Is "Religious Studies" sexy?
The fact that the USA counts as a single country, makes you feel that all travel within it is somehow ‘domestic’. So. last week, I blithely hopped over to the East coast – a journey which took, and felt, as long as going from London to New York (and cost about as much).
The first reason for going was to talk at a conference-cum-workshop at Yale (at the Divinity School in the picture) for Religious Studies graduate students from Yale, Harvard and Brown. This proved a bit of an eye-opener.
I might as well admit that I operate with a pretty old-fashioned stereotype of students doing Religious Studies. I know there are bound to be exceptions, but I do tend to assume that, nice and clever as they are, they’ll be pretty straight. And probably religious as well as in Religious Studies (in much the same way as it’s generally gays that do gay history, women that do women’s history, and so on).
These students were a very bright and talkative bunch, and I had a good time banging on about the Roman ritual of Triumph (once my book on the Triumph comes out in October, the subject will be off-limits…so I’m making the most of these final months). And their comments were spot on. But to all outward appearances, they ran to Religious-Studies type. That is to say, they were rather better scrubbed and tweed-jacketed than the average doctoral student.
Or so I thought until the time came, after an excellent dinner, when they went round the table and explained one by one what they worked on.
I had confidently predicted to myself that there would be a string of thesis topics along the lines of “Some theological problems in the Gospel of Mark” or “Christology in John”. I could hardly have been more wrong. One after another, these nice respectable-looking students came out with “Sex in the Acts”, “Gender politics and martyrdom”, “Surveillance in the New Testament”, “Cultural identity in the Talmud”, and so on. Not Religious Studies as I imagine it to be.
Is this the USA? Have I got terribly out of touch with what goes on under the banner of Theology in my own university? Or would I come to feel a bit nostalgic for a bit of old-fashioned Religious Studies? Is this what Ruth Gledhill has been telling us all the time?
Actually this wasn’t the only thing that enticed me across the continent. I was also keen to meet the people who were publishing my Triumph book at Harvard University Press. I’ve been dealing with them really closely over the last few months – in what seems like almost constant e-mail conversation with the manuscript editor and others. But most of he people I had never actually met in the flesh. So I went through Cambridge (Mass.) for a night, where they took me out to a great dinner (and where, I have to say in child-like enthusiasm, I stayed in a hotel that allowed you to watch television in the bath/shower, with a screen miraculously embedded in the bathroom mirror!)
There was something strangely exciting about this -- with all that paradoxical buzz of meeting long-term friends for the first time, if you see what I mean. But it also made the book seem real like never before, as they talked about reviews, publicity, dust-jackets and the rest.
And all the more so, when I checked on the Harvard website – and saw it there, as if it already existed, even down to the price (a snip, I should say!). If I fell under the proverbial bus, I reflected, it would now come out anyway. Sorry about the self-advertisement, but do click here.