Religions in the Americas Lecture Series

The Marty Center's Religions in the Americas lecture series will bring leading scholars in the field to focus on critical topics and key debates, using a variety of methodological approaches


October 15 
Kathryn Lofton, Yale University: "Believe Me When I Say: What Bob Dylan Teaches the Study of Religion"

Monday, October 21
Jennifer Graber, University of Texas at Austin: "The Invention of Native American Prophecy"

Monday, October 28
Anthony Petro, Boston University: "Provoking Religion: The U.S. CultureWars and the Queer Arts of Offense"

Tuesday, November 5
Pamela Klassen, University of Toronto: "Recognizing Religion and Siting the Secular"

Tuesday, November 12
Christopher White, Vassar College: "Higher Dimensions, Fantastic Science, and the Modern Religious Imagination"

Tuesday, November 19
Emma Anderson, University of Ottawa: "The First Philosophes: The Unrecognized Impact of Native American Thought upon Europe"


The category of belief predominates historical studies of religion in the United States. For many scholars, perceiving belief is what verifies the utility of understanding religion as a force in history, since (they argue) belief is an engine of human action. This talk queries the certitude that one can identify belief in the archive and understand it through observing individual and collective behavior. The focusing subject is singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, whose capacity to inspire belief among listeners, not to mention historians, is definitive of his legend.

This talk considers the historical and scholarly uses of the term “prophet” to describe Native American visionary leaders from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries.Historically, English, German, and French colonizers used a variety of terms to describe these religious actors. Speakers and writers transitioned to the word “prophet” soon after the U.S. founding, drawing on post-Reformation discourses about false prophecy and responding to revelatory figures that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Americansapplied the term to a range of Native leaders, including Handsome Lake, Tenskwatawa, and Wovoka. They did so with important effect. Defenders of religious orthodoxy and American expansion used prophet language to undermine Native peoples’ defense of their lands and communities.The talk thentraces the ways in which scholars have employed prophecy as an interpretative frame in early anthropological works and later in works of history and religious studies. In the end, itoffers an account of how these descriptive practices came to be and asks to what ends they have functioned in the public sphere, academy, and American life. It also suggests other available options for investigating visionary work performed by Native leaders throughout North American history.

This talk begins with a simple enough question: when is a cross a cross, and when is it a gauntletthrown in the infamous battles of the U.S. culture wars? How does an image come to offend, who does it offend, and why? During the height of the U.S. culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s, a number of conservative Christian leaders publicly attacked art dealing with issues of religion, gender, and sexuality, deriding it as pornographic or sacrilegious, if not specifically anti-Christian. Indeed, a number of artists, including Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and David Wojnarowicz, drew upon aesthetic forms borrowed from the rich visual and ritual history of Christianity, and of Roman Catholicism specifically, often in ways that seemed to profane religious symbols. This talk focuses on the work and archive of artist and author David Wojnarowicz to examine the contours of such debates. It asks how we might read such episodes not as typical culture wars battles pitting religious conservatives against secular progressives, but rather as competing struggles to define the sacred—and, often, to define the sacred through particularly religiousforms.This talk examines the religious histories of David Wojnarowicz’s art to ask what they helpus to see about his own work, what they reveal about the broader context for such battles over religion, art, and representation, and how they informthe kinds of archives and questions we bring to the study of religion in the U.S.

Religion is a highly naturalized category that is used rather freely in many public contexts, but it is also a term that is the focus of a great deal of scholarly and legal debate. Increasingly, the same can be said for the term “secular,” a category at once floatingin discourseand fixed to specific times,nations, and bodies.This paper explores ceremonial and legal contexts, including marriage, oath-taking, and treaty-making,in which the process of recognizing religion and siting the secular has very real consequences for people or groups, beyond those of scholars arguing over thegenealogies of these terms. I pay particular attention to the politics of recognizing religion in historically Christian-dominant settler-colonial nations, especially Canada and the United States, whose sovereignty rests on spiritual claims transformed into secular laws which rarely recognized Indigenous peoples as having religion.

How can we understand better how people make sense of their lives, answer religious questions, and construct a sense of a sacred cosmos around them? Why do older religious perspectives stop appealing to people and how do these ways of thinking get replaced by others? In this talk I point to the surprising role of secular scientific ideas in stimulating new metaphors and ways of thinking about religious concepts. I examine one scientific idea in particular, an idea that has become crucial in many settings,from modern physics to fantasy literature and science-fiction television and film—namely, the idea that the universe has higher, invisible dimensions. In my recent book I analyzed how scientists, mathematicians, writers, artists, screenwriters, theologians, televangelists and others used this idea to make supernatural phenomena such as ghosts and miracles seem more reasonable and make spiritual beliefs possible again for themselves and others. In my talk I will examine how several writers, activists and artists have used this idea not just to revive supernatural beliefs but to get leverage against dominant ideologies that they have found vexing. To be sure, fantastic scientific ideas like higher dimensions have done different kinds of imaginative work, including mobilizing people for very particular projects of critique, reform or liberation.

What we are accustomed to thinking of as a European Enlightenment actually has its roots deep within the ontology and epistemology of Indigenous peoples, who were “enlightened” long before the “Enlightenment.”  In the woodlands of seventeenth-century North America, French colonists and missionaries encountered societies whose way of thinking was recognizably modernin a way that theirs was not – yet.  


The lineaments of Indigenous thought presaged, in almost every respect, the future direction of that of Europe.  In contrast with the authoritarianism and exclusivism of the French, Indigenous peoples were cultural relativists who favored religious toleration and the respect of individual conscience, and who utilized rationalism and empiricism in weighing religious claims.  The monism and holism of their spirituality sharply contrasted Christianity’s crisp dualisms of good and evil, heaven and hell.  Whereas French Catholics differentiated the body from the soul, indigenous peoples experienced being as seamless whole.  Native Americans also extended the conceptual boundaries of their community to encompass animals, plants, and other natural phenomena within their relational norms of respect and reciprocity.  In sharp contrast with France’s absolute monarchy and Rome’s papal supremacy, Indigenous polities were generally proto-democratic.  Finally, their unfamiliarity with the Christian worldview made Native Americans formidable critics of its most fundamental theological tenants.  Unformed by Roman Catholicism, Indigenous interrogators could pose questions that were literally unimaginable for those steeped in the creed.  

Transmitted to the Old World through the writings of explorers, colonists and – ironically – missionaries, these seeds of Indigenous thought were planted deep within the hearts and minds of their French readers, where they would soon blossom, bearing revolutionary fruit.

All lectures will take place in Swift Hall’s Common Room (1st) floor at 4:30pm. 

People with a disability who need an accomodation to attend a Divinity School event: please call Suzanne Riggle in advance at 773-702-8219.