Being a religious studies professor means that Robert Baum is frequently asked about his own religion, to which he responds cheerfully, “I’m an Evangelical Africanist,” a remark that reveals his “deep commitment to make sure Africa is included whenever we talk about the world.” Running through all of Baum’s work—whether teaching, research, or outreach—is a value on religious literacy, the desire to promote a better understanding of the world’s major religions.
As a child growing up in New Mexico, Christine VanPool remembers visiting museums and state parks with her family. By all accounts, VanPool was a normal kid who loved to ask questions. Living on the edge of the Mescalero Apache reservation, VanPool developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history of her Native American friends, which led naturally to her interest in anthropology.
Alex Barker wears several different hats in MU’s Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology. One of these hats involves his research and fieldwork on the European Bronze Age and the ancient American southeast. The other involves the directorship of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Standing at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, most of Barker’s field research has in recent years dealt with a single broad question: how social complexity grows out of egalitarian societies. His fieldwork in North America and the Old World follows this transition over different periods and regions.
What a society counts as moral or immoral is subject to the particular zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. “At the time of the slave trade, for example, most people who were slave owners thought it was moral. Even a few blacks, once they were freed, had slaves,” explains Sharon Welch, Professor of Religious Studies. As a social ethicist, Welch researches not just the way individuals make moral choices, but how a whole society begins to decide “what counts as moral.” To that effect, all of her projects coalesce around such issues of social morality.
While studying Pentecostal women, Dr. Lawless noticed some of them were serving in leadership positions — which many religions don’t allow. This observation led her to study women who preached in other denominations and how they entered their service.
When Dr. Lawless was a PhD student at Indiana University, she met the Pentecostal women whose invitation to worship with them became the foundation for scholarship and friendship. One result of her work was the film Joy Unspeakable, which she worked on with folklorist Betsy Peterson.
Asked why the Diola prophet shifted from a male-centered system to female-centered one, Baum was willing to offer his preliminary thoughts. “I think it has a lot to do with the discrediting of male authority [during] the colonial conquest,” he says, as well as a series of failures, including the failure of male military victory, the failure of men to resist forced labor, and the failure of male spirit shrines and priests to repel the French, Portuguese, and British colonizers. The female spirit shrines were seen as being extremely powerful in protecting women and, moreover, women tended to stay at home with the children, becoming a source of cultural continuity. “The erosion of respect for male leadership,” concludes Baum, “had a lot to do with the coming forward of a generation of women prophets, and the lack of opportunity in the new religions of Islam and Christianity.”
Given that half of Africa is Muslim, it is not surprising that Baum teaches a course on Islam. “Since 9/11,” however, his research on Islam has been in especially high demand. Living in Iowa at the time, he was asked to be on the “Iowans Respond” panel, which appeared on public television. Soon thereafter, Baum was giving lectures about Islam all around the state, and he eventually produced a DVD Abraham’s Children: The Shared Religious Heritage of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. From that point on, an important part of Baum’s work has involved outreach—helping people gain an appreciation for how much is shared between these world religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. “A lot of the tension among the three,” he notes, “is precisely because of what they share more than the issues where they differ.”
Baum’s first book, Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia (1999), examines the history of Diola religion during the pre-colonial era, with particular attention to the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and family spirit cults. This work received a prize from the American Academy of Religion for the best first book in the history of religions.
Baum has been studying Diola religion in Africa. Centered around belief in a supreme being, Emitai, literally “of the sky,”the Diola see Emitai as “the creator of all life and the bestower of rain.” Emitai elal is the Diola word for rain, “part of the essence of God that is seen as giving life during the rainy season and sustains the Diola.” Lesser spirits deal with specific kinds of problems, including family cults (hupila), as well as cults for women’s fertility, men’s initiation, blacksmithing, fishing, and hunting. Like other religions, the Diola have a concept of judgment after death. On the one hand, Baum explains, “those people who had life-enhancing lives (who helped other people, were good members of the community and good parents) become ancestors. They appear to their living descendants in dreams and visions and are seen as living right in the village. It is said that they are so close you can feel the warmth of their cooking fires at night.” On the other hand, those people who led a destructive life, “are condemned to the bush, forced to live outside the village.”
Baum’s current research examines the history of an indigenous African religion, especially the Diola prophets who claim direct revelation from Emitai, the supreme being. In the late-nineteenth century, prior to the French occupation, there were eleven prophets, all of them men. Since French colonization, Baum discovered, there have been 42 prophets, most of them women. Baum is examining the intensification of this prophetic tradition as it transformed from an exclusively male phenomenon to a predominantly female one.
VanPool describes her research into shamanic practices among different groups of people. In order to develop a connection with the gods, some tribes use mind-altering drugs to slip slowly into a temporary altered state.
Barker has also being doing fieldwork in the New World, especially in ancient Missouri and the Ancient Southeast and in more recent historical periods, from 1000 to 1500 CE across the American midcontinent. Art styles of all of those regions used the same basic symbols, apparently referring to the same basic concepts.
Humanities-related research involves studying the work of other scholars (e.g., philosophy and comparative religious ethics) and then synthesizing those ideas. For example, Welch has taken up the challenge to dominant ethics by Native American and Engaged Buddhist philosophers. Using certain techniques like interactive theatre in the classroom, she is applying qualitative measures to determine the effect of these pedagogical techniques. So far she has learned that these interactive theatre experiences can really change the way many students see the world around them.
Regarding her book After Empire (2004), Welch says: “One of the things I’ve always been very interested in is the ethics of peace and war and the kind of debate that is going on now about whether the United States should take on proudly and without hesitation the mantle of empire.” Examining both sides of the issue Welch notes that “every empire becomes one of domination and coercion. And a basic lesson of history is that people don’t like to be dominated, and they’re going to resist. There’s a cost to empire. There’s a cost not just to the people who are controlled, but there’s a cost to us who are the empire.” Hence, it is crucial at this uncertain historical juncture that “rather than use our power to be an empire, we use our power to put in place a kind of world order that we would like to see when we’re no longer the dominant political power, bringing the rule of law to the international sphere” between nations.