Better Know a Religion Blog: Sightings

In this series with the Bulletin–whose title is a play on Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment, and whose alternate title is “Religious Studies Blogs: What do they talk about? Do they talk about things? Let’s find out!” (from BoJack Horseman)–we ask blog authors/curators to tell us a bit about their blogs’ history, relationship to other blogs in the blogosphere, and typical focus. Other posts in this series can be found here. 

by Brett Colasacco

Can you tell us a little something about the history of this blog?

Sightings began in the mid-1990s as an initiative of something called the Public Religion Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, under the directorship of Martin Marty. When the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion was reorganized as the Martin Marty Center in 1998, the publication of Sightings continued under its auspices.

Articles going back as far as 1999 are searchable online in our archive, and I’d encourage anyone to check them out. They provide a fascinating overview of the ways in which religion has been “sighted” in public life for the past 17+ years, as well as the wide variety of ways in which students and scholars of religion have sought to engage with their wider public(s).

How do you see your blog in relation to other academic oriented blogs that deal with questions relating to religion?

Technically speaking, Sightings isn’t really a “blog”—though there are obvious similarities. What we do is in some ways closer to investigative journalism, albeit in miniature. Our authors typically respond to an event that has recently been in the news and explain how it reflects, or reflects upon, religion. To be clear, we aren’t a wire service; rather, we strive to provide serious yet accessible analysis of the relations between religion and contemporary society.

Sightings publishes two articles per week. Our Monday pieces are authored by Martin Marty, one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Our Thursday pieces come primarily from other academics, but also sometimes from religious leaders or informed citizens. Sightings currently goes out to around 5000 subscribers via email; more people read it on the website. Our articles are regularly featured on sites such as RealClearReligion, and select pieces are also republished in The Atlantic. In short, we provide an opportunity to reach a much wider audience than students and scholars of religion usually do.

What are some of the more common themes this blog takes up?

Given the prevalence of sources now available for coverage of religion in its more easily recognizable forms—here I’m thinking of things like Religion Dispatches or even the Religion section of Huffington Post—I see our single most vital role as that of exposing the less-than-obvious ways in which religion intersects with our everyday lives and social contexts. This means that we focus upon not just the traditional, historical religions, but also civil, secular, or political religions.

Many of our articles touch upon politics in one way or another. For instance, we are now running a series of articles on the Trump phenomenon—or “Trumpism,” if such a thing can be defined—and what it says about the relationship between religion and politics in America leading up to the U.S. presidential election. We have a number of pieces on the horizon that deal with religion and sports, and we are always on the lookout for thoughtful essays on religion and contemporary art, music, theater, film, television, etc.

What kinds of methods and theories do you focus on? Do you have any preferences, requirements, or exceptions to how ‘religion’ can or should be approached?

The more interesting and original, the better. Though of course it’s important to be clear—implicitly to oneself, if not explicitly to the reader—what one’s theory of religion and methodological commitments actually are!

What do you think are some of the advantages of scholar blogging about religion?

Needless to say, in the current climate it’s a huge advantage to any student or scholar of religion, established or aspiring, to do what one can in order to expand the potential audience for one’s work. It can also be incredibly stimulating and rewarding. Publishing your work, even a very short piece of work, in a forum like Sightings can generate a tremendous amount of conversation and often yields very helpful feedback of the sort one doesn’t necessarily find within the walls of academia. I firmly believe it’s something we should all be doing.

Brett Colasacco is Managing Editor of Sightings and a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His main research interests include religion and late nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature; Anglo-American and continental European modernism and the avant-garde; and totalitarianism, fascism, and political religions. His dissertation explores the intersection of these themes in the work of the American poet and dramatist Robinson Jeffers.

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