Cosmic Narratives, Ecology, and Religion

By Lisa H. Sideris, author of Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17

A lively discussion on asks prominent thinkers to address the question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” The answers provide a handy resource for anyone wanting to brush up on epigenetics or confirmation bias or case-based reasoning. The term that caught my eye is the “noosphere.” Its advocate is David Christian, the leading proponent of “Big History,” a science-based approach to history that melds the human and cosmic story into one grand narrative. Big History is exciting, TED-talk-ready stuff, and Christian obligingly narrates the whole shebang—14 billion years ago to the present—in under 20 minutes. It is presented as a modern origin story for all people, a vehicle for restoring meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past.”

In resuscitating the noosphere, Christian claims it had a brief efflorescence “and then vanished.” It has not vanished, I assure you. You just need to know where to look.

My research on cosmic narratives like Big History and its (overtly) religious counterpart, the Universe Story, has led me down the noosphere rabbit hole. The noosphere designates a planetary sphere of mind, a thinking layer of the planet, that evolves and unfolds much like the biosphere (animate matter) or the geosphere (inanimate matter). It originated with the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945) and the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), among others.

A version of the noosphere concept is alive and well in scholarship on religion and ecology today, and in contemporary discourse about the Anthropocene. Some see the noosphere as a precursor concept to the Anthropocene because both signal a geological stage in which humans have become the dominant—and directing—force on Earth systems. In the words of Julian Huxley, “Whether he likes it or not [man] is responsible for the whole future evolution of our planet.”

So, how do we like it? I, for one, am uneasy. Others, not so much. Christian sees scientists’ recent announcement that the Anthropocene began in the mid-twentieth century as vindication of Vernadsky’s ideas. Why that date? Many researchers mark the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945 as the official start of the Anthropocene epoch. Of course, this is hardly an auspicious beginning to our career as planetary managers! Nevertheless, this was the moment, Christian argues, when “the sphere of mind joined the pantheon of planet-shaping spheres [namely] cosmos, earth and life.”

Pantheon. Mind you, we are talking about a geological epoch that began with world-destroying weapons and is proceeding apace with catastrophic climate change.

I worry that cosmic perspectives on human planetary dominance may frame it as a natural, even inevitable, evolutionary stage. My concerns were not allayed when researchers proposed recently that the Anthropocene seems a “predictable planetary transition” from the standpoint of astrobiology. Elsewhere that study’s lead author opines that our environmental crises are “simply another thing the Earth has done in its long history.” Better yet: the Anthropocene marks our “coming of age as a true planetary species.”

Such observations are both unscientific and irresponsible. If asked what scientific concept ought to be relegated to the dustbin of history, I would vote for the noosphere.

Lisa H. Sideris is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, where her research focuses on religion, science, and environmentalism. She is the author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection.

Trump, Religion, and Popular Culture

by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, editors of Religion and Popular Culture in America, Third Edition

The campaign, election, and presidency of Donald Trump have received extensive analysis, especially political and demographic. When religion is considered, the dominant commentary has been about the substantial support supplied by white Christian evangelical voters. Yet there is also a more indirect, less obvious religious influence that might help explain Trump’s popularity. In Religion and Popular Culture in America, various authors explore four different relationships between religion and popular culture. One section on Popular Culture As Religion suggests that aspects of popular culture play roles often associated with traditional formal organized religions, providing meaning and values supported by rituals, symbol systems, and more.

The latest, third edition of our volume includes two new essays in this category about celebrity worship and about consumerism as religion, both of which seem particularly relevant in understanding the Trump phenomenon. In his essay, “Celebrity Worship as Parareligion,” ethnographer and practical theologian Pete Ward suggests that “celebrity represents a reformulation in fragmented form of the sacred.” In “A Religion of Shopping and Consumption,” Religious studies scholar Sarah McFarland Taylor examines assertions that the shopping mall has become a sacred space in a religion of consumption, that consumption itself comes to be seen as a center of meaning and value in the U.S. today. We might go further and wonder if portions of American evangelicalism have so integrated these cultural religions of celebrity and consumption that one of America’s most evident celebrity consumers seems simultaneously evangelical.

The point of this is not simply that consumerism and fascination with celebrities are pervasive in our society; even more, they are so deeply rooted and so strong that they might be seen as religious. Both of these aspects of American society provide partial, underlying factors in understanding the rise of Donald Trump, who was a public figure but ascended to more widespread recognition and celebrity as host of The Apprentice, and whose very public displays of wealth are an aspiration for many. One of the most basic principles of popular culture analysis is that popular culture both shapes us and reflects us, as a kind of feedback loop. Thus, they pertain not only to Donald Trump but to us all.

Bruce David Forbes is Professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College. He is the author of Christmas: A Candid History and America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories.

Jeffrey H. Mahan holds the Ralph E. and Norma E. Peck Chair in Religion and Public Communication at the Iliff School of Theology. His books include Religion, Media, and Culture: An Introduction, Shared Wisdom, and American Television Genres.

Learn more about Religion and Popular Culture in America, view the table of contents, or request your exam copy


Tracing Jewish Identity Through the Torah’s History

By John J. Collins, author of The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul

Jewish identity is a controversial issue. Traditionally, anyone born of a Jewish mother is a Jew. Yet the rabbinate in Israel refuses to recognize marriages or conversions performed by conservative or reform rabbis. By some standards, genealogy is not enough. To be Jewish is to keep the Law of Moses, or even to keep it according to a particular interpretation.

The tension underlying these modern disputes is an old one. Judaism is an ethnicity, to which one may belong regardless of belief or religious practice, but it is also a religion, defined by adherence to the Law of Moses. Contrary to popular belief, Judaism, in the sense defined by the Law, did not begin at Mount Sinai. The Torah or Pentateuch was formed over centuries, in a process that is still a matter of intense debate. Most scholars agree that it took its final shape either during or after the Babylonian exile, in the 6th century BCE. It was not immediately accepted as normative by everyone. The Invention of Judaism is an attempt to trace the reception of the Torah in its first six hundred years or so, from the Babylonian exile to the end of the Second Temple period.

The main contours of the history of reception are as follows. The initial formulation of a Torah as a way of life is found in Deuteronomy, initially drafted in the waning years of the monarchy in the late seventh century BCE, and completed during the Babylonian Exile, when it was combined with other traditional material, including the Priestly Torah. It attained official status as the ancestral law of Judah in the Persian period, although that status was largely iconic, in the sense that the Torah was revered but not necessarily observed in detail. In the second century BCE, however, the attempt of the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress the Judean way of life sparked the Maccabean revolt, and a period of Judean independence. In this new situation, we see a “halakic turn” in Judaism, which paid great attention to every jot and tittle of the Law. This gave rise to “common Judaism,” focused on the Temple and the Festivals, but also to the rise of sects, based on conflicting interpretations of the Law. Even those who subscribed to the central importance of the Torah, however, often felt the need to supplement it with a higher revelation, in the case of apocalyptic Judaism, or to interpret it through the lenses of Hellenistic culture and philosophy. The book concludes by considering the redefinition of Israel in the writings of Paul, in the New Testament, which are exceptional in Second Temple Judaism in questioning the central importance of the Law of Moses.

While The Invention of Judaism is an historical study, it also has implications for the understanding of ethnic and religious identity in the modern world, not only in the case of Judaism.

John J. Collins is Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. His books include Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography and The Apocalyptic Imagination. He is general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible Series.

Studying Religion in the Age of Trump

This post is adapted from the introduction to a special Forum, Studying Religion in the Age of Trump, published in the Winter 2017 issue of Religion and American Culture. Enjoy free access to the Forum until March 10, 2017. For more RAC content, become an individual subscriber or ask your library to subscribe on your behalf.

There are many ways to interpret the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. From appeals to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments to attacks on the establishment and political correctness, alongside more traditional topics like abortion, religious freedom, and ethics, enough subterranean shifts occurred to flip some states red and elect a populist president.

What role did religion in play in these events? How might this election cause us to rethink some seemingly settled conclusions about religion and politics, religion and race, and religion and gender, among other topics? Finally, what might we learn from the election of 2016 that will alter our questions and further our work over the next several years?

To consider these essential questions and implications, the editors of Religion and American Culture invited prominent scholars across multiple disciplines to share their perspectives via brief essays or “thought pieces.” All of them have published on subjects that have helped us understand different aspects of religion and American culture in ways that shed light on the nature of religion in politics and public life.

Now, more than ever, is an appropriate moment for us to look back at how we arrived at previous conclusions, question which interpretations might suitably be shaken up, and consider where our fields might fruitfully go in the coming years. The scholars and pieces featured in the Special Forum include:

The Redoubt of Racism: The 2016 Presidential Campaign, the Origins of the Religious Right, and Why It Matters
Randall Balmer
Professor of Religion, Dartmouth College

 The Prosperity Gospel and the American Presidency
Kate Bowler
Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity in North America, Duke University

Redefining Evangelicalism in the Age of Trumpism
Anthea Butler
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania

An American Contrareformatio
Maura Jane Farrelly
Associate Professor of American Studies, Brandeis University

Return of the Monolith? Understanding the White Evangelical Trump Vote
Wes Markofski
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Carleton College

The Hidden Injuries of Class and Religion
Robert Orsi
Professor of Religion, Northwestern University

Reckoning with American White Christian(ist) Patriarchalism and Multicultural Liberalism
Jerry Z. Park and James Clark Davidson
Associate Professor of Sociology, and Graduate Assistant in Sociology of Religion, Baylor University

The Trump Victory and American Evangelicalism
Matthew Sutton
Professor of History, Washington State University

Priorities in Immigration
Grace Yukich
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Quinnipiac University

The Intersection of Religion and Environmental Activism

by Amanda J. Baugh, author of God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White

On Monday afternoon, the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham spoke in front of the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein as part of #DayAgainstDenial, a nationwide series of events asking senators to block climate change deniers from serving in the Trump cabinet. Leaders of the ecumenical Christian group Creation Justice Ministries and the Coalition on the Environment in Jewish Life, and even evangelical and Catholic pro-life Christian groups have also banded together to oppose the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. These groups appeal to their scriptures and faith traditions as they urge legislators to advance a biblical mandate to be good stewards of God’s Creation.

This type of religiously grounded environmental activism has become increasingly prevalent in the last decade, but the motivations inspiring religious communities to act are much more complicated than a simple hunch that God wants us to “go green.”

In God and the Green Divide, I examine religious environmental organizing in Chicago to show how dynamics of race, ethnicity, and class have shaped contemporary “greening of religion” movements. Focusing on the interfaith environmental organization Faith in Place, I analyze differing environmental values and motivations among the organization’s black and white participants. Faith in Place’s leaders suggested that every religion supports concern for the earth so all people of faith must take measures to protect the planet. Yet participants engaged in environmental activism based on a complex set of factors specific to their own communities, including concerns about job opportunities and health, urgencies of displaying positive civic identity, and feelings of guilt that arise from white privilege. Attending to the complex array of factors that shape individuals’ decisions to “go green” can offer a more complete understanding of the intersection of contemporary religious and environmental worlds.

Amanda J. Baugh is Assistant Professor of Religion and Environment at California State University, Northridge.

Praying and Preying

by Aparecida Vilaça, author of Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.

UC Press is proud to be part of the AAUP’s fifth annual University Press Week. Check out our blog and social media channels through Nov. 19th (plus follow hashtags #ReadUp #UPWeek), and learn how we, along with 40 of our scholarly press colleagues, work diligently to publish vital works benefitting educational, specialized research, and general interest communities.

9780520289147In 1986, when I arrived for the first time, the Negro river village, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, situated between 6 and 20 hours by boat from the city of Guajará-Mirim (depending on outboard motor size and river level), was inhabited by 350 agriculturists, hunters and gatherers with little access to manufactured goods. Although a health worker, a teacher, an agent of the National Indian Foundation and a missionary couple from the New Tribes Mission were also living among them, they seemed to be living a fairly, we could say, traditional life. They told me that they had been Christians throughout the 1970s, but had ‘abandoned God’ at the start of the 1980s. At the time four shamans were active there, curing people attacked by animal spirits and travelling to the subaquatic world where the dead lived.

This situation was transformed at the turn of the century when a revival occurred, accompanied by a new wave of conversions. According to some, the principal reason for the collective conversion was the fear that the world would end because of the USA’s response to the September 11th attacks, an event the Wari’ had been able to watch on the community television. When I arrived in January 2002, I was surprised by the changes. A house had been transformed into a church where various services were held each week. People came up to ask me whether the war had already reached Rio de Janeiro, my home town, and were eager for international news of the conflict. They said that if the end of the world caught them unprepared, still non-Christians, they would go directly to hell where they would spend eternity roasting like game animals.

Continue reading “Praying and Preying”

Religion & Immigration in America

The presidential campaign of 2016 will long be remembered for a number of things, perhaps most prominently for its focus on immigrants. Amid Republican nominee Donald J. Trump’s call to build a massive wall along our southern border and to halt Muslim immigration, the foreign-born were thrust into the eye of the election storm. But American history is filled with such instances, which is what one might expect of a nation of immigrants (Kennedy) and a nation with the soul of a church (Chesterton). To help us stand back and understand the longer story of religious immigrants’ relationships to other aspects of American life, we offer a special virtual issue featuring five excellent pieces from Religion and American Culture—one Forum and four articles.


The artiScreen Shot 2016-10-28 at 1.20.47 PMcles gathered in this virtual issue address immigration across a variety of historical contexts and religious groups: the differences between the religious aspects of the old immigration and the new immigration; the conversion of Irish immigrants from Catholicism to Protestantism in America; how marginalized religious groups strive for national belonging through community service; the transnationalism of the lived religious experiences of many Mexican and Mexican American Catholics; and the revitalization of urban Christianity by collaborative relationships between existing congregations and Asian, Latino, African, and Caribbean immigrants since the 1960s.

These pieces situate immigrants at the heart of American religious life. In doing so, they reveal new and important understandings of the relationship between religion and other aspects of society, which is the purpose of Religion and American Culture. We encourage those studying religion and American culture through the lens of immigrant and transnational faiths to send us your work, as this subject continues to define who we are—and not just at election time.

—Philip Goff, Editor of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders

by Luis D. León, author of The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders

As part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we recognize Hispanic and Latino Americans’ current contributions–and current struggles–in the United States. Learn more at #HispanicHeritage Month.

This post was originally published on November 12th, 2014.

I grew up in California’s East Bay Area, in San Lorenzo. Even while my family was suburban, and not involved in farm work (my paternal grandmother and grandfather were farm laborers), Cesar Chavez loomed large in my cultural and political ecology. He once spoke at my high school. He seemed to be speaking for us, the Latina/os, at a time when I was aware of only negative and stereotypical media images of brown bodies. When I took a Chicano history course as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley I learned that Chavez was primarily a labor leader. As a doctoral student conducting primary source research in the Chicano archives at UCSB I discovered another Chavez—a distinctly spiritual and religious leader. I knew then that I wanted to uncover and tell that part of his story.

My hope is that scholars will discover a different Chavez, one who defies conventional classification, and encounter also a fresh way of narrating his work—one not insistent upon modernist notions of truth and subjectivity. The book is neither a history or biography, the focus is on the mythology—that is the myths he created about himself and those that were manufactured around him. I recognize that it is important to be factual about the research, but really I am writing about the record itself, rather than his actual life. In the words of Ruth Behar: “There is no true story of a life, after all. There are only stories told about and around a life.” Story telling is a political act, and Chavez was adept at telling very effective stories.

One of the turning points in the research was learning that Chavez was active in the struggle for LGBT civil rights. In 1987 he was one of the Grand Marshalls for the second annual march on Washington D.C. for Lesbian and Gay Rights. At the ceremony culminating the protest, he addressed a crowd of 200,000 people, claiming that his movement had been supporting gay rights for over 20 years. His activism on behalf of the LGBT community has been elided from the historiography; I came upon it through research in newspapers.

I consider my book as a contribution to an ongoing conversation. There is much remaining to be told about the late labor leader.

Luis D. León is Associate Professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and author of La Llorona’s Children: Religion, Life, and Death in the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands.

Get caught reading . . . The Teachings of Don Juan

May is Get Caught Reading Month, and what better book to be caught red-handed with than our newly repackaged edition of a classic?


A bit of backstory on this influential book is in order. In 1968 University of California Press published an unusual manuscript by an anthropology student named Carlos Castaneda. The Teachings of Don Juan enthralled a generation of seekers dissatisfied with the limitations of the Western worldview. Castaneda’s quintessential book remains controversial for the alternative way of seeing that it presents and the revolution in cognition it demands. Whether read as ethnographic fact or creative fiction, it is the story of a remarkable journey that has left an indelible impression on the life of more than a million readers around the world.

Dip into this extraordinary world with the passage below.

When I awakened, I was lying on my back at the bottom of a shallow irrigation ditch, immersed in water up to my chin. Someone was holding my head up. It was don Juan. The first thought I had was that the water in the channel had an unusual quality; it was cold and heavy. It slapped lightly against me, and my thoughts cleared with every movement it made. At first the water had a bright green halo, or fluorescence, which soon dissolved, leaving only a stream of ordinary water.

I asked don Juan about the time of day. He said it was early morning. After awhile I was completely awake and got out of the water.

“You must tell me all you saw,” don Juan said when we got back to his house. He also said he had been trying to “bring me back” for three days, and had had a very difficult time doing it. I made numerous attempts to describe what I had seen, but could not seem to concentrate. Later on, during the early evening, I felt I was ready to talk with don Juan, and I began to tell him what I remembered from the time I had fallen on my side, but he did not want to hear about it. He said the only interesting part was what I saw and did after he “tossed me into the air and I flew away.”

All I could remember was a series of dreamlike images or scenes. They had no sequential order. I had the impression that each one of them was like an isolated bubble, floating into focus and then moving away. They were not, however, merely scenes to look at. I was inside them. I took part in them. When I tried to recollect them at first, I had the sensation that they were vague, diffused flashes, but as I thought about them I realized that each one of them was extremely clear although totally unrelated to ordinary seeing—hence, the sensation of vagueness. The images were few and simple.

As soon as don Juan mentioned that he had “tossed me into the air” I had a faint recollection of an absolutely clear scene in which I was looking straight at him from some distance away. I was looking at his face only. It was monumental in size. It was flat and had an intense glow. His hair was yellowish, and it moved. Each part of his face moved by itself, projecting a sort of amber light.

The next image was one in which don Juan had actually tossed me up, or hurled me, in a straight onward direction. I remember I “extended my wings and flew.” I felt alone, cutting through the air, painfully moving straight ahead. It was more like walking than like flying. It tired my body. There was no feeling of flowing free, no exuberance.

Then I remembered an instant in when which I was motionless, looking at a mass of sharp, dark edges set in an area that had a dull, painful light; next I saw a field with an infinite variety of lights. The lights moved and flickered and changed their luminosity. They were almost like colors. Their intensity dazzled me.

At anther moment, an object was almost against my eye. It was a thick, pointed object; it had a definite pinkish glow. I felt a sudden tremor somewhere in my body and saw a multitude of similar pink forms coming toward me. They all moved on me. I jumped away.

The last scene I remembered was three silvery birds. They radiated a shiny, metallic light, almost like stainless steel, but intense and moving and alive. I liked them. We flew together.

Don Juan did not make any comments on my recounting.

To read more, get a copy of your own at your local bookstore, or online at IndieboundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).

Spring Fashions and Parades on Easter Sunday

Do you remember dressing up in your Easter best as a child? The tradition of buying new clothes for the occasion is one that has continued for decades in America, and perhaps centuries in Europe. In fact, Easter spending on outfits is the second largest holiday expense, according to the a survey by the National Retail Federation in 2014, second only to the money spent on groceries or meals out.

In fact, America was also once known for the Easter parade. Bruce David Forbes describes the popularity of the parades and the holiday fashion trend in America’s Favorite Holidays:

“…parishioners from prominent New York City churches strolled Fifth Avenue following Easter morning worship services to show off their elegant fashions, especially ladies’ hats, their “Easter bonnets”… “At its height in the late 1940s, the New York City Easter parade drew crowds estimated at over a million people, inspiring other parades in cities like Atlantic City, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. By the 1890s, the expectation of new clothes for Easter was being encouraged by explicit marketing appeals from merchants via newspaper and magazine advertisements, store windows, and other promotions.”

“The expectations continued until recent decades, and many adults today, nationwide, remember the special Easter clothes of childhood.”

However, in recent years, this trend seems to have diminished somewhat, even if the Easter parades continue in a slightly different fashion (no pun intended). Forbes continues: “The parades still occur annually, although they are substantially diminished and are now more of a carnival featuring outlandish hats, instead of the fashion show of earlier years.”

So why have we stopped dressing up for Easter? “As Peter Steinfels of the New York Times has written, echoing the impression of almost everyone, “The whole association between Easter and clothes isn’t what it used to be.” He suggests that the new spring fashions remain but are not as focused on Easter. Even more important, I would suggest, is that in today’s American culture clothing is increasingly casual at work and at worship, influencing even Easter Sunday. If new Easter clothes drove sales in previous generations, that spending is greatly diminished now. When is the last time you saw an Easter bonnet?”

Learn more about American traditions and celebrations in America’s Favorite Holidays, available now.