Darren's UnCoverage Course, Part II

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part II, BY DARREN GREM

The first week’s set of classes focused on two questions: 1) What is religion? and 2) How should we go about doing religious history? Since our answers to both of those questions shape how we approach America’s religious past, I thought it pertinent to begin with them.

Regarding the first question, I asked my students to list reasons for why UGA football should or shouldn’t be considered a religion. I was pleased with the results from both the morning and afternoon classes. They thought hard about the matter and presented apt reasons for both sides of the matter. UGA football, most concluded, had both qualities of a religion and of more “secular” enterprises. It didn’t have a central deity, but it certainly deified legendary running back Herschel Walker, head coach Mark Richt, Uga VI, and Larry Munson (the radio “Voice of the Dawgs” for over four decades now). It didn’t encourage “worship” of a supernatural figure or appreciation for supernatural events, but it had venerated spaces, icons, rituals, and rites of passage. Its sense of ethics was fuzzy at best (or temperamental, depending on like or dislike of particular referees, plays, coaches, etc.), but it taught what was anathema and taboo (Steve Spurrier, the Florida Gators, all things Georgia Tech).

All in all, the students seemed reluctant to call UGA football a “religion” in any definitive sense, primarily because it didn’t deal in metaphysics (what one student called “the big questions of life”) or in the supernatural, inexplicable, eternal, and divine. When I pushed my first class to reflect on how, say, a Christian or post-Enlightenment view of certain notions – like “the eternal” and “the inexplicable” – shaped their perspective on religion proper, I had to lead the class a bit more. As such, I’m not sure how well I illustrated my points about how a Huron’s or Buddhist’s definition of religion might result in a different narrative about religious history (they seemed confused), so I dropped the points for the second afternoon class, seemingly with no harm done.

Regardless, I think they enjoyed the exercise and were especially attentive when I suggested how we define “religion” shapes what we study as religious historians. Should UGA football – or sports in general – be included in a text on American religious history? Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to deal with this question as much as I would have liked, but they got it in their notes.

If the first question drew the students in, the way I taught the second one – how do we do religious history? – seemed to leave a few behind. I wanted us to focus on how historians write about the “unseen,” and I thought a provocative essay would help (Grant Wacker’s “Understanding the Past, Using the Past,” in Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart, eds., Religious Advocacy and American History, Eerdmans, 1997). The essay isn’t an easy read, but it’s an important one, providing models for writing religious history as well as suggestions on how to interpret sources, recreate historical settings, and draw moral meanings from the past. To prep for this class, the students wrote short paragraphs (ungraded) about what they envisioned the discipline of religious history to be about. They also had to take some guesses about the types of challenges historians face in the archives and afterwards. In general, they saw our jobs as a mix of the following: categorizing religions, describing the development of religions, explaining denominational splits, detailing theological conflicts, and showing how religious groups shape politics and popular culture. Most of the challenges they detailed would make any post-modernist proud. How to know if a subject actually had religious experiences? How to determine bias in documents? In the researcher’s methods? What if the documents provided don’t tell the whole story? Can any history of religion be objective? I was impressed. I never knew they carried so much existential baggage.

They were along for the ride as we worked through their results. But when we turned to Wacker’s essay, I undoubtedly lost a few of them. It didn’t help in the first class that I myself mixed up Wacker’s categorizations and suggestions (it was a light moment as we all laughed at my fumbling of the ball, but still a bit embarrassing). But more importantly, the lines between Wacker’s concerns and our own were not drawn clearly enough by either the students or, frankly, by me. The end result, I think, was a more conceptual than concrete set of conclusions about how we should and shouldn’t “do religious history.”

This week we’re going to study religious encounters in New Spain and New France, and hopefully some of the past week’s lessons carry over. I’m editing the course as we go along, and I’ve decided that, for as much as I like Wacker’s article, I’ll probably exchange it in future go-rounds for something that teaches the interests and challenges of the field in more direct ways (making sense of religion in this election season, perhaps?) For now, however, I was pleased with the first week’s set of classes. Despite some bumps and bruises here and there, I think we made our way through a conceptual forest that has lost a few students – and even a few of us – along the way.


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