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Ten Questions for the Religions Department: Dr. Alva K. Anderson

1. Who are three teachers who’ve had a particularly significant impact on you, and (briefly for each) how have they impacted you?

Vince Miller (Wofford): When I was a rising sophomore at Wofford, I went to register for English 201, and had selected a professor who was known for being somewhat easy. My English teacher at the time, George Martin, snatched my form out of my hand, scratched out what I had written, and said, “No, you’re going to take Vince Miller next year.” My stomach immediately began to churn and turn, since Miller had a reputation for suffering no fools in the classroom. While at the time I thought I would endure Miller for just one semester to appease Dr. Martin, I ended up taking him for three straight semesters just before he retired. It’s hard to articulate in a short space just how transformational a teacher he was for me (as he was for many others). I’ll put it briefly by saying: while I, of course, was literate at the time, I had never learned how to read well, carefully, or thoughtfully. Dr. Miller taught me how to do these things, along with much, much more. Bill Mount (Wofford): Bill was probably the most brilliant teacher I ever had, but he wore his learning lightly (since he was definitely the funniest teacher I ever had). As a sign of his versatility: one semester when I was a student, he taught seven different classes, including his normal religion load, plus multiple sections of classical Greek, in addition to German as well. I think an anecdote is probably the best way to explain his impact on me. By the time I had made it to advanced classical Greek, I was the only student in the class, so we had sessions in his office. One day, we were going through a play by Euripides, and Bill found a passage that had a complex grammatical construction he couldn’t understand (meaning: I wasn’t even of the vicinity of understanding why I didn’t understand it). Instead of bypassing the passage, he sat and pored over his lexicon and grammar books for several minutes, as we both sat in silence. This moment stays with me just because it sums him up so well: someone motivated by an exceptionally deep intellectual curiosity and humility, no matter what subject he was dealing with. George Griener (GTU/Graduate Theological Union and JSTB/Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley): The term “mentor” is thrown around a lot today in all sorts of contexts. George is without question the best mentor I’ve ever had. He is such because he took the time to get to know me better than any other teacher I ever had.

So, for example, he (who was my advisor for both my comp exams and my dissertation) made a concerted effort to have lunch or dinner regularly, during which we would just have casual conversation unrelated to anything we were doing in class at the time. These non-academic conversations ultimately fed into his academic guidance of me because the whole time he was coming to know both my strengths and weaknesses as a person, not just as a student. So that by the time I was writing my dissertation, he could offer criticism/feedback that went far beyond just technical issues regarding the subject matter, but that could touch on my tendency to write in a certain manner or tone based on personal traits or inclinations of mine. Never have I had a teacher who could so accurately put his finger on a weakness in my way of dealing with a topic in order to help me improve my thinking or my work.


2. What are your ten desert island discs?

In no particular order: PJ Harvey, Rid of Me; Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street; Sixteen Horsepower, Low Estate; Queens of the Stone Age, . . . Like Clockwork; Terence Trent D’Arby, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby; Café Tacvba, El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco; Mark Lanegan, Bubblegum; Afghan Whigs, Do to the Beast; Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression; Black Crowes, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion


3. What is one book that has changed you, and how did it change you?

The grand-prize winner here has to be Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is common to hear people say that reading Dante helped them (a) to learn to read better and/or (b) to learn to try to live better. Both have definitely been the case with me. No matter how many times I have read or taught Dante’s work, each new time I come back to the text requires intensive, careful reading, just because there are always new things to see and understand. It is at times, frankly, maddening how brilliant and far- seeing a writer he was. However, reading Dante is not a mere academic exercise, but always gets into questions about how one should live on a daily basis. It is this combination of a densely-packed, complicated literary text tied to consistently placed hard moral questions that makes the Comedy a book I will never tire of reading and teaching.

4. Fill in the blank: “I am good at making ________________.”

(A) Salsa (many varieties!) and (B) Café Touba (Senegalese spicy coffee): both from scratch

5. What are the three research projects that you are currently most interested in working on?

At this current moment, the projects I most want to work on are essays:
I. An essay that I have a title for, but now simply need the text to go along with it is “The Distance Between Zurich and Todtnauberg.” This will be a comparison of two of Paul Celan’s poems that deal with real-life encounters he had: one with his fellow Jewish poet, Nelly Sachs (“Zurich, the Stork Inn”) and the other with Martin Heidegger (“Todtnauberg.”)

II. Another essay would combine two of my great loves: Dante and the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. This text will address the ways that Kieslowski makes use of passages from Dante’s Paradiso in two of his movies: Heaven and The Double Life of Veronique.

III. An essay of which I have completed one draft, but now need to do a thorough revision is “The Fallen House of the Usher: The Tower of Babel as Foundational Metaphor for Moby Dick”. This text focuses on the brief, perplexing, and usually neglected “Etymology” that serves as the very beginning of Melville’s novel.


6. If time allowed for you do so, what is the one TV series (whether you’ve seen it before or not) that you would watch in its entirety? Why?

This is a tough choice, since there are lots of good shows I haven’t had the chance to see at all, but for this I would actually go with one I have already seen in its entirety. The HBO series Deadwood is simply incredible, most of all because it stars the incomparable Ian McShane as the aptly-named Al Swearengen. I’m guessing it’s been at least 8 years since I finished watching the show, so I have a hankering to go through all three seasons again.


7. In the last five years (or so), what is one way that your thinking about religion has changed?

I think the biggest change has come in how I think about theories about religion. A few years ago I think I was inclined to focus on lauding the handful of theories/theorists that I found to be the best approaches to religion, to the diminishment of other theories towards which I was not as inclined. However, in recent years the metaphor I’ve come to use with regard to theories is that of the “toolbox.” Meaning: a toolbox with only two or three tools in it can certainly help you do certain jobs that need doing, but that also limits you from handling various other tasks one might encounter. Some tools are good in certain circumstances, while other tools are needed in others. So, the more tools you have on hand, the more likely you are to be able to deal with whatever problem might present itself. Likewise, if one focuses on his/her handful of favorite theorists, inevitably there are lots of religious phenomena that can be explained, but there are also many that can’t be. This simply flows from our being finite creatures with a limited perspective and viewpoint—just as this is the case with us, so it is the case with theorists of religion.

So, while I may be particularly inclined towards, say, the theory and thought of Max Weber (I think I may be alone in our department in this regard,) he is great at helping one understand certain instances of religion, and totally useless in grasping others. This, to my mind, pushes on the religion scholar the imperative to be taking in new, different theories on a constant basis. The more theories one has in his/her religious studies toolbox, the better.

8. What movie have you seen the most times, and why do you like it so much?

When I was a student at Wofford, I saw the Danish movie Babette’s Feast when it was shown as part of our international film series. I was utterly bored out of my mind at the time. Never would I have guessed that Babette’s Feast would become, far and away, my favorite movie. I never tire of seeing it again for a number of reasons. First, it’s a beautifully constructed narrative (based on a story by Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen). Second, the narrative is steeped in Kierkegaardian thought, which is a big plus for me. Finally, the movie is populated with memorable, idiosyncratic characters from the rural Danish village in which the film is set.

9. What is one class you haven’t gotten to teach yet, but you want to be able to do?

The course I want to develop very soon is one on the role of religion/religious thought in the plays of Euripides (in honor of Bill Mount!)

10. When you were in high school, what did you want to be?

For the majority of the time, I wanted to teach math. My parents approved of this idea. Then, for a short time during my senior year I decided I wanted to be a traveling evangelist. My parents, to put it mildly, were not on board with this plan. So, I guess I eventually ended up splitting the difference by becoming a religion teacher.