Better Know a Religion Blog: Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching


In this series with the Bulletin–whose title is a play on Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment, 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

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

Richard Newton: Sowing the Seed began as a personal research journal for a project I started when beginning my Master’s in 2006. I wanted to refine scholars portrait of class in modeling the historical Jesus. I set out to construct an anthropological hermeneutic wherein I’d compare the concerns of contemporary Yucatec Maya with the archaeological record of first-century Galilee and bring about a more astute exegesis. I blogged throughout my work at an ethnographic field school in Mexico, an archaeology dig in Galilee, and writing my thesis.

The site has since changed in relation to my professional interests, but its always been inspired by the famous Jonathan Z. Smith quote regarding “religion as solely a creation of the scholar’s study.” I’m particularly fascinated with the idea of the scholar’s study as both a place and activity. Sowing the Seed is just that: it’s where you can see me doing the teacher-scholar thing. And I’m at my best when I’m doing that with others—students and professional scholars alike.

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

RN: The blog’s unifying theme is the notion of difference-making. Our eyes are trained on the fine lines people draw between making difference and making a difference in the world. That tension opens up opportunities for us to not only consider discourses (e.g. religion, culture, race), but also the sites where they take place (e.g. the classroom, the public square, holy ground, bully pulpit, the judge’s bench).

BSOR: What do you think are some of the advantages of scholars’ blogging about religion?

RN: Blogs make scholarship and the scholarly process more accessible. Lots of our readers are adjacent to the academy as employees or admirers, so that issue of accessibility is always at the fore for us. A number of our contributors have remarked that they’ve made more collegial connections through the blog than through their traditionally published scholarship. I’ve seen this for myself at professional conferences. How many in-person introductions are preempted by the reveal that you follow each other’s blog, podcast, or video channel?

There’s also something to be said about blogs as a critique of academic tradition.

Academe needs a peer-review process, but our scholarly societies have spent way too much time balkanizing us into slow-moving, sub-disciplinary peer groups. Blogs offer a needed corrective to this. Scholars no longer need to wait on the political and logistical logjam that can stymy scholarly publication. We can publish immediately, and we can have an actual dialogue about the limits and merits of our work. I’d venture to say that the impropmptu carnival around Teemu Taira’s Religious Studies Project episode is perhaps more rigorous than the standard revise and resubmit process feigned at a lot of journals. The difference is that the reading public was able to learn from the back and forth. That’s what our work can be about.

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

RN: Sowing the Seed definitely has cousins in different parts of the blogosphere. I got the idea of publishing undergraduate, graduate, and professional scholarship from the Studying Religion in Culture blog hosted at the University of Alabama and Emory’s Sacred Matters. As curator, I try to connect thinkers at different career stages in an effort to present religious studies scholarship as an activity rather than a credential.

When I saw the work being done by people like Anthea Butler and Sarah Posner during the early days of Religion Dispatches, I began to appreciate the potential for having a critically-inclined forum that drew experts from a wide range of social locations. I wanted my students and I to be a part of an exchange where our unspoken assumptions would likely be challenged. So if you take a look at our contributors list, you’ll see that our authorship is noticeably diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. We have twice as many women writing for us as men.

Going back to the scholar’s study idea, we try to be conscientious of how we imagine the persona of the scholar and how that relates to definitions of worthwhile scholarship.

Sowing the Seed probably departs from other religious studies blogs in that it places so much of an emphasis on teaching and professional development issues. I’ve had my Elizabethtown College students publish pieces in dialogue with other scholars. This semester, students from Baker University and Williams College will be publishing with us. And because of the positive feedback we have received on our pedagogy pieces, I’ll be doing an advice column on teaching.

BSOR: 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?

RN: I use the terms “religion,” “culture,” and “teaching” as ways to germinate ideas about difference-making. From there I try to be pretty hands off on laying out approaches. My posts tend to focus on the development and application of an anthropology of scriptures. I try to showcase what happens when we investigate the story behind the texts we read and that also seem to read us back. Beyond identifying legacy texts, I challenge our audience to consider what we do with these texts for ourselves and to others.

Posts are usually 750-1000 words. I don’t provide any hardline rules except that I want contributors to wrestle with the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion and I want them to write so as to not have the last word. These guidelines have helped us surface difficult issues among mixed company. Our contributors come from a host of disciplines—including religious studies, sociology, ethnic and women’s studies, musicology, criminology, and history—so anything can happen.

If you or your students are interested in contributing to Sowing the Seed, follow the link to our Join Us page.

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