Remixing American Religion

4 Oct

The October issue of Wired magazine has a very interesting article that proposes a core curriculum that “fills in the gaps of your 20th-century education.” Among the offerings are Statistical Literacy, Writing for New Forms, Waste Studies, and Remix Culture. While the entire article is worth your time, I wondered about the extent to which American religion was being remixed. Naturally I turned to Aut0-Tune the News, one of the most famous viral video publishers, to see if I could find anything. The first 50 seconds of this embedded video are a great example (before it wanders off to mock Rep. Steve Buyer for talking about smoking lettuce on the house floor):

We see in the beginning of this clip a rather concise juxtaposition of NBC News political rhetoric about American exceptionalism combined with humorous commentary (exceptional = “Exceptional fast food and exceptional dance moves”?) and followed by a straight-forward example (Joe Biden saying “God bless America!”) to back up the rhetoric’s point. It’s very well done, and if I were to use it in a class it would be a great way to begin a conversation about continuing trope of America as the promised land. It’s accessible, funny, short, and has a clear links to primary sources that could be assigned for further research. (For instance, I might ask students to read or watch President Obama’s speech in Cairo.)

In our field we have essayists such as Jonathan Z. Smith that have thrived on making sense of seemingly incompatible or incongruous juxtapositions. He has also persuasively argued that we are responsible for making sense of even the most challenging religious events–see “The Devil in Mr. Jones” in Imagining Religion. I see the potential of remixes for making sense of religion. While Auto-Tune the News fractures the continuity/context of Joe Biden’s “God bless America,” it successfully rebuilds it by using another interpretive lens. This seems to me, at least in part, much of the function of the research essay. In this particular case the lens is the argument and it frankly declares that blessing America is part of the long tradition of American exceptionalism. At the same time, to use a conservative critique of Obama’s failure to live up to those standards followed by the clip of Biden layers the interpretation with an alternative reading.

There are some concerns with this as an academic tool. How would I train students to use these forms? (I think a cross-listed team-taught course might be appropriate.) How do we effectively grade projects done in different forms (e.g., audio vs. visual) And would we worry about further blurring of students’ ability to cite things correctly or failing to advance their understanding of the standards of authorship in the academy? As James F. McGrath wrote on his blog Exploring Our Matrix, “Is the key to helping students avoid plagiarism to emphasize that an academic essay is not a mash up?” I have a feeling the answer is no. The Wired article’s sample assignment asks students to parse the many clips from a single remix. If anything, remixes provide a clear opportunity to show the difference between one’s own contribution and the contributions of others. In essays we demand that those differences are stark and clearly attributed, while in remixes or mash ups we look for a more seamless integration of different perspectives. Blurred boundaries are not always undesirable, and in American religion we have no shortage of beliefs, practices, traditions, and figures that demand flexible, even exotic boundaries. Could this be a way to help digitally saturated students understand that history can be deconstructed and reconstructed again just like remixes?

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