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As a student of religious studies, people often ask me for “facts.” That is, bullet points about religions across the world: their beliefs, tenants, customs and languages. Biology students can specify their interest in a particular organism or type of biology, however I have only ever been able to sketch out themes, motifs, and currents of interest. As I have gone through four years of studying religion, I have learned to be less ashamed that I cannot spit out many hard and fast facts. However I think there has always been a part of me – despite my education that has taught me that nothing is objective, everything contextual – that just thought I had not been paying attention close enough.
This project has completely solidified my belief that humans and their religious systems are too complex, contextual and in flux to ever solidify or impeccably demarcate. The young Somali women I spoke with expressed of their love and hatred of Faribault, squealed about actor Channing Tatum and in the next sentences lamented the effect of the popular media on American conceptions of Islam. Of course these young women were complex, of course I could not pin them as “this way” or “that way,” – they are humans. It is laughable to think that I could never fit a human into one categorical box.
I am left wondering, how are we wandering around each day, making judgments, when each categorization we make is secretly this complex? How do we not take the time to pull apart and understand that the boxes we make for people, the ones that live in our mind, are so elementally flawed?
Throughout the surprises and delights of my fieldwork this term, I was reminded of the first week I spent abroad in Mali, watching my host brother pray. He stood on his prayer mat, about to prostrate, while texting with a cell phone in each hand. After my time in Mali, watching living with family members who abstained from pork and hid copies of the New Testament in their bedroom, and avowed Muslims who spoke of spirits who roamed the streets at dusks, I remember being awakened to the diversity and idiosyncrasies of individual experience. I do feel that as a student of religion I have learned to respect the existence of radically diverse experience of religion and reality. However, there was still something radically different about interfacing with these differences in rural Minnesota. Each time I took the drive to Faribault and back I felt as though I was entering separate spheres of reality. Indeed, this world is truly so rich and complex.
In making the webpages, I struggled to categorize individual experiences with broad strokes: were their stories narratives of conflict, media and representation, or reflections on a cultural identity? I am left wondering, how are we wandering around each day, making judgments, when each categorization we make is secretly this complex? How do we not take the time to pull apart and understand that the boxes we make for people, the ones that live in our mind, are so elementally flawed?