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Religion students show sweeping range of subjects

by Anna Bratulic

Seemingly everything -- from the deconstruction of the ideal wife using Hindu goddess Sita as a template of the creativity of southwestern American yard shrines, to the political ontologies of the Dao -- fell under the huge umbrella of the fourth annual Canadian Graduate Student Conference in Religion and Culture, held on May 12.

The day-long conference, titled Interpretations and Implications: Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion and Culture, gave graduate students from across the country an opportunity to present their work to an audience. There were 42 different presentations in all, many of them going on simultaneously.

"Many people presented things that weren't their main areas of research," said Deidre Butler, one of the three organizers of the event. "Conferences are great places to experiment and to take chances academically."

One presentation, called "The Ecological Symphony," was given by Mary Hale, of Concordia, and Blake Wright, of St. Paul University. They examined the culture of indifference toward the ecological crisis, comparing it with the ending of the movie Heidi's Farewell Symphony, where, one by one, members of an orchestra leave the stage during a performance before the symphony they're playing is completed.

"You know there is someone in the audience who is just dying to yell out, "Stay!" Wright said. "We are the audience of an ecological symphony." Coming from an eco-feminist perspective, they tried to unravel the roots of this indifference.

Another presentation was a critique of Alfred C. Kinsey, whom Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner has called the father of the sexual revolution. In his paper, "Eros and Transgression in an Age of Immanence," James Mark Shields, of McGill University, elaborated on eroticism in Western culture by viewing Kinsey through the lens of a critique by French theorist Georges Bataille in 1957.

Kinsey's scientific approach classified good sex as the "explosiveness of orgasm" and paved the way for a more secular attitude about sex. Bataille argued that Kinsey's work is part of a larger trend that seeks the "desacralization" of all aspects of life, ridding it of any eroticism.

Some presentations were given in the form of films and photo exhibits. A concert of music composed by cloistered women of the Renaissance was given on the evening of May 11 in the chapel of the Grey Nuns Convent.

"We really were trying to encourage difference," Butler said, "but the art had to connect with the academic discourse and be theoretically grounded."

Katja MacLeod Kessin, of Concordia, acted out her presentation, "Aryan Household." She performed a skit of a popular German nursery game where the children pretend to search for gifts in a suitcase their aunt brought from America. Kessin uncovered toys she had received as a child in post-war Germany-- mostly black dolls -- to show how racial stereotypes were ingrained in children at that time.

The conference was inspired by a class assignment given in Vox Populi, Vox Femini, a course on women in Christianity taught by Professor Rosemary Hale, in which she required the students to submit a proposal for a hypothetical conference.

That led to the real thing four years ago, and the conference has continued to grow in scope, attracting presenters this year from across Canada, in such disciplines as history, sociology, anthropology, art history, theology and physics.

According to Butler, organizers even received requests to participate from American universities such as Harvard, but there are no plans to go international.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.