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Before the Victory Celebration: Religious Scholars in Chicago

Today's post is from Amy Caldwell, Executive Editor at Beacon Press.

This year's American Academy of Religion conference took place in Chicago, home of Barack-mania, and while the academy wasn't claiming divine foresight for discerning back in 2000 or so that this would be the place to be in 2008, a few folks thought the unseasonably warm and sunny weather was clearly a sign of divine favor. The scholars of AAR decidedly tend towards the Democratic Party, and a general feeling of guarded optimism and excitement suffused the conference. At the beginning of outgoing president's Emilie Townes' plenary address Saturday night, cries of "Yes We Can" even briefly erupted from the crowd.

Which is not to say that everyone is sanguine about the outcome of the election. In his opening remarks at a session on the effects of the "War on Terror" on American Muslims, Omid Safi, chair of the AAR's study of Islam section and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, described a propaganda DVD that has recently appeared in the mailboxes of voters in swing states. Entitled "Obsession," the message of this DVD is that Muslims are the second coming of the Nazis, that 2008 is equivalent to 1938, and that we must rise up and stop them. The DVD was distributed in copies of the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education delivered in the Midwest. In contrast to this disturbing incitement to violence against innocent Americans, Safi tartly noted that ritually stating, at any public event, "we hate and decry terrorism" has become a virtual sixth pillar of Islam for American Muslims.

NPR's Krista Tippett (Speaking of Faith), who spoke next at the panel, discussed the work she did in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks to educate Americans about Islam, featuring Muslims like Safi and Khaled Abou El Fadl discussing what Islam was rather than decrying what it was not. Among the important points that came up in these discussions was the observation that Islam is a religion not of beliefs—the Christian model most citizens of the West have unthinking come to believe defines all religions—but of daily lived piety. Another way of putting this is to say Islam, like Judaism and Hinduism, is a religion of praxis, rather than doctrine.

Monday morning I and some hundred and fifty others attended a passionate panel on Rita Nakashima Brock's and Rebecca Ann Parker's Saving Paradise. It was the kind of discussion one longs for at an academic conference—or anywhere else for that matter: powerful speakers that have thought long and hard about ideas that matter. In the case of Saving Paradise, the panelists were taking on the powerful stories of the Christian tradition, and how they inform our thinking about who we are and how we live with one another. As Daniel Maguire noted, he had come to always ask two questions about religious stories and scholarship: "How do you know that?" and "So what?" "I spent six years in Rome and the Vatican as a young priest," he continued, "and after reading Saving Paradise, I have come to realize I saw nothing. Brock and Parker are treating illnesses people have come to love."

It was the beginning of an extended conversation—a disputation that was lively but never disrespectful—between the authors and James Cone (Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary and author of Risks of Faith and Martin & Malcolm). "Every theologian," Cone noted, "should read this book before they say anything else about Jesus' death and our salvation."

The conference wrapped up on Monday—in time for the Obama organization to move into the same hotel that had a day before held book exhibits and scholars. They were closing off the streets around the hotel, preparing Grant Park for a rally of hundreds of thousands of people as we headed out.