While I sometimes joke that graduate school has made me a boring person, I hope that’s not true. But being a scholar of religion and culture has certainly affected the way I view the world and my life.
For example, while camping and hiking in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in late summer 2012, I saw a male black bear while on a 20 mile hike. While my first thought was “Whoa, that would be a bear just 50 feet away from me,” I also thought about Jonathan Z. Smith’s article “The Bare Facts of Ritual.” I know, I’m a big nerd. He contrasts a hunting society’s ritual rules with what actually happens when those hunters meet up with their prey. Let me tell you, coming upon a bear in the woods is certainly different than talking about it. While Disney’s Pocahontas might be able to pick up a bear cub with no consequences, I kept my distance and thus kept all my limbs. The bear kept his distance too. He was foraging around in the ground looking for a snack. Luckily he didn’t know that I had some Clif bars in my pack. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the bear (my hiking partner and I were more concerned with our safety than his camera).
I have also thought a lot about bodies in my time as a scholar of religion and culture. I’ve always been an active person. I ran cross-country and track in high school and played soccer through college. I’m still a runner and have completed a number of half marathons and almost one full marathon (*shakes fist at torn muscle*). As a former NCAA athlete, I have a respect for student-athletes, the pressure they’re under, and the stress of keeping up with their studies. I also learned a lot about gender and bodies in my time as an athlete. When Amy Koehlinger introduced me to Isis Marion Young‘s essay “Throwing Like a Girl” from On Female Body Experience, I found a helpful theoretical way to think about my own experiences as a female athlete. It also made me realize how much our physical bodies—something that we grow up typically accepting as a natural given—are shaped so heavily by culture. Young notes the differences in “the way each sex uses the body in approaching tasks.” She explained that “the feminine body underuses its real capacity, both as the potentiality of its physical size and strength and as the real skills and coordination that are available to it.” She is particularly attentive to how culture molds the way women understand their bodies and thus how their bodies exist and move in space. Though young girls are not taught to approach the world with as much timidity as they used to (for example, I think Brandi Chastain’s body changed the way many Americans viewed female soccer players), many young girls are still encouraged to play with dolls rather than play sports. This does impact the way we move our bodies, and certainly has convinced me that culture deeply shapes what we assume to be “natural.” This theoretical insight greatly impacts the way I think about religion, race, gender, space, bodies, and lived experience—the interplay between the material and the immaterial.