AAR Stages an Embarrassment of Riches

By David W. Stowe

It's hard to know where to start with the AAR/SBL annual meeting. So many people, so many sessions, so many receptions, so many "hosted" (i.e. free) beer and wine bars. Luminaries like Karen Armstrong, Wendell Berry, and Meredith Monk strode the corridors of the Baltimore Convention Center. Academic conferences I've been to before--OAH, ASA, AHA--all pale in comparison. Many readers have undoubtedly been there done that and take it all for granted. As for me, it was my first time.

I could write about the engaging and wide-ranging panel discussion of The Color of Christ, well known to readers of this blog, with authors Blum and Harvey responding to critiques from Jennifer Graber, Josh Paddison, Kathryn Gin Lum, Stephen Prothero, and an usually engaged audience.. Or the affectionate but scalpel-edged festschrift for Jonathan Z. Smith, in particular On Teaching Religion, an intriguing-sounding collection I've already ordered from the campus library. Smith's most famous utterance may be, "there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study."

It's all I can do not to write at great length about Hearing Images: Film, Music, Meaning-Making, and Lived Religion, cosponsored by the Music and Religion Group, which featured the reportedly first-ever performance of live music integrated into a panel discussion, much of it played by panelists  that included Kutter Callway, Maeve Louise Heaney, and John Lyden. Selection were drawn from the soundtracks to "Married Life," "The Scarlet Tide" from Cold Mountain, and Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel," used most recently in Gravity.

Knowing the these conference recaps can be more fun to write than to read, probably the best session to call out in this space would be Making (the Study of) Religion Online: New Media and the Study of Religion, starring organizer Kathryn Reklis of Fordham, who gave a splendid opening overview of the state of the field, followed by Katie Lofton of Yale and Frequencies (who had managed to deliver an equally riveting and bravura paper at the Smith session earlier the same afternoon), Paul Raushenbush, religion editor of the Huffington Post (whose stated goal is to "win the Internet"), Jonathan VanAntwerpen of the Social Scrience Research Council and Immanent Frame, and Diane Winston, director of Religion Dispatches.

Yes, RiAH was mentioned by Reklis in a short list of notable online religion initiatives. A lot was said, most of it pretty interesting but beyond my powers to summarize at what already feels like a late hour. Digital media as especially useful in the interstitial zones both between disciplines and between academics and nonacademics. The scary prospect of Matt Damon being hired to deliver lectures for MOOCs. The challenge of getting academics to weight in with timely stuff when it really counts, like Just War reflections during the recent crisis over Syria's chemical weapons. The environmental consequences of the digital world, given the rare metals that go into all those devices and the cooling required for servers. Dystopian and utopian futures unleashed by new media.

And some parting words from Rauschenbusch: "I just want to emphasize to the academics that you can do a lot with 800 words. You can write something that is smart as hell, introduce some concepts that very few of your readers will have ever come across, and actually change their lives." After which Reklis jumped in, "That seems like a really good sentence to end with."

Let's see, am I up to 800 yet?...


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