Category Archives: events

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.

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)

Returning to Earth | Climate Change, COP26 and Indigenous Voices

 By Graham Harvey 

We are now less than a month away from the UK’s hosting of 26th UN Climate Change “Conference of the Parties” (COP26). The OU’s OpenLearn site is presenting free learning resources about climate change from different disciplinary perspectives and how that knowledge and experience may explain and inform the outcomes of COP26. Those outcomes are impossible to predict. Some people remain hopeful that global transformative action will be agreed on – and actually implemented this time. Others remain doubtful that COP26 will result in their ideal future of ecological and social justice and wellbeing.  

The magnitude of the challenges and threats facing Earth’s life are impossible to exaggerate. The latest scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sets matters out clearly – and is refreshingly forthright in its insistence that urgent action is needed from governments and others. It is also refreshing in not putting the burden of “saving the planet” on individuals alone.  

There are myriad religious voices addressing the issues. Too many to note here. And too varied to summarise. But there is certainly plenty for a student of religion to research, consider and discuss.  

My interest in Indigenous ceremonies, festivals and performance cultures has led me to collaborate with the Border Crossings intercultural theatre company. In particular, I’m intrigued by the ORIGINS Festival of First Nations which they organise and host every two years in London. They usually bring Indigenous artists, performers, speakers, films and even chefs to London to engage audiences in venues across the city. The COVID pandemic has made the 2021 Festival different: it involves more online events and will continue throughout the year and into 2022.  

However, the 2021 ORIGINS Festival is not all online. Right now, an impressive “totem” (a carved and decorated presentation of the kinship between humans and other species) is travelling across the UK. (You can follow the totem’s journey here.) The totem is called “Latamat” (“Life”) and was carved in Mexico by Jun Tiburcio – a Totonac multi-media artist – specifically to take a message to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. A succinct version of the message is that because all life is related we have responsibilities to live respectfully, to the benefit of all our kin, of whatever species. Jun Tiburcio’s eloquence about totem Latamat expands on that theme and emphasises the urgency of the message. After COP26, totem Latamat will be ceremonially returned to earth at the Crichton near Dumfries. Here, Tiburcio describes the totem’s elements:

 

Totem Latamat is one intervention into discussions about climate and environmental concerns. It is distinctive because it comes from an Indigenous artist and his community. It is not only that people like Jun Tiburcio and his Totonac community have interesting ideas about the world and life. They are also among those most immediately and devastatingly being affected by climate change. One example of this is the damage done to Totonac homes and homeland by a hurricane made extreme as a result of climate change.  

My contribution to the OU’s OpenLearn COP26 Hub says more about Totem Latamat. It ends with the thought that the totem is an encouragement to celebrate life. This encouragement is not unique to Indigenous people – although it is a core theme in Indigenous conversations and ceremonies. It is something that many religious and non-religious people can share. What makes it important now is that it stands in stark contrast to the depressing news of disasters and of the magnitude of the threats facing life. These tend to demotivate people. Encouragement to celebrate our relations and our place in the living community might inspire the urgent actions that will be discussed at COP26.   

Football, lived religion and public piety

By John Maiden

Last weekend, in the wake of Euro 2021, there was an interesting article by Julian Coman in the Observer concerning the England and Premiership football stars Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling. For those of you who don’t follow football (by which I mean ‘soccer’) – and I will resist the temptation to say ‘or have been asleep for the last month’ – these three players helped drive the English football team all the way to the incredible achievement of the final of the tournament, the nation’s first since 1966. The article headline made a further observation: that Rashford, Saka, Sterling and others ‘blaze a trail for black British Christians’.

Coman’s piece sent me off on a couple of thought pathways. First, about the timeliness of the article. Prayers and symbolic gestures (e.g. hands pointing to the sky) seem to me increasingly common in English Premiership football. This is not just about black British footballers who may have a background in ‘black majority churches’ (BMCs) – it is also Catholic and Orthodox footballers (e.g. performing the sign of the cross) of various nationalities and ethnicities, and also Muslims, for example Paul Pogba (of my beloved Manchester United) and Mohamed Salah (great player, shame about his club…).

Such displays of religious piety in the top-flight of English football are not new. I can remember watching Manchester United from the Stretford Paddock as a teenager and noticing a few players, some British but often those of visiting Italian and Polish clubs, signing the cross. However, anecdotally, I would say that in the last 10-15 years the frequency and visibility of these personal, ‘lived’ religious rituals on the pitch has grown markedly.

One might conjecture (as does Coman) that the Premier League’s explosion of wealth, and the number of African and South American players who have signed for English teams. These have included pentecostals, Catholics and Muslims, whose personal rituals have made piety more common place and ‘acceptable’ in football subculture. If so, perhaps a knock-on effect has been that British footballers with religious backgrounds are inspired or emboldened to express individual devotion on the field of play. Whatever the factors involved, my point is that in our celebrity and sports-driven culture, it is probably footballers who offer the most high-profile manifestation of religious practice and belief in British public life. An estimated 31 million people watched the Euro 2021 final in the UK; but millions also watch the Premier League and all the various domestic and European knock-out tournaments every week. As well as watching these players’ goals, tackles and saves, we are observing their everyday religion.

I want to stress again that none of the above is based on hard data, but rather my own subjective observations. However, more concretely the Coman article got me thinking about my research on the construction of wider public perceptions of Black Christianity – and specifically the black majority churches – in Britain. I have recently published on this in an article for Twentieth Century British History. I can’t rehearse the argument fully in a blog post, but the basic point is that in the post-war period, the press and the leaders of historic mainline churches in Britain were very slow to pay serious attention to the BMCs and their impact on the urban religious landscape. At the end of the 1970s, many white liberal Christians and commentators still tended to think of black majority churches as ‘ghetto congregations’.

However, around this time, with the growing assertion of Black consciousness amongst church leaders, and the efforts of a minority of white Christians to adopt a non-paternalistic attitude towards these congregations, an alternative narrative began to emerge – of BMCs raising the possibility of resacralisation in a social context of rapid secularisation. As the radical theologian Trevor Beeson wrote in The Guardian in 1979, “in these African and West Indian churches lies the best hope of re-Christianizing the British nation and in helping the weary churches of these islands to re-discover the true character of Christian faith and worship.”

With the coming of multiculturalism in public policy, increasingly BMCs were thought of as institutions providing community leadership, organisation and social capital (see for example, the BBC documentary ‘Life and death the Pentecostal way’). The Coman article contributes also to this evolving narrative. Media and academic representation of BMCs in the 1960s and 1970s tended to depict embattled, insular congregations. Now Black Christian traditions are described as being about ‘the embodiment of faith, how you live out what you say in a Sunday service.’ As footballers are increasingly thought to offer moral leadership in civil society, due attention needs to be given to the religious influences which have shaped them.

Census Stories | Bringing Life to the Big Numbers

By Suzanne Newcombe 

Sunday 21 March 2021 was Census Day – your household will have received a unique access code for you to fill out your census details. While this is the first time the census has been done fully online, the first census of England, Wales and Scotland was in 1801 and it has been conducted decennially (every ten years) since then. The repeating of the same questions every ten years – determining who lives in the country, how many people and some basic facts about them – has become essential for forward planning of social services, determining allocation of resources, and, over time, for researching family history and understanding change over time. While these big numbers are essential for understanding major changes and transformations of society, they do not capture the rich contradictions and experiences of a lived life – what those categories of identity, place, belief and belonging mean for the people who ticked the boxes.  

The Religious Studies Department at the Open University has embarked on a UKRI funded project to elicit stories from diverse residents of Milton Keynes on themes of identity, place and belonging in response to the census questions. Through the facilitation of the professional storyteller Dominic Kelly, local residents will respond to this data and co-create a series of stories. We will use the stories elicited from local residents to create classroom resources and an Open Learn online course which will help teach about the significance of census data for measuring changes in society – and what the ‘big data’ actually looks liked from the perspective of the people who ‘are’ the statistics. You can see the official announcement at https://ahrc.ukri.org/research/readwatchlisten/features/public-engagement-with-the-census-research/ 

Place of birth, age and current employment have long been essential questions on the census, recording the movement of people across Britain and increasingly the world. However, questions around ‘ethnicity’ were not included in the census until 1991 – prior to this point a place of birth in the Commonwealth was used as a proxy for ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ populations. The changes to how these questions have been phrased and their increasing relevance for policy decisions can help us trace the development of a category of identity as well as the movements of political concerns.

“1901 Census UK showing Farquharson and Benningfield Families in Hoddesdon, Herts.x” by Miranda Hine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Questions about religious identification have only been on the census since 2001 – and perhaps the most dramatic change in this period is the rapid increase of people willing to identify as having ‘no religion’ (shifting from 15% in 2001 to 27.9% in 2011 for England and Wales). But the ability to write-in religious affiliation on the census has been successfully used my many smaller minority groups to lobby for better acknowledgement in local and national provisions – including pagans, SikhsValmikis and Humanists, amongst others.  

Better understanding the complex kaleidoscope of affiliations, beliefs and practices people draw upon to face complex global challenges (like the current pandemic) is part of the core mission of our department to promote the understanding of contemporary religion in historical perspective. We’ll update you about the outputs and project in our social media feeds as the project progresses this Spring.  

Looking Back at 50 Years as an RS Tutor

By Jeff Horner

Image: Jeff (central, sideways) at his socially-distanced farewell gathering.

As I retire after 50 years as an AL in Religious Studies at the Open University, I have been asked to write something about what it was like in the early days. I can talk only of modules I have taught, of course; I never taught at Level 3.

I was appointed as tutor in November 1970, and the first courses started in February 1971. My first course (they were called courses, not modules, then) was A100. It had a small piece of RS—two weeks looking at Mark’s Gospel. I remember the word “pericope” figured prominently! So, this was a bit like the sort of thing I had studied in my first degree in Theology. I think there was an assignment on Mark’s gospel, but I am not certain about that. And certainly, RS did not figure in the exam at the end of the module, nor (at least in any major way) in the programme for the Summer School. (All students—nearly—then went for a week’s residential study at Bath, Keele, Stirling…) However, in a later Level 1 module (A102, I think,) religion played a big part in the study of Mid-Victorian Britain, and students generally loved that, particularly at Summer School.

In 1972, I started teaching A201 Renaissance and Reformation as well. There was a four-week block on the Reformation—Luther, Calvin, etc. My theology degree came in useful again! A201 was one of the best courses the Arts faculty ever produced, and the students loved it. In the exam, students did an inter-disciplinary question, and then (I think) two out of six options, one being the Reformation. The course team obviously thought ‘No-one is religious’; so they appointed teams of three or four markers for the other questions, but for the Reformation question they only appointed me. Out of 600 students taking the exam, 396 did the Reformation question. So much for making assumptions about students!

The first ‘proper’ RS course started in 1978—AD208 Man’s Religious Quest (no thought of gender bias then). It included an introduction to different approaches to studying religion, sociology of religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, African religion, Greek and Roman religion, Zoroastrianism, secular alternatives to religion, and “inter-religious encounter”. It was hard (I thought it was more like a Level 3 course than Level 2), but it included the opportunity to visit places of worship and that really brought it to life for many students. The students nearly all loved it and as I remember drop-out was very low. Many students talked about how it changed their perceptions, and in either the first or second year one student decamped to India to live in an ashram. I have no idea whether she ever came back!

After AD208 came three modules: A228 The Religious Quest (not so sexist)—a 30-point module, basically half of AD208, covering six world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam)—followed by A213 and A217. These last two continued the same approach, studying the beliefs and practices of six religions, but with some extra themes. Incidentally, A217 had 7 TMAs, five of which were on five of the religions, but not Sikhism, which was a large part of the exam.

I taught two other modules, both 30 points. A231 (30 points) looked at religious diversity in Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Most students liked it, but it did not have large numbers and was not replaced at the end of its life. The other was AD252, Islam in the West. It was quite hard, but it appealed to quite a number of Muslim students and was generally liked. However, it ran only for four years and was also not replaced.

Numbers started high on the 60 point modules. I think on AD208 there were three groups in Region 08 (the North West), but by the end of A217 there was just one. And when A227 started I was the tutor for the North West and Yorkshire. It has become much more common for people to drop out than in the early days. I am not sure why this is, but I am pretty certain it is not the content of the modules that puts people off, though I will come back to that in a minute. I think the nature of our student body has changed a lot. For the first twenty years or so the OU was very much a ‘second chance’ university. Our students were largely people who had missed out on university in their teens, and were doing it partly out of interest and partly to prove to themselves that they were capable. For more of our students now the motivation is much more to do with career development, and that means that minority subjects find it more difficult to attract students. As to the higher drop-out, I am not really sure, I think the reasons must be complex and varied, but one factor is surely that there are so many more demands now on students’ time that OU study quite often has to be put on the back burner for a while.

I said I would come back to the content of the modules. Up until three years ago, all the Level 2 60 point modules were ‘world religions’ courses. The presentation differed but the content was largely similar. Many people (I was not one of them) came to see that as rather limited. So with A227 we have moved to a ‘lived religion’ approach. In my experience most students enjoy the module, but many say to me that it was not what they expected. They use different words for these expectations (‘theology’ or whatever) but a lot of them were expecting something like A217. In the past we had ‘Conditional Registration’ events. It was one of my favourite evenings each year. As tutor counsellor (don’t ask!) I would invite all my students (roughly 50, at all levels) to an evening at a study centre to look at course materials and discuss choices. So I could say to one student considering a module, ’Go and talk to Gladys – she did it last year’. There is far less chance to do that now, so I think it is more likely students will arrive expecting something other than they are going to get.

As regards A227, I have just discovered the OU’s ‘Why Religion Matters’ course on FutureLearn. It is short, so obviously has limitations, but it is a good way of starting to understand the approach on A227. I think all potential students should be encouraged to take it (it is free). Indeed, there are arguments for making it compulsory, though no doubt that would create lots of administrative problems.

Thanks for putting up with me while I have wandered down memory lane. I have loved almost every minute of the last fifty years.

Graham Harvey on Davi Kopenawa at Oxford University

By Graham Harvey

Recently, at the invitation of Laura Rival, Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, I was privileged to join in a roundtable discussion with an Amazonian shaman, anthropologists, physicists, an ethnographic film maker, an international development scholar, a linguist and a vice-president of Oxford University’s student union. We met at the Maison Française d’Oxford to discuss “art, science and diplomacy for a plural world on a challenged planet”. Like most of the audience, the panellists were most eager to hear what the shaman, Indigenous diplomat and scholar, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, had to say.

Davi Kopenawa is a co-author (with Bruce Albert) of The Falling Sky (2013) and an eloquent representative of his people, the Yanomami, and of other Amazonian Indigenous nations. His homeland (crossing the borders of what is now Brazil and Venesuela) has been invaded with appalling violence and destruction. Incursions by white people began in the early twentieth century and intensified in the 1970s. Diseases to which Yanomami had no immunity swept through villages throughout the forest. Deliberate acts of attempted genocide by gold miners and murderous assaults by loggers and others were accompanied by cultural assaults by Christian missionaries and functionaries of the settler states who sought to “pacify” Indigenous peoples.

The current Brazilian regime is encouraging a new wave of extractivism which is destroying forest ecosystems and communities. In a recent move, Brazil has appointed an evangelical Christian missionary to target remote Indigenous communities for greater integration and assimilation. This is the context for Davi Kopenawa’s visit to the UK and for the roundtable in Oxford. He had joined other Amazonian leaders, including his son, Dario, in presenting a petition calling on the prime minister to condemn recent actions by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro.

At our event in Oxford I was privileged to speak first after the introductions. In addition to offering Davi Kopenawa and Dario gifts from my homeland, I acknowledged the great influence Davi has had on scholars in a variety of disciplines internationally. His presentation of Yanomami knowledges has been inspirational for anthropologists, sociologists, scholars of religion and others involved in the “ontological turn”, seeking to understand how people relate to the world. In particular Davi’s scholarship has encouraged a rethinking of the “culture/nature” distinction which structures so much of modern Western thought and life (including the separation of “natural sciences” from “social sciences” and “humanities”). He has reinforced an emphasis on relationality – which was addressed by the theoretical and quantum physicists on the panel as they spoke about the vital importance of attending to interactions rather than to seemingly discrete particles and other objects. In this context it is almost incidental that Davi has provided exciting new perspectives on shamanism and forest ecologies. It seems remarkable that this was the first time Davi Kopenawa had been invited to speak and engage with academics in Europe. I am honoured to have been part of that gathering.

 

12th International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Podkarpackie Province, Poland

By sr Katarzyna Kowalska NDS (PhD Candidate, Religious Studies)

Thanks to the efforts of Prof. Waclaw Wierzbieniec and the Jewish History and Culture Department of University of Rzeszów’s Institute of History, with the support of local authorities and institutions, over 30 towns of the Podkarpackie Province honoured the 12th International Holocaust Remembrance Day with commemoration ceremonies that took place between 2nd January and 22 Feburary 2020. These days are unique and unmatched by any other region, as they are often organised by grass-root level organisations and initiatives in various institutions such as schools, town halls, cultural centres, parishes, village administrators etc, which get involved in the annual ceremonies’ organization.

Sr Anna Bodzinska NDS and Sr Katarzyna Kowalska NDS (born in the region) participated in commemorating events in various towns and villages: Rzeszów, Przemyśl, Leżańsk, Gniewczyna Leżańska, Dynów, Tyczyn, Kraczkowa, Jasionka,  Pruchnik, Jarosław, and others. You can read the complete program of the 10th International Holocaust Remembrance Day (#HDR2020) here. This blog looks at a few examples of what such commemorations look like.

The 27th January ceremony commemorating the Holocaust victims in Rzeszów began with prayers at the Jewish Cemetery, including prayers recited by Rabbi Shalom Ben Stambler of Chabad-Lubavitch. There were also lectures, meetings and a concert of cymbals (a Jewish Polish instrument). Students had an opportunity to listen to and meet with Jewish Polish Holocaust Survivors, with the presence of Lucia Retman (now living in Haifa, Israel), who lived in this region before and during WWII. The commemoration in Rzeszów ended with a prayer in Fara Church, where names of those who were killed – Polish Jews and Christians – were read by Polish and Jewish representatives.

A commemoration at the Jewish Cemetery in Rzeszow

On the 29th of January, commemorations took place in in the primary school in Jasionka. Sr Katarzyna spoke to  young students (13-18) about why it is important today to come and be part of Holocaust Memorial Days. A talk concerning the Kahane brothers followed.  

In Jasionka: Students with sr Katarzyna NDS, learning about Sr Marie Francia NDS and other Righteous among the Nations

Tyczyn prepared a full day’s programme (30th of January), which students and locals were invited to take part in. Twelve candles were lit at the Jewish Cemetery by students to remember 1200 Jews from Tyczyn who were deported and killed. Tyczyn had counted 3000 inhabitants before WWII. The cemetary commemoration was followed by a visit to a church and cemetery where several Righteous Among the Nations are buried. Students heard stories of courage and the difficult choices that locals had to face during the Nazi occupation. The cultural centre prepared a programme of meetings with Jewish visitors and guests of HRD, as well as music performance and exhibitions.

Tyczyn – lighting the candles at the Jewish Cemetery

HRD in Przemyśl lasted two days (29-30 January). It began with a commemoration event to remember those who perished in Przemyśl ghetto. Students and locals had meetings with Holocaust survivors and several presentations concerning the Holocaust and Jewish and Polish history and culture.

The 12th Holocaust Remembrance Days in Podkarpacie went unnoticed in wider world media. However, it is an initiative that deserves attention as shows that grass root work is taking place in Poland concerning the Holocaust, history, memory and dialogue, and that there are many places in Podkarpacie where the Jewish past is not forgotten but, rather, is seen as integral to Polish history and Holocaust education.

 

 

 

 

Critical Religious Literacy: Education and Empowerment

By Paul-François Tremlett

[What follows is an edited version of the paper I presented at the 8th IARS conference at the University of East London this January 29th, which was on the theme of violent youth radicalisation in Europe.]

Religious education in Britain has seen itself as contributing to the wider social aims of education, such as instilling tolerance, respect for difference and building social cohesion. However, in recent years religious education has been in something of a crisis. First has been the general suggestion that religious education is failing to meet its social aims, because it is failing to represent religions accurately. According to Barnes, “…current representations of religion in British religious education are limited in their capacity to challenge racism and religious intolerance, chiefly because they are conceptually ill-equipped to develop respect for difference” (2006, p. 396), while according to Panjwani and Revell, representations of Islam in textbooks, examinations and syllabi are essentialized “leading to stereotypes and unsubstantiated generalizations” (2018, p. 269).

Second is the ongoing decline in the numbers of pupils taking Religious Education at GCSE and A-Level in England and Wales and in the recruitment of students to undergraduate courses and qualifications in Religious Studies. For example, a recent report by the Religious Education Council found that entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses) in England and Wales had peaked in 2011 at 461,795: today’s figures show a decline in entries of 42.6% in eight years with almost 200,000 fewer pupils achieving a qualification in RS at the end of KS4. Moreover, according to a report by the British Academy, there were around 6,500 fewer students on Theology and Religious Studies courses in higher education institutions in 2017/18 than there were in 2011/12.

In light of this crisis in teaching and in recruitment, a report by the Commission on Religious Education report titled ‘Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward: A National Plan For RE’, aimed at revitalising the subject area in schools, drew the following response from the association of departments of Theology and Religious Studies in the UK (TRS-UK):

We consider the subject as crucial for all pupils, for their understanding of themselves and others, and of local and global realities. The current decline in religious literacy is already resulting in prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse. Education about religion and worldviews is important for all citizens, whether they are themselves religious or not. The unique combination of skills fostered by the subject is essential in the workplace, in the media, and in politics (local, national and international), and all pupils deserve to be well taught in this subject (link).

TRS-UK draw a causal link between declining “religious literacy” and instances of “prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse”. But what is religious literacy and how can it empower young people against prejudice and discrimination?

Continue reading

Divine Saving

Reblogged from https://www.openmaterialreligion.org/resources-1/2019/12/17/divine-saving

Dr Theodora Jim visited the The Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion on the 21st November 2019, to give a paper entitled “Divine Saving and ‘Votive’ Religion in Ancient Greece”. After the seminar, Jessica Hughes and Theodora Jim were joined by John Maiden and Emma-Jayne Graham to record an audio discussion about understandings of divine saving in antiquity and beyond. The discussion also features the voice of Dr Sara Patterson, on Salvation Mountain in California.

Programme structure and timecodes:

0.00 Introduction; 0.43 Theodora Jim on the challenges of translating the word soteria, and the evidence for cults of ‘saviour gods’ in ancient Greece; 6.20 Emma-Jayne Graham on votive offerings from early Roman Italy, and their possible links to understandings of divine saving; 12.25 John Maiden on divine saving in Christianity, including the textual traditions of the Old and New Testaments, and the practice of dedicating ex-votos in Mexico; 19.50 Sara Patterson on Salvation Mountain; 28.17 Studio responses to Sara Patterson; 34.10 Theodora Jim on a votive relief from the Asklepeieon at Athens; 36.38 Emma-Jayne Graham on the votive ‘open torso’ busts from early Roman Italy; 38.51 John Maiden on the Exodus narrative.

Further reading and resources:

Graham, Emma-Jayne (2020) ‘Hand in hand: Rethinking anatomical votives as material things’, in V. Gasparini, M. Patzelt, R. Raja, A-K. Rieger, J. Rüpke, E. Urciuoli (eds). Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics. Berlin, De Gruyter (Open Access).

Graham, Emma-Jayne (2017) ‘Partible humans and permeable gods: enacting human-divine personhood in the sanctuaries of Hellenistic Italy’, in J. Draycott and E-J. Graham (eds) Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future, Routledge, 45-62.

Graziano, Frank (2016) Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico, Oxford University Press.

Hughes, Jessica (2016) ‘Fractured Narratives: Writing the Biography of a Votive Offering‘, in I. Weinryb (ed) Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 23-48.

Jim, Theodora, S. F. (2017) ‘“Salvation” and Ancient Mystery Cults’, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 18, 255-281.

Jim, Theodora, S. F.  (2015) ‘Can Soteira be Named? The Problem of the Bare Trans-divine Epithet’Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 195, 63-74.

Jim, Theodora, S. F. (2014) Sharing with the Gods: Aparchai and Dekatai in Ancient Greece, Oxford University Press.

Maiden, John (2019) ‘The emergence of Catholic Charismatic Renewal ‘in a country’: Australia and transnational Catholic Charismatic Renewal’ Studies in World Christianity (in press).

Maiden, John (2016)  ‘Renewing the body of Christ: Sharing of Ministries Abroad (SOMA) USA and transnational charismatic Anglicanism, 1978-1998’, Journal of American Studies, 51.4: 1243–1266.

Patterson, Sara M. (2016) Middle of Nowhere: Religion, Art and Pop Culture at Salvation Mountain, University of New Mexico Press.