From religion to a Japanese punk band: a talk with Professor Modern

By Amani Dobson || Campus Life Editor & Rohail Spear || Layout Assistant

Photo courtesy of Jenny Schulder

When asked what an alien would think about religion on Earth, Professor Modern replied, “The alien would see the human in all its incredible, beautiful, and horrible complexity, and that is what we’re after. To stare that in the face for as long as possible without blinking.” (I don’t know how he managed to say so much in so few words either). Intelligent, insightful, and oddly poetic, Professor Modern talks about the highs and lows of working at F&M, religion and how it fascinates him, and Japanese punk rock. 

Q: How did you come about working for F&M and being a religious studies professor?

A: Okay, I’ll start with the second question first. I majored as an undergraduate in religion at Princeton, and I came to the study of religion in a kind of backward manner. I went into college with the dream of becoming a doctor, a dream that I’ve had since I was 8 years old. I tore the cartilage in my knee, and I was saved by an orthopedic surgeon who took the cartilage out and allowed me to walk and swim. I had this experience when I was 8 that I wanted to be a doctor, and I was good at math and science so it was all set up for me. Then I got to college, and I realized something: that I really did not know math as well as I thought I did. I had basically memorized everything. I took my first college course in advanced linear algebra, and I was like  “oh my gosh I’ve been living a lie this whole time.” This was happening at the same time I took a course in religious studies from Professor John Gager, and he just blew my mind. We read all the texts I was familiar with as an evangelical growing up in Ohio and adding that element of history and cultural critique kind of woke me up a little bit. I started taking more classes in religious studies, and long story short, this is what I’ve been doing for my entire career. I ended up at F&M just like anyone with a humanities Ph.D. looking for a job within the academy. Jobs are few and far between, and they’re getting rarer as we speak. So those people who get a Ph.D. in the humanities or the social sciences understand that they will never have a choice in where they’re going to live or where they’re going to work, they will take the job. I ended up at F&M, and I am so very lucky I have colleagues who recognize what I think I’m pretty good at and very lucky to have landed at a place like F&M. It’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family, so I’ve been quite blessed in that area.

Q: So what about religious studies specifically draws you in or fascinates you?

A: I think that’s changed a little bit over the years. In my undergraduate years, my early graduate years, and even in my first book, which was on the Beat Poets, I was very drawn to the move in religious studies to be able to see things that people do not understand as religious from the perspective of religion. To compare things like a baseball game or a pilgrimage to Graceland Tennessee where people are all orienting their personal lives and their political lives around the figure of Elvis Presley, which was my undergraduate thesis, to make that move and be like: “look the thing you didn’t think was religious and worthy of a comparative analysis with those things that you think are religious, is actually religious.” I made that move for a number of years, and it’s kind of strange because it is a move that is embedded within the very culture in which I was practicing my intellectual inquiry. I’m not quite as interested in that move anymore. I’m very much interested in the possibilities that a conversation about religion allows us to take our critical skills and to think more capaciously about what it means to be human. It allows us to think about ethics, it allows us to think about politics and sociology in ways that are distinctive.  I think there’s something about the conversation about religion that has been going on for a couple of hundred years, under the mantle of the enlightenment, is a conversation that is still untapped for our contemporary moment. One example is what do we do with the world in which we are increasingly sort of oriented and tied to our screens, the algorithms that lie beyond the screens, and the political and economic power that lie beyond those algorithms? We are human beings who are changing ourselves over the course of decades, or over the course of the pandemic we have all learned to become human in a different way. My goodness, how to talk about that? You have to talk about the whole enchilada of it. You have to talk about the invisible universe, metaphysics, how the human being is always a subject to systems and powers that transcend themselves. 

Q: Is that what pushed you to also incorporate music into your lessons? I remember it was a unit that we did in American Spiritualities about punk rock as a religion, so is finding religion in music or something of that nature why you incorporate it into your lessons?

A: Yes, I think that’s true. For me, I love music, I listen to a lot of music, I play music, so music has always been this space in my life that I have found comfort, security, and beauty. It’s inspired me to think in ways, so I’ve always been attracted to that genre of artistic expression. It is kind of a natural thing for me to incorporate it in my classes. For the purposes of what we do in class, when I teach about punk music, what I like to do in that section of American Spiritualities is to put forward a figure like Patti Smith. Looking at her career, particularly the early part of her career in the 1970s when she was this brash and bold punk musician on the New York CBGB scene, she talks about her career as a religion. She talks about what she is doing as a religious calling. There’s a proclivity of people to say “that’s not a religion, that’s something else”, and I am interested in the wager of what happens if we take her seriously? What might we learn about religion? What might we think about punk rock music if we were to take her seriously and not reduce her to a metaphorical expression that it’s “like” religion or “the real religion happens in the churches, the fake stuff happens outside it.” That’s what our culture tells us and has told us for hundreds of years. You have to start to think that that message is bound up in the structures of power that manifest themselves in the contemporary moment.

Q: So this is kind of a weird question, but if an alien with no concept of religion or worshipping Gods or any of that came here, what do you think they would make of us and our different religious practices, especially in the United States?

A: If that alien were not immersed in the conversations that are produced by being part of the world in 2021, they would look around and they would see all types of things happening: people running around, people doing circles, people bending on their knees, reading books, going to baseball games, going to the movies and sitting intensely behind their computer for 15, 16, 24 hours coding some sort of new-fangled app… You would see a lot of different human activities, and it would be a beautiful thing to see what categories that alien would come up with to designate certain activities and decide which ones go together or don’t. It’s a process of category construction which is precisely what I am trying to deconstruct in my classes and in my scholarship. To see somebody coming from the outside, on some level they would have their own biases and built-in categories for whatever culture they came from, but I would imagine they would have a very different mapping of what the religious is, what constitutes the religious, or what constitutes the separation between the religious and the secular. The alien would see the human in all its incredible, beautiful, and horrible complexity, and that is what we’re after. To stare that in the face for as long as possible without blinking. 

Q: So what do you think is the most rewarding part of being a college professor at F&M and what’s the most challenging part?

A: The most rewarding things are the small moments in a class or perhaps an email from a student where you actually see them light up, and they see something that they haven’t seen before. Maybe I’m projecting my own sort of intellectual coming-of-age in college where there was a thrill of being able to think a certain way or to hold an idea in such a way that it is so different than how you held it yesterday. Because you’re holding it this way you just feel a little different and the world kind of opens up. I’ve seen that happen, I’ve had students testify to that happening and it comes in many different shapes and sizes. Sometimes it can happen in class, and sometimes it can happen much later. That’s incredibly rewarding because as a professor, you spend a lot of time by yourself. Especially as a humanities professor, I read, I write, and I’m kind of in my own head in a lot of ways. I’m so lucky to have this life where I can stand and sit in front of students and try to conduct conversations. I tell my students “You’re not going to remember anything I’ve told you in this class. You’re not going to remember dates, the people, or anything we’ve read, but hopefully, you will carry with you a certain sensibility or a few moves you can make when you go out into the world to try and think hard about it”. When I see students getting that lesson it’s thrilling, and I feel very lucky to be in a position where I can pass on that enthusiasm that was given to me in college. The most difficult thing at F&M, I’m just going to be honest, is sometimes there is a range of intensities that students bring to my classrooms. I am somebody who believes in, as a teacher, demonstrating or modeling critical thinking. That style of teaching where I’m not so concerned about if everyone knows this equation and can apply it to these problems over and over again, has received a range of strong responses. I have had students who love that, and I have some students who have adverse reactions to that. I’ve struggled throughout my career as a teacher to discover how to keep what’s good to make sure I’m not losing that, but at the same time, bring in those students who find my style confusing or alienating. They are used to a style of teaching where they are spoon-fed the information in a metaphorically downloading way. There’s a way in which I conduct my classes that’s not that, and I am sympathetic to those students who find it a little off-putting. That’s the difficult thing. 

Q: What’s your favorite song or album at the moment?

A: “At the moment” that’s a great way to put it because it changes week to week. I’m going to tell you exactly what my favorite album is right now, I have it up on my Youtube. It is a band called Yura Yura Teikoku, a Japanese punk band, and their album 3x3x3. It’s from the late 90s and it sounds like some weird cross between psychedelic acid rock and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion meets this interesting east Asian sound. It’s really brilliant. Everybody should be listening to Yura Yura this week.

Q: On a similar note, any good books you’ve read recently that are your favorite right now?

A: Yeah. I am currently reading a book which I find very amazing. It’s a kind of rethinking of the novel Frankenstein, and it’s called Frankissstein by an author named Jeanette Winterson. I’m about halfway through and what’s amazing about it is it’s like these two intersecting stories. One is Mary Shelley’s scene of writing of the novel Frankenstein in 1816 which very famously begins as a parlor game as she’s on summer vacation. It’s talking about how she comes to arrive at her argument and the thematic of Frankenstein, which is a mix of the classic story of forbidden knowledge like the Garden of Eden or Prometheus and the person who wants to know too much. It’s also written at this moment where the future is going to be increasingly one of human-machine interface, and so it is rethinking her scene of writing. She as a character is in the novel, her life and her writing of Frankenstein are novelized. Then it cuts back and forth between this contemporary moment where we have a contemporary character who is transgender and having a romantic relationship with another Victor Frankenstein. It’s taking place in the near future where we have this capacity to create not just sex robots, but robots who can really become long-term companions and fulfill both physical and emotional needs. It is this weird back and forth that is just so well written and so smart. I’ve been enjoying it every evening before I go to bed. I recommend that as well.

Q: Okay this is the last fun question. Once the pandemic is over, what concert are you going to see first?

A: One of my greatest disappointments during the pandemic was in May of last year I was scheduled to give a lecture at the University of California Santa Barbara in May. I was giving a lecture on a Friday and it was on that Saturday that there was this festival planned outside of Los Angeles which included the likes of Blondie, Devo, all the kind of new wave bands from the 70s and 80s, and it obviously got canceled. I had these really amazing premium tickets I was able to get from some of my friends in the music business, and it was amazing but it got canceled. I’m just hoping something like that will be on the horizon. Also every year one of my favorite things to do is to go to this thing called The Devotional where 200 people get together in a small club in Cleveland and we celebrate the music of a Devo. There are a bunch of Devo cover bands, and members of Devo sometimes come back. It’s just a really great, nerdy day. I’m looking forward to that this summer because it was canceled last year.

Q: So what advice would you give to a college student or a recent college graduate who has no clue what to do next? 

A: My advice is to buy a one-way ticket to a city that is their favorite either because they know it’s their favorite because they’ve been there or, better yet, they imagine that it could be their favorite city. Just move there, find a place to live maybe in a collective apartment where you’re only paying a few hundred dollars, find a menial job maybe in a coffee shop or something like that. Take a few years, read some books, and see what’s happening. Life is not a race. Nobody makes good decisions when they’re putting pressure on themselves or maybe you do, but my goodness you’re like 20 years old and you really have no idea how young you are. 

Q: This will be the last question. Have you learned something from your students instead of it being the other way around?

A: I have. I always learn something. This module, one of the things I talk to my partner a lot about, that has been so incredibly fortified by some of my students, is how they are experiencing the contemporary moment of techno-capitalist modernity, zoom, everything being mediated. I’ve had a few conversations with my classes this module about this, and one of the things that comes through is the complexity of response. What I love about my students is their ability to hold what is good about the opportunities that technology provides, but at the same time hold a real suspicion and disappointment with this world that we have created for them. I find that that lesson of being able to hold two ideas that are almost contradictory and to hold them at the same time is something that I can forget. Sometimes I tend to one or the other, and it’s that reminder that my students are performing that kind of task better than I am. It’s nice to be reminded of the fact that the glass is both half full and half empty at the same time. 

Thank you, Professor Modern, for sharing your wisdom and answering all our questions in great depth. We will definitely be checking out Yura Yura and the other suggestions you made!

Sophomore Amani Dobson is Campus Life Editor. Her email is adobson@fandm.edu. First-Year Rohail Spear is a Layout Assistant. His email is rspear@fandm.edu.

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