Skip to main content
Department ofReligious Studies


News & Events Fall 2018

Back to School Mixer

Religious Studies Back-to-School Mixer

On Tuesday, September 25, 2018, at the beginning of the second week of Fall quarter, a group of Religious Studies faculty and students gathered for a back-to-school mixer social event. About twenty faculty and students met over snacks and engaged in discussion about our summer adventures and plans for the upcoming school year. The students present included some of our majors and minors, as well as several undeclared students, two of whom declared a Religious Studies major and minor, respectively, shortly after the event ended. Overall it was an excellent way to begin what will hopefully be a wonderful 2018-19 academic year.

 Vanya Lecture

Yasmin Vanya Delivers Talk on Muslims in Burma

On October 3, AIMES (SCU's interdisciplinary program in Arabic, Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies) and the Department of Religious Studies co-sponsored a presentation by Ms. Yasmin Vanya. Originally from Rangoon, she has a leadership position in the Burmese American Women's Alliance and is a member of the Burmese Muslim Association and the Burmese American Democratic Alliance. Yasmin's talk focused on the Rohingya, an ethnic minority population in Burma (also called Myanmar) that is largely Muslim. She discussed the history of Muslim-Buddhist relations in Burma as well as the violent persecution and exodus of the Rohingya from their home country to refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.

People discussing the victor victim survivor clergy abuse event

Religious Studies Faculty Lead a Discussion on Recent Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal in the Church

On Thursday, October 11th, 2018, eleven students and seven faculty/staff gathered to discuss clergy sex abuse and strategies for claiming agency amid the challenges of clericalism and the culture of silence that surrounds sexual abuse in the church. Students raised provocative questions about why sexual abuse happens, and all discussed the challenges associated with discerning whether to remain in the church amid reports of abuse. Many spoke of how they have separated the hope they find in the gospels and the Catholic tradition from the sin of the institutional church.

Comparisons with liberation theology revealed how parallels between the death of Jesus and sexual abuse might render the abuse crisis a contemporary instantiation of the 'crucifixion' of innocent victims. Others questioned how a God who brings life out of death might respond to abuse. Would such a God call Christians to actively resist violence? What is the significance of God's will to live for the relationship of Catholics to the institutional church and the tradition? Does the abuse crisis warrant acts of protest?

After discussing these issues, the conversation turned to the meaning of clericalism, and participants discussed at some length the relationship between celibacy, chastity, and the church's stance on human sexuality as a possible starting point for transforming the structures that enable the culture of silence surrounding clergy sexual abuse.

The conversation was moderated by Paul Schutz and Karen Peterson-Iyer.

Slide presentation

A Night of Ecstatic Dance and Music: Whirling Dervishes and Voodoo Spirit Possession

Is dance one of the first forms of religious expression in human history? How does dance capture the desire to express a connection with the divine through our bodies? In connection with my new course this fall titled Ecstatic Experience, Film, and Religion, (RSOC.16) on Monday 10/29, over 50 students gathered to kick off the week of Halloween with a night appropriately devoted to exploring spirit possession and mystical union achieved through dance. Professor David Popalisky, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, started the evening with a wonderful lecture on the complicated history of Western ambivalence regarding the body, particularly in the context of suppressing dance movements amongst African slaves in America’s Antebellum South. The desire for dance, coupled with the religious need for communion with a source of transcendence, however, could not be fully repressed. Voodoo spirit possession, and other dance forms brought over from Africa, provided a unique study of the fusion of religion, body language, and the irrepressible urge for free expression.

After watching a few film clips on Voodoo spirit possession, Prof. Popalisky switched to a similar, yet also very different tradition of using dance as a method for accessing mystical union with the ultimate by looking at the esoteric practices of spinning and ecstatic music within Islam’s Sufi mystical tradition. After watching the film “Sufi Soul,” we moved down the hall to the dance recital room where Prof. Popalisky instructed students in the essential steps needed for the type of spinning used by Sufi whirling dervishes. In groups of 10-13, students boldly embraced the exercise of taking turns spinning while remaining focused on their hand held out about a foot from their own face. Few reported having achieved complete unification with divine oneness, but most found it exhilarating, slightly disorienting, but most importantly, spiritual and intellectually illuminating. Prof. Popalisky provided a wonderful evening in which students were given an opportunity to not only learn about religious traditions many had never heard of, but also directly experience a different method for stimulating mystical reflection through body movement.

Elizabeth A Johnson giving a lecture

Renowned Theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson Presents Inaugural Rev. Francis L. Markey Lecture in Women in Ministry

On Tuesday, November 6th, 2018, internationally-renowned theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, PhD, presented the inaugural Rev. Francis L. Markey Lecture in Women in Ministry in the Mission Church at SCU. A sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, NY, Dr. Johnson served as a Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University for over 35 years. She is the author of numerous books, including the award-winning She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992), Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2003), Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in Theology of God (2007), and Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2014).

Entitled "Your One Wild and Precious Life: Women on the Road of Ministry," the lecture addressed the question of women's ministry in the Catholic Church, from its origins in the Early Church to the present day. After assessing how patriarchal structures have obstructed women from full participation in ecclesial ministry, Johnson presented the universal call to holiness, sacramentally represented in Christian Baptism, as a starting point for reconceiving women's involvement in ministry. She pressed forward with hope toward a future in which women are seen and recognized as full contributors to the life of the church.

lecture by Professor James Millward

Professor James Millward from Georgetown School of Foreign Service Speaks on Uyghur Situation in China

On November 7 over 75 SCU students and faculty (together with guests from off-campus) attended a lecture by Professor James Millward of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. The talk was entitled "Chinese Internment of the Uyghurs in Historical Context: From Top-Down Multiculturalism to High-Tech Assimilationist Islamophobia." Professor Millward described the history of the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang (western China), giving attention to how the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Xi Jinping is attempting to repress religious practice, fearing that religious identity might emerge as a competitor to the Communist Party. Consequently, the CCP has persecuted not only Muslims but also Christians and adherents of spiritual movements such as Falun Gong.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party has instituted what it is pleased to call "re-education programs" targeting Uyghur Muslims. Using artificial-intelligence scanning to track all activities of the Uyghurs (whether on the street or at home, including mosque attendance, ritual prayer, and Qur'an recitation), the CCP aims to eradicate Islam from Uyghur society. So far the Chinese government has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs (possibly as many as one million), incarcerating them in razor-wire-enclosed internment camps. The purpose of these prisons is to compel inmates to embrace the ideology of "scientific atheism," become faithful Communists, and express loyalty to the cult of Xi Jinping (who borrows heavily from the coercive-ideology tactics sponsored by Mao Tse-Tung during China's Cultural Revolution). What is intended is a complete re-molding of the human person. What is discarded in the process: any notion of individual autonomy, freedom of conscience, or the possibility of seeking the Transcendent on one's own terms.

Supervising this program is Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who implemented a police-grid surveillance program to suppress Buddhism and repress communal freedom in Tibet. President Xi Jinping is already extending aspects of this AI-fueled "total surveillance state" model to other regions throughout China. As the Chinese Communist Party consolidates internal power, it has already begun extending its governance model outside mainland China, to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia---and beyond.

The Q-&-A session after Professor Millward's presentation lasted some 45 minutes. Impromptu follow-up discussions addressed the question of how people of faith can respond to the challenge of Communist totalitarianism in its latest 21st-century iteration. Sponsors for this lecture included the Dept of Religious Studies and AIMES, as well as the Departments of Anthropology, History, and Political Science, The Global Engagement Office, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and the Dean's Office of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Prof Ari Kelman talking about his book

Prof. Ari Kelman from Stanford University presents Rock’n with Jesus

On Wednesday night, 11/7/18, nearly 60 students gathered to hear Prof. Ari Kelman from Stanford University talk about his new book Shout to the Lord: Making Worship Music in Evangelical America (NYU Press, 2018). Prof. Kelman’s talk focused on his inquiry into the theological and practical debates that define the creation and production of worship music within evangelical American Christianity. The cultural production of an authentic Christian experience of God through music requires not just the right type of music but, as Prof. Kelman carefully illuminated in this talk, most of those involved in the creative process insisted that having the right theology and spiritual intentionality is the essential ingredient for creating authentic Evangelical worship music. The discursive production involved in worship music relies on both implicit and explicit theological commitments that cannot be removed from the equation. One of the most fascinating insights centered on the various theological and cultural tensions within the Evangelical community over possible links between the transcendental intent of worship music and the perceived sensual culture connected with the history of Rock n Roll music. The merging of the two cultures is a source of great theological consternation. In his talk, Prof. Kelman brought the audience behind the scenes to focus on the debates and cultural “scaffolding” needed to create spiritual contexts in which musical performances can become avenues for catapulting individual practitioners towards an ecstatic encounter with the Holy Spirit.

One of the central concerns for those involved in using worship music to create ecstatic moments is the acknowledgment that there are elements of emotional stimulation through music that can become a substitute—or even distraction—for authentic worship. Prof. Kelman sums up this tension in his book where he states, “People invested in worship music temper their interest in the spiritual with a concern that I might lead people away from Christ by providing deeply felt experiences that they mistake for God.” Anxieties around knowing that one is engaging in a very human activity of creating ecstatic experiences of the divine through music—experiences that can border on emotional manipulation—captures the potential danger involved in the success of using contemporary worship music as an avenue for experiencing transcendence.

In his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger famously reflected on the famous poetic phase, “But where danger is, grows the saving power also…” For some within the Evangelical community, the technological power of electronic music and lights performed in large stadiums represents a dangerous form of emotional manipulation. Yet this very form of danger and manipulation can be overcome and transformed into a redemptive saving power. The dialectics of using human-made technology and techniques to achieve transcendence over human finitude perhaps goes to the heart of the age-old religious concerns with idolatry, and the danger that in the end we might only be worshiping our own egos and images. Yet, what makes these theological and existential dangers worth it is the underlying hope that it is still possible to harness the technological and cultural production that goes into the creation of worship music in order to connect with something authentically transcendent.

Students asked interesting questions about whether or not the musical artists Prof. Kelman interviewed in the writing of his book had doubts about the appropriateness of commercializing worship music? Would concerns about the authenticity surrounding worship leaders possible lead to a jettisoning of leadership roles in the performance of worship music? Where there any overt expression of politics mixed in with the various mega music events that he attended? The talk and discussion that followed highlighted the general interest and excitement felt in the room with looking at the connections between music and spirituality.

Faith and Sexuality Panel

Professors Roberto Mata and Lynn Jencks Speak on Faith and Sexuality

On Thursday evening, November 8th, Religious Studies professors Roberto Mata and Lynn Jencks joined campus minister Greg Schultz in a panel on Faith and Sexuality. This event was part of SCU Christian Life Community’s event series entitled “Modern Spirituality: Conversation in Faith, Culture, and Current Events.” This series provides a quarterly opportunity for panelists to discuss openly with students the intersections of faith and modern culture. At this event, the panelists answered three key questions: How have you personally experienced or witnessed a healthy relationship between faith and sexuality? How have you personally experienced or witnessed the conflict between faith and sexuality? What advice would you give to a student who is looking to integrate their faith and sexuality? Topics covered included positive perspectives on sexuality from various religious traditions, the importance of prayerfully discerning for oneself the relationship between the Divine and one’s own sexuality, the struggles of Roman Catholics in the LGBTQ community on their life journeys of honoring their sexuality, and the key role of self-esteem and self-respect in spiritually healthy sexuality.