Friday, November 25, 2016

Religion & Pop Culture Holidaze Edition

Holidaze: term that defines the feelings of confusion and excitement people have between Thanksgiving and Christmas; the blur one feels after/during shopping for gifts in crowded retail stores with heavy holiday traffic
- Urban Dictionary

Friends, this is the time of year when it's socially acceptable to listen to holiday music (I like it year-round but SOMEONE in my household makes me wait until after Thanksgiving). It's also the time when you might be looking for a little escape from the family - especially during this post-election insanity! I won't lie; I like a good, sappy Christmas movie as much as the next person. But what I love is a little bit of bite to my holiday watching. So, while you enjoy your leftovers, sneak away from the in-laws and try three of my favorite holiday-themed television episodes.

"A Very Supernatural Christmas"
Supernatural Season 3, ep 8
This Christmas treat is Supernatural at its monster-of-the-week best. Brothers Sam and Dean Winchester hunt the things that go "bump" in the night and protect the world from supernatural threats large and small (all while eating tons of pie and being exceedingly handsome). In this episode they are after a creature that appears to be devouring people who are decorating their homes with yuletide cheer. The brothers investigate undercover (per usual: as FBI agents with rock aliases) and they discover a truly depressing bad Santa, the legend of Krampus, and pagan threats much older than the first Noel. This episode is creepy, funny, and full of references to ancient pagan lore and its current Christianized forms. And, for Supernatural superfans, this show also includes some poignant flashbacks wherein we see what it was like for two motherless boys to be raised as hunters.  

"Regional Holiday Music"
Community Season 3, ep 10
For those of you who are not Community watchers, this is a weird, inventive show. It's also very snarky and "Regional Holiday Music," is a tour-de-force in holiday cynicism. The study group of lovable losers (Alison BrieDonald GloverJoel McHaleGillian JacobsDanny PudiYvette Nicole Brown, & Chevy Chase) at Greendale Community College is thinking about their Christmas plans when they are interrupted by Mr. Rad (played in over-the-top glory by SNL's Taran Killam), the Greendale glee club instructor who is recruiting students to participate in his annual Christmas pageant. The study group rejects him initially, but through a series of holiday-themed songs that target each member in nefarious ways, the group is lured into holiday joy. Chevy Chase's character Pierce cannot resist "Baby Boomer Santa," who seems to know just what to say to scratch his narcissistic, consumer-oriented, generational itch ("Pierce! They're just trying to pander to your demographic's well-documented historical vanity. Resist!"). Alison Brie's Annie tempts Joel McHale's Jeff with "Teach Me How to Understand Christmas." Annie's song begins as a send-up to "Santa Baby" and quickly devolves into gibberish ("Boopy Doopy Doo Boop Sex!!!"); it's one of the canniest deconstructions of sexy-baby-voice femininity you'll see. Add to that a nod to Jehovah's Witnesses who struggle through the holidays and a Fundie's discomfort with anything other than wishing someone a Happy Jesus' B-day, and you have a holiday treat!

"How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"
The X-Files, Season 6, ep 6
The slow burn chemistry that X-Files fans adore between the true believer Fox Mulder and skeptic Dana Scully is on display in this classic episode. It's Christmas Eve and FBI agent Mulder inadvertently drags his partner Scully to a haunted house in Maryland. Supposedly two lovers participated in a suicide pact there in 1917 and have been haunting the premises ever since. Trapped in a nightmarish bleak house, the two encounter some pretty scary early twentieth-century ghosts as well as a few phantasms haunting their working relationship. And, they do it with plenty of holiday cheer. No show blends humor and horror quite like The X-Files - especially the early episodes like this one.

P. S. If you find yourself still stressed after these eps, I recommend the Target parking lot. That's where I'll be.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Conferencing Dos and Don'ts

It's that time of year again - time to fly across the country and join your fellow nerds at your guild's annual conference. For me and my kind, the Big One is the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature's annual meeting (aka AAR/SBL). Once a year, thousands of religion scholars descend on an unsuspecting city and bring corduroy jackets (with elbow patches!), old-timey pipes, and all-around questionable fashion sense to discuss the latest trends in religious studies. 
See a hotel full of guys who look like this? You are probably in the right place.
If you are a first-timer, it's overwhelming. So, for my first-time students, a few suggestions on how to make the most out of your academic conferencing experience:

13 Conferencing Dos and Don'ts

1. Don't be fooled - the conference begins on the plane. You never know who will sit next to you on your flight. I recommend dressing in conference attire and having a stack of business cards with you at the airport.

2. Do bring comfortable shoes. I know, I know. I sound like your mother. But one year of walking around with blisters and a forced smile during your third late-night reception will cure you of your vanity.

3. Don't build your schedule entirely around paper presentations. There are a plethora of panels at large conferences and it can be tempting to spend your time jogging from one session to the next. But, if you aren't careful, you'll end up suffering from major intellectual burnout (and, a few years in and you'll find out that some AAR-SBL panels are... boring. Painfully boring. So, don't spend all of your time running after research papers.

4. Do be strategic when it comes to food and beverages. The line for Starbucks will be LONG. Happy hours within a 2 mile radius from the conference will be crowded. Plan accordingly.

5. Don't forget that much of the real business of conferencing gets done informally. So make sure you are prepared to stay out a bit and recruit some outgoing friends to go reception-hopping with you. My usual AAR squad (Lydia Willsky-CiolloCarolyn DavisJennifer Axsom Adler, and Devan Stahl) and I look forward receptioning (this is a verb - I can assure you!) every year.

6. Do give yourself permission to sleep in the day after a night of receptioning.

7. Don't take up too much of your scholarly crush's time at their university's reception. I learned this from a mentor of mine who will remain nameless. As gracious as many of them are, star scholars are usually at receptions to catch up with old friends, not to hear you talk for 25 min. about religion and 12th century Romanian folk art. So (unless told otherwise) introduce yourself, make an impression, and exit in less than 5 min.

You never know who you will meet at AAR/SBL! My friend Melanie Trexler and I met the one and only (very gracious!) Cornel West in 2009.
8. Do remember that the religion scholar world is small... if you are gossiping at a hotel bar, you never know who is listening. You've been warned!

9. Don't get so nervous that you ignore normal social cues. Smile at people. Shake their hands. Laugh at their bad jokes. You get the idea.

10. Do take time to enjoy some local foods and take in some local sights. You never know when you'll be in that city again.

11. Don't forget to drink a lot of water. You'll thank me.

12. Do remind yourself that everyone feels insecure at these things. You aren't the only one; impostor syndrome is real. Take a deep breath and try to enjoy yourself.

13. Don't feel bad for playing hooky a bit with your friends. This time last year, while skipping out on a session, a casual conversation with Dr. Keri Day about a video of Paula White praying over Donald Trump led me toward my next research project (and predicted the bizarre political dystopia in which we now live). You never know what great ideas you'll get from talking to your brilliant friends!

Did I miss anything? Send me your suggestions!

Friday, November 4, 2016

In Honor of All Saints' Day: Underrated Superhero Stories

For Halloween this year, my son and I went as Superman and Wonder Woman... he is a nerd-in-training! The next day, I took him to an All Saints' Day service. During the service, the priest mentioned that he thought that all of the superhero costumes from the night before's trick-or-treaters were actually in keeping with church tradition. After all, All Hallows' Eve celebrates the day before All Saints' Day, which is a party dedicated to the superheroes of the church!

So, to keep this tradition, I offer some superhero stories. Not the big, blockbuster tales (I'm lookin' at you, The Avengers), but some lesser-known gems. Enjoy!

Chronicle: It's a simple story: teenagers stumble upon superpowers; some become heroes and some become villains. What happens next? Do their powers change their nature or do they enhance their fundamental character? This is creatively told, subtly acted, unusually sensitive superhero origin story. I don't think there's been talk of a sequel, but it's one I'd actually like to see (unlike most of the superhero-industrial-movie-complex).

Bionic Woman: Reviews for this show were mixed but I maintain that it had potential. The lead actor, Michelle Ryan (who is wonderful in other projects), was miscast - especially next to the charisma-machine that is Katee Sackhoff. But the atmosphere was moody and fun and, had Sackhoff been the lead, I think this show could have really caught on with audiences. 

Alphas: What would it really be like if you developed superhuman powers? Would it be a 10 min. montage where you work to define yourself and then all fun and games? Or would you struggle? Like, really struggle? Alphas distinguishes itself by imagining in detail the problems with being extraordinary. Like X-Men? You'll love this tale of genetic anomalies, abilities, and evolution. Fair warning: like a lot of good television, this show was cancelled too soon, so don't expect a clean ending.