The (Ir)relevancy of Religion in Black Mirror

Lauren Strumos
MA Student, School of Religion

Netflix’s anthology series Black Mirror features fictional stories of innovative technologies that are used to inflict pain and suffering on human beings.  It is a series of ‘technology gone bad,’ so to speak.  There are no episodes that feature an explicitly religious storyline, yet nonetheless, it offers a reflection of religion in Western society today.

Take “Black Museum” (2017) from season four, which contains a ‘life after death’ narrative.  While on death row for murder, a black man named Clayton Leigh has his entire consciousness transferred to a lively virtual hologram that becomes activated post-execution.  The transmission is carried out by Rolo Haynes, a former neurologist and founder of an American crime museum, in which he stations Clayton’s consciousness.  Confined to public display as a main attraction, Clayton is subjected to excruciating pain by paying white visitors who electrocute him for their own amusement.

According to Haynes, Clayton’s sustained consciousness allows him to be the first person to survive his own execution, despite lacking a physical body and resultant human agency.  Does this mean that Clayton is alive, dead, or somehow both?  It is a puzzling question evoking thoughts of Schrödinger’s cat.

No matter how the viewer may answer this existential question, it is done without a scene that features a travelling soul, heavenly realm, or cycle of reincarnation, yet Clayton still finds a form of ‘life’ after bodily ‘death’ through the preservation of his ‘reborn’ neurological functions.  Although a viewer may question what happened to Clayton’s spirit, or if he will reach heaven or hell, the storyline itself is comprehendible without any religious context – and this is what is so significant about “Black Museum.”

Although Black Mirror is a science-fiction series about technology, it relies upon the real-life capability of its viewers to conceptualize a ‘life after death’ narrative without employing religion.  Viewers can watch this episode and understand how Clayton is kept alive after his physical death without any sort of religious occurrence or intervention.  Of course, this understanding is also due to our ability to comprehend complex and inventive technology, but it nonetheless requires the power to approach life after death scenarios without any explicit religious framework.

One could claim that this is characteristic of what Charles Taylor calls our ‘secular age.’  In relation to our Western society, the term ‘secular’ for Taylor denotes, “[A] move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”[i] ‘Secular’ does not necessarily indicate a society that has witnessed the disappearance of religion, or even its decline, but a shift in how religion is conceived.

For instance, an individual can identify as either Catholic, Hindu, Mormon, ‘spiritual but not religious,’ or any combination of the diverse beliefs that exist today, but there is also the option to not hold any belief at all; indeed, having disbelief in lieu of belief is not only commonplace, but even understood by those who are religious.[ii]  During our secular age, there are many options to choose from, but most importantly, all of these options are conceivable.

Whereas in Medieval Catholic Europe life after death would have carried with it an automatic religious grasp, our society is able to interpret “Black Museum” without Christianity, as we are able to conceive of irreligion.  We can separate a person’s consciousness from his dead body without requiring a religious explanation.  Religious belief is no longer the automatic and overarching worldview of our Western society, and as a result, it is unrequired to grasp the life-and-death stories of Black Mirror.

Taken altogether, “Black Museum” implicitly presents our contemporary society as one that operates without necessitated connections to external, transcendent forces to generate meaning and understanding.  Perhaps Taylor would claim this is characteristic of our immanent frame, in which our ‘buffered selves’ as part of our “social and civilizational framework”[iii] operate as free agents outside the existential influence of supernatural powers.

Clayton’s transfer of consciousness and pain in Haynes’ museum is able to be solely attributed to an earthly, scientific explanation by the show’s ‘buffered’ viewers, who do not need to blame a deity for Clayton’s agony.  Rather, Haynes becomes God-like himself, taking Clayton’s consciousness into his own powerful hands, but does so within the irreligious and non-transcendent Black Mirror world.  Everything about “Black Museum” can be interpreted devoid of religion and credited to this-worldly causation, thus depicting, through its very plotline, the immanent frame of our contemporary secular society.

 

 

 

 

[i] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 21.

[ii] Taylor uses a personal example to depict this ‘understanding,’ stating, “I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my [Catholic] faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith …” (emphasis added; Ibid., 2-3.).

[iii] Ibid., 239.

Toward the Repeal of Criminal Code Section 43

Dr. William Morrow
Professor, School of Religion

It’s often said that trying to get a group of academics to agree on something is a bit like herding cats. As a rule, people in universities take pride in their independent thinking and the virtues of healthy skepticism. Recently, I had an opportunity to herd some cats.

On the weekend of Oct. 20 and 21, a group of 25 people came together to hammer out a statement calling on Christian churches to support Call to Action #6 in the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential Schools (TRC). This article calls on the federal government to repeal section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which provides a defence for parents to use physical force (i.e., spanking) as a means of correcting children. Of course, corporal punishment was widely used in the Indian Residential Schools.

To this day, certain constituencies in Canadian Christianity are among the most vociferous advocates for the retention of section 43. However, many mainline Canadian denominations have committed themselves to carrying out the calls to action of the TRC. The goal of the conference was to craft a statement that provided a theological justification for supporting the widespread conclusions of social scientific research, which over the years has unambiguously demonstrated the deleterious effects of even “mild” corporal punishment on children’s development. Our hope is that churches can use our statement as an impetus to support current efforts to repeal section 43 of the Criminal Code now before the Senate.

The people who gathered for the consultation came under the auspices of a Canada 150 connections grant awarded by SSHRC with additional funding from Queen’s School of Religion. They included university professors, graduate students, prominent church leaders (including two bishops), undergraduates, and community members. Several were of First Nations or Metis heritage. It was appropriate that this event was connected with Queen’s not only because the University is committed to the TRC’s calls for reconciliation, but because of its own history. Queen’s University began as a college for preparing ministers for the Church. There is a strong likelihood that some of the graduates of what was once Queen’s College, as well as the former Queen’s Theological College played a part in the Indian Residential School system.

The conference provided some good lessons for all those who find themselves in the place of having to herd cats. While I was the Principle Investigator, the chief organizer was Dr. Val Michaelson. Together with her assistant, Kacey Dool she spent a great deal of time thinking carefully and consulting widely about how to set up a useful group process for decision-making. And that made all the difference. So, by the time I was called on to get 25 people of very different backgrounds to agree on a common statement, it was actually a pleasant task. The statement this consultation issued can be found through this link: http://www.queensu.ca/religion/call-end-corporal-punishment

What does it Mean to Study Spirituality?

Galen Watts
PhD Student, Cultural Studies

This is a question I keep coming back to.

More Canadians than ever before identify as “spiritual” as opposed to “religious,” and talk of “spirituality” is becoming increasingly prevalent in mainstream discourse.

In 2014 I decided to devote my time and energy to figuring out what spurred this shift in the religious and cultural landscapes, and what precisely “spirituality” means.

Up to now I’ve interviewed thirty-three Canadian millennials (aged 18-36) who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” some of whom I have interviewed up to three times over the course of three years.

I’ve learned a lot about the spiritual lives of these young Canadians. I’ve heard intimate stories that revolved around struggles with depression, family troubles, life changing events, and even all night raves. I’ve watched interviewees shed tears, burst out laughing, and speak with a passion so intense it was contagious.

I’ve learned that to study spirituality is not simply to study spirituality, but to study the intersections of subjectivity, society, history, politics, and economics—to study spirituality is to study the human condition.

October News

The QSR blog is back! This month features Dr. James Miller offering a Confucian critique of President Trump, Dr. Ian Alexander Cuthbertson discussing the value of creative projects and Dana Sidebottom considering whether academia is a religion.

As always, we welcome posts from QSR students, faculty, alumni, and guests. To contribute, send your post or questions to qsrblog@gmail.com

 

 

Is Academia a Religion?

theological-hall
Dana Sidebottom
Cultural Studies MA Student
Queen’s University

…I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial

Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church

Marin Morris, My Church

I have often joked about something that I call “The 4am Miracle”. It is that moment of inspiration that strikes suddenly and unexpectedly after hours of staring at a blank entre. It is the moment that the words flow uninhibited, the ideas focus and align, and the insights are profound. In the morning, I read over the work from the moment of transcendence, and it is always my best writing. Despite the feeling that I am not the one controlling the work, that the work is simply using my body as a vessel, it is always the most elegantly written, the most thought-provoking, the most engaging part of my essay – it is as though, in that moment, the Spirit of the Academy has possessed me for the sole purpose of articulating a point worth making.

This weekend, I attended a lecture given by a neuroscientist who studies the eye/brain connection and the processes used in our perception of the world. He closed his talk saying, “…managing the miracle of human sight”, and I was struck by his use of the word “miracle”. Miriam Webster dictionary defines miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs”. Divine. A scientist described the phenomenon he has spent his life investigating as a product of divine intervention. And so too have I described my academic moments of inspiration as a miracle, as a divine intervention. And so now I wonder… Is academia a religion?

When I wake up, press the button on my kettle, and sit down in front of my computer every morning – am I going to church? Am I entrenching myself in a unifying worldview shared by millions of others, and trusting an institution and its set of ethics and principles to watch over me and guide my life? Inarguably, the answer is yes. I came to academia a supplicant (they called me an applicant, but the connotation is the same), and upon acceptance was initiated into the academy.

For four years I was a Novice, learning from those who have completed their training and moved up the ranks of the institution. I was made to feel guilty for my sins of not studying, partying too much, and falling behind, and I was judged by the Higher Powers each time I turned in an assignment. If being accepted to university can be compared with being Christened, turning in a paper was like going to Confession. Graduation was my Confirmation – my declaration that I was a member of the institution always, that I would carry the knowledge of my degree with me throughout my life, that I would forever be branded as a “university graduate” and therefore a full member of this community.

I have returned now as an Apprentice to an Adept or a Master, and in returning and ascending the ranks, I have accordingly been given greater responsibility and greater freedom. I guide my own small class of novices now, and I have been entrusted with more of the wisdom that the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower hold sacred. I am even permitted to add to that knowledge in my own small way, carefully guided by my superiors.

I started thinking about this idea while sitting in my Community Based Research course. The course is looking at emergent research methodologies and is critical of the harm done by academics that have not traditionally been concerned with the communities they have studied. The critiques are valid and the new methodologies are interesting, but I am quick to defend the institution. As with all religion, there are things that change and adapt with time, there are moments when our highest earthly authorities come together and agree to adaptations of earlier doctrines, but there are some things that are dogma. Sources must be cited. Knowledge must be recorded and preserved. And the institution must persevere.

The big question, of course, is one of belief. Do I believe in the Academy? I love the Academy, and I believe in its ability and its desire to do good. I believe that the members of this community seek to expand and share knowledge, and to safeguard that knowledge for future generations. We comment on, critique, analyze, and offer insight into socio-political issues. We hunt for new cures, we research new surgical procedures and new energy sources, we create space to question authority and assess the state of the world. But I also have faith in the 4am miracle. I have experienced transcendence in the carrels of libraries, and I have felt the touch of the Spirit of Knowledge guiding me to answers that I did not have before.

Is academia a religion? I don’t know. But I think it’s my religion.
Bless me professor, for I have sinned. It has been many days since I worked on my thesis…

 

 

Creative Projects

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Baker Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Religion

22278497_10159335178135587_155972462_nThis post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.

For the last four years I have taught RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture at Queen’s University. RELS 161 is a large full-year course that usually attracts between 150 and 180 students. I have already written about this course elsewhere but have never described one of the more successful and rewarding components of the course: creative projects.

I first introduced a creative project option, somewhat reluctantly, in 2014. Previously, the final project for the course asked students to observe a ritual and then analyze the ritual using theories and approaches discussed in class. I had considered replacing this project with one that I’ve subsequently used (with mixed results) in a course on religious fundamentalisms that I teach at Dawson College in Montréal. The replacement project I considered asks students to create a single image, infographic, or one minute video that explores and explains a key term or concept from the course to a general audience. But the more I thought about this new project the more worried I became: Could I really require first year students to make images or videos? How would I evaluate these?

I vacillated all summer, writing and re-writing the syllabus as I drew ever closer to September and the start of term. I liked the idea of mobilizing students’ artistic talents but was uncomfortable requiring and potentially evaluating artistic skills that I did not teach in class. I take seriously the dictum that evaluations should only evaluate actual student learning: unless I teach students grammar, grammar should not be something I evaluate in student assignments. A day or two before my syllabus was due I finally decided on a compromise: I kept the ritual analysis project and included an optional creative project.

Basically, the creative project invites students (either individually, or in groups) to demonstrate their mastery of one or more of the course learning objectives however they want to. The format is open. Although I suggest possible project formats (essays, images, videos, short stories, interpretive dance…), students are free to suggest their own. Similarly, there are no set requirements for length or duration. The benefit of this open format is that it allows students complete freedom to imagine new ways of demonstrating learning that match their interests and abilities. The risk is that students will attempt to complete projects that are not feasible, that do not actually demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives, or that I am ill-equipped to evaluate. How, for instance, would I evaluate an interpretive dance? The guidelines for the creative project, which have remained unchanged since I first included it in the course, are structured to address and manage these risks. The creative project option has three components:

1. Proposal

Students who decide to pursue the creative project option are asked to submit a formal proposal in February in which they describe their project’s format and size or duration; provide a detailed timeline to show the project can be completed by the April deadline; imagine potential complications that might arise along with solutions to these; explain exactly how their proposed project will demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives; and finally propose how I will evaluate whether or not the project actually demonstrates this. While the proposal is an essential component of the larger project, its real purpose is to structure the face-to-face meeting I have with students to discuss their proposals. In this meeting, the student(s) and I talk about the format and scope of the project and work together to determine whether the proposed project actually fits their interests and goals, whether it is feasible, and whether I will be able to properly evaluate their mastery of course learning objectives. Often, this meeting necessitates partial or complete revisions of the proposed projects as the student(s) and I work together to imagine a project that fits their interests while providing me with material I can effectively evaluate.

2. Project

The project itself is submitted in April. Given the freedom this option allows, student projects are unique expressions of student engagement with course materials and learning objectives. In the last four years I have received videos, slam poetry presentations, short stories, one act plays, formal research papers, paintings, drawings, poetry, sculptures, musical compositions, and yes… an interpretive dance.

Typically, students submit additional materials that explain their projects and link their work directly to course learning objectives. Sometimes these explanations are brief. But students sometimes surprise me with the attention they pay to these. Grace Hart, for instance, who recorded herself and other dancers interpreting liminality, submitted a recording of the dance piece she choreographed along with a detailed breakdown that tied each movement back to liminality. This breakdown allowed me to evaluate Grace’s understanding and interpretation of liminality rather than the choreography itself. Grace also submitted a hand-written creative journal in which she recorded her artistic choices concerning music, choreography, lighting, and costume along with her rationale for these choices and for the revisions she eventually made.

3. Reflection

One week after the projects are submitted, I ask students to submit a short reflection in which they consider whether or not their submitted project met their expectations. Sometimes, when the projects are successful, reflections are cursory. When projects do not turn out as originally planned, reflections provide students with an opportunity to explain how the material they submitted still demonstrates their engagement with and mastery of course learning objectives and allows them to revisit evaluation criteria to ensure I am still able to evaluate the project they actually submit to me.

The creative projects I have received have nearly always been brilliant expressions of student learning. Sometimes, these projects are later presented outside of the classroom. Grace Hart, for instance, submitted her choreography to a peer reviewed blog hosted by the University of Toronto and Kaitlyn Hollander submitted her drawings to a larger exhibition of creative expressions of teaching and learning at Queen’s University. Receiving these projects has been a highlight in my career as an educator. I am routinely amazed by the talent and deep understanding these projects exhibit. Although I was hesitant, at first, to include this option in my syllabus, it has proven to be the most effective and rewarding evaluation situation I have ever used in the classroom. Typically, somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of students choose to submit creative projects. But I suspect that even if the entire class chose the creative project option, I would be eager to meet individually with all 180 students to determine how they might best mobilize their talents and interests to creatively demonstrate their grasp of the key terms, core concepts, and central ideas we explore together in RELS 161. Below are three examples of creative projects I’ve received along with comments from the students who submitted these.

Defining Religion by Kaitlyn Hollander

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Kaitlyn’s project consists of three large images, each of which depicts two contrasting definitions of religion. In the image above, Kaitlyn contrasts Freud’s view that religion is the product of psychological needs with the sui generis view that religion involves some special contact with ‘the sacred.’ Her piece is interactive: each separate image is only visible when viewers put on coloured lenses.

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I asked Kaitlyn to reflect on her experience completing the creative project in RELS 161:

“Making a creative project for my religion class was exciting, though at times challenging. To start, I thought about what had the most impact on me during the course; how religion cannot be monolithically defined. To my first-year brain, the idea was revolutionary because I learned more broadly that definitions are fluid rather fixed concepts. I spent a great deal of time researching and understanding each scholar’s definition to make sure I could make a piece where both the viewer and myself could clearly understand these definitions. It was wonderful having the opportunity to expand my range of conceptual topics in my fine art work as well as create a piece to display outside the walls of the studio.

Visual Notes for RELS 161 by Rhiannon Allen-Roberts

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Rhiannon’s project consists of a very large banner on which she drew interpretations of multiple course topics. The project is a visual map of the entire course. Rhiannon also submitted a detailed explanation of her project that connected the concepts she explored to one another. Below are a few photos of specific segments of the larger whole.

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I asked Rhiannon to reflect on her experience as well:

“My experience with the creative project was probably the best academic experience I had in my first year. It really allowed me to engage with the material and that made it personal to me, ensuring that I didn’t just memorize the material but actually learned it. I still find myself referencing topics and readings from that class. It really helped me to understand and engage with the learning material. I’m still really proud of the project and believe it was the most rewarding academic achievement I had in my first year.”

Becoming by Grace Hart

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I described Grace’s project above. The video she submitted can be viewed here. I also asked Grace to reflect on her experiences:

I loved doing the creative project. It helped me to engage with the material more that I would have in written format. And I wanted to. To this day, it has been the project that I have been the most passionate and involved in throughout my four years at university. And doing it in first year made all the difference. I thought of university to be this scary, academic institution, but in doing the creative project I was able to put myself into my education and really run with – and looking back now that’s what I would consider what university is supposed to be at every moment but unfortunately under all the readings and essays it doesn’t always get to be. 

It was such an effective way to engage with the material. I could still tell you what Liminality Theory means, but still have trouble explaining the neoliberalism, realism and constructivism – and I’m a politics major! It gave me a way to contextualize – and through dance, visualize – the theory in the broader scope of the course. I still struggle to read academic articles and I get nervous speaking up in my fourth-year seminars and but had I been given more opportunities to do creative projects that allowed me to engage with course material in a way that appealed to the way I learn, I think I would have retained much more information from my courses and felt more confident in my understanding of course materials. 

I was so proud handing in this project. I worked so hard on it and dedicated so much time and energy to speaking with my professor, doing the research and putting the project together that I felt like I really accomplished something – more than just the A grade that I got. It really motivated me to want to engage with course material in this course and others, and to really take every learning opportunity – academic and otherwise – that university had to offer. I will always remember this course and Professor Cuthbertson for giving me the opportunity to do my creative project, but even more so the drive, commitment and hard work that I put in to this project and how rewarding, both academically and personally, it was to complete.

 

 

Democracy Without Dignity: A Confucian Critique of President Trump

Dr. James Miller
 Director, School of Religion

img_0122This post originally appeared on the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory blog.

The events of the past week have marked the point of absolute contrast between the world’s two most important countries and their leaders. In China, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power throughout the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), beginning with the bravura performance of a three and a half hour opening speech, during which he touched not a drop of water. By the end of the congress, he was confirmed in his position for another five years, his supporters were elected to key government positions, and his thinking established as part of the CPC’s ruling doctrine for decades to come. 

On the other side of the Pacific, witness the continuing omnishambles of the Trump administration, which seemingly stumbles from scandal to scandal, one tweet at a time. Trump’s standing surely reached a nadir this week with Senator Flake’s excoriating indictment of the president’s character. “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior,” he declaimed, “has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

The contrast between the two countries could not be clearer: China enjoys dignity without democracy; the United States has democracy without dignity.

But this apparent contrast masks many areas in which the political machinery of Beijing and Washington enjoys many similarities. Both systems rely on a network of relationships and the trading of favours among the political class to get things done. The Chinese term guanxi, which denotes the culture of relationships and favours that is central to the Confucian ethos, is no less applicable in the corridors of power in Washington than in the government compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Secondly, factions in both systems resort to politically-charged investigations into corruption and lawbreaking for political gain. President Xi consolidated power through a ruthless anti-corruption drive aimed at the highest levels of government, as well as the petty officials whose venality threatened to undermine the CPC’s popular legitimacy. At the same time, the use of special prosecutors and FBI investigations is no less a hallmark of contemporary US politics. Both can have a chilling effect on the machinery of government, where government officials fear the slightest misstep could result in investigation, summons, or even jail time.

Thirdly, both systems work hard to control media narratives through techniques of propaganda, ranging from the active suppression of sensitive issues in China, to the wholesale denigration of mainstream media in America. Both administrations worry about the spread of “fake news,” or narratives that challenge the ruling orthodoxy, and both are equally adept in their employment of social media for political gain.

At many levels, the day-to-day business of Chinese and US politics is a lot more similar than one might think, given the radical difference in the two political philosophies. But there is one thread that runs through the Confucian approach to ethical government, which emphasizes a key difference between Trump and Xi: the virtue of self-control, precisely and carefully displayed by President Xi during his marathon speech at the start of CPC congress.

In Analects 16.7 Confucius says,

“The gentleman has three things to be cautious about: In his youth, when his blood and energy are not yet settled, he must be cautious about sex. In his middle years, when his blood and energy are just strong, he must be cautious about fighting. In his old age, when his blood and energy are already weak, he must be cautious about greed.”

Trump seems to embody all three types of recklessness identified by Confucius. His behaviour towards women has been roundly condemned; his warmongering words regarding North Korea provoked fear and consternation across the world; he unashamedly made his lust for wealth and power into the basis of his media personality.

Why do these moral failings matter? Because democracy needs dignity if it is not to descend into disorder. This does not mean that our leaders have to abide by some impossible standard of personal moral purity; after all, they are only human. But it does mean that in a republican system, without the benefit of monarchs to take on the symbolism of the state, it is incumbent upon the president to act presidentially.

President Trump understands one aspect of this. When people disrespect the flag or fail to stand for the national anthem, he takes it personally. But Confucius long ago understood that the authority vested in symbols of power, such as the flag, has to be properly earned. President Trump has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the dignity and the self-restraint to command the worthiness of the flag, and the sacrifices of soldiers in its name.

Dignity without democracy runs the risk of being a clanging gong that signifies nothing. But democracy without dignity is an equally dangerous formula that threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy as a political system.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale is Back

Dr. Bill James
Professor Emeritus
School of Religion

handmaid.0.0

The Handmaid’s Tale is all over the place these days in a remarkable resurgence that Atwood herself declares as “weird.” It feels a bit that way to me too, as I recall the novel’s appearance in the mid-80s. I taught the book for several years in RELS 161, Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Its immediate referents were, as I recall, the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and feminism. Then and now, the strong underlying themes of religion and the state and of totalitarianism loomed.

This retrospection got me to dig up an article I had written and published in Japan in the early 90’s, “Narrative as Prayer and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was reissued in 1994 for students in RELS 161. A scanned version is available here. I was relieved to reread it and find that it isn’t entirely an embarrassment. In fact, its focus on the narrator’s inner monologue as a form of prayer strikes me as perennially relevant. Augustine, in The Confessions, first helped us understand that one’s relation to the deepest aspect of the self is akin to the relation to the divine.

atwood1This inner monologue—which novels represent so well and which movies often fail at or ignore—disappeared as a feature of the 1990 film by Volker Schlöndorff. Though the film starred an illustrious quintet of principals, and though the screenplay was written by renowned playwright Harold Pinter, it was lamentable in many respects. Due to changes in midstream, Pinter felt the film became a “hotch-potch.” Natasha Richardson, the female lead, thought the Offred’s interior monologue would be handled by voice-over narrations, but then these were cut out, reportedly because Pinter was against them.

 

thehandmaidstale1The American television series of The Handmaid’s Tale by Bruce Miller just began airing in April 2017, in Canada on the Bravo network. The tv series is acclaimed as a visually impressive and an emotionally suspenseful drama representing the best of what television can offer. Elisabeth Moss, in the role of Offred, expresses her innermost thoughts in voice-over in assertion of rebellion against the totalitarian control and distortions of the regime. From the beginning as a viewer I felt that the novel had been restored to life.

The discussions about The Handmaid’s Tale continue in various media, usually revolving its relevance in the Age of Trump. But some of the tangential issues are fascinating too. For me it’s the revival of challenges to Atwood’s feminism as she continues a decades-long resistance against being called a feminist. An article in Jezebel recently challenged Atwood’s view that women’s rights are human rights. The Jezebel piece went on to query how Elisabeth Moss could belong to Scientology while portraying a woman living under oppression. Moss has refused to talk about the negative aspects of her religion, with the allegations of forced abortions, confinements, and various accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

Again, memories of old controversies return. It was in 1988 that I reviewed Russell Miller’s critical, though popular and unauthorized, biography of Scientology’s founder, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. At the time I wondered whether the religion would survive the founder’s death but here it is, still with us, and still the subject of movies and articles and investigations. Atwood’s feminism and Moss’s religion are versions of the old question of whether a bad person can produce good art. Or of literature and belief: What’s the fit between the worldview of the text and its author’s beliefs? In the Church it was the Donatist controversy: Is the Sacrament still efficacious when received from the hands of an unworthy priest? In some ways contemporary celebrity culture, which reveals all about about any public figure, augments the problem. The answer, too, may be an old one. As D. H. Lawrence said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Fascinating, recurring, and age-old questions.

 

 

May News

The QSR blog just doesn’t want to take its vacation…

Two more posts are up: Aaron Ricker considers Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson as moral authorities and QSR MA Student Alissa Droog reflects on running religious studies tutorials.

We’ll be back in September!

Running A Religious Studies Tutorial

Alissa Droog
MA Student
School of Religion

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Teaching is a creative enterprise, and if there’s one thing I learned about it this year, it’s that you have to be willing to try a variety of methods that may or may not work. This year I had the opportunity to run a tutorial for RELS 161 Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Students were introduced to topics like defining religion, religion and modernity, fundamentalism, new atheism, ritual studies and new religious movements and I, having a more traditional education in Christian thought and culture, learned along with them.

The most valuable learning experience from teaching this tutorial was about how to nurture an environment for discussion in which students felt comfortable participating. When I started the tutorial in September with a couple of discussion questions, I was met with nervous glances and the “don’t pick me” look. As a result, I had to scale back on the amount of discussion I planned in my tutorials and slowly added it back in when my students were ready.

obi-canuelIn my final tutorial, I am happy to report that we had a semi-structured discussion which my students largely led for 45 minutes. The topic that week was new religious movements and we debated whether members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be allowed to wear a colander on their head for official photographs. The discussion ended up going for 20 minutes and I had to cut it off so we could move on. It was amazing to see how far my students had come. They took turns, they didn’t talk to me but to each other and came up with some strong arguments for and against the colander. While that discussion may have been a lucky moment, I’d like to believe that it was the result of a variety of strategies that I tried to create an inviting classroom for discussion.

With that said, here are some of the teaching strategies I used to invite discussion:

  1. Making participation count: I made discussion participation worth almost half of my students’ tutorial participation grade. As students left tutorial each week, they reminded me if they had participated in discussion and I marked it down on an attendance sheet. This created accountability for the students to speak.
  2. Talk to your neighbour first: Before starting a whole class discussion, I asked students to discuss the question with their neighbours. This allowed students to share their ideas in a low-risk setting. It also developed and validated their thoughts, making it easier to share them with the class when I opened the question to the whole group.
  3. Brainstorms: I used brainstorms to get my students to think of the key terms and arguments for different course readings. I would only explain a key term once it had been added to the brainstorm so the onus was on the students for doing their readings and adding to the discussion. Adding a key term to a list is also an easy way to participate.
  4. Group Activities: These can take some time to organize, but the photo below shows the setup for a group activity that I ran one day. I created 5 charts with key terms and discussion questions on topics we covered that week. Each group got about 5 minutes to fill in as much as they could on the chart before passing it to the next table. I spent each 5-minute increment with a different group which allowed me to answer questions and gauge how well the students knew the material.

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