Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 3.

The first week of spring break I presented at the American Academy of Religion, Western Region, which I blogged about here and here.  The second week I presented at the Pacific Northwest Region, which this year was in Portland — relatively close!  So this past weekend I went up to the lovely Marylhurst University, a small Benedictine college, and divided my time between the “Asian and Comparative Studies” sessions and the biblical studies sessions.

college-photo_8016._445x280-zmmAs before, I won’t write on every session — only the most memorable or enjoyable ones for me.

1.  Pedagogy: Conflicting Truths in the Classroom

Despite having never taught a course, I found the sessions on pedagogy very interesting.  Michelle Mueller, a PhD candidate at the Graduate Theological Union, spoke on using pop culture about Mormonism (Big Love, Sister Wives, South Park) in a course on Mormonism and women.  Andrew Riley, a Hebrew Bible scholar, described a course he taught on negative depictions of an evil God in the Hebrew Bible.  And Erik Hammerstrom spoke on teaching Pure Land in Buddhist Studies courses.  Although their remarks were specifically about pedagogy, it made me think about how scholars engage the public more generally, and how scholars convene and deepen discussions in life as well as in the classroom.

Hammerstrom’s talk, for example, interested me because it spoke so much to contemporary Western perceptions of Buddhism: as a this-worldly, individualistic, experimental philosophy focused on meditation.  Pure Land, which has an explicitly soteriological and devotional bent, demolishes these conceptions.  Hammerstrom described how students would push back against Pure Land, arguing that it couldn’t be “real” Buddhism.  He had to redesign the way he taught Pure Land because of his assumption students brought to the classroom, and devise ways for the students to be clear on what their assumptions were and where they came from.  His experience reminded me of the adage in the religion guild that map is not territory.  I think part of the job of a scholar of religion is not just to spread religious literacy, but to find these assumptions and critique them, so that we as a culture can have better conversations about what religion is and does.

RIley described how he overcame the challenge of dealing with students who came to his class on Evil in the Bible with very split and set opinions.  One group, mainly theists, felt strongly that the Bible portrayed God as good.  The other group, many atheists, saw the God of the Bible as petty and tyrannical.  Riley described how he structured class activities to draw the two groups into a learning dialogue.  Woah!, I thought.  This is exactly what I do in interfaith dinner discussions in campus ministry every week: convene conversations between people who radically disagree on things.

2.  Hebrew Bible

The most interesting talk for me in this session was Garry Jost‘s “Telling the Story of the Ethiopic Old Testament: Computer Tools for Analysis and Visualization.”  Ethiopic, or Ge’ez, is the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Christian community.  The first Ge’ez translations of the Hebrew Bible were done in the 4th century, but the earliest manuscripts are from the 14th century, making this a complicated topic indeed!  Also, the Ge’ez Hebrew Bible is translated from the Septuagint, making it less useful for trying to understand the original Hebrew text.

Jost is part of THEOT, an international project charting the textual history of the Ethiopic Old Testament.  He describes some of the software tools they have developed to make sense of the dozens of manuscripts: tools to create manuscript families, tools to visualize how different manuscripts differ on particular passages, etc.  Although there is still the tedious work of manually inputting each manuscript into the database, once that is done, the database has tremendous power to visualize and organize data.

Given the work I’ve been doing on reconstructing 4QXIIg, a Qumran manuscript of the minor prophets, this talk of using digital tools to do textual criticism really interested me.  Jost did a good job of laying out the work for those who don’t know about Ethiopic bible translations (I suspect that’s most scholars).  Still, his project analyzes massive amounts of data from dozens of manuscripts, whereas ours looks in-depth at one particular manuscript.  So I don’t think the methods would transfer over.

Tomorrow I’ll post about Saturday’s sessions: talks on Paul, on interreligious generosity, and on Buddhist art…

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