, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which didn’t seem to go well with them, but I don’t know what kind of novel to switch it out for. Then there was Augustine’s Confessions and Malcolm X’s autobiography, which I planned to neatly present us with an insider’s account of their own religious experience that also happened to be important literature in its own right. I taught the Malcolm X book well, but I’ve never liked Augustine’s Confessions and so even my best attempts to encourage a deeper engagement on their part never went very far. What did work here was that I could, for both Islam and Christianity, present a very broad history of the development of thought in those traditions alongside of everyday people’s experiences of those religion and the divine with them.

OK, so what do I want them to get out of this class. Well, it seems to me that they should come out of this class being able to take an upper division course in religion. They should have the critical skills to engage with religion in an intellectual way (I don’t even care if it’s academic as such since very few of them are majors, but intellectual is important to me). So it seems I do need to give them some of the tools people as diverse as Tillich and Durkheim have developed alongside helping them develop their critical thinking skills and writing. I also think it is important that university students read important literature, which was one of the reasons I had chosen the Confessions. And it is also important to me that some of the students get excited and enticed by the practice of thinking. I know that’s a bit romantic, but that’s why I do what I do; I love it and I want to show them how this can be exciting and interesting and vital.

So what am I going to do? Well, I do like to show films in my classes as a kind affective way of thinking about some of these issues. I used American Beauty for this class and, though I had forgotten how much masturbating there is in, I think it worked ok, but I didn’t show it at the right time of the semester. This semester I think I’m going to show it earlier, in the first two weeks of the semester. The purpose of showing this movie or any movie really is to challenge what they think counts as the object of the study of religion. I know American Beauty has its problems and it is very middle class, but it is a religious narrative told without any reference to organized religion and that can be helpful at this level. I also need to rethink how I teach the first section of the class, where we deal with the individual theorists. Maybe choose four that I myself can get excited by and focus really hard on their primary sources rather than reading a textbook. Which four though? Well, Otto for sure. Maybe Durkheim, but I need to find what exactly from him I can use. I love Marx on this stuff, but there isn’t much focused except maybe On the Jewish Question, but that introduces some problems. I find Geertz kind of helpful, but he’s entirely problematic in ways that aren’t and so I have no idea where to go for the anthropology of religion since the people I like are a bit more advanced. But then I was thinking, after reading how Islamaphobic many of my students are combined with how conventional they think religion is, that it would be good to read “weird” texts as well. What I mean by conventional is the way that so many of them seem to think of religion as just about moralistic bullshit. And I know that’s certainly part of it, my strange divided upbringing between atheism and evangelical Christian parents certainly was damaging in so far as I have internalized some of that moralistic bullshit, but that isn’t at all why religion still interests me nor is it the essence or identity of religion in my view. I have a dualistic approach to religion, it is a site of active and reactive forces, and what is interesting is not the reactive forces (they are by nature boring) but the active forces. I want them to look at that. So from the past syllabus I am thinking right now I’m only going to retain Malcolm X and I am considering adding a book by Michael Muhammad Knight (either Blue-Eyed Devil, Journey to the End of Islam, or Tripping with Allah) to round out the Islam section. But for the Christianity section (and, yes, I have pretty much limited myself to these two traditions for better or worse) I am at a bit of a loss. I may teach the Confessions again, but I don’t really want to and yet I can’t think of a good replacement for it. So I’m open to suggestions there. And as for an interesting contemporary Christian book, I have no idea where to go with that either, maybe see if I can find an interesting syncretic account of Christianity and paganism? The experience of immigrants and Christianity? I want to avoid emergent stuff like Pete Rollins, so that’s not at all what I mean, but anyone have thoughts here? I have also been playing around with using Mama Lola this time around as well, perhaps getting rid of the novel all together. But I really don’t know yet.

So, knowing I probably won’t take all or even most suggestions, what do you intrepid readers suggest?

31 thoughts on “Rethinking Teaching “Exploring Religion”

  1. Just spitballing here, but you might consider switching out Augustine for one of the mystics: Teresa of Avila, Juilan of Norwich, Rumi,etc. Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will might grab some attention, too. Would not recommend getting rid of the introductory textbook, though. Wanders in the woods need their breadcrumbs. Maybe to inject some sociology into the mix, T. J. Luhrmann’s recent “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.” Good luck.

  2. My main reason for not wanting to use the textbook, by the way, was they seemed pretty bored by it. They didn’t engage with it and I just found myself repeating what was already there. Ideally I’d find something like Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms where I could assign a few definitions per week for quizzes. I need to look into that.

  3. Perhaps Brad would have more to say about this (as it appears he has read a lot of her) but Clarice Lispector might be an interesting choice in terms of fiction (though she could perhaps be read more as *confession*). I would definitely consider her work broadly ‘syncretistic’ but definitely religious. There is something about her writing that I find connects with that basic high school angst of asking *why* which might appeal to them. I would recommend *Near to the Wild Heart*. It also comes in under a 100 pages I think.

  4. What about some James Cone or Marcella Althaus Reid? Both have some great and quite accessible discussions of how to do theology starting from lived religion. Or Gillian Rose’s “Love’s Work” brings together philosophy, religion, Christianity and Judaism in some interesting ways.

  5. Anthony, nice to see I’m not the only one whose students don’t show up that much… For contemporary Christian stuff, have you thought about something by James Alison? Your stuff about reactive versus active forces reminds me a little of his perspective (although with some significant differences), and it’s an interesting example of the use of religious theory. Anyhow, I’ve used this talk in the past, and it got some thought going:

  6. I think you’re right not to use a textbook. You can crib from it for your lectures, but if you’re going to assign them reading, you need to make sure it’s serious and worthwhile.

    I’m looking over a syllabus one of my Kalamazoo colleagues sent me, and it looks like she used A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion for most of the readings. Another idea that might be helpful is to assign them a field trip or two — although that’s not the kind of thing I’d feel most comfortable with. I can see if she will let me just forward you the syllabus, because it seems pretty solid.

  7. They have a religious experience field trip (a you’d know if you read the syllabus!) which also fits in with our City as Classroom mandate. That worked well enough I didn’t think to mention it in the post, but I’m changing it slightly next year. Reminds me I need to take a day and call some places.

  8. My worry is that Alison is going to be a bit too advanced. (Drop me an email Stu, would love to hear from you.)

    I also worry about that with Cone and Althaus-Reid but what texts were you thinking of?

  9. One of my favorite religion classes was heavily integrated with novels. I see Vonnegut on the syllabus so I know you’re already doing a bit of that. I especially remember Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie being a thought-provoking and enjoyable read for thinking about religion and religious experience.

    Also, and this is just me, but as much as I hated writing responses, etc., looking back those were extremely helpful for me in learning to cultivate a certain clarity of thought *before* entering the classroom. I’m someone who is bad at thinking of questions, etc., on the spot, but being forced to do that thinking in advance really did contribute to my ability to engage in a class. So, it kind of sucks, but it’s really helpful, too.

  10. Amaryah,

    Yeah the short assignments not being given was a mistake. I’ll check out the novel. They didn’t read the Vonnegut and most who did after I threw them out of class thought it was “weird and bitter”.

  11. A short and mind-blowing work (that is outside of both the Christian/Islam stream) is John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings of the Living Earth. He’s a druid, but it reads more like a systems theory textbook than a bunch of mystical pagan woo.

    He’s been blogging about religion, particularly the non-spiritual religions of nationalism and progress on his blog, The Archdruid Report for several months now, and that would help break the link in your students’ mind, I think, between religion and moralism.

    For contemporary Christian works, I like Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity (mostly for his argument that there is no ethics in Christianity), and I’ve done a book discussion group centered on Richard Beck’s Unclean. Beck is an experimental psychologist, but he doubles as an amateur theologian in his spare time. His second book, The Authenticity of Faith, draws froFreud and Marx as well as experimental psychology to talk about Christian apologetics. Both are quite excellent, and even when he gets into the experimental psychology sections it’s parseable by the lay reader.

  12. For contemporary Christianity (sorry to pile on), as well as addressing the gender imbalance, you could try Kaya Oakes or Sara Miles; they both wrote autobiographical accounts of their conversions – Oakes returned to Catholicism, Miles became an Episcopalian. Both books (Radical Reinvention and Take This Bread are very light on the theology, they’re more narrative accounts of what the everyday life of a liberal Catholic or a mainline Protestant into social justice is like. I’ve linked excerpts from both books to give a feel for them.

  13. When I taught Religion in the Modern World last year, I found that Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited worked very well, having even taught it as part of a unit along with the Autobiography of Malcolm X (with MLK’s The Measure of a Man in between). It works well to contrast not only the Christian/Islam distinction, but allows for discussions of violence/non-violence as well. I also appreciate the focus that both have on the centrality of the body and training/habits as they concern not only religion, but religious life.

    I’d also suggest the inclusion of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion in the earlier more critical portion, perhaps as a replacement for Bataille? It’s not only really fun to teach, but is weird enough to interest students.

  14. Anthony,

    I concur on a number of points.

    Announcing that you won’t take attendance or offer busy work doesn’t seem to reassure students, and too often opens them to give into irresponsibility. I think you phrase it well, “illusion of a disciplinary structure.” Also, I believe your suggested solutions will work well.

    I cannot speak for your discipline, but I can say that I am not surprised that the students are unprepared and often unwilling to read primary texts. In fact, with my students, many of them do not even understand the concept of primary texts and think that assigning Plato’s Republic (only parts) is torture. On that front, for me, the primary problem is student “buy-in”; they seem to think that I and not they need to commit themselves to the class. Of course, I already have, and I have yet to figure out a way to get most of them to understand the role(s) of being a student. (Do the reading, take notes, ask questions, etc.)

  15. If I remember correctly, Peter Beyer’s Globalization and Religion (though it may be a bit long) had some good stuff. Also something like Eck’s Darsan or Khandelwal’s Women in Ochre Robes could bring some Hindu-centric discourses.

  16. I don’t think Daly’s Beyond God the Father would be too difficult for an intro class, but I don’t know your students. I have taught it at Lebanon Valley College and Defiance College, and I use part of her Gyn/Ecology for an intro class at Penn State. It’s not my favorite of her books (Pure Lust is brilliant IMHO), but it’s the most accessible. The Postchristian introduction might be good to save until after the book for beginner students. I was thinking that it would be provocative, raise good questions, and add a canonical feminist text to the mix…

  17. Totally concur with you on the general awfulness of Intro to Religion textbooks. I’ve actually tried a couple of them, and have surveyed even more. I’ve also taught Intro to Philosophy using a standard text, with readings. And I’ve never had a problem getting my students to have strong feelings about Kant, though I was skeptical that this would happen. When it came to classical theories of religion, on the other hand, my students were bored stiff by the readings and could only become ever so slightly interested in them after some seriously animated lectures, from me. But I don’t like to build my courses around lectures. So I’ve also been having a crisis about how to teach this course again (which I’m doing in the spring).

    It seems to me that one of the biggest problems I’ve been facing is that my students have no idea how strange it is that we use this speculative category of “religion” to cover a broad swath of human culture and experience. It’s difficult to make the strangeness of this interesting. And I don’t think that reading through the classical theories (at least not at first) really ignites their immediate interest. I think that, when I teach this course in the spring I’m really going to focus in more intently on a series of books that make religion, categorically speaking, a bit more bizarre. I guess you could say I’m trying to synthetically amplify that strangeness. I’m toying with using Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion (, perhaps also Hugh Urban’s book on scientology. Nothing makes religion more bizarre, to my students, than scientology. They cannot get enough scientology.

    As for films, I’ve found that using Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” (where Alanis Morissette plays a she-God, at the end) has been a good way to stage a conversation about the structures of faith or belief.

  18. Thanks everyone for your suggestions. They are excellent. Right now I’m playing around with using an early female mystic and Mary Daly for the Christianity section. And Malcom X and one of Michael Muhammad Knight’s books, which I am enjoying reading right now.


    Hmm, yes it is nice to hear I’m not alone here. I wonder if it’s that philosophy is so wide-ranging, almost a religion in itself or as complex as religion appears. Whereas the study of religion is something like “meta-philosophy”, taking all the weird stuff in the system and trying to understand it at a higher level. That’s something we do later, after we first are seduced maybe (I need to find a way out of that language, but that’s still how I relate to my coming into the intellectual life, I was seduced into it). So, I wonder if it would make more sense for me to do the stuff by religious people first and then move to the theories of religion, instead of the other way around. That seems maybe promising, give them the materials that dazzle first, then the tools to try and actually see them.

  19. A few drive by suggestions–

    If you ended up integrating another religion into the class, Issa’s The Spring of My Life is really great. Not sure how haikus would go over with the students, but at least it wouldn’t be heavy reading.

    For the Xtianity section, a very compelling nonfiction work is Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain. It’s about snake handling churches in the Appalachian mountains. Would probably be well outside any students experience with Christianity and introduces some class elements as well.

  20. There are two rather reasonable essays I think would make a lot of sense for this introductory class. One is the second chapter in George Lindbeck’s “The Nature of Doctrine” titled “Religion and Experience: A Pretheological Inquiry,” and the other is a small essay, “The Invention of Japanese Religions” by Jason Ananda Josephson. Both address the question “what is religion?” Both should be digestible by undergrads, especially with a bit of guidance. I’ve got a pdf. of the Josephson essay if you’d like it. It’s only something like 9 pages.

  21. With Althaus-Reid I was thinking of the introduction to Indecent Theology, which is pretty accessible and gets across pretty well some of her key concerns. Plus I feel like, if anything’s going to get students’ attention, it might be a discussion about doing theology without wearing any underwear.

    And with Cone, I guess I had in mind either the intro to God of the Oppressed or the section on the Black experience as a source of theology. But I haven’t really read an awful lot more than that so there might be better things.

  22. This might be a little cliche but Green took the section on Religion by Barth in CD 1/2 and made it into a book to use for courses on Religions. If anything, it gives the example of a lot of modern Protestantism of seeing their belief as NOT “religion”. And of course, per Dan Barber’s book, we see the inherent problem with Barth postion of a not so subtle Protestantism as the elite faith; he’s slightly better in CD IV/3, but still has problems. It might provoke a good conversation.

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