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Conferences and Reflections, part two.

Continuing my last post on some of the conferences I’ve attended and talks I’ve heard recently…

Between Two Worlds: Syncretism and Alterity in Art (San Jose State Art History Symposium)

On April 18, I had the opportunity to present my ongoing research on Herakles in Gandharan art to an audience of art history graduate students and the public.  This was my first experience presenting at a graduate symposium.  Given the call for papers, I thought I would be the token antiquarian, but in fact 2/6 of the talks and the keynote address were all on ancient or medieval art.  Three of the talks stuck with me.


Yours truly with the ponytail.

The first, “Princesses from the Land of Porcelain: Gender, Culture, and ‘Other’ Issues in the 19th-century Japonaiserie,” was given by Darlene Martin, an art history PhD student at UW.  She described several French painters who eroticized and exoticized the image of the geisha in Romantic art.  Collections of Japanese objects, such as the kimono and tea ceremony paraphernalia, became popular subjects of art.  One of her conclusions was that these European men were projecting an idealized femininity — passive, quiet, subservient, sexualized — onto Japan, a femininity they in fact wanted in their own lands.  I’m always interested in Western fictions about the “Orient” so this talk was really interesting to me.

The keynote speaker, Maria Evangelatou, is a professor of Byzantine art at UCSC.  She spoke on “From iconoclasm to iconogenesis: religious conflict and visual syncretism in the Late Antique and Medieval Mediterranean,” providing case studies of visual and religious syncretism in Byzantine art.  I was able to follow her erudite talk in large part because I took a class on the topic last year.  She spent much time responding to Thomas Mathews’ The Clash of Gods:  a Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, a book that shook up the whole field by reinterpreting much early Christian art not in the framework of Roman imperial iconography, but Roman pagan iconography.  Evangelatou found that in fact, both types of iconography are present in early Christian art.  She also looked at later examples of Christian-Muslim syncretism in late antiquity and the early medieval era.  Syncretism, she concluded, is never one-dimensional, and presupposes and maintains alterity.  I’m still thinking about that last point.

After lunch, Ema Kubo Thomas, a graduate student from SFSU, spoke on “Living Images of Early Modern Japan: The Japanese Catholic Adaption of Buddhist Icons.”  She found parallels between the art of the hidden Christians of Japan and art of Amida Buddha, the central figure of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan.  Not only were the styles of art similar, but their ritual uses were similar, including rituals of blessing and the deity entering the the icon for religious use.  She concluded that these images display Christian contents with a Buddhist visual lexicon.  Given the hidden Christians’ complete lack of contact with the outside world, it makes sense that they developed such a distinct style of art.

I was totally exhausted the day of the symposium.  Thankfully it was local, so I went home and slept immediately afterwards!  I’m glad I was able to give the speech extemporaneously, rather than reading off of a paper as is common in academic venues.  I don’t get the perfect phrasing I would reading a prepared speech, but I think I engage the audience more by walking around and speaking in a more conversation style.  I always worry I sound less professional, but after the symposium, other speakers commented that they really appreciated how I spoke.  A small victory.

Between Constantinople and Rome: An Illuminated Byzantine Gospel Book (Paris gr. 54) and the Union of Churches, Kathleen Maxwell at SCU

Last spring I took Byzantine art at SCU with Kathleen Maxwell, who specialized in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts.  She has been studying one complex ms. for 30 years, and has just released her massive book on it (reviews here and here), discussed also at Evangelical Textual Criticism.  Eta Sigma Phi, the classics honors society at my college, talked her into coming and speaking on this ridiculously complex text.

This manuscript of the four gospels has several weird features:

  1. It is huge — 30% bigger than most Byzantine mss.
  2. It is bilingual — Greek and Latin.
  3. The illuminations and the Latin text are both unfinished.
  4. The Latin text does not sync up with the Greek text.  The Latin writer often put in nonsense words (“mamamamama”) to make it look like the two columns were in sync.
  5. The illuminations and the text come from different sources — Athos Iviron 5 and Princeton Garrett 3.
  6. The text is polychromatic, i.e. the author uses different colors for different speakers in the gospels.

Maxwell first tackled this manuscript for her 1986 PhD, which was more from an art-historical angle focusing on the illuminations.  She described how she branched out into different fields after her dissertation, including textual criticism to find the source of the Greek text and Byzantine history to locate the text.  She traces the text to the reign of Michael VII Paleologus (1261-1282), who sought to reunify the Greek and Latin churches.  This seems to have been a gift for Pope Gregory X to help the process.  The process failed and Michael VII was excommunicated, hence the unfinished state of the manuscript.

One comment that Maxwell made really sticks with me.  She mentioned that text critics ignore the illuminations, and art historians ignore the text in favor of the illuminations, but she has found that she needed to understand both to fully study the text.  I really like how she moved out of her own training into text criticism and ecclesiastical history to understand this text from multiple angles.  Sometimes we need a reminder that our disciplinary boundaries don’t exist for the materials we study.  Map is not territory.  Those creating illuminated manuscripts integrated them as art and text — it is only our modern scholarship that divides the two.

Onwards and upwards!


Conferences and Reflections, part one.

This past month and a half, I haven’t had time to breathe, let alone blog.  Before it all slips from my mind, I wanted to jot down some of the talks and conferences I’ve been to and what I got out of them.

Medieval Association of the Pacific

This conference, which took place in Reno about a month ago, let me present my research on Francis to an audience of historians rather than theologians.  Since my research encompasses both, I enjoyed getting a more historical focus.  The first talk I went to, “Criseyde Becomes Cresseid Becomes Criseyde: Chaucer’s, Henryson’s, and 16th-century English Printers’ Negotiation of Shared Literary Space,” was given by Jacquelyn Hendricks, my own Chaucer professor at SCU.  She spoke on how Scottish retellings of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde fashioned his language in a more Scottish colloquial English.  I hadn’t learned much about Middle English dialectical variations, so that was interesting.  UNR’s Special Collections also had an exhibit for all the antiquarians and bibliophiles in town.IMG_7588They passed around several leafs of medieval manuscripts, but the jewel of the collection was the Hughes Breviary, a 15th-century breviary and psalter.  (More on it here.)


That afternoon, I lucked out since one of the speakers in my session failed to appear.  So the other presenter and I had a lot more time for questions and discussion.  The other presenter, Doaa Omran, is an Egyptian-born student of medieval European literature at UNM.  She spoke on parallels between the European and Arabic medieval tales on King Arthur.  I didn’t even know that was a thing.  The Arabic King Arthur (his Arabic name now slips my mind) lived in the 500s, and he united Arab tribes against invading Christians.  Like the European King Arthur, the Arab one is the product of a long oral tradition, culminating in a 14th-century epic poem about the nationalist hero.  If that isn’t cool enough, the story also includes a prophecy about Muhammad’s birth.  However, none of the Lancelot/Guinevere stuff made its way into the Arab version.

My talk went very well.  The toughest question I was asked in my Q&A: was Francis unique for his time in how he approached other religions?  My preliminary answer is no.  But it was one of those obvious questions that I hadn’t even thought about.  Duh.

The evening plenary by Teo Ruiz, “Peasant Resistance in Late Medieval Castile,” probably would have been better for my fiance (the Spanish history buff) than for me.  But Ruiz was funny and really interesting.  He mentioned living as a peasant in a Spanish village for a year when he was writing a book on peasants in Spain; he wanted to feel what a peasant’s life was like.  Wow.

A month later, two talks from Saturday still stand out in my mind.  One is Leslie Ross‘ “Elegant to Enigmatic: Text and Image in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts.”  I met Leslie and her friend, Becket scholar Kay Slocum, at the banquet on Friday evening, and she said I should come hear her talk.  She spoke on the complex interplay between text and image in illuminated manuscripts, how image did far more than simply ornament or illustrate, and that the two are often not separate at all.  For example, what about the ornate capital letters that open many medieval manuscripts?  Those are both art and image.  She showed examples of decorative letters that seemed to have no meaning at all.

The evening plenary, “By That Fatal Fire: Manuscripts in the Aftermath of Destruction,” was given by Sian Echard, a professor at UBC.  She examined several cases where we do not have originals of a particular document, but copies, copies that are always distorting and miss something of the original.  We know what gets lost in translation, but what gets lots in transcription?  Even today, she pointed out, digitization techniques distort the original colors of medieval manuscripts.  All copies are interpretations or encounters.  If we forget this, we mistake the mirror for the reality.

As a last note, I met a real live Viking Archaeologist at the conference.  Now there’s a sexy research area if I ever heard of one.  Check out her blog.

I’m glad I went to the MAP, because it exposed me to a lot of ideas and thinkers I really knew nothing about.  For any academic field, there are always the core conferences where we go are in our comfort zone.  For me that would be SBL.  But there is also a value and vulnerability in going to a place where I am an outsider and an amateur rather than an expert.  I hope to keep that a habit.


Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 4.

Continuing yesterday’s post on the American Academy of Religion, Pacific Northwest Region, here I detail some more of the talks I attended.

3.  New Testament, Interreligious Engagement

The first talk from this session was given by Th.M. student Steven Marquardt, who examined the use of ἐκκλησια (church, assembly) in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in the context of Pauline authorship.  He argued that the plural use of the noun here marks this verse off as non-Pauline in origin.  As he notes, Paul uses the plural, ἐκκλησιαιto denote multiple churches in the same region, which does not match this particular usage.

Of course, arguments about authorship are always dicey, particularly when based on the usage of one word in two verses.  Paul could have been inconsistent in his usage of the term.  His letters were not collections of systematic theology, but particular epistles to particular groups responding to particular situations.  The level of certainty of any argument like this is low.  But even though I wasn’t convinced by his argument, I enjoyed listening to Marquardt’s talk and getting a sense of how a biblical scholar approaches these issues.

Another talk from this session that interested me was Nijay Gupta‘s “Covenantal Pistism: Faith and Human Agency in Galatians.”  Gupta applied the New Perspective on Paul to his use of the word πιστις, looking at it especially in the context of Galatians.  He argued that πιστις did not mean “faith apart from works,” as if Paul opposes faith with works.  Instead, Paul uses πιστις to refer to “trusting faith,” faith which both believes and obeys (works).  Paul’s radical move was not arguing that one is justified by faith, but instead arguing that one can be justified by faith through Christ without Torah.  Both Paul and his opponents saw believers as justified through πιστις, but Paul separated πιστις from Torah.  I didn’t know much about Pauline scholarship before Gupta’s talk, so it was illuminating for me.  I like how careful he was in examining πιστις in various sources — Second Temple Jewish sources, Septuagint, Josephus, etc. — to get a better grasp on how Paul used it.

Since I am headed toward biblical studies in graduate school, I really enjoyed going to some talks in that area and getting a taste of the kind of work going on.  I even thought of a prospective topic to research and present at next year’s SBL.

4.  Asian and Comparative Studies

Just like at the AAR-Western Region, I was lucky enough that my talk really paralleled another talk in my panel.  The first speaker in my session, Cristina Atanasiu, an MA student in Buddhist art at the University of Calgary, presented on “The Young Prince Seated Under the Jambu Tree: Avatars of the Early Bodhisattva Image.”  She examined a particular type of Gandharan image in the context of early Mahayana sutras and Kushan material evidence, arguing that this image embodies the way in which Gandharan Buddhism supported the Kushan dynasty, since the Kushana rulers were depicted as honorary bodhisattvas.  The connections between royal patronage and art played greatly in my talk as well.  I even skipped some of my background/context material because Atanasiu covered it!

My talk was on “When Herakles Went to India: The Transformation of a Greco-Roman Hero-God in Buddhist Art.”  It went well, and I got some great feedback.  One audience member, a Buddhist studies scholar, said that I pointed out some things she had never noticed before.  If you’re curious about my talk, I’ve posted my slideshow.

Overall a good weekend.  I left energized, already planning presentations for next year’s regional AAR and SBL as an MA student.

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…

Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 2.

Continuing yesterday’s post on the AAR, Western Region, here I describe Sunday’s talks.

4.  Religion in America: Interfaith work and Zen

The first talk on Sunday, “Interfaith Work in the Silicon Valley,” was given by three scholars engaged in different forms of interreligious dialogue locally: one from ING, a local Muslim outreach group, one from the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, and one professor from my religious studies department.

One issue they discussed was essentialism.  Often when interfaith groups discuss religious literacy, for example, that means giving a very bland and simple overview of the beliefs and practices of a religion.  But religions are diverse, and giving “just the basics” sends an essentialized message to others about what the religion is.  The ING speaker said that because of this, his group has moved in recent years to also discuss the variety of ways a religion is lived out, moving from discussing Islam to discussing Muslims.  The SIVIC speaker, Andrew Kille, described this shift as a move from representing abstract “traditions” to the lived realities of local people.

Another problem is appointing a representative in the first place.  Some groups have a less clear authority structure, and picking one member of the group to represent them at interfaith gatherings brings an element of power that wasn’t there before.  Sometimes those who show up claiming to represent a religious group might be on the margins; do we let a Roman Catholic womanpriest speak for Catholicism?  This becomes more of an issue when groups of contested authenticity or orthodoxy come to the table.  So do we group the Mormons with the other Christians?  Do the Ahmadis get to sit on a group panel of Muslims?

As someone engaged in interreligious work myself, I really liked this panel, and I agreed with the ethos of engaging with people first and then their texts and traditions second to better understand the people — not the other way around as it so often happens.

The second talk in this session was  “getting my #Zen on (@ TotalTan)”: A Discourse Analysis of #Zen on Twitter,” an amusing overview by Buddhist Studies PhD student Scott Craig on this ridiculously overused word.  Apparently people use “Zen” to describe getting drunk, sitting at the beach, or finding a nice pair of shoes.  It’s not hard for a group of religion scholars to laugh at the ridiculousness of how, as Craig argued, Zen in American popular culture means whatever one wants it to mean: peace and solitude, nature, tranquility, or just something that is really cool.  This is all part of the cheap capitalist appropriation of Zen Buddhism.  Yes, it is true that Zen is supposed to suffuse all of daily life, so perhaps Zen Golf makes some sense.  But in fact few authors in the “Zen and the Art of ____” genre seem to be aware of what Zen actually teaches.

5.  Interreligious Dialogue

What luck — my talk was slotted for the last session of the whole conference!  The topic was Nostra Aetate.  My talk, “Saint Francis and the Sultan: Critiquing the Christian-Muslim Past” covered the work I’ve been doing on St. Francis’ trip to the sultan during the fifth crusades.  I argue that while Francis was not a prophet of interreligious dialogue or lover of Islam as many today paint him to be, his teachings on power and sacramentality provide a good example for how we can do dialogue today.  Essentially I discuss the idea of a useable past in interreligious dialogue.  I think my delivery went very well.  I had a good powerpoint, and I even moved the table and podium before the talk because I don’t like anything between me and the audience.  For some idea of what I presented on, I’ve uploaded my powerpoint.

The second presentation was by Daniel Moceri, a GTU doctoral student, who spoke on “The Slow Backlash of Creeping Conservatism: The Increasing Domestication And Decontamination Of Centering Prayer In The Postconciliar Period.”  He analyzed both official church documents and presentations of centering prayer, arguing that this inherently “wild” mystical practice has been increasingly tamed by its public teachers to harmonize with the Vatican’s discomfort with it.  Centering prayer has roots in medieval Catholic spirituality, but it also draws on and resonates with “Eastern” forms such as TM and Zen.  Its original presentation has a radical statement on theosis — you become Christ — but this has been edited out as the decades have passed.  Moceri’s talk, like mine, made me think about just how contested and political history can be.

The third presentation, “Nostra Aetate and the Question of Religious Identity,” was given by Paolo Gamberini, an Italian Jesuit teaching at the Jesuit School of Theology.  Gamberini, a scholar on Abraham Heschel and Jewish-Chirstian dialogue, spoke on Heschel’s influence on Nostra Aetate.  Heschel, a Holocaust survivor who later advocated for Jewish-Christian peace and African-American civil rights, worked to transcend both groups’ fear of one another.  He urged Jews to see the role of Christianity in God’s plan, and urged Christians to see the value of understanding their Jewish roots.  He also famously said “no religion is an island,” and this:

If asked in Auschwitz whether to convert to Christianity or die, I’d rather go to Auschwitz.

Not to be vain, but I thought my session was the best one I attended at the conference.  Many sessions seemed to have no common thread, but this one had several: the political, contested nature of history, humility as a theme in dialogue, power as an issue in dialogue.  So we had a very lively discussion afterward.

One issue we discussed was what would come next in Jewish-Christian dialogue.  Gamberini noted the very different styles of JP II and Francis: the former more academic and theological (he did have a PhD), the latter more pastoral.  He predicted that certain theological issues in dialogue might not be addressed, but Francis would take a different approach.

Another issue: Cardinal Walter Kasper said that mission to the Jews is meaningless, because Jews are already a covenanted people in relationship with God.  I found this intriguing.  If we open that door, then why not the Muslims?  Zoroastrians?  Buddhists?  That’s a slippery slope to go down.  Another attendee said the distinction is that Jews are part of a shared covenant, so dialogue with them is qualitatively different than with anyone else.  I don’t think it’s as big a leap as she claimed it was though.

Perhaps the danger of opening is these doors is why we have what Moceri called the “creeping conservative backlash” post-Nostra Aetate.  Ratzinger in particular tried to softpedal the openness of Vatican II to other religions.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Changing any institution is difficult work.  But changing an institution as rooted in history and hierarchical as Catholicism?  Very slow work.

This talk really rounded out well the conference.   Next weekend I’ll be at the American Academy of Religion again, this time at the Pacific Northwest region conference presenting a different paper.  That one has a concurrent meeting of the SBL, so expect a lot of bible stuff as I blog the conference!

Report from the American Academy of Religion, Part 1.

After turning in my last final paper at 9 pm Friday night, I woke up at 7 the next morning to get to the American Academy of Religion, Western Region meeting — luckily about a mile from my apartment.  Away from all the stress of job searches and book contracts at the national meeting, the regional meeting is a good venue for graduate students to present new research.  Because it is small, it’s a great opportunity to listen to talks outside of your typical research area, and a more comfortable space to have a good Q&A afterward.

Oh, and not to mention I presented!  But that will be in a future post…

Anyway, some thoughts on talks.  These are not necessarily the best ones I heard all weekend, just the ones that interested me most.

1.  Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

The first panel was a Catholic Studies session with two papers.  The first, “The Jesuit ‘Reductions’ of Paraguay: a bridge between Catholicism and the new world,” was delivered by Maria Giulia Genghini.  The paper argued that the Jesuit missions in Paraguay were not just a European culture being imposed unilaterally on indigenous groups, but a real two-way dialogue in which the Guarani partially created new forms of worship and drama.  While I am sympathetic to the concept of inculturation in mission (something the Jesuits invented, AFAIK), it was unclear to me whether this was only a strategy to get more Guarani to convert, or if the Jesuits found these new forms personally meaningful.  Was there any role reversal in which those sent to teach the faith were themselves taught?  And what role did power play in mission?

My friend Brad Seligmann gave the second talk, “Seeking God in All Things: Jesuit Institutions of Higher Education in an Age of Religious Diversity.”  Brad described his Master’s research seeking to articulate a Jesuit praxis of interreligious engagement in higher education and examine how different Jesuit colleges around the country are creating interreligious engagement on campus.  He found that while there was broad support for these programs, there was little shared understanding of exactly what interreligious engagement is, or even about disentangling the differences between interreligious, interfaith, multifaith, ecumenical, etc.  Programs differed in size and funding too, ranging from campuses where there are multiple campus ministers/chaplains for particular religious traditions, to schools where “interfaith” is tacked onto the job description of an existing campus minister with no training in that area.  He echoed Eboo Patel (whom he used to work with at the IFYC) in his desire to get religion as another category of “-isms” higher education discusses alongside ethnicity, race, gender, etc.  I really liked one quote he had from the Jesuit General Congregation 34: “faith that does justice through interreligious dialogue.”

2.  Spiritual Experiences, East and West

The first talk in this session on Psychology, Culture, and Religion was given by Amy Hart, an MA student at Cal Poly SLO, on “Gods and Gurus in the City of Angels: Aimee Semple McPherson, Swami Paramananda, and Los Angeles in 1923.”  In 1923, both of these modern, charismatic, Hollywood-style religious leaders with very different messages set up their temples in LA.  Hart describes these complex figures and contextualized them in the religious experimentation of Southern California, an experimentation created by the many different immigrant groups who all arrived there at once.  I was very interested in how they both pushed the boundaries of traditional religion, McPherson by being a woman in religious authority, and Paramananda by presenting a non-Christian, non-Western faith to Americans long before the 1960s.

The second talk was by Robert Sears, a PhD student at Fuller Seminary studying psychology and religion.  His talk, “The Spiritual Dreams of Nepalese Christians and Hindus: An Exploration of Attribution Theory,” involved months of interviewing people in Kathmandu to understand the nature of spiritual experiences.  Using the lens of attribution theory, he tried to understand what features of an experience, its experiencer, and its context lead to any experience being deemed “spiritual” vs. “non-spiritual.”  For me his most interesting tidbit was how different people could have similar dreams with very different feelings about the dream.  He had one Christian participant who had a dream about he Buddha that actually stressed and terrified him immensely.  But for a Buddhist, perhaps the same dream content would have been pleasant.  I had vaguely heard of attribution theory before Sears’ talk, but once he explained it, it was actually a very intuitive and commonsense idea.

3.  Religions of Asia: Shintos and Hidden Christians

The first talk, by Hiroko Shiota of Holy Names University, was on “Ecological Reawakening Through the Space of Japanese Shrines.”  She discussed the practice of Shinto shrines and the belief in kami as a form of reverence for the earth, seeing it as a living thing to live in harmony with rather than a collection of inanimate things to be used.  Shiota argued that perhaps this practice should be exported to a world in need of ecological harmony.  An interesting if apologetic talk, but one of the audience members pointed out, Shinto is very bound to the land and culture of Japan, and might not be very exportable.

The third talk of this panel was one of the best I heard this whole conference.  Kirk Sandvig, a recent PhD in World Christianity from the University of Edinburgh, discussed “Current Hidden Christian Communities in Japan: The Impact of Modernity and Movement.”  Although I had read about hidden Christians in Shusaku Endo’s Silence, it had never occurred to me that hidden Christians might still be a presence in Japan.  Apparently when Japan opened itself to the West, some hidden Christians did not join the mainstream churches the missionaries brought in.  Sandvig did field research with those remaining, most of whom live in rural, remote islands.  Sadly, Japan’s general population decline and the lack of economic opportunities in rural areas has led to the near-death of the hidden Christian community.  Participants lamented that it was impossible to preserve the traditions when only 3-4 people are left in a group.  I saw many parallels with language death: the desire of those remaining to write down their traditions, the feeling of sadness and loss, the younger generations who don’t seem to care.

When asked how he found his topic, Sandvig described a study abroad trip to Japan as an undergraduate.  While in Japan he stumbled upon some hidden Christian communities and was fascinated by their stories.  When he got back to the states, he told his advisor, “I think I have a dissertation!”  I love how a decade’s work can be discovered so accidentally, with such serendipity.  Despite the stress and professionalism of a conference, sometimes we get reminded of the passion and personal stories that pull someone to research a particular topic.

That’s all for Saturday’s session.  Tomorrow I’ll describe Sunday’s talks, including mine.