Author Archives: David Robertson

Research Excellence in Religious Studies at The Open University 

By Graham Harvey 

We are pleased to share news about the results of the UK’s national audit of research: the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The results are out this week and more information will follow. However, we are keen to celebrate our research as well as our teaching and learning contributions.  We’ll also take this opportunity to briefly update you on highlights of what we’ve been doing and what we plan to do.  

The REF results provide scores for the quality of publications, based on a submission of a specified number (23) of ‘outputs’ that we considered to be among our best. We selected among our publications to reflect research by our 11 colleagues. The REF panel rated 83% to be world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in the same terms. In other words, they considered that anyone researching a topic relevant to 4*-rated publications must engage with those works, and would certainly be wise to engage with the 3* works too. We are pleased that an increasing number of our publications are ‘open access’, i.e., freely available to read through the websites of relevant publishers or journals. The Open University’s Open Research Online repository makes even more of our work available in pre-publication versions (which are usually very close to the final published versions).  

In addition to the selection of published work, we also provided a statement about our ‘research environment’ for evaluation. This sets out how we facilitate, encourage, support and reward research by department colleagues and our postgraduate researchers. It also evidences our contributions to the wider national and international community of Religious Studies researchers (e.g., as peer reviewers of research and publication proposals, book and journal editors, learned society committee members, conference organisers and more). The expert panel rated 75% of our research environment statement to be at an internationally excellent level.  

We were also required to submit Impact Case Studies (ICS) to evidence how our research has changed and/or benefited the world beyond academia. We selected two to illustrate the coherence of a vibrant research community and culture focused on ‘contemporary religion in historical perspective’. Our first ICS demonstrated the ways in which the research of Prof John Wolffe, Dr John Maiden and Dr Gavin Moorhead has increased the present-day impact of religious history and archives. Our second ICS set out how Prof Graham Harvey’s ‘New Animism’ research has had an impact on creativity, culture and society. The REF panel categorised 50% of these case studies to be 4* and 3*. We celebrate these results and will say more about the research and impact involved in future blogs.  

Existing blogs already show how all members of the department conduct research and contribute to effecting positive change in the world. We have not rested since completing our REF submission but have sought to enhance our research and engagement with wider communities. We are also devoted to producing and delivering similarly world-leading and research-based learning opportunities for both our students and all learners. We have been joined by a twelfth colleague whose work extends the range of issues about which we research and teach – in particular engaging with ‘non-religion’. We remain strongly committed to using the OU’s technological expertise and online reach to engage publics with research which enhances religious ‘literacy’. A recent example of this is the AHRC-funded ‘Census Stories’ project, which used innovative storytelling techniques to engage people from Milton Keynes with data on demographic changes in religion and ethnicity in the UK. This is now a free public online course, which enables others to use the same approaches to understanding the complexities of religious and non-religious identities in their own localities. We are also set to continue our engagement with young people on religious diversity through the European Commission funded RETOPEA (Religious Toleration and Peace) project. An online ‘Badged Open Course’ will soon be released, designed for high-school teachers, youth workers and museum staff, which equips them to help young people make ‘docutubes’ – short ‘Vlog’ style documentaries – about religious diversity past and present. These are just some of the ways in which RS at the OU is providing world-leading and internationally excellent research-based resources for everyone interested in understanding and debating religion in many arenas.  

“Big, if true”: Belief in the subjunctive

In 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Ministry of Defence recruited a team of psychics to track down bin Laden’s alleged “Weapons of Mass Destruction” with remote viewing. According to recently declassified documents, the MoD literally borrowed the playbook on using remote viewing in military intelligence that the CIA had developed during the Cold War, as made famous by Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.

They didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction – but then, there weren’t any to find.

Two decades later, in the wake of shock populist election victories in the US and UK, and as COVID brought vaccination fears to the surface again, it is widely claimed that mis- and disinformation on social media is the root cause. People are being exposed unwittingly to “fake news” on the Internet, and this, it is claimed, is at the root of todays’ hyperpartisan and conspiratorial politics. Nevertheless, the empirical data is clear that the influence of online misinformation on political events is minimal.

What do these two examples have in common? A too-simple understanding of belief.

Our first reaction to the MoD employing psychics might be incredulity that such senior military figures could “believe in” remote viewing. But it is clear that the military’s position was agnosticif it could be done, it would confer a great military advantage. Given the comparatively low cost of a few experiments, then a few trials could be entirely justified – whether or not one entirely “believes”.

The connection between behaviour and belief becomes easier to understand when we see belief in the subjunctive. For example, my dad has severe rheumatoid arthritis that causes him chronic pain. He tried acupuncture when it was offered to him, and it didn’t matter if he believed it. It either worked, or it didn’t, and if it did, he’d keep using it.

At the same time, if we assume that someone sharing a conspiracy theory on Facebook means that that person fully believe it, then we will see our feeds as awash with irrationality. But the data is clear: engagement is not the same as accepting. In fact, most people will only accept things which fit their already-existing preconceptions. And while the Internet may be “methodologically convenient”, it is clear that offline networks and legacy media (especially that owned by Rupert Murdoch) drive behaviour more successfully.

Creator: Ted Eytan. Via https://mancunion.com/2021/01/12/opinion-the-republican-party-is-complicit-in-the-attack-on-capitol-hill/. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s a difficult shift to make, because the idea of belief is deeply engrained in the post-Protestant worldview. Belief – or its more specifically religious variant, faith – is central to how we think about religion. Indeed, in legal cases involving religious exemptions, such as this one, the question of whether a belief is “sincerely-held” can be pivotal (as I wrote about in a previous post). Yet, as our recent project on the census has shown, religious identities are complex, and beliefs are changeable, multiple and sometimes contradictory, and tied up with other aspects of our identity. And belief might not even be the reason you identify with a religion anyway.

In short, if we want to understand the connection between knowledge and social action, religious or otherwise, we need a more sophisticated model of belief. It’s harder to see things as black and white if we don’t see belief as an either/or binary.

Big, if true.

(Images © Crown Copyright/MOD 2022)

John Ogden (1941-2021) 

I went to the funeral of some friends’ father a few months ago. John Ogden was a good person. He was a giant of a man in humaneness, intelligence, and capacity; loved by his family and friends; and a lover of Manchester City (everyone has their blind spots…). He had a unique sense of humour which would easily have held its own with stand-up comics. If you spent time with John, you laughed, almost cathartically. His absence is going to be felt deeply, and by many, amongst his family and in the Christian congregation he helped lead over decades.  

John had been a leader in a church in Salford, northern England. The congregation was a Brethren assembly when John and his wife Gwyn joined in 1973. However, the church, like various other Brethren assemblies in places such as the UK, New Zealand (see Peter Lineham’s scholarly work) and Australia, became increasingly “charismatic” – as in emphasising the reality and power of the Holy Spirit – from the 1980s. There appears to be something about Brethren spirituality which seems to predispose a desire to seek the presence and embodied experience of God. John, with others, steered the congregation in a charismatic direction. In the 1990s, he and other leaders from Salford, and tens of thousands of others worldwide, visited a new global node for charismatic Christianity: the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. It was said that here was a new ‘move’ or ‘blessing’ of the Spirit, a distinctive experience of God’s love.   

The funeral included something I had never seen before. In 1960, John started to keep a reading diary. Every book he read, of whatever genre, was recorded. The long list of all these texts was placed on the wall of the chapel, for our interest.  

His reading tastes – over 1,700 books – were eclectic. Indeed, even the first two books on the list offer quite the juxtaposition: Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) and A. J. P. Taylor’s The Hapsburg Monarchy: 1980-1918 (1941).  The list revealed interests as wide-ranging as Christian theology and testimony, country music, military history, local Manchester and Salford history, the National Football League (NFL), Russian travel, and cricket. He covered impressive ground in modern novels. After retirement, in particular, he was a voracious reader. To see the list on display at the funeral was an insight into the interior life of a man – his intellectual and emotional formation – over many decades.  

For a historian of Christianity, the list is a unique, rare source. For nearly a decade, I have been researching charismatic, or ‘Spirit-filled’, media and networks. What does the list tell us? 

Certainly, it underlines it is all too easy to make straightforward assumptions about charismatic spirituality. John read, of course, classic charismatic and pentecostal texts. Indeed, from around 1987, like many other British Christians, he was devouring them: Dennis Bennett, Arthur Wallis, Derek Prince, Jamie Buckingham etc., all the luminaries of the charismatic renewal. But the list indicates also how textual influences on John’s spirituality varied and changed over time. From the 1990s, one of the most consistent spiritual influences in John’s reading life became the Puritan divines: Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, John Flavell, John Owen, and others. Indeed, outside of an academic theology department, you would struggle to find a Christian as well read in Puritan spirituality. (In the final months of John’s Life, he read the Puritans deeply, including, and movingly, Richard Sibbes Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled, Joseph Alleine’s A Sure Guide to Heaven and William Perkins’ A Salve for a Sick Man). In the 1990s, also, John was turning to the medieval mystics, Teresa of Avilla, Julian of Norwich, and others. At the end of the decade, numerous works by contemporary Catholic twentieth century contemplative and devotional writers, such as the American Trappist Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, appear. Spiritual influences were broadening and deepening.  

As a young undergraduate student in the late 1990s, I remember hearing John preach on the Old Testament book of Song of Songs. He read the text allegorically. The sermon was an articulate and heartfelt case for ‘spiritual union with Christ’. The congregation was at this stage impacted by the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church phenomenon, and I observed around me a collective eagerness to ‘soak’ in the love of God. John had visited Toronto: but who was John reading at this stage? The list reveals he was drawing on historic works on Song of Songs: the works of Madame Guyon and Bernard of Clairvoux and others. The jet-age meets medieval mysticism. 

What might John’s reading list tell a historian of Christianity? First, it hints at the diverse and complex lineages – for example, contemplative, mystic, Reformed and pentecostal – which have contributed to charismatic spirituality. These influences, of course, have varied markedly across church traditions and between individuals. The story of these individual Christians – the ‘thick detail’ of ordinary leaders and laity, rather than the ‘big names’ of the charismatic world – are a rich mine of information for understanding ‘Spirit-filled’ movements in their everyday context.  Second, to merely suggest that charismatics such as John were ‘revival-chasers’ (e.g. to Toronto), would be to overlook the significant, text-constructed, intellectual and experiential thought-world which could provide a spiritual framework, and which in John’s case was both consistent and extendable. Third, John’s patterns of devotion in reading point towards a much larger charismatic theme: of resourcement. While charismatic Christians will often emphasise the ‘new wine’ that God is offering – they are ‘presentist’ in this sense – they have, as John did in the 1990s, often referred to historic writings, the resources of the Christian tradition, the words of the Christian dead, to situate their experiences.  

A meta-theme of John Ogden’s spirituality was the idea of the Christian as ‘beloved’ (indeed, he would, tongue-in-cheek, refer to himself as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’). I suspect that through his reading, he became convinced that the ‘new thing’ of Toronto was an ‘old thing’ – a mystical experience of divine love within Christian spirituality. 

Dr John Maiden is the author of Age of the Spirit: Charismatic Renewal, the Anglo-world and Global Christianity, 1945-1980 (forthcoming from Oxford University Press). 

Decolonising Religious Studies and Promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Preliminary Findings  

 By Suzanne Newcombe 

Scholars have increasingly come to recognise that Religious Studies as a discipline is based on the legacies of a colonial worldview, i.e. that what we have classified as religious beliefs and practices have used criteria drawn from white Anglo-European Protestantism. Several members of our department have been leaders in forwarding this discussion within the discipline (e.g. Cotter and Robertson 2016). So, when it came time to design our new second year module here at the Open University, we chose to take a novel approach to Exploring Religions: Places, Practices, Texts and Experiences (A227), first presented in September 2017. Instead of introducing religions from the ‘top down’ – with an emphasis on institutional authority, official beliefs, and structures – we decided as a department to explore religion from be ‘bottom up’ – with an emphasis on what people do, practice and experience as religion (or non-religion) in different specific contexts. In this way, we hoped to challenge what is known as the ‘World Religion Paradigm’ which presents the most popular religious traditions in the world in ‘neat packages’ of the major beliefs, festivals and historical trajectories of institutionalised forms of religion. (A short introduction to our approach to Religious Studies as a subject area is here).  

But we also very much wanted our exploration of religion to be enjoyable, accessible, and relatable to our diverse student demographic. So many of our students are facing multiple challenges and demands on their attention while on their study journey. Many are working full-time – and some are studying at full-time intensity as well as having caring responsibilities at home. We also know that a higher-than-average percentage of students on A227 (38% this year) have declared one or more disabilities. 

Taken together, these issues raised two key questions for the department:  

  1. What challenges to students and staff may have been created in attempting to create a paradigm shift in understandings of ‘religion’ as a concept (in moving away from ‘World Religions’ towards ‘lived religion’)?  How can these challenges be better addressed?  
  2. (2) How can equality, diversity and inclusion be more effectively promoted in the curriculum? What challenges could this potentially pose for staff and students? How can these challenges be better addressed? 

To address these questions, we set up a research project, Decolonising Religious Studies. We first interviewed the Associate Lecturers teaching on A227: Exploring Religion, focusing on their impressions of the curriculum and the difficulties that their students reported. Next, we carried out a survey of all students of A227 (17J-20J) in June/July 2021 and held three focus group interviews with nine students in total. We asked them for their impressions of the module, including what we did well, and what we could do better. Finally, we talked with nine colleagues teaching Religious Studies in other UK-based institutions. We asked them, how do you understand Religious Studies as a subject area? What are the subject area’s biggest challenges? What is best practice for teaching and promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) within the subject area?  

We are just now starting to analyse the data from this project and will be publishing a full peer-reviewed article exploring the findings in more depth. However, we can give you some initial results of the research and some of the interventions we have already begun to try to improve our students’ experience.  

Our Associate Lecturers, many of whom taught on the previous module (A217: Introducing Religions) which was framed more within the World Religions Paradigm, had preferences for familiar ways of teaching and presenting the material. However, they were also coping with adaptation to new technologies with the disruption of all face-to-face teaching during the pandemic. All were working on trying to teach basic essay-writing skills and deal sympathetically with students’ personal challenges as well as teaching the course content. In response, team members Hugh Beattie and Paul-François Tremlett have set up regular online meetings between the Associate Lecturers and Central Academic colleagues to share best practice and new developments in Religious Studies as a field of study.   

We had a respectable 16% response rate from past and present students who we surveyed about their experience on A227. While most students found that the way the material was structured met their expectations, a significant minority of students didn’t feel that they were taught the content they expected to learn.  

To address expectations on A227, the A227 Module Team set up an expectation setting activity in the student forum in advance of the official module start date. In this activity we explained the World Religion Paradigm and why we are taking a different approach. This has significantly increased engagement in the early weeks of the module. Our focus groups also highlighted that there is no discussion of how religions understand disability – or visibility of people with disability – within the A227 material, an oversight that we will take into consideration in drafting new module material.  

Our interviews with nine external Religious Studies colleagues highlighted that Religious Studies as a subject is intimately bound up with decolonisation and EDI issues. All colleagues saw a need to explain and justify to colleagues and those outside the university environment why a critical study of religion was important. This was often understood in the context of a more general devaluing of the social sciences and humanities in the policy and media environments.  

There was a universal concern with best practice in teaching. Many colleagues were doing novel experiments in both teaching and assessment; applying these ideas in the unique environment of the OU will take some thought but is well worth considering. There was also a near-universal acknowledgement that undergraduate students underwent an important period of adjustment in which many aspects of their world are critically examined in a new way. This is a challenging experience that students need to be supported in. The dominant approach was usually a more explicit deconstruction of the world religious paradigm, while teaching within it to begin with at the same time as explaining how the concepts originated in specific historical contexts and have important political implications in the present day. The lived religion or a variety of thematic focuses usually followed this introduction on a structured three-year course specifically in Religious Studies.    

We hope that these insights, as well as our further analysis, will help ‘feed forward’ to making both A227 and new material currently being written for the Open University more effective and accessible for all students. Our human beliefs and practices have profound impacts on how we interact with shared global challenges such the climate crisis, the recent pandemic and our positions on war and peace. We want our students to leave our courses feeling more prepared to meet these challenges with confidence in their ability to approach new information and articulate their views in a critical and evidence-based manner.  

We wish to thank FASSTESTthe Open University’s Centre for Scholarship and Innovation(@OU_FASSTEST) for their help and support for projects No. 51 and 61 | Project Team: Hugh Beattie, John Maiden, Suzanne Newcombe, Maria Nita and Paul-François Tremlett. 

References  

Bryan, A. (2016). The sociology classroom as a pedagogical site of discomfort: Difficult knowledge and the emotional dynamics of teaching and learning. Irish Journal of Sociology, 24(1), 7–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/0791603516629463 

Decoloniality at Contending Modernities @ Notre Dame 

Barrett, J (2020) Critical Theory in World Religions: An experiment in Course (re)Design. Implicit Religion 23.3, 218-232. https://doi.org/10.1558/imre.43226  

Cotter, Christopher and Robertson, David, eds. (2016). After world religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. Religion in Culture: Studies in Social Contest and Construction. London: Routledge.  

Day, Lee, et al. (eds) (2022) Diversity, Inclusion, and Decolonization: Practical Tools for Improving Teaching, Research, and Scholarship. Bristol University Press.  

van Klinken, A. (2020) ‘Studying Religion in the Pluriversity: Decolonial Perspectives’ Religion, 50:1, 148-155, DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2019.1681108 

Lewin, D (2020) Reduction without Reductionism: Re-Imagining Religious Studies and Religious Education. Implicit Religion 23.3, 193–217. https://doi.org/10.1558/imre.43225  

Nye, M. (2019) Race and religion: postcolonial formations of power and whiteness. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 31(3), pp. 210-237. (doi: 10.1163/15700682-12341444) 

Nye, M. (2017) Some thoughts on the Decolonization of Religious Studies: postcolonialism, decoloniality, and the cultural study of religion.  

Eco-reflexivity in Extinction Rebellion’s Regenerative Culture

By Dr Maria Nita  

Although we are often told that late modernity is self-reflexive, and grounded in self-examination this reflexivity has been critiqued from many quarters for its “ouroboric” tendencies, or for not being grounded in social practiceIt is as though, with the advent of what Peter Berger called the ‘shrinkage’ of the sacred, or Max Weber called ‘disenchantment’, there were fewer and fewer vistas for sustained collective reflection—‘Sorry folks, all we have left is this small bottle of individual self-exploration leading to an intoxicating search for self-identity. It may look small, but it is bottomless…’ No wonder that only something as collectively sobering as the climate crisis could bring about the new ‘elusive virtue’ of ecological reflexivity, with its components of  ‘recognition, rethinking and response’ (Pickering 2019), or as Extinction Rebellion encapsulates it: ‘Act Now’. 

The 2018 reboot of the climate movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR), seems to have already accomplished the impossible by carrying through elements from the long 1960s transatlantic counterculture, to green millennials. When XR activists talk about REGEN—the regenerative culture project at the heart of XR—you can hear reverberated echoes of the alternative communes and free festivals, which seemed to have either become distant history or, may have been gestating inside new global transformative festivals (St John 2022; van den Ende 2022). Art and performance festivals had indeed preserved elements of the counterculture, but the protest spirit of the 1960s hippie culture had entered a dormant, performative, and memorialized phase (Nita and Gemie 2020). Sure, the so-called ‘long 1960s’ culture might be remembered and celebrated for two short weeks at Glastonbury or Burning Man, but could a new generation be living it out? 

REGEN (short for ‘regenerative culture’) recaptures the ethos of civil disobedience, artistic activism, and communalism of the early hippie communes which were anticipating and preparing themselves for a future world in deep crisis (Miller 1999). Take for example the four-minute clip below where an XR activist explains this new culture in the making. She describes REGEN as ‘the mycelium upon which XR relies for its nurturing a new society that is resilient and robust and can support us all through the changes we must inevitably face together’. REGEN helps us ‘reweave ourselves as part of a living eco-system’ through climate mindfulness, expressing grief, learning resilience, and experimenting with new types of self-care and communication practices—like ‘listening circles’, gatherings where people listen without directly responding to each other. Surely, these are practices of eco-reflexivity—but where are they coming from?  

XR Regen Culture Explained | April Griefsong | March 2019 | Extinction Rebellion UK – YouTube 

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Forget Worldviews: Manifesto for a Postmodern Religious Studies

The point of departure for this post is that the much-touted Worldviews paradigm (REC 2018) — in much the same fashion as the World Religion Paradigm — conceives of religions as substances and as containers to which can then be ascribed traits and qualities, into which can be poured particular collections of beliefs, practices, founders, texts and institutions. Such conceptions lead to stereotypes, clichés and essentialism, and hinder the cultivation of critical religious literacy.

An alternative is required and, as such, I propose conceiving religions broadly in terms of relations rather than as substances or containers, and specifically as assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 2014). An assemblage is a multiplicity of interconnected things. What would this approach mean for the study of Christianity?

In 1999–2000 I conducted fieldwork around Mount Banahaw in the Philippines. I was interested in religious groups and churches that had emerged amidst (i) complex historical encounters between Catholic and Protestant missionary activity in the context of Empire and revolution; (ii) gendered Southeast Asian conceptions of power and healing; and (iii), more recent post-colonial, nationalist, urban and diasporic imaginaries and networks.

Asymmetric interactions in Banahaw generated a religion called Rizalism, which was characterised by vernacular Biblical interpretation fused with local ontology, improvised monumental architecture, the configuration of José Rizal — a 19th century Filipino doctor and novelist executed by the Spanish colonial regime in 1896 and later elevated to the status of national hero — into a messianic personage and, with regard to the largest of the Rizalist churches in Banahaw the Ciudad Mistica de Dios — the building of a “city” that challenged the urban imaginaries of the Spanish and American colonial projects and the Philippines’ own urban modernity. The Rizalism assemblage, then, drew and related together a number of previously distinct elements to constitute a new religious formation.

A further example from the Philippines concerns El Shaddai, which is neither Catholic nor Protestant and is both local and global. El Shaddai is a Catholic charismatic-Pentecostal group that, through mass rallies, radio and television programmes, digital media and a mega-church complex, links various locales across the archipelago with Manila and numerous Pinoy diasporas in Asia, Europe and the Americas. If traditional Catholic religiosity in the Philippines is centred on the defined space of the parish church and mediated through the priest, El Shaddai generates a mediatised transmission chain that links together domestic spaces, virtual spaces and numerous locales with rallies and worship in Manila, by broadcasting the latter live on various media platforms. The El Shaddai assemblage, then, also combines, relates and connects a host of previously distinct elements and gives them a new form.

An ethnographic perspective on El Shaddai and the Rizalists of Mount Banahaw opens out the lived and improvised, do-it-yourself dimensions of these assemblages. Both have been generated through everyday combinations of previously distinct elements. An astronomer’s perspective makes visible how each of these assemblages has coalesced as a result of a series of asymmetrical, historical “generative interactions” (Tremlett 2021) between missionaries, technologies, landscapes and more. Combining these perspectives reveals complex processes of combination-relation-articulation by which different things arrive in each other’s orbit to become an assemblage and processes of disintegration-separation wherein those orbits are disturbed and the elements pulled apart, perhaps to decompose altogether, or to fall into the orbit of something else.

A postmodern Religious Studies interested in Christianity would begin with such groups because they demonstrate the existence not of a distinct, single worldview called Christianity but rather a diversity of christianities assembled across multiple scales of the social (local, national and global). Critical religious literacy does not reside in being able to reproduce the ideologically policed borders of Christianity as a single tradition, but in being able to analyse its interactions and relations with the different scales and dimensions of the social, using multiple lenses (see Moore 2010).

This post was originally published on Socrel’s blog at Medium: https://socrel.medium.com/forget-worldviews-manifesto-for-a-postmodern-religious-studies-85fbcf061b74. Reposted with permission and gratitude.

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Totem Latamat has retired 

By Graham Harvey 

In a previous blog I celebrated the journey of Totem Latamat across the UK. The Totem was carved from a single cedar tree, felled with appropriate ceremonies, in the forest of the municipality of Chumatlán near the east coast of Mexico, and travelled to the COP26 Climate Change talks in Glasgow.  

The artist, Jun Tiburcio, had been commission to carve Totem Latamat by Border Crossings, a UK company which organises the ORIGINS Festival of First Nations. Covid necessitated changes in the way the festival usually works. Rather than bringing Indigenous performers, speakers, chefs, films and art installations to the UK, Border Crossings presented – and continues to present throughout 2021 and into 2022 – online and onscreen events. But Totem Latamat was commissioned to deliver a message to the COP26. 

Having visited seven locations across England, and having been welcomed in a remarkable range of events involving local communities and national media, Totem Latamat arrived at The Hidden Gardens in Glasgow. This was also the base for the Minga Indigena – a Latin American Indigenous collective which has sent delegations and activists to many previous COPs. A ceremony to light a fire that burnt throughout the COP26 weeks included greetings to Totem Latamat. Latamat and the Minga Indigena were among the many works of art (working art) and communities presenting Indigenous experiences, expectations, encouragements and educative messages to the COP26 negotiators and the larger world.  

Latamat is in some ways a complex work of art. It includes a carving of an eagle, a woman, a snake, plants, cosmic beings, hummingbirds and more. Each element carries more than one meaning. You can hear Jun Tiburcio’s summary here. However, people who encountered Latamat have been encouraged to reflect on their own responses and interpretations. Border Crossings have posted some of these on social media. Without diminishing the complexity of Totem Latamat or precluding people from responding in their own ways, it might be suggested that the Totem’s message is simple. It can be summed up in three statements:  

  • Climate change demands urgent action because all species are being affected.  
  • If humans actively celebrated our place in the larger-than-human community we might take action more urgently.  
  • Indigenous people recognise human kinship with other species and put respect for “all our relations” at the heart of their efforts to live well.

Totem Latamat’s presentation of kinship, respectful relationships, the necessity of urgent action and the celebration of life has been seen in diverse locations and at COP26. Having done the work required, Totem Latamat has now retired. In a ceremony at the Crichton in Dumfries, the Totem’s journey was celebrated, the message was acknowledged, and the invitation to carry the message further was accepted.  

Totem Latamat was dramatically pulled over to lie on – and partly in – the ground. Rather than becoming a monument or museum piece, the Totem will decay gracefully. This was always part of the plan – and part of the gift from Jun Tiburcio and his Totonac community. Totem Latamat’s final resting and rotting also involve the return of carbon to the Earth – a gift from one land to another. A final vital message worthy of the end of journey to challenge carbon consumption and to celebrate the larger-than-human community.  

Three themes are of particular interest to me in relation to the Totem’s odyssey: cosmology, ceremony and conscience. Remembering that “Latamat” means “Life” in Jun Tiburcio’s Tutunakú language reinforces the visual recognition of all kinds of life in the carving. The world is here as a community of aquatic, aerial and terrestrial beings together making things happen, shaping reality, propelling evolution in their multi-species community. Many of us who met the Totem demonstrated our kinship with the world by small or large ceremonial acts. Without anyone saying “this is a good thing to do” many people touched the hands of the eagle warrior at the base of the Totem, palm to palm. The final laying down ceremony (much of which can be seen in the film below) extended these more spontaneous greetings into somewhat more dramatic acts. And Totem Latamat’s cosmology of kinship and invitation to do ceremony encourage an ethic of sharing and participation. In describing the Totem, Jun Tiburcio says that when people hear the message brought by hummingbirds (archetypal messengers in his culture), we are invited to carry the message further, becoming hummingbirds ourselves.

Pride in our past, Faith in our future: Fulneck and Fairfield

By James Rollo, PhD Candidate

The origins of the Moravians date back to the foundation of the Unity of Brethren in 1457 by Gregory, the Patriarch of the Moravian city of Kunwald. After years of persecution, the church re-emerged in 1722 with the establishment of the settlement (a planned community) at Herrnhut in Saxony on the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. Moravians from the Herrnhut community visited England in 1734, seeking permission to settle in the American colonies. There was, however, great interest in the Moravian Church in England, and the first English congregation was established at Fetter Lane London in 1742. The settlement at Fulneck was the first in England – the land was acquired in 1743 and the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1746 – while Fairfield was the last with the foundation stone laid in 1784.

These two sites are integral to my fieldwork for my PhD thesis on Contemporary Moravian identity in historical perspective. Combining archival research and contemporary fieldwork at these two Moravian settlements in England, my thesis examines contemporary notions of Moravian identity and tradition from a historical perspective. I investigate how members of these settlements view the history of their church and its relevance to them now. Open Days were cancelled during the pandemic in 2020, but they are now back on track, and I have finally been able to visit the settlements again. They are of a similar size: Fulneck has ninety-eight residents and Fairfield one hundred and six. Fulneck is built on a hill, its orientation is linear. It consists of a single one-way road running parallel to the buildings and a lower-level cobbled walkway. Rather than a single road, the settlement at Fairfield contains three in the form of a capital F, rotated ninety degrees.

Fulneck – The Terrace South Side (Jim Rollo 18/09/2021)

Fulneck Church and The Terrace North Side (Jim Rollo 31/07/2021)

Heritage Days were held in Fairfield on 12th September (though more toned-down than pre-Covid) and in Fulneck on the 18th of September 2021. These Open Days gave the residents of the two settlements the chance to present to the public the importance of their history and heritage, the things that matter to them, their public facing identity. Both settlements offered similar programs with guided tours of the settlements, and opened their doors to both their museums and churches. Fulneck church had an exhibition on the theme of food and the self-sufficiency of the settlement, while at Fairfield, there were presentations about the history of the Moravian Church and the development of the settlement.

Plan of Fairfield (Historic England, 1966)

Fairfield Square East Side (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

What then do these Open Days tell the visitor about the way contemporary Moravians present themselves to the public? Common themes of the settlement tours and of the exhibits included the importance placed on a sense of community and heritage, and residents’ pride in and identification with the settlements and their history. However, the onsite museums also reflect differences between the two settlements in their approach to history. The museum at Fulneck is the older of the two. Opened in July 1969, it is titled a ‘museum of local history’ and is very much focused on the history of life in the settlement. Fairfield, on the other hand, juxtaposes 18th century Moravian practices of worship with 21st Century worship, showing continuity and development, rather than dwelling on past traditions.  The comparison between ‘then and now’ is a theme that runs throughout all of the Fairfield museums’ exhibits. The ‘now’ stands out most with the display of how Fairfield is used in television and film the most recent being the TV series Peaky Blinders and the film Mrs Lowry and Her Son.

Stills from Mrs Lowry and her son (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

Of course, the desire to use Fairfield in period film is also due to the settlement being unspoilt and grade two listed, without satellite dishes and other modern-day clutter. However, it also says something about the community’s pride in the picturesque location of their settlement that they want to share. Furthermore, this represents an interesting contrast: on the one hand, the fact that the Fairfield community allows TV / film crews to use their settlement as a backdrop reflects a willingness to embrace modern technology, while on the other, it maintains the old-world image of the settlement itself.

While their history and heritage form a part of their identity, it is important to remember that these are active living religious communities today. As both the guides to the tours pointed out, there is so much happening in the settlements, both secular and religious, it is very difficult for the residents to not become actively involved in community life.

Sinking House, Bath, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Materialising Climate Concern and Activism

By Marion Bowman

Below the iconic Pulteney Bridge in the centre of Bath there is currently a striking installation, Sinking House by artist Anna Gillespie. As nearby signs explain, ‘Sinking House is a message of warning, and hope, to communities across the world – including leaders gathering at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) – to address the issues, reach for lifelines and act now against the intensifying threat of climate change’. This is just one example of a flurry of contemporary COP26 related creativity I’ve been following in recent weeks.

There will be lots of material culture on display both during and after COP26. I am fascinated by material culture, and what lies behind and goes into the construction of artefacts, for as folklorist Henry Glassie points out, ‘we live in material culture, depend upon it, take it for granted, and realise through it our grandest aspirations’. We make, use, gift, look at and interact with objects to express relationality with other humans (living, dead and future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us. This is highly relevant as we contemplate what we’ve done to the planet and what needs to be done now.

In relation to environmental crises generally, and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) to be held in Glasgow 31 October–12 November 2021 specifically, numerous artists and other creative practitioners have been ‘materialising’ the global concerns raised by climate change and the need for urgent action. Here I’m drawing attention to just a few of the ways in which increasing numbers of people have become involved in acts of material creative activity of various types, as through material culture they seek to express their concerns, demand change and raise awareness of the pressing issues facing the world. From individual creations to nationwide and international collaborative projects, people are finding ways to provoke thought, and to give expression to their anger, fears and determination.  As one crafter put it, it’s about making something to make a difference.

Stormy Seas

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine.

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine. Photograph courtesy of Scottish Maritime Museum.

Environmental concerns and climate awareness are of course triggered and expressed through a variety of media. The broadcast of the BBC programme Blue Planet II in 2017, highlighting the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, is credited with an extraordinary rise in environmental awareness and practical responses in relation to the plastic problem; the proprietor of an open-air fruit and vegetable stall in Bath, for example, very directly dates the upsurge in popularity of his business and people’s desire not to have pre-packaged produce to that programme. Such triggers have significant outcomes if they can help move people beyond the despair of what is happening to thinking about practical means through which they can address issues.

A deliberately striking, creative response to the problem of pollution and climate change was the creation of STORM, a ten-metre tall ‘goddess of the sea’ made from recycled materials, the creation of Symon Macintyre/ Vision Mechanics. STORM first appeared for the launch of Scotland’s official year of Coasts and Waters 2020/2021, and after Covid restrictions STORM has been out and about again throughout Scotland, being the focal point in October of a ‘Storm Walk’ from Irvine Beach Park to the Scottish Maritime Museum there, after a ‘Community Clean Up’. Works of art such as this raise awareness and create temporary ‘ambient activism’ in a variety of locations, arresting the attention of both participants and bystanders. The Scottish Maritime Museum is also hosting Climate Change Activism: Protest Posters Workshop for both the 12-15 and 16+ age groups at the end of COP26, to encourage ongoing grass roots creativity and involvement.

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021.  Photograph Marion Bowman. 

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Among many other artistic responses to the plastics problems are artworks by artist Kurt Jackson, who in 2016 produced Mermaids’ Tears, the title referring to an alternative name for nurdles, the tiny plastic pellets which wash up on shores in their billions. Although the original painting was sold as a fundraiser for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), in 2021 ahead of COP26 Jackson approached the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh to suggest working with the famous tapestry studio to create a textile rendition of Mermaids’ Tears. This artwork was executed in collaboration with Dovecot weaver Louise Trotter, and forms the focal point of an exhibition running from October 2021 to February 2022 at Dovecote, alongside other awareness raising collage works by Jackson which feature painted sea and beachscapes, with washed up debris incorporated.

However, in addition to the responses of professional artists and craftspersons, the environmental crisis and COP26 have inspired many others to make something to make a difference.

‘Mass-craftivism’ and Crafting Quakers

One undoubted side effect of the Covid 19 lockdowns has been the huge increase in people participating in, rediscovering or taking up craft activities like knitting, sewing, crochet and quilting, as for many the lockdowns opened up time for such pursuits. The Stiches for Survival initiative, for example, describes itself as ‘Mass-craftivism to put the Earth centre-stage at COP26’, a mass participation project whereby assorted crafters are knitting, crocheting, stitching, and crafting in assorted ways panels to make up a 1.5 mile-long ‘scarf’ (representing the 1.5°C target in the Paris Agreement) of climate messages addressed to the COP26 negotiators. After being displayed at Glasgow Green during COP26, the plan is for the scarf to be creatively repurposed into blankets for refugees and other communities who need them, though with some sections being kept for an exhibition and further use in campaigning.

Ballot Paper, textile panel on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Ballot Paper, textile panel. The Loving Earth Project, Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, have long been involved in campaigns and practical activism in relation to peace and social justice issues.  The Quaker Arts Network’s Loving Earth Project is centred around asking people to address three big questions:

  • How does the climate crisis threaten places, people and other things you love?
  • What action is needed to reduce the risk of harm?
  • How are you helping to make this happen?
Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

 

As the project’s website explains, the idea is to help people engage creatively with these questions, without being overwhelmed, using a range of creative, contemplative and sharing activities. Inviting people to create a 30cm x 30cm textile panel illustrating their responses to these questions, and writing a short account of the panel theme and what actions people are taking personally, has produced enthusiastic, imaginative and visually stimulating responses. Over 400 panels have been sent in already, and many with accompanying texts are displayed on the project website gallery. During COP26 there will be six displays of Loving Earth panels in and around Glasgow, with textile workshops at the larger venues. Over 20 displays of groups of panels have been held already, and more will appear in venues around the UK following COP26 (for information on exhibition venues, see here).

Linda Murgatroyd of the Quaker Arts Network told me:

‘It’s been so exciting and touching to see how the project has been helping people take positive and joyful steps towards greater sustainability. Our online conversations have sometimes been very powerful, especially as we make connections with people in different parts of the world and hear what’s happening there. There are huge issues we all have to face, and so far most of our politicians are reluctant to take the actions recommended by scientists.  But everyone can do something if we choose to, though we may need help to work out what.‘

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

I visited the Loving Earth Project Exhibition which will run until January 2022 at The Scottish Maritime Museum, Dumbarton branch. Explaining her enthusiasm for the project, Nicola Scott, Exhibition and Events Officer, Scottish Maritime Museum, said

‘I was really happy to host the exhibition as I liked that it was a community project. The nature of community projects, although the panels are made individually, is the idea of collaboration and coming together for one purpose. I think this sentiment is very important in terms of climate change and improving the conditions of the environment. The exhibition encourages people to get involved and the additional funding we got from Museum Galleries Scotland allowed us run workshops for people to make their own Loving Earth Project Panel. I know these sessions were important to the Loving Earth Project organisers as the purpose is to let people meditate over the issues of climate change without it overwhelming them and also discuss positive change that can be made with others who attend the sessions. It was a great atmosphere that fostered creativity, discussion and a sense of community.’

Like Stitches for Survival, the Loving Earth Project has encouraged and enabled people to ‘materialise’ a range of emotions and experiences, and in doing so to reflect and discuss with others the major issues to be addressed at COP26 and beyond.

Getting the Message

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

A final example of material culture to look out for at COP26 – and one that will be very evident in the next couple of weeks – is the banner. Materially expressing allegiances and protest through banners is a well-established tradition, from religious and trades union processions to Ban the Bomb demonstrations, the Greenham Common Peace Camp and Extinction Rebellion events. My neighbour in Bath, Lin Patterson, is a Quaker and veteran climate activist. She attended the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009, for which she made a banner. Intending to be in Glasgow for COP26, and realising that one side was blank, Lin decided to ‘populate’ it further for COP26. Lin made an appeal for messages through the Quaker publication The Friend:

‘This is an invitation to all UK Friends to send brief messages from the heart to be written onto a large, (8 1/2′), Quaker banner going to COP26. This banner was carried in the streets of Copenhagen during the Climate Summit of 2009, with letters infilled with messages from all over the UK. The reverse of the banner shows the same outline letters, but with empty space, awaiting your message for COP26 addressed to leaders, negotiators, and the world.’

Initially concerned that she might not have enough messages to fill the letters, responses came from all over the UK and messages overspilled from the outlines of the letters.  The banner was sent off ahead of COP26 to the Quakers in Glasgow, who will be able to use and display it ahead of Lin’s arrival in time for the march on 6 November.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

As Lin engaged with contributors, she realised that the opportunity to have their message displayed on the banner in Glasgow was both significant and moving.  Through their messages, by means of the banner, people were going to be vicariously present at the demonstrations around COP26 – just as the many contributors to Stitches for Survival and the Loving Earth Project will be materially contributing to this momentous event. While banners will be used primarily to protest, send direct messages and express identities at COP26, banners like Lin’s and many of the textile pieces are also using material culture to express relationality with other humans (particularly future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us.

From ‘citizen crafters’ to professional creatives, the material culture of climate protest, activism and consciousness raising will play an important part in COP26 – and their creators hope they will continue to make a difference in the months and years to come.

Marion Bowman will be in conversation with Lin about her banner and experiences at COP26 during our online conference on 19 November, Eco-creativity 2021: Art, Music, Ritual and Global Climate Politics | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (open.ac.uk)

Promoting Better Public Understanding of Religion and Worldviews

By Suzanne Newcombe

Religion is an area of great contention. Media – both ‘social’ or traditional – seeks to gain attention by tantalising lines which inflame our passions and tug on our heartstrings. What better for the media to grab our attention, than by drawing attention some of the most deeply felt aspects of our identity and sense of connection with others. Yet identification with traditional, institutionalised religion is fading from public declarations of identity in Britain (see our new OpenLearn course Census Stories for more on this).

As we grapple with how we fit together as a society – what are our shared values and connective rituals? – beliefs continue to grab headlines, drive our behaviour and spark our anxieties.  On a global scale, religious identity continues to be an important element of facing shared global challenges of climate change, migration, and the growing inequalities in health and wealth.  The scale of these challenges means that accurate and sensitive discussions of religion – the beliefs and practices which shape our values and sense of identity – is as important and relevant as ever.

The vision for this project came from the realisation that there is a lot of excellent, but largely under-coordinated and under-resourced work seeking to improve the public discussions around a critical religious literacy. Improving public understanding about the nature of religion and belief, as well as ensuring information about these human practices is accurately conveyed in public discourse, needs a multi-pronged approach. Transforming public understandings requires greater coordination between school-level teachers of Religious Education, university-level educators in the Study of Religion, the media, civil servants and policy makers.

In the summer of 2020, the Open University’s Religious Studies Department and Inform held a virtual roundtable to solidify networks between the many passionate and committed actors trying to improve public understandings about religion and how it needs to be considered in communications for facing many social challenges involving health, security and education.  The Faith and Belief Form shared its specific expertise in promoting community cohesion and promoting strong, productive and positive relations between people of different faiths and no-faith. Also in attendance was the CEO of Culham St Gabriel’s charity; Culham was in the process of strengthening its strategic commitment to promoting the Religious Education Council’s report on Religion and Worldviews (2018). Together with Inform’s commitment to promoting accurate information about minority religions and agile social scientific research team, and the Open University’s commitment to educating wider publics through its unique nationwide, online platforms – the Religion and Worldviews project was collaboratively initiated.

We are almost half-way into this project now. The first output was a ‘Baseline Report’ which provides an overview of the existing reports relative to both Religious Education (RE) and to the perception of religion in public life more generally.  This report has raised a number of key questions about public perceptions of the Study of Religion as a subject. Meanwhile primary research by Inform on perceptions of religious education at British schools by current University Students as well as an independent general population survey commissioned by Culham’s in the summer of 2021, provides valuable evidence that many people find much of value in school-level Religious Education.

We are in the middle of the project and are currently seeking to better understand to what extent Religion and Worldviews proposal might be able to provide a coherent way forward for religious education at school level in England – and what the barriers are toward finding consensus around a more shared vision of the study of religion in schools. This autumn, led by the Faith and Belief Forum, the project is holding a number of focus groups with community groups, SACRES, educational leaders, parents and those who have influence on educational policy to try to determine the barriers to implementing a more vibrant and coherent approach to religious education that is fit for purpose in our contemporary world. The eventual outputs of the project will be a series of resources to help school leaders, civil servants, parents and others ‘outside the classroom’ better articulate a coherent vision of Religion and Worldviews as a way forward for best addressing the variety of competing needs around religious education at this time.  Our Resources Packs should be ready in the summer of 2022.

With the diverse competing interests of religious and secular beliefs and practices, it is hard to achieve consensus on a shared coherent vision for religious education. Yet the need is great. Religious and non-religious beliefs will continue to inform the frameworks of public debate as we move to face the shared global challenges of coping with inequalities of wealth and health as well as the effects of climate change.

It is hoped that this project will help coalesce a better consensus around Religion and Worldviews as being a container which can move largely shared agendas forward. Religious actors as well as university and school-level educators passionately believe in the importance of accurate and sensitive understandings of religious and secular worldviews being presented in public discourse. Alongside other partners, this project hopes to drive this broadly shared agenda forward.