College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences > Academics > Religious Studies > Student Resources > Faculty Spotlight

Lisa Poirier

Dr. Lisa Poirier
Why does studying religion matter?
Lisa Poirier: Studying religion matters if you want to know why the world is the way it is, and how it got that way. If you want to try to understand a person or a culture, learn about how they see themselves in relation to the other inhabitants of their cosmos. The academic study of religion teaches you how to do this.

What do you think is your most important contribution to others' understanding of religion or your discipline? What contribution do you hope to make in the future?
LP: I hope I move people to challenge their own perceptions of what religion is.  I hope I continue to push people to think about religion as bigger, more capacious than just belief, or just ritual, or just ethics. It’s about power structures, and it’s about relationships.

What have you read, seen, heard or experienced lately that has inspired you in your work?
LP: Resistance inspires me. Resilience inspires me.  And thank goodness, I see it everywhere.

What do you believe is the most important missing piece of information with regards to the way religion is currently depicted in popular culture and the media?
LP: Religion is almost always viewed in the media either through a Protestant Christian lens – as belief, as having something to do with salvation, or through a really terrible critique of Christianity– as being an outdated, illogical, and cowardly response to the troubles of life and the inevitability of death. It annoys me that in both cases, Christianity is the normative religion. From my perspective, religion has little to do with any of that. Instead, religion is about what you do and how you act, given your particular constellation of relationships with all the other beings that inhabit your cosmos.

How is your approach in the classroom informed by your passion for the discipline of religious studies?
LP: My goal in every class I teach is to share some of the beauty and brilliance that I perceive in the religious worlds people create for themselves, even as they inhabit cruel and punishing historical situations.​ 

Chernoh Sesay

Dr. Chernoh Sesay
Why does studying religion matter?
Chernoh Sesay: If we think about religion, not terms of a formal religious tradition like Christianity, but more broadly as a way of perception and action that makes certain ideas and behaviors seem natural, then we should study religion for some of the same reasons we study economics, politics and history.​

What do you think is your most important contribution to others' understanding of religion or your discipline? What contribution do you hope to make in the future?
CS: It is very important to understand that the study of religion is about the definition and examination of power. I hope to continue examining how and why African American politics has emerged from historical systems of power that shaped and were shaped by religion.

What have you read, seen, heard or experienced lately that has inspired you in your work?
CS: Recent work that examines pre-colonial Africa and recent writing that excavates white supremacy in the United States has inspired my work.

What do you believe is the most important missing piece of information with regards to the way religion is currently depicted in popular culture and the media?
CS: Religion in the United States is viewed as a mode of insecure and hypocritical fundamentalism, or as a source of natural morality and universal ethics, or as a phenomenon that is inherently different from seemingly secular categories like democracy, or as a broad and vague category of spiritual expression and experience. None of these approaches provides a useful way to investigate how religion forms and emerges from historical relationships of contested power. For example, none of these approaches helps to explain how the idea of democracy sanctifies the idea of nationalism or how nationalism makes the idea of soldier sacrifice seem sacred.

How is your approach in the classroom informed by your passion for the discipline of religious studies?
CS: Religious studies is about identifying those ideas that underlie our perception of the world and that make certain actions and beliefs seem natural or a priori. My teaching is motivated by the desire to help students think about how their various worlds of experience arise from competing histories. I want students to see how certain groups of ideas and actions have come to exert authority at the expense of other ideas and actions.

​Naomi steinberg

Dr. Naomi Steinberg

Why does studying religion matter?
Naomi Steinberg: It is important and intellectually exciting to study religion because as a human phenomenon religion helps us understand how people shape the meaning of existence. The study of religion also helps us understand the controversies in past world history as well as current events. Religion is also the inspiration for much art and literature so the study of religion is relevant for a range of areas of human nature.​

What do you think is your most important contribution to others' understanding of religion or your discipline? What contribution do you hope to make in the future?
NS: My teaching and research relate to the roles of women and children in the world of ancient Israel as portrayed through the Hebrew Bible. I analyze the construction of society at that time to understand how religion was used to rationalize economic and social forces that disenfranchised women and children. By research into the culture-bound contexts such as gender, socioeconomic class and ethnicity it is possible to understand that the roles of women and children can—and must—change in the contemporary world because life today is unlike life in biblical times.​

What have you read, seen, heard or experienced lately that has inspired you in your work?
NS: ​I recently read a novel called The Color of our Sky, by Amitra Trasi, which is set in India and deals with the low status of women and the poverty of many families that leads to the trafficking in young girls. These girls end up in brothels where their lives are shaped by myths such as if a man with a venereal disease has sexual intercourse with a virgin he will be cured of his infirmity, and, furthermore, they are at the hands of greedy local officials who turn a blind’s eye to the madams who bride these. Coincidentally in my Religious Studies 259 class, “Religion and Social Engagement: Children Past and Present,” I deal with issues regarding trafficking in children and show a video called “The Day My God Died.” The novel brought out many of the same issues that are depicted in the video. To read the words on the pages after having shown the video to my students only strengthened my resolve that we must do everything possible to care for the plight of children both at home and abroad.

What do you believe is the most important missing piece of information with regards to the way religion is currently depicted in popular culture and the media?
NS: I believe that the general public does not have enough information about the beliefs of different religious traditions. For example, when President Trump announced that he would make Jerusalem the capital of Israel, I was constantly asked why he would do this and why certain religious groups vociferously opposed this move while others championed it. This was front-page news that required knowledge of specific religious traditions.

How is your approach in the classroom informed by your passion for the discipline of religious studies?
NS: ​My teaching, scholarship, and service have increasingly and explicitly informed one another in the mode of a scholar-practitioner, a model grounded in the practical application of scholarly knowledge. My teaching arises from having students engage in academic biblical scholarship by teaching them to be critical readers of primary and secondary texts and then to take this knowledge beyond the four walls of the classroom and make a difference in the world around them.