CFP: North American Hinduism Group: AAR 2013

 I’ve taken on the role of co-chair of the North American Hinduism Group this year. Here’s our call for proposals for this fall’s annual AAR meeting:

The North American Hinduism Group seeks proposals on the topics listed below for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Please contact the listed organizers if you wish to contribute to the following themes:

For a possible cosponsored session with the Tantric Studies Group, the transmission of Hindu tantra to North America — Lola L. Williamson, Millsaps College,

The use and interpretation of Hindu texts in North America — Jennifer B. Saunders, Stamford, CT,

Priests, pundits, and the promotion of Hinduism in North America — Alexandra Kaloyanides, Yale University,

Hindu temples as sites of healing (for the individual, family, or community) in North America — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University,

For a possible cosponsored session with the Religion and Politics Section, Hinduism in the American political consciousness — religion, identity, and citizenship — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara,

Hinduism in Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, Pennsylvania, and/or Delaware — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University,

Food and festival in North American Hinduism — Aimee Hamilton, Pacific Lutheran University,

Images and material culture in North American Hinduism — Alex Kaloyanides, Yale University,

Conversion in North American Hinduism — Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College,

For a possible cosponsored session with the Childhood Studies and Religion Group and the Religion and Migration Group, the transmission of tradition to North American Hindu children — Rita Biagioli, University of Chicago,

Hinduism in the American West — Michael Altman, Emory University,

Transcendence and North American Hinduism — Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara,

North American Hindus in the academy: deconstructing insider/outsiders — Leena Taneja, Stetson University,

Who’s missing in the field of North American Hinduism — Leena Taneja, Stetson University,

For a possible cosponsored session with the Body and Religion Group, North American Hindu women: their practices, bodies, and lives — Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College,

AAR Redux: Roundups, NY Times Story, Twitter Fail, and Butchering the Elephant #sblaar

The American Academy of Religion’s annual shindig is over and with Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and a fridge full of leftovers it’s back to work. I won’t do a full recap, but I will say that my favorite two panels were both “author meets critics” style. One on Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption and another on John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I got nonspecific Protestantism on the brain; or as someone on the Fessenden panel described it, “nefarious Protestant hegemony.”

Over at Religion in American History, Karen Johnson posts about the feast of great panels at this year’s meeting. Meanwhile, Matt Sheedy thinks through the experience of conferencing.

And if you haven’t seen Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article on the AAR’s decision to shun the Hyatt over it’s labor dispute with hotel staff be sure to check it out. It’s been blowing up my Facebooks over the weekend. Apparently it blew up Craig Martin’s too, as he posted a response to the story that argued the newspaper article misrepresented and exoticized the AAR.

I tweeted Oppenheimer a link to the Martin post and he responded:

That seems fair enough.

Speaking of Twitter, I think it’s time for the AAR to step up its game when it comes to organizing the use of social media at the annual meeting. The tweets were all over the place, under different hashtags, and with no idea which panel they were reacting too. The #sblaar hasghtag was a mess. And this was with only a relatively small number of attendees tweeting. Without going back and sifting through the tweets (and was anyone even archiving them?), all I remember seeing were tweets from religious studies folks I already knew about panels I was already in (mostly related to secularism, American religion, or pop culture) or biblical studies types. (BTW, those NT and OT folks are much harsher on each other via tweet than us Americanists. We’re downright cuddly.)

The AAR needs to include a “Social Media” info box in all of the pre-conference and conference books they send out that lays out the hashtag (that includes the date, e.g. #aar13) and recommends how to identify the panel (e.g. #A14507). And someone needs to archive these. Ever the social scientist who knows how to code his data, Jonathan VanAntwerpen offered great examples of how AAR tweets should look next year:

Reflecting on the conference as a whole, though, I think the use of Twitter, split mostly between Americanists and SBL-ers, and Martin’s critique of the Oppenheimer piece are examples of a larger theme I noticed throughout the weekend. The AAR is a fractured society. We have folks arguing for a liberal political theology while other folks analyze Protestant hegemony in American culture. Even on the same panels I continually see a divide between papers that are rigorously critical and those that are, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “woo woo.”

Often in introduction to religious studies courses the instructor will trot out the well worn story of the blind men touching the elephant. We all describe different parts of this big religion elephant. The story can be an apology for a big tent approach to theory and method or a lesson in perennialism. But that story doesn’t really capture the state of the field and the AAR right now. We are not all blind men feeling the religion elephant. There are some of those blind men out there, grasping after this thing called religion as if it was the elephant in the room and finding different aspects of this giant unknowable beast. But there are also others standing in a corner yelling “There is no damn elephant!” And then there still others who can see the elephant and are standing over it with knives in hand ready to butcher the pachyderm, hoping to dissect and parse its organs in order to discover how it ever came be in the first place.

The challenge for the AAR in the next 10 years is to find places for all three of these folks and maintain some sort of institutional identity that can hold them. Can it provide a space for the blind men to debate the nature of the elephant? Can it offer a podium and megaphone for those who want to deny the elephant of religion and claim the animals of ideology or culture as their species of study? Can it sharpen the tools and provide the laboratory for the dissection-after all an elephant requires a lot of space? We shall see. But in the next year, let’s just get a better hashtag.

Exceeding Boundaries: Approaches to Transnationalism in North American Religions

Jake and Ellwood Blues


It is time to head to Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This year I am excited to be part of an excellent roundtable discussion of transnationalism and religion in America. Here are the details:

Religion and the Social Sciences Section
Theme: Exceeding Boundaries: Approaches to Transnationalism in North American Religions
Pamela Klassen, University of Toronto, Presiding
Monday - 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
McCormick Place North 1st Level: Room N127

North American Religions is, in some ways, a category of wishful thinking. Much of the work that goes on within the category is still largely divided by national borders, whether only those delineating the big three of the U.S.A., Mexico, and Canada, or including the islands of the Caribbean. Transnational approaches to religion push scholars to see anew the ways that nation-states have circumscribed our own imaginative limits within the geographical space of “North America”. When immigrants, pipelines and revivals continue to cross North American borders amidst passionate, and even theologically-fuelled debates, scholars of religion require theoretical and methodological tools that highlight how these circulations are economic, political, symbolic, and embodied processes. While the idea of transnational North American religions is not new, this panel will further discussion about the theoretical underpinnings of that field of study and emphasize how important interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies are to advancing previous projects.

Justin Stein, University of Toronto
Michael J. Altman, Emory University
Elaine Peña, George Washington University
Heather D. Curtis, Tufts University

Beyond this panel, also check out the great line up of panels from the North American Hinduism Group. I’ve been elected co-chair of that group for next year but I’m starting my promotional duties now. Check out the mobile app or the program book for the details of those fascinating panels.

I will also be tweeting from the conference so keep an eye on my twitter feed and the #sblaar hashtag.

See yall in Chicago!

Narrativity in American Religions, Transmedia, and me on Hinduism: Panels I Plan to Check Out at the AAR

via Wikimedia commons

The American Academy of Religion is nearly here! Over at Religion in American History, Kelly Baker has put together a great list of panels on religion in America. Also, Kelly and I will be tweeting our observations, thoughts, and snark throughout the weekend.

Due to the limited travel budget of a Ph.D. candidate (who already spent a weekend at the ASA), I’ll only be in lovely San Francisco for Saturday and Sunday. Here are the panels I plan to check out:

First, a star studded panel on “Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions”

Saturday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
Room: CC-2006

Each participant in this roundtable has written a monograph and/or edited a wide-ranging synthetic collection touching on religious diversity and conflict in North America. In a format emphasizing dialogue with the audience, they will reflect on the priorities, methods, and trade-offs involved in shaping such narratives. What are the optimum structuring themes? Are certain decisions about periodization and/or organization by tradition especially helpful? Do certain emerging themes need special attention? What overall logics, themes, values, or theoretical orientations offer optimum coherence (and/or productive incoherence) and structure (and/or productive lack of structure)? Such questions lead naturally toward wider discussions about the implicit structuring priorities and methods running through our field(s) at large. Overall, the panel seeks to spark a productive discussion of the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, of different underlying narratives and emphases. In this way it hopes to respond to the challenge of clarifying priorities in our field.

Theme: Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions


Thomas Tweed, University of Texas, Austin
Janet R. Jakobsen, Barnard College
R. Marie Griffith, Harvard University
Mark Hulsether, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Second, an interactive session from the Religion and Popular Culture Group:

Saturday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: CC-2005

Rachel Wagner, Ithaca College, Presiding

Transmedia is the intentional distribution of related storylines or experiences all relating back to a core hub of experience, of branding, or of narrative. Transmedia includes the video games, films, books, apparel, publicity events, fan-fiction, promotions, costumes, and toys associated with a given franchise such as Halo or the Harry Potter universe, or brand names like Nike and Coca Cola. Consumers are not passive consumers of transmedia; they explore, discover, create, and transform, in some cases marketing themselves as transmediated entities. In this panel, we offer entrée into the world of transmedia via a series of short presentations describing key issues in the intersection of religion with transmedia, followed by an hour of open debate in which we will be joined via Skype by Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment and a well-known industry producer of transmedia storytelling. This discussion will show how an analysis of transmedia exposes the intimate connections between religious practice and media production, branding, and marketing.

Theme: Finding Meaning in the Space Between: Religion and Transmedia, an Interactive Panel


Mara Einstein, Queens College
J. Sage Elwell, Texas Christian University
Rubina Ramji, Cape Breton University
Ted Friedman, Georgia State University

Third, a panel on religion, sexuality, and bodies:

Sunday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: CC-3020

Sa’diyya Shaikh, University of Cape Town, Presiding

Theme: Contesting Bodies, Configuring Sexuality

Jill Peterfeso, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“I Am a Daughter of My Heavenly Father”: Transsexual Mormons and Performed Gender Essentialism
Nadeem Mahomed, University of Johannesburg
Sexual Diversity, Islamic Jurisprudence, and Sociality
Samira Mehta, Emory University
Negotiating the Interfaith Marriage Bed: Religious Difference and Sexual Intimacies
Jason James Kelly, University of Ottawa
Ecstatic Desire: The Evolution of the “Erotic” in the Work of Jeffrey J. Kripal

And finally, my own panel on Hinduism in North America (which I know you’ve added to your schedule):

Sunday - 5:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: MM-Yerba Buena 11

Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, Presiding

The construction of the category of Hinduism, in any case a complex and contested issue, is further complicated in the context of North America by the predominance of a Protestant “lens” that shapes all categories relating to religion (including, of course, the category of religion itself) and by the emergence of self-identified practitioners of Hinduism who do not identify themselves as Indian. The papers in this session will explore these issues from a variety of perspectives and with a focus on distinct phenomena related to the category of Hinduism in North America. The first paper will problematize the frequently encountered conflation of the categories of “Hindu” and “Indian” through an examination of the Hindu culture of Indo-Caribbeans in Queens, New York. The second paper will focus on the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign and the various Protestant assumptions from which this ostensibly Hindu project operates. The third paper will investigate events in American cultural history that allowed Protestants to distinguish Hinduism from other traditions, enabling them to “see” it for the first time.

Theme: Constructions of Hindu Selves and Hindu Others in North America

Michele Verma, Rice University
Indo-Caribbeans in the United States: Cracking the Conflation of “Hindu” and “Indian”
Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara
Faith on the Mat: Hindus, Protestants, and the Construction of Yoga
Michael Altman, Emory University
Sightings and Blind Spots: The “Protestant Lens” and the Construction of Hinduism


Steven W. Ramey, University of Alabama

See you in San Francisco!

My panel at #2011ASA: Global Perspectives on American Religious Cultures

If you’re at the American Studies Association this weekend and you’re interested in questions of religion, globalization, and transformation than you might want to check out the panel I’m doing with some other great folks:

12:00 PM – 1:45 PM

Religion and American Culture Caucus: Travel and Transformation: Global Perspectives on American Religious Cultures

Hilton Baltimore Key Ballroom 07

Theresa Sanders, Georgetown University (DC)
David Scott, Boston University (MA)
Opium, Alcohol, and Methodists in Singapore
Michael J. Altman, Emory University (GA)
American Hinduism: A Global Religion in the Nineteenth Century
Jordan Leary Wade, University of Kansas (KS)
From “Shanti’s” to Spandex: The Western Twist on Yoga
Aprilfaye Manalang, Bowling Green State University (OH)
What Role Does Religion Play among Filipino Immigrants? Imagining a Different Self-Understanding of Modernity
Katharina Vester, American University (DC)
Hope to see yall there!

My Notes from the 2011 AHA and ASCH meetings

I’ve seen more snow at home in Atlanta than I did up in Boston. Weird. I spent a whirlwind two days up in Boston for the meetings of the American Historical Association and its smaller, more religious cousin, the American Society of Church History. There was plenty of religious history goodness to be had, but alas, I was on a time crunch. I flew in early Friday, stayed the night and flew back late Saturday. Here are my random thoughts, observations, and notes from the various panels I attended and things I found to occupy my time drawn from scattered marginalia in my conference book.

Friday afternoon’s panel on cosmopolitanism and the religious left at the turn of the 20th century was very good. John Pettegrew (Lehigh University) offered an interesting argument for Mark Twain as a religious liberal and for Twain’s belief in empathy as a force that bound humanity together. For Twain, argued Pettegrew, empathy was war’s opposite and it allowed for a universal humanity. Emily Mace’s paper (Princeton) analyzed some intriguing ritual festivals in the life of New York’s Ethical Culture School. These festivals organized around civic values of democracy and equality, as respondent Leigh Eric Schmidt pointed out, were anything but Durkheimian collective effervesance. Nonetheless, Mace’s point that we must not neglect ritual in the study of liberal religions is well founded. Finally, my favorite paper-if only because it was closest to my own research-was that of Ann Marie Kittelstrom (Sonoma State University). Kittlestrom traced the history of the National Federation of Religious Liberals in the wake of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion. In the NFRL and its successors, Kittlestrom sees the beginning of a real cosmopolitan pluralism that appreciated differences while still holding onto shared universals. Leigh Eric Schmidt (Harvard University) responded to all three papers in turn but for me his big take away was the importance of sympathy-in contrast to Pettegrew’s empathy. Sympathy, according to Schmidt, was a rich moral/social sentiment for bridging differences and imaging a cosmopolitan sensibility in the 19th century among religious liberals. Sympathy could be found in the subjects of all three of the papers presented.

Friday night the American Society of Church History held a reception for graduate students at theCongregational Library on Beacon Hill. It is a beautiful library and it was a nice chance to talk to colleagues also along the graduate school path. Kudos to the ASCH for doing this! What was even better was that the ASCH arranged for a small group of graduate students to have lunch or dinner with some great historians on Friday and Saturday-for free! So, after the reception at the library a few of us went to dinner with the great historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps. We had a wonderful dinner and Jan was truly delightful to spend time with. She can tell some amazing stories. On Saturday lunch was arranged with Charles Lippy and dinner with Keith Francis. Again, kudos to the ASCH for setting up these meals. I wasn’t able to take part in any of them on Saturday but they were great opportunities and only available within a smaller society like the ASCH.

By the way, I do love the smaller and more intimate setting of the ASCH in the midst of the glitz and glamor of the AHA. It’s really the best of both worlds. Sort of like Mayberry and Manhattan at the same time.

Saturday morning, I got up and headed to a roundtable chaired by our very own Randall Stephens on “Bracketing Faith and Historical Practice.” The panel featured Randall Balmer, Margaret Bendroth from the Congregational Library, Jon Roberts, Grant Wacker, and Lauren Winner. I won’t say much in case Randall wants to post something later. The main question the panelists addressed was whether or not (or even if) historians should bracket their religious beliefs when practicing their craft. Balmer and Winner seemed confused that this was even a question. For them, it was impossible not to bracket one’s faith and so historians should be upfront about where they are coming from. Roberts disagreed and argued for “norms” that guide the practice of history and call for objective “historical natuarlism.” Grant Wacker offered what I thought was the best argument. Wacker pointed out that there is no hard and fast rule and that various political and social situations will guide a historians decisions about what to disclose and what to use in their interpretation of historical events and agents. Randall Stephens did a good job as chair in relating the various comments and furthering the conversation but I kept getting the sneaking feeling that Roberts and Balmer/Winner were just talking past one another and really arguing about the value of reflexive methodology and not the role of belief in history writing. It was a good conversation, however, and one that will hopefully continue.

After the roundtable I rushed over to the Westin, where the ASCH panels were meeting. It was my turn. I was part of a panel on Methodist Media. The panel began with a paper from Erika K. R. Hirsch (Boston University) who analyzed the role of worship in early Methodism. Hirsch argued that the personal experiences afforded in hymn singing and corporate prayer provided authentication of genuine piety. She tied this desire for authenticity to an early modern emphasis on empirism and verification by the senses. My take away from Hirsch was that we need to pay more attention to the role of practice in British and American Methodism. Elizabeth Georgian (University of Delaware) also emphasized the role of practice in Methodism in her paper on Methodist print culture in the early nineteenth century. Georgian argued that practice, not theology, was the source of debates between Methodists and Presbyterians in their respective periodicals. David Scott (Boston University) brought in a transnational element with his paper on Methodist educational missions in Asia during the nineteenth century. Scott argued that Methodist missions focused on education overseas because they were so focused on education already on the home front. Educational missions were a key part of Methodist identity at home and abroad. Finally, I kept the missionary theme going with my own paper on the Methodist Christian Advocate. I argued that the Christian Advocate allowed Methodist readers to map out the distant land of India, make contact with Indian Hindus (especially women), and travel to the mission field alongside missionaries. The full paper is available here. Russell Richey dispensed with the usual “5th paper” style response, as he put it, and instead posed some refining questions to each paper. Overall, I thought the panel went well but it’s always hard to tell when you’re the one up there.

After my panel I ate lunch at California Pizza Kitchen and headed to airport. A few final thoughts on the overall conference. As Tenured Radical has noted, it was weird going to a conference in a mall. There was also a ridiculous number of Starbucks shops within the bounds of the conference. I also struggled to find WiFi all weekend, but that could have been my own ineptitude. In the end, it was a fun trip that involved little sleep and a lot of running around in glass walled skywalks.